Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Triumph of Myth

What of the content of the tragedies? Perhaps the most significant fact is that the subjects are almost always mythological. The only surviving exception is Aeschylus' Persians, though we know of a few others in the early period. The Persians commemorates the victory of the Greeks in the recent war against Xerxes, king of Persia, and in particular the battles of Salamis, which had taken place only eight years earlier. But this exception in a way proves the rule, for the play is not set in Greece, but at the Persian court, presenting the subject from the Persian viewpoint.  Nor is it mere jingoism: the themes is almost mythologized, raised to a grander and more heroic plane. No individual Greek is named or singled out for praise: the emphasis falls rather on the arrogant folly of a deluded king, who has led his people to defeat. There is, as always in tragedy, a supernatural element: the ghost of Xerxes' father, summoned back to earth, pronounces stern judgement on his son's rash ambition. In the rest of the tragic corpus, the dramatists use myth to distance their stories in time, and so give them universality*. Instead of setting their actors the task of impersonating living generals or politicians confronting contemporary crises, the tragedians, like Homer, show us men and women who are remote from us in their circumstances, yet vividly like us and real in their hopes, fears, and desires.

Secondly, Greek Tragedy is civic in emphasis: its plots, that is, deal with kings and rulers, disputes and dilemmas which have vital implications for the state as a whole.  If Oedipus cannot find the murderer of Laius, the plague which is already devastating Thebes will destroy it. If Odysseus and Neoptolemus cannot recover Philoctetes and his bow, Troy will not fall. Consequently tragedy normally deals with men and women of high status - monarchs and royal families, tyrants and mighty heroes. Characters of lower rank generally have smaller parts. As we shall se, however, this is one area in which Euripides showed himself an innovator: 'I made tragedy more democratic,' he is made to say in the satirical treatment of tragedy in Aristophanes' Frogs, produced after his death.

Thirdly, complementing and often conflicting with the political dimension, the family is regularly the focus for tragic action. Part of the lasting power of Greek drama lies in the vividness with which it  presents extreme love and (still more) intense hatred within the family: matricide, parricide, fratricide, adultery and jealousy, even incest and other forbidden passions. Duty to family and duty to the state may come into conflict: can Agamemnon bring himself to abandon the expedition against Troy, or must he take the terrible decision to sacrifice his daughter for a fair wind? Loyalty to kin is central to Antigone; conflicting obligations to different members of the family create many of the dilemmas in the Oresteia. The list could easily be extended. 
- Richard Rutherford, Introduction to Euripides, The Bacchae And Other Plays 
*emphasis mine.

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