Game of Thrones has at last come to an end, and the conclusion of the HBO series left many fans feeling dissatisfied and frustrated. Some even felt betrayed by the creators of the show, who had brilliantly created a powerful narrative experience that captured our imagination and asked fans to invest emotionally into a fantastic world of fascinating characters, only to give them a rushed ending filled with unsatisfying resolutions to a number of major character arcs that seemed illogical, unfitting, or unsupported by the narrative. Had all those years of emotional investment been for nothing?
I’d like to discuss the conclusion of Daenerys’ storyline, which was one of many controversial aspects of the final season that viewers had problems with, and along the way, I will examine some structural and thematic parallels in Classical mythology for hints and ideas about how her narrative arc could have been improved.
Spoilers follow, for those who have not seen the final season.
Last month, I was given the opportunity to catch a fantastic performance of Stanford Repertory Theater‘s “Nevertheless They Persisted: Euripides’ Hecuba/Helen.” This combined production of two Greek tragedies was adapted and directed by Rush Rehm, Stanford professor of theater and Classics and specialist in Greek tragedy.
As it turns out, he might be one of my future instructors at the Stanford Classics Department, and it would be extraordinary to benefit from his practical expertise in staging ancient plays as a way to enhance my literary study of Greek tragedy. Watching one of Prof. Rehm’s productions, as well as hearing him speak at a Q&A session afterward, was a nice preview of what awaits me, if I get to take a class with him in the future.
The name of the production comes from the phrase “nevertheless she persisted,” which refers to the silencing of Senator ElizabethWarren on the Senate floor, and her refusal to stand down. The expression has become a statement of female empowerment, and these modern revivals of Euripides’ plays build on that theme by bringing together the stories of two mythical women, Hecuba and Helen, who each experience suffering and adversity, yet are able to re-gain some measure of power and autonomy through their courage, cleverness, and willpower.
In many ways, the positive ideals of empowerment and female strength clash with the dark, grim world of Euripides’ Hecuba, and the brutal act of vengeance that concludes the play. After the Trojan War, Hecuba (Courtney Walsh), the queen of Troy, becomes a slave to the conquering Greek army. After already losing her sons, her power, and her city, she learns that her daughter, Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada), is to be sacrificed by the Greeks as a tribute to the ghost of Achilles. Then, she discovers that her son, Polydorus (Shayan Hooshmand), has been betrayed and killed by the greedy king Polymnestor (Joe Estlack).
Hecuba takes revenge by blinding Polymnestor and murdering his two innocent young sons. She does “persist” to re-gain control over her circumstances, but revels in a gleeful act of violence that suggests an abandonment of morality. Perhaps that is what makes this a tragedy: despite the efforts of Hecuba to overcome suffering and seek justice, we have nothing to show for it in this play, except for a trail of bloodied bodies and the destruction of innocent lives. Nothing seems to change, and there is no hope for a better tomorrow.
But there are fleeting glimmers of hope, too: in one of the most moving moments of the play, Polyxena delivers a profound speech in which she affirms her own inner strength and retains her dignity by willingly accepting her death. She wins praise from her Greek captors, who look on in admiration at her noble heroism, even as they are cutting her down.
All in all, I enjoyed the emotional ups-and-downs of this play, embodied in the intensity of the actors’ powerful performances, especially as Hecuba shifts from the depths of despair to the joy of triumphant revenge.
In the second play, Prof. Rehm flips things on their head. In the last moment of Hecuba, the queen switches costumes on stage and Walsh, who plays both title roles, transforms into the beautiful Helen. From the darkness of the first play, we move to the lighter, ironic, and even humorous Helen, which features a different sort of tragedy: Helen never went to Troy, but it was a phantom Helen that the gods sent there with Paris, in order to cause the Trojan War.
In other words, a terrible war was waged and a great city destroyed in pursuit of a meaningless illusion, which points to the limits of human knowledge and the pointlessness of conflict: these concerns were relevant to the ancient Athenians watching the play, who were engaged in a long war with their Spartan foes, but also to our modern world. In interviews, Prof. Rehm explicitly brings up the modern parallel of the Iraq War and the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”
Not only that, but the real Helen, through no fault of her own, has her reputation smeared by those who blame her for the war and call her an adulterous whore.
In this twist on the traditional myth, Helen faithfully awaits her husband Menelaus (also Joe Estlack) in Egypt, where she’s been trapped for the war’s duration, and invents a clever scheme to escape from the tyrannical clutches of king Theoclymenus (Doug Nolan), who seeks to marry her himself. She persists and endures until she can be reunited with her husband and return to Greece, where she can reveal the truth and restore her reputation.
Rush sprinkles his adaptation of Helen with comedic moments, reminding us that tragedy is not only a genre of suffering, but, as he explained at the Q&A, also something we can laugh at, by finding humor in the ironies and cruel jokes of life. Many of these moments, however, are not present in Euripides’ original play, but were added during the process of adaptation. These alterations are a bit uncomfortable for a student like me who studies tragedy as a form of written literature, and would prefer to rely on the actual text of Euripides.
Admittedly, the added comedic portions align well with the ironic tragedies of the play. When Helen laments, “I’m famous for my beauty. It’s a curse,” she uses her wit to suggest the complexly double-sided nature of beauty, at once her greatest asset yet a burden that contributes to her reputation as an air-headed, vain adulteress, as well as its devastating role as a glorified, illusory ideal for which pointless wars are fought.
Menelaus’ bewilderment, as he struggles to understand how he could possibly have two wives, both of whom claim to be Helen, daughter of Zeus or Tyndareus (no one knows for sure), is funny, but the moment also asks us to ponder the deeper absurdities of human existence and the difficulties of achieving an objective understanding of reality.
When Theoclymenus emerges from his palace in ridiculous camo gear, absurdly juggling three swords, we laugh at his buffoonery, before remembering the threat he poses to Helen and Menelaus. We are reminded of the inane boasting and grandstanding of certain politicians and authoritarian strongmen: is it a horrible joke, or a terrifying reality that these are the types of leaders who run our world today? Certainly, the ancient Athenians asked the same question of their politicians.
The text of Euripides which comes down to us has no stage directions, and so, it is up to the director and actors to interpret the lines of the play into movements on stage. Menelaus’ encounter with the housekeeper, who berates him and prevents him from entering the palace, becomes funnier through the addition of physical comedy. At the end of the play’s text, Helen’s twin brothers appear, but we don’t know which of them speak when making their divine pronouncement: this becomes a joke as Castor comedically speaks over his brother, but again, this is located nowhere in the text.
All this raises the question of what we are trying to do when staging a Greek tragedy: reproduce an ancient author’s play as closely as possible, or create our own interpretation of it? How far can we depart from the original Greek text, when it comes to translation, adaptation, and stage directions? What exactly counts as a authentic production of a tragedy? Can there an objective standard for what makes a “true” tragedy? As the play Helen would have us ask, what does it even mean for something to be “real”?
In the end, as a director, Rush Rehm has succeeded in making his own version of Helen that is uniquely humorous, and one that would have aligned with Euripides’ thematic intentions. Whether that is authentic or not remains up for debate.
Finally, I appreciated Prof. Rehm’s ability to convey the peculiar, idiosyncratic elements of Greek drama without making them seem too foreign to a modern audience.
First, the music. We know that Greek tragedies were originally accompanied by music and that the plays alternated between spoken dialogue and lyric passages which would have been sung or chanted, to mark shifts in register. To create a sense of this effect, musical director Michael Keck utilizes musical instrumentation with Asian influences to set the scene in Thrace, near the coast of modern-day Turkey where the ships of the Greek army are stranded, or in the exotic land of Egypt.
Daringly and unusually, this production attempts to suggest the lyrical, poetic nature of song in tragedy, with Hecuba singing her lamentation alongside music to emphasize the emotional intensity of her suffering, and so too does Helen sing in a similar lamentation scene. But Prof. Rehm doesn’t overdo this: there is only one song per play, which grants special significance to the heightened register and formal tone of those scenes and prevents us from being overwhelmed. Any more than that would feel like musical theater, a modern genre that has little resemblance to tragedy.
Now, the chorus, an essential part of any Greek play. They are a unified group of characters who act and speak as one. They set the tone of the play, give it structure, and provide narrative and mythical background. They are involved in the action, but represent a generalized perspective that allows them to step back and offer commentary not only on the events of the play itself, but on the broader universal human experience.
Modern productions sometimes struggle with the chorus. One method is to emphasize their unity, by having them sing, chant, or speak their lines in unison, but in addition to being an unfamiliar style to audience members, this has the problem of obscuring the clarity of the verses: not ideal, if we want to grasp the important information they are sharing.
The chorus of this production achieves a nice balance. Each line is spoken separately by individual chorus members, so we can hear what they’re saying, but at times they speak together for emphasis.
Yet their essential unity remains, primarily through the highly engaging and energetic choreography, which allows the chorus to rhythmically dance and move across the stage as if they were all parts of one body. Every movement occurs in synchronicity with their words. Choreographer Aleta Hayes does great work here: the ancient Greek chorus is brought to life in a way that feels organic, and not at all forced.
Overall, “Nevertheless They Persisted: Hecuba/Helen” was an excellent achievement of a production that shows what is possible when it comes to modern adaptations of Classical drama. Ancient works performed on stage need not be thought of as alien or unfamiliar after all.
Unfortunately, the run of this show at Stanford’s Roble Studio Theater is over. Rush Rehm is now bringing his version of Hecuba to Athens, Greece, the city where Euripides presented that same play over 2000 years ago. Besides that, there will be no chance to catch these plays anymore, so be sure to see Stanford Repertory Theater’s next production, hopefully of another Classical work.
A recent episode of Blue Bloods, entitled “Unbearable Loss,” (episode 10 of season 7) features an unexpected reference to the Classical world, in the form of a quotation from Agamemnon, the first tragedy in the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. A police drama series might be an unusual place to find such a reference, but then again, Classical mythology remains so dominant in our culture that we shouldn’t be surprised to see it turn up in all corners of our entertainment.
Blue Bloods stands out among police dramas for its willingness to confront significant issues involving the police beyond just “catching the bad guys,” which is the main focus in many other shows. The morality and ethics of policing, the influence of politics and the media, racial tensions and accusations of excessive force, the importance of proper legal procedure, and even the role of religion and faith–all these areas and more have been dealt with by Blue Bloods at one point or another. If any TV series about cops had the depth to reference ancient Greek literature in a intelligent and meaningful way, it would have to be this one. (more…)
Time for more about Euripides’ Medea! Last time, we saw that Medea is a woman of extremes, but what drives her to such extremes in the first place? Here again is that quotation in which she lays out her motives:
You were not about to, having dishonored my bed, lead out a pleasurable life, mocking me; nor the princess; nor Creon, who, unpunished, gave the marriage to you: he was not about to drive me from this land.
Medea’s murderous and extreme acts stem from her sweeping interpretation of the heroic code of honor, which demands that she use any means necessary—even the killing of her own children—to bring vengeance upon those who have dishonored (atimasas/ἀτιμάσας) her, before they can laugh (engelon/ἐγγελῶν) at her.
This motive does not stand alone, for it is mixed with an additional strand of sexual betrayal: she has been dishonored by Jason, specifically in respect to their bed (lexe/λέχη), that is, their marriage and sexual relationship.
The extremity of Medea’s acts cannot stand apart from erotic desires: a conclusion that matches the assessment made by the Chorus in the second stasimon (627-44) regarding the destructive nature of immoderate sexual passion. They are responding to Jason and Medea’s conflict with a desperate plea for Aphrodite only to send desire in moderation.
Sexual jealousy, alongside her sense of being dishonored, appears as a motivation throughout Jason and Medea’s final confrontation, but most clearly at 1366-8: Medea declares that it was Jason’s “outrageous insult and newly-joined marriage”(ὕβρις οἵ τε σοὶ νεοδμῆτες γάμοι) which has led to the deaths of the children. Jason, in abandoning Medea and marrying another woman, has not only scorned their sexual relationship but also has committed an insult against her honor, by breaking their marriage oaths.
