New Year's Resolution Reading, 2000

Last year's reading resolutions were so enjoyable that I decided to continue them. Coming up: another year of Greek plays and Shakespeare.

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


Translated by Philip Vellacott
19-20 January

With the help of Apollo, Admetus, King of Pharae, has postponed his own death at the cost of another's. His wife Alcestis has freely shortened her own thread to save her husband. Woe then to this family when Alcestis is too soon called by Death!

Like his play "The Bacchae", Euripides' intent in the play is not what we modern readers would expect. Admetus' request was not necessarily that of a coward, nor was Alcestis' fate the senseless tragedy that it appears. A good portion of the play is given to describing what makes a good wife, and the definition has changed somewhat in two and a half millennia.

The great difference between the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides is that the former's depict a fundamental change in society, while the latter's depict the need for change in the individual. I haven't yet found a pithy description of Sophocles' plays.

One last note. As I've been reading the Greek plays, particularly the tragedies, I've been wishing that it were still possible to write in that style. I had almost resigned myself to thinking that it could not be done, when I stumbled across an author who gave me hope: Cordwainer Smith (the pen name of Dr. Paