New Year's Resolution Reading, 1999

As a New Year's resolution for 1999, I resolved to read each month one play by Shakespeare, and one classic Greek play. The Greek translations are noted with each play; for Shakespeare I read The Arden Shakespeare unless otherwise noted.

Books and Plays Read

  1. January
  2. February
  3. March
  4. April
  5. May
  6. June
  7. July
  8. August
  9. September
  10. October
  11. November
  12. December

Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare
Library copy
28 January

The notes on the play consider this a "problem play", and they're right. It's ostensibly a comedy, but the subject really is how to rule well. Leniency, as shown by the Duke's reign, is not necessarily compassion.

The problem is that it feels like two plays grafted together. One is the romantic comedy, with substitutions, bawdy wordplay, and disguises. The other is a drama about the responsibilities of rulers, and the abuse of power. It made for an incongruous mix, with characters breaking character to satisfy the demands of the plot. The Duke's appointed ruler falling from grace so quickly? The ending? I didn't quite believe the characters could change so quickly. Yet the dialogue is a delight, as always.

The Oresteian Trilogy

Translated by Philip Vellacott
8 February

Comprising "Agamemnon", "The Choephori", and "The Eumenides", Aeschylus weaves a monumental trilogy of revenge, retribution, and justice. It not only asks hard questions like "Is killing a parent ever justified?", but goes on to seek and find a way to end a generation-spanning cycle of revenge.

The plays themselves are powerful, but their greatness is truly brought out by the introduction by Mr. Vellacott. Not only are the plays an argument about justice, but they also reflect the political and religious upheavals sweeping through Hellenic civilization at the time. I'm awed by Aeschylus' achievement.

Read them. Read the plays first, then the introduction. But read them.


John Herington
Used hardcover
11 February

This short book is an introduction to the works of Aeschylus. It presents the historical and social background to Aeschylus' life and plays, then proceeds to cover his technique and artistic importance. Following this are discussions of each complete play. All in all it gave me some more insights, but most was redundant after reading the introduction to Mr. Vellacott's translation.

Truth to tell, I didn't read the entire book; the discussions of the plays I haven't yet read can wait. I like to maintain the element of surprise.

Richard II

William Shakespeare
28 February

The story of a weak, mercurial king makes for an unexpected introduction to Shakespeare's histories. Richard was hard to understand; it's hard to sympathize with revolt against a king who has overtaxed his subjects. There wasn't as much of the great sense of drama in this play as in others I've read. Yet certain scenes, particularly those with the queen, were involving.

I didn't know when I picked "Richard the Second" that it was the beginning of a tetralogy. Perhaps I'll continue with them as the next reading.


Translated by R. C. Trevelyan
18 March

This is a play to read in one sitting. How does one justify the murder of children? What are valid grounds for vengeance, and how does one measure injury for injury?

This isn't quite the play I thought it was. There are strong feminist elements in Medea's character, yet she is not an innocent. How are we to sympathize with her, playing the wronged wife one moment, scheming the next? The nurse's opening speech is right; better that none of this had happened. Yet the story makes for a very powerful play.

The translation isn't in verse, unlike Vellacott's translation of Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy. While it does the job, I miss the poetry of the language.

I've wanted to read this play ever since seeing the stunning movie A Dream of Passion more than a decade ago. It did not disappoint, and makes me want to see the film again. If only it were available for rent.

King Henry IV, Part 1

William Shakespeare
25 March

If "Richard II" was lacking in action, Mr. Shakespeare makes up for it in the first of the plays of Henry IV. The characters are strong, the action furious, and the wordplay boisterous. Whereas the previous play was a drama of characterization, this play combines many elements of drama into one satisfying mix.

The big surprise of this play is its language. Even though it first appeared in print only a year after "Richard II", it was much harder to understand. Perhaps Shakespeare was using more idioms. When you read it, have a Shakespearean glossary on hand, or find an edition with plenty of footnotes. I feel like I've missed a significant portion of the play. (The dialogue at the beginning of act 2, scene 1 was particularly obscure. I get the gist, but few details.)

A lot has been written about the character of Falstaff. After hearing him alluded to for years, I confess I wasn't disappointed. He is indeed a rogue, with a tongue that drips puns, and one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters. He steals the scenes he is in, and almost seems out of place in this history, his character is so broad.

Of course, the next play to read must be "King Henry IV, Part 2".

The Theban Trilogy

Translated by E. F. Watling
15 April

What an interesting contrast exists between Sophocles' Theban trilogy and Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy! Written during a time of great change in society, Aeschylus' subject is how to achieve a balance between old ways and new. Sophocles, on the other hand, lived through decades of peace and prosperity. His justly famous trilogy is more concerned with personal matters such as pride and integrity. The differences in subject make for two trilogies that cannot be judged on the same merits. Both are wonderful.

Memorable moments in the plays:

  1. Oedipus' death in "Oedipus at Colonus". This transcendent moment is a fitting, justified ending to the tormented King's life.

  2. In one of the plays, a character mentions artillery. Artillery? Doesn't that mean guns or cannon? Okay, it could be siege weapons, but the word's root is Latin ("apt"), not Greek.

  3. The character of the Servant in "Antigone" is almost Shakespearean. It doesn't help that this humorous rogue lapses into iambic pentameter:

    Well, heaven send they find him. But whether or no,
    They'll not find me again, that's for sure. Once free,
    Who never thought to see another day,
    I'll thank my lucky stars, and keep away.

After reading "Antigone" in high school and not appreciating it, I found it much more compelling when read as part of the trilogy. It really helps to know Antigone's motivations for disobeying Creon's edict, and you can't understand her motivation without knowing her past, which is in the preceding plays.

Creon himself is a puzzle. He appears in "Oedipus the King" as Oedipus' brother, unjustly accused by Oedipus himself of scheming against the king. His next role is as Thebes' king in "Antigone". By the time he has ascended to power, he seems to have forgotten the very qualities that brought his own condemnation. This itself would be rich subject for another play.

Stylistically, there is another major difference between Sophocles' and Aeschylus' trilogies. The latter was composed as one piece, whereas Sophocles wrote these plays at different periods throughout his life. This gives the individual dramas their own tone, rather than the uniformity of the Oresteian trilogy. In "Antigone", one theme is the proper way for a king to rule, with consistency or with mercy; even though these would be appropriate in "Oedipus the King", the question is not the raised. This breaks the trilogy more into separate pieces, but it lends power to each individual play. Both Aeschylus' and Sophocles' approaches are successful, but they are quite different.

Sonnets 1-77

30 April

In honor of National Poetry Month, instead of a play this month I read Shakespeare's first 77 sonnets. They were a pleasure, and a surprise. I did not expect them to express such a wide range of emotion: love, pride, lust, self-abasement, and a longing for immortality. The humor in them is rich.

I did not read these silently; each was initially read aloud, and most were repeated. It's a challenge to both read and interpret a poem on first reading, but it's an excellent way to find poems you like. Take sonnet 51, for instance. Unlike the others, by the time I was to the closing stanzas there was real fire in my voice upon the first reading:

Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire, of perfect'st love being made,
Shall neigh no dull flesh in his fiery race,
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade:
    Since from thee going he went willful slow,
    Towards thee I'll run, and give him leave to go.


As always, it's fun to play spot the literary source. The surprises this time were the phrases "remembrance of things past" (sonnet 30), and "where late the sweet birds sang" (sonnet 73). It's time for me to go have another Proustian madeleine!

King Henry IV, Part 2

William Shakespeare
11 May

After Part 1, this play feels like a reprise. Once again, rebellion is brewing amid nobility, Prince Hal is in trouble with the law, and Falstaff is being, well, Falstaff. The action is split between the rebellion and Falstaff; the king himself appears in only a handful of scenes.

After reading a play, I consult Stanley Wells' Shakespeare: A Life in Drama to learn more about it. Wells characterizes this play as one about age and infirmity, but I'm not sure I agree. That applies to the king, certainly, but for the rest of the characters the theme seems to be learning from past mistakes. Falstaff and the rebellious nobles haven't. Prince Hal is the only character who really changes, and the change has an ominous edge to it.

There's no way to get out of reading "King Henry V" now; I have to find out what happens.

(I seem to be spending so much time -- a third of the year -- reading one set of histories that I might have to extend this resolution to next year! How else will I gain a rounded familiarity with Shakespeare's works?)

The Frogs

Translated by David Barrett
11 May

I never met a Greek play I didn't like, and "The Frogs" affirms again the brilliance of the classical playwrights.

Dionysus, in search of a poet to restore Athens, descends to Hell and stages a contest between Aeschylus and Euripides. It's a comic riot, with pointed barbs thrown at the playwrights, prominent Athenians, and the audience. Even the opening scene -- an interchange between master and servant that was old two millennia ago -- is handled very well, and had me laughing. The rest continues in the same tone, leading to the contest itself, where no one survives with pride intact.

And yet, and yet, Aristophanes still manages to advance a serious argument about the state of contemporary Athens! That he was able to do so in the guise of a comedy would surprise me, if I hadn't already learned, from the work of the participating playwrights, to expect such skill.

Mr. Barrett's translation, in which Dionysus' servant is given a low English accent, makes me wonder: why do I accept that kind of liberty in comedy, but not in drama?

King Henry V

William Shakespeare
14 May

With this play concludes the historic tetralogy that began with "Richard II". It concentrated more on the history of Henry's battle in France than on dramatic conflict among the characters.

If I were forced to choose a theme for the play, it would be honor. The comic character of Pistol is without virtue, and emphasizes his lack of ethics. In contrast, King Henry is purposefully shown to value honor, and to treat equitably all his soldiers from highest to lowest. The argument about responsibility for actions in war -- is it the soldiers', or the commander's? -- is the moral heart of the play.


Translated by Philip Vellacott
2 June

Creusa, the queen of Athens, is childless. In her youth she had been ravaged by Apollo, then secretly bore a child which she left in a cave. In her maturity, she accompanies her husband to Apollo's temple to pray for an heir. Her heart is torn between prayer and loathing. How can she ask a favor of someone who caused her such pain?

Euripides' telling of the story is a little stilted. The characters, not unlike those in "Medea", are a bit too mercurial to be quite believable. Lamentation turns quickly to murderous anger, which dissolves into joy. It made the situation, which would have had great dramatic possibilities in the hands of Aeschylus or Sophocles, seem rather a dramatic presentation of an argument. The moods of the characters were changed to fit the next point in the argument. That's a pity, because the story had the potential to transcend the ending it was given.

I was a little disappointed with the Mr. Vellacott's translation, but only in comparison to his lyric translation of Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy. "Ion" started out that way -- particularly Ion's opening speech, which begins:

The dazzling chariot of the sun
Now lights the earth; and every star
Flies from that fire's fierce rising ray
Behind the night's mysterious bar.
Smoke of Arabian frankincense
Streams upward to the temple's height.
Parnassus' pathless peaks grow bright
With welcome to the new-born day.
Now on the holy tripod-seat
The Delphian priestess takes her place,
And daily to the Hellene race
  Her chanting tones repeat
  What her own words have heard --
The thunder of Apollo's word.

What lovely alliteration and rhythm! Unfortunately, this is the most mellifluous passage in the entire translation. I have higher hopes for his translations of "The Women of Troy" and "The Bacchae".

The Bacchae

Translated by Philip Vellacott
7 June

Well, it was more lyric than "Ion", but I'm not sure I quite understood "The Bacchae". Throughout my reading its theme seemed to be the relation of men to gods. In particular, is it justified to refuse to worship a god that is irrational and dangerous?

The introduction puts the play in another light. The gods of the Greeks weren't so much distinct entities as aspects of the world. In this light, Pentheus' refusal to worship Dionysus is seen as a denial of part of human nature. He pays a terrible price for the refusal.

I can understand that interpretation. I'm still interested in the answer to my original question, which is one of my strongest objections to religion.

Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
25 June

While this play is a light comedy of romance, mischief, and mistaken identity, it doesn't leave one much to chew on (unlike "Measure for Measure"). It's a pleasant play; the BBC dramatization with Felicity Kendall as Viola/Sebastian/Cesario was a treat. But, at the end of the day, I'm left wanting more: better motivations, more memorable speeches, and so on. To its credit, there's a certain aphorism I'll never interpret in the same way again.

The Women of Troy

Translated by Philip Vellacott
19 July

I haven't yet read The Iliad and The Odyssey, but I'm becoming more convinced that I should. The story of Helen and the Trojan War is the root of so many classic plays, such as Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy and Euripides' "The Women of Troy".

The latter is an unconventional play in that there is no dramatic conflict. It depicts the grief of the women of conquered Troy, despairing over their fate: husbands slain, city destroyed, themselves enslaved. It's a powerful statement against the cruelty of war.

Of particular note is Hecabe's pronouncement about fate: "call no man happy till the day he dies". In her grief, she sees no cause for hope, nothing that brings joy. While I understand her feeling, I do not agree. When faced with the horrors the world throws at us, survival itself is an achievement worth celebrating.