Asked if she “thought it worthy to kill them on account of a bed”(λέχους σφε κἠξίωσας οὕνεκα κτανεῖν), she does not deny it; she says that this—sexual betrayal—is “no small pain for women”(σμικρὸν γυναικὶ πῆμα τοῦτ᾽).
So, betrayal in matters of erotic passion, intertwined with the hard-line stance that Medea takes in avenging insults against her honor, pushes her to commit deadly, and extreme, acts of violence. In this way, Medea specifically counters the Athenian ideal seen in the third stasimon of moderation in matters of sexual desire.
Thanks for reading! In the next post, we will see how Medea appropriates Athenian wisdom (sophia) for her own advantage.
It’s been awhile since I’ve put up a post about Euripides’ Medea. Previously, I wrote about how Medea counteracts the Athenian ideals of purity, connection with the divine, and hospitality for suppliants.
Now we shall also see that Medea challenges the positive quality of moderation, because she is a woman of extremes, one who is characterized—and made infamous—by the horrific murder of her own children, undertaken for the sake of vengeance. It almost does not need to be stated that any parent willing to go to such lengths must be regarded as extreme.
Vengeance on its own, however, is not necessarily an act of extremity. According to the traditional morality of the ancient Greeks, some would in fact find it reasonable and acceptable, if such words could be used in regard to violence, to seek vengeance upon an enemy (ekhthros/ἔχθρος) who has first given insult. However, to instead slaughter innocents—not to mention loved ones (philoi/φίλοι)—who have given no offense must be considered immoderate and extreme, even in the context of revenge.
When Medea says to Jason that “you were not about to, having dishonored (atimasas) my bed, lead out a pleasurable life, mocking (engelon) me; and not the princess either; and not Creon, who, unpunished, gave the marriage to you: he was not about to drive me from this land”(1354-7: σὺ δ᾽ οὐκ ἔμελλες τἄμ᾽ ἀτιμάσας λέχη / τερπνὸν διάξειν βίοτον ἐγγελῶν ἐμοὶ / οὐδ᾽ ἡ τύραννος, οὐδ᾽ ὅ σοι προσθεὶς γάμους / Κρέων ἀνατεὶ τῆσδέ μ᾽ ἐκβαλεῖν χθονός), she is laying out a list of those who were involved in the insult of Jason abandoning her for a new wife (Creon’s daughter): those whom she considers ekhthroi (plural of ekhthros).
Her own children are nowhere to be found in this list; indeed, she acknowledges that they are “philoi/φίλοι”(1250), but nevertheless they become the targets of her anger. Thus, she surpasses even the “proper” and “moderate” limits of vengeance.
The princess, like the children, is also an innocent victim who herself has little control over her marriage to Jason (a decision ultimately made by her father). The princess is portrayed innocently, as a young girl taking joy in a beautiful new outfit (1156-66).
Then, moments later, the poison Medea has placed on the clothes take effect, and the princess’ death is described in graphic detail, followed by Creon’s death as he desperately clings to his daughter (1167-1221).
The horror of these descriptions, as “her flesh drips away from her bones, like the resin of a pine tree, through the unseen bite of the drugs”(1200-1: σάρκες δ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ὀστέων ὥστε πεύκινον δάκρυ / γνάθοις ἀδήλοις φαρμάκων ἀπέρρεον), heightens the extremity of Medea’s revenge.
This moment is brought into contrast with Athens, for the girl in her new dress is said to be “stepping gracefully” in the same manner as do the Athenians “through the bright pure air”—the same adverb recurs in both places: abron/ἁβρὸν (1164) and abros/ἁβρῶς (830). The innocent girl, equated with the purity and moderation of the Athenian climate, is destroyed by Medea’s act: such aspects of Athens can no longer maintain their integrity in the presence of such an extreme figure.
That’s all for now! Next time, we will examine Medea’s extreme nature in greater detail and determine what exactly drives her to such extremes.
Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press. See note on line 1164.
Last time, we saw how Medea disrupts several of the positive qualities valued by the Athenians. Today, we will examine in greater detail how Medea manipulates the institution of supplication, traditionally respected by Athens, for her own advantage.
Medea supplicates Creon, the king of Corinth, just as he is about to banish her from his city; as a result, she buys enough time to accomplish her plans (324-51). She, as already mentioned in a previous post, also supplicates Aegeus to guarantee refuge for herself once the deadly mission is completed (709-758).
In both cases, the institution of supplication is distorted, for Medea conceals from Creon and Aegeus her true intentions: firstly, from Creon, that she plans to kill him and his daughter, the princess for whom Jason has abandoned Medea; secondly, from Aegeus, that she plans to commit multiple murders before escaping to his city. She conceals her true nature from both of them: she is no weak and helpless suppliant deserving of protection, but herself a possible threat to her benefactors.
She even uses the supplication of others as part of her plan: she asks that the princess “entreat her father”(942: ἄντεσθαι πατρὸς) and that the children “approach the princess as suppliants”(971: iketeuete/ἱκετεύετε) as they deliver gifts laced with deadly poison to her. Supplication, the sacred right of the innocent, again becomes just a tool by which Medea accomplishes her own murderous goals.
Medea, though she makes use of supplication as a tool of manipulation, herself does not answer the entreaties of the suppliants who would approach her, as the second strophic pair of the third stasimon makes clear.
The Chorus themselves become suppliants first, begging her not to “slay the children, by your knees (γονάτων/gonaton) in every way possible”(853-5: μή, πρὸς γονάτων σε πάντᾳ / πάντως ἱκετεύομεν, / τέκνα φονεύσῃς). This is significant in that suppliants asking for aid would traditionally grasp the knees of the person being supplicated.
Then, the Chorus members imagine that Medea “will not be able, when the children fall down as suppliants, to moisten a bloody hand with a daring heart”(862-5: οὐ δυνάσῃ, / παίδων ἱκετᾶν πιτνόντων, / τέγξαι χέρα φοινίαν / τλάμονι θυμῷ), but of course this request is made in vain: Medea proceeds with her plans and slays the children; she does indeed “moisten a bloody hand,” incurring the impure pollution of blood guilt.
So Medea’s destruction of supplication as a sacred custom and viable moral law is complete, contrary to the Athenian defense of suppliants: she uses it as a tool for destructive, pragmatic aims, but ignores it when it is directed at her, slaying her own children when they themselves are the innocent and helpless suppliants whom she ought to protect.
In Euripides’ Medea, the first strophic pair of the third choral ode creates a beautiful image of Athens as a harmonious place of purity, knowledge, and virtuous moderation, characteristics enhanced by the Athenians’ close relationship with the divine. These qualities, though, are brought into question by the opening of the second strophic pair of the choral ode:
πῶς οὖν ἱερῶν ποταμῶν
ἢ πόλις ἢ φίλων
πόμπιμός σε χώρα
τὰν παιδολέτειραν ἕξει,
τὰν οὐχ ὁσίαν μετ᾽ ἄλλων;
So how will a city of sacred rivers, or a land which grants guidance to friends, accept you, the child-killer, one who is impure among others? (846-50)
Here, the positive characteristics of Athens mentioned earlier are again brought to mind: the sacred rivers recall the “flows of the Cephisus,” from which Aphrodite draws out water in the first strophic pair, while the idea that Athens “grants guidance to friends”—that it provides protection to deserving suppliants—recalls the Aegeus scene.
With the defense of suppliants in mind, the Chorus narrows its focus to the specific suppliant Athens is about to grant refuge to: Medea, who is instantly identified with impurity, a force precisely opposed to the pristine, pure environment of Athens.
That she will find sanctuary in Athens seems impossible, for she is οὐχ ὁσίαν (ouk osian), unclean or impure, with the sense of being contrary to divine law. She is polluted with religious miasma as a result of an unholy act: the murder of her children.
And yet, she will continue to dwell “among others”(μετ᾽ ἄλλων/met’ allon). She will bring her corrosive pollution beside the inhabitants of Athens who “walk through the bright pure air.” She will enter Athens as an impure suppliant, spreading her miasma among the other suppliants, those who are actually deserving of Athenian aid.
Medea conveys her impure self into Athens and disrupts its pure environment by using one of its great traditional qualities—its respect for suppliants—as a method of protecting herself. She, therefore, calls into question and corrupts the moral standing of Athenian hospitality.