This is the best of Euripides' plays that I've read so far. I'd put it on a level with Aeschylus.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
28 July

A dream this is, indeed. It's almost a shame to read it silently, the poetry flows so well. With mixed-up lovers, mischeivous fairies, and fools performing a play within a play, there's laughs and delight. I particularly liked the closing play. One question remains with me, though: how did Oberon and Titania resolve their disagreement? I just can't quite understand what Oberon means in the passage where he talks about it. I'll have to re-read it.


Translated by Douglass Parker
30 August

A friend just saw an all-male production of this play, so I had to re-read it again for the first time since high school. It was short enough to read in one sitting, but provided much mirth.

Aristophanes' ribald tale of Greek women on a sexual strike for peace was fun all over again. I particularly enjoyed the symbology of the four long choruses.

While reading, I pondered the role of women in Greek plays. They seem so much more dynamic than men. The male characters seem enigmatic, as if they were more the tools of fate than independent beings. The women, from Medea to Antigone to Lysistrata, are more vibrant. They have a liveliness and quality of self-determination that men lack.

The translation was surprising. It is the most updated, vernacular translation I've ever read. Spartans speak like the worst country bumpkin stereotypes. Anachronisms not only abound, they're practically reveled in. Reading about "peekaboo peignoirs", "true-blue patriots", and "battle-hardened bargain hunters" made me wonder exactly which Hellas I wasn't in anymore. Granted, this is done for comic effect. Usually it works, but for me it conflicted with the specifically Hellenic aspects of the play, and acted as a distraction.

See the notes on another translation.


William Shakespeare
31 August

When I resolved at the beginning of the year to read a Shakespeare play each month, I didn't plan to read only the classics. It seemed a better course to explore more than just "Hamlet", "Romeo & Juliet", and "Macbeth". There's more to the Bard than the well-known plays. So this month I chose one of the lesser known, rarely performed plays. "Cymbeline" fit the bill well. Does anyone but those in theater know its plot? Have you ever heard it quoted?

It was better than I expected. It integrated aspects of tragedy and history quite well. Against a broad historic event, there were several plot lines, interesting characters, good speeches, a battle, and a villain. It wrapped up elements from many other plays as if were a one-play condensed Shakespeare course. Just add Falstaff or Dogberry, stir, and it would be complete. (Wait; how did I forget the humor of the second Lord's asides in Act 2, Scene 1? Quite amusing.)

The characters were certainly interesting. The Queen combined Medea, the evil stepmother from Sleeping Beauty, and the Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia. Imogen is virtuous, but lets herself be carried along by events to a surprising extent. Posthumus, her exiled husband, is quick to believe the worst about his distant wife.

The speeches gave more to chew on than I expected. Posthumus' speech on the falsity of women at the end of Act 2, Scene 4, is a misogynists' creed. The buried nobility of Guiderius and Arviragus provides ample subject to expound upon whether there are innate difference between people of different classes (Belarius' speech which ends Act 3, Scene 3). With subjects like jealousy and rancor, how could there not be good speeches?

"Cymbeline" has so much of the other plays that it had a few of their drawbacks. In some scenes, the language is elliptic enough to be almost incomprehensible. I caught the drift, but wouldn't be able to give a line-by-line explication of the text. The ending came a bit quick, requiring some reverses that strained credulity, though I'm getting used to that. It is a play, after all. It's not as if it has the luxury of four hours in which to wrap up all the plot lines at its leisure.

The setting is another aspect that is open to question. When is this play supposed to happen? The Britons are paying tribute to Rome, which would imply the first half of the first millennium; yet at times it seemed much later.

Yet these are minor quibbles. I enjoyed "Cymbeline", and you will too. It provided a good aphorism that is worth memorizing:

Be cheerful, wipe thine eyes;
Some falls are means the happier to arise.


Translated by Charles T. Murphy
1 September

After reading one translation that was very contemporary, I was interested in reading another that was more literal. Fortunately, C. A. Robinson Jr.'s An Anthology of Greek Drama held a different translation. It doesn't have any notes, leading one to judge it solely on its language.

To my surprise, I preferred the vernacular translation. Mr. Murphy's translation does hold humor, some of it quite suggestive, but there are too many non-humorous passages in between to keep the play's ribald nature intact. "Peekaboo peignoirs" has become "silk robes"; "battle-hardened bargain hunters" is now "sellers-of-garlic". It's not the same.