Since Medea’s impure pollution is a consequence of acts contrary to the divine, the idea of Athens as a sacred city in harmony with the divine starts to break apart in the presence of this unholy figure.
In these few lines, Medea begins to counteract several of the qualities which are known to make Athens great: its purity, its defense of suppliants, and its close relationship with the divine. Next time, we will examine in further depth how Medea manipulates the institution of supplication for her own benefit.
Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press. Notes to line 850.
Most, G. W. 1999. “Two problems in the third stasimon of Euripides’ Medea,“ Classical Philology 94: 20-35.
Parker, R. 2005. “The Greek concept of pollution,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary: Oxford University Press.
Previously, we discussed how Athenian wisdom coincides with Athens’ harmonious connection with divine forces. This time, we’re going to examine Athens’ positive reputation for respectful treatment of suppliants, which is seen most clearly in Euripides’ Medea when when Medea supplicates the honorable king of Athens, Aegeus, who then vows through a sacred oath to grant her refuge in his city (709-758).
The Aegeus scene seems to reflect the traditional conception of Athens as a just, compassionate protector of the weak and helpless against the unjust outrages of powerful enemies, which has been detected in Athenian tragedies and funeral orations, as argued by Loraux (especially pages 67-9) and Tzanetou. The Athenians are thought to be defenders of sacred nomoi (laws or customs), such as the right of supplication (see Konstan).
This idea is an aspect of Athenian political ideology: it advances Athens’ moral superiority over other city-states and may have been used during the height of Athenian imperialism to justify a policy of military intervention. Tragedies seemingly fall into the pattern of praising Athens for its compassionate moral stance in protecting suppliants.
We can see this idea in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, in which Orestes flees the vengeful wrath of the Furies, underworld gods determined to destroy him for killing his mother, but it is only in Athens that the Orestes can find refuge, receive a fair democratic trial, and have the cycle of revenge put to an end.
Meanwhile, in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Theseus, the king of Athens, accepts and protects Oedipus as a suppliant, even though he is covered with divine pollution and is being chased down by enemies. In Euripides’ Suppliants, Theseus is again willing to go to battle to defend the rights of suppliants.
Surely it seems reasonable to include the Medea within this list of plays, for Aegeus appears to epitomize Athenian respect for suppliants. If we were to take this with the image of Athens that we examined earlier, as a place where a virtues come together in divine harmony, we would reach a conclusion similar to Zeitlin’s (see especially pages 144-5), who suggests that Athens in tragedy acts as a refuge against destructive forces. While the mythological settings of tragedy, such as Thebes, act as “other” spaces, where such destruction is commonplace as a consequence of transgressing boundaries, Athens is a sanctuary where reconciliation and progress are possible.
Euripides’ Medea appears to fall into such a paradigm, with Corinth—where the violent, tragic action occurs—as a tragic “other” and Athens as a sanctuary. However, this view—as well as the related idea that tragedy as a whole tends to praise Athenian granting of refuge to suppliants—cannot apply to the Medea, once the specifics of the play, such as what sort of (violent, child-killing) suppliant Athens is going to accept, are considered.
Medea does attain refuge in Athens, but, rather than escaping from destructive forces, she herself is responsible for them and catastrophically brings them into collision with Athens. She is incompatible with what Athens is said to represent, for she systematically counteracts each of the positive elements described earlier, as will be seen in the following blog post of this series.
Konstan, D. 2005. “Pity and Politics” in Pity and Power in Ancient Athens, ed. Sternberg, R., 48-66. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Loraux, N. 1986. The invention of Athens: the funeral oration in the classical city, translated by A. Sheridan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press.
McDermott, E. 1989. Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Tzanetou, A. 2005. “A Generous City: Pity in Athenian Oratory and Tragedy” in Pity and Power in Ancient Athens, ed. Sternberg, R., 98-122. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zeitlin, F. 1990. “Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama” in Nothing to do with Dionysos?: Athenian drama in its social context, eds. Winkler, J., and Zeitlin, F., 130-167. Princeton: Princeton University Press.