Apart from the word and phrase level of translation, there is a difference in whom some speeches are assigned to. In Mr. Parker's translation, the choruses' songs near the end are split between male and female choruses. Mr. Murphy combines them, confusing the innuendo of the songs' symbology. It's an esthetic choice that is up to the translator. Yet I was only aware of this due to the notes in Mr. Parker's translation. The conclusion is that notes of translation difficulties are valuable, even if they might distract from flow of a play.

The Dyskolos

Translated by Carroll Moulton
21 September

Menander's "The Grouch" is from a later era than the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Comedic writing was in transition. No longer was politics a subject for ridicule. Instead, this play is based solely on character.

I suppose that's what made it such a puzzle. There are a few good comic moments, and a fine speech or two, but it seemed rather unfocused. The plot's simple: Sostratos, a young city gentleman, spies a lovely country maid and wishes to woo her. Standing in his way is her father Knemon, a fierce misanthrope. One would expect the drama to focus on the conflict between Sostratos and Knemon, but it doesn't. Instead of directly playing on Knemon's nature, it spends more time on Knemon's effects on the other characters in the play. As such, it makes for a strangely off-center comedy.

Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that an fully intact text of the play doesn't exist. I don't think so, so this edition refers to the omitted lines, and there aren't that many.

This is the first Greek play I've read where I kept forgetting who was who. That might tell you something.

Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare
30 September

Both Wells' Shakespeare: A Life in Drama and Bloom's Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human point to Cleopatra as Shakespeare's strongest female character. She certainly is a puzzle; alternately devoted and trifling, her mood shifts like mercury. Just when her motives were comprehensible, her words and actions denied my understanding.

Despite the greatness of Cleopatra, I was more interested in Antony's character. He's a great warrior, if a bit long in the tooth; yet he risks everything to satisfy a love that can never come to fruition. There can be no happy ending, as he must have understood. What is it about him (and Cleopatra) that can so drive a man to folly, when his own reason joins the voices of friends in warning?

This is a play that bears a repeat reading. The first time through, one learns the action. The second time, characterization is the prize to win.

Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare
5 October

Friends, Romans, countrymen... what can I say about this play that hasn't already been said? Its center is of course Brutus' tragic decision. Why did he join the conspirators? Did he fear for the state's future, or did he seek his own gain? Why did a character with such a strong moral sense lapse so badly? These questions can be debated endlessly.

This is one of the most quoted of Shakespeare's plays, and the language is remarkable. Particularly compelling are the contrasting orations of Brutus and Marc Antony. The latter's repeated referral to the conspirators as "honorable men " is one of the classic examples of irony, and its effect is deadly.

The Clouds

Translated by William Arrowsmith
5 October

My review of "The Frogs" was wrong. I have finally met a Greek play I didn't like, and it's "The Clouds".

The play is a burlesque debate between the old school of education and the new school of sophistry. Beset by his son's debts, the farmer Strepsiades enrolls in Socrates' school to learn how to avoid paying his creditors. When he proves a poor pupil, he sends his son for training, to his eventual dismay.

While the play still has resonance today, I didn't enjoy it. The play begins with the main character trying to commit a tawdry act, and his actions don't improve. I didn't sympathize with him at all. Throughout the play he reveals himself to be dull-witted, easily swayed, and venal. That wouldn't be bad if other characters contrasted with him, but none did. The whole lot were useless, and made reading the play more a chore than a pleasure.

It's back to Aeschylus for me.


Translated by Philip Vellacott
27 October

Is "Helen" a comedy? Mr. Vellacott thinks so, and for support cites several passages which can be interpreted as comic. Yet I didn't know that while reading the play, and read it as drama. It didn't give itself away like Aristophanes' plays do. Its wasn't over the top.

Actually, reading it as drama made the experience more fun. What are we to make of the revelation that the Helen spirited away to Troy was but a god-made illusion? Is this an anti-war statement, an acknowledgment that the Trojan War was fought over nothing but a phantom? Or is this ethereal Helen simply Euripides' simply a nod to the power of the gods and the foolishness of men?

This is why I prefer Euripides and Aeschylus to Aristophanes. The former make me think and wonder, whereas the latter doesn't get as much into the deeper issues of existence. Don't misunderstand, Aristophanes often asks important questions about human experience. I just prefer the older playwright's approach. Call me a classicist.

Prometheus Bound

Translated by Philip Vellacott
20 November

I'm a bit at a loss when it comes to this play. There's little action: Prometheus is bound to a rock, which is swallowed by the earth. Along the way he converses with his captors, a chorus of Oceanus' daughters, Oceanus, and the Zeus-maddened Io. That's it.

Well, that's not everything. Prometheus, fire-bringer to mankind, is unrepentant of his deed. He resists few opportunities to set himself against Zeus, going so far as to taunt his messenger Hermes. Prometheus also prophecies for Io, in a long and tangential episode.

The play, the first part of a trilogy, would make more sense if we possessed its sequels. Alas, they are lost. Perhaps the prophecy for Io was a metaphor for how Prometheus and Zeus would resolve their differences. We shall never know. As it is, the play remains a puzzle.

Troilus and Cressida

William Shakespeare
30 November

Little did I know at the beginning of this year how fertile the story of Helen of Troy would be. It inspired Greek plays such as Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy and Euripides' "Helen" and "The Women of Troy". Without knowing its content beforehand, this month I chose Shakespeare's play set during the Trojan war, "Troilus and Cressida".

The plot is twofold. One concerns the siege of Troy, the other the love of Troilus and Cressida. Their concerns cross in the matter of honor, which is the major theme of the play. Achilles loses his due to his pride, while the lovers' is sorely tested. Against all these is set the scurrilous Thersites, the very embodiment of a man without honor. His lowly status allows him to be a sarcastic commentator on the others' actions.

This play is not one of the Bard's better known works, and the reasons for that are manifest in the play itself. The romance is for the most part at a distance, with the lovers meeting but once. The characterization of both Troilus and Cressida had an elusiveness that left me feeling like I still didn't know them at the end of the play. This made identification with them very difficult.

As for the scenes of battle and rest, I was more concerned with the deeper issues raised than the surface action. Like "King Henry the Fifth", the theme of honor found its ultimate test on the field of battle. Is there any play in which honor is not tied to fighting?

King Lear

William Shakespeare
23 December

Here's what I've been searching for: a play that marries the rich characterizations and language of Shakespeare with a plot worthy of Greek tragedy. Like Oedipus, Lear is done in by his nature; he is a king, yet unable to control his own heart and tongue. His extravagance of cruelty, madness, and repentance create what might well be the most wrenching play in the English language.

At risk of oversimplification, the theme is man's nature. Lear's reaction to Cordelia's modest silence first explores in the first scene excellently characterizes the folly of a heart angered. Edmund's soliloquy in I.2 takes another tack; he decries those who blame their disasters on baleful stars. To him, human nature is a thing to make, not to be made by. What follows is a test to destruction for everyone involved, ripping off the layers of civilization to expose their true natures. This unrelenting dissection of character elevates "King Lear" to the exalted upper ranks of Shakespeare's finest works.

From reading criticism of the play, it appears that many critics have foundered when attempting to interpret the play according to their world-views. This surprises me not at all, for few world-views can account for near-complete ruin. Yet I do not agree that, as some contend, this makes the play unstageable. It would be a great challenge, but not impossible.

It amazes me to think that I've lived for thirty-three years and read over half of Shakespeare's plays, including all the major comedies and tragedies, yet not once seen one acted on stage. This situation must be remedied in the next year!


Translated by Philip Vellacott
29 December

Ah, love! What ties December and love? And what a tragic force it is! First "King Lear", and now "Hippolytus". In neither play do those touched by love -- either agape, eros, or philos -- emerge unscathed.

Yet, like "King Lear", "Hippolytus"' theme is not the dangerous power of love. That's more appropriate for "Romeo & Juliet". The more I try to determine the theme, the more unsure I am. While Hippolytus' disregard of the goddess Aphrodite mirrors Pentheus' denial of Dionysus in "The Bacchae", the differing endings force us to discard "The Bacchae"'s theme of reverence. Vellacott argues that the play's theme is pardoning others' acts. I can't quite agree, yet it makes more sense than other theories. The play is a puzzle to be argued over.

I had access to two different translations of the play. I started with Arthur S. Way's, then quickly switched to Philip Vellacott's. The translation is simply more understandable, more flowing. I'll go back and read Way's translation, but only for contrast.

Reading Queue

1999 queue

  • Aeschylus, Prometheus and Other Plays
  • Aristophanes, The Birds and Other Plays
  • Aristophanes, The Clouds/The Birds/Lysistrata/The Frogs
  • Aristophanes, The Wasps/The Poet and the Women/The Frogs
  • Euripides, Alcestis/Hippolytus/Iphigenia in Tauris
  • C. A. Robinson, ed., An Anthology of Greek Drama

Last updated 4 June 2000
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons

Next: Resolution Reading, 2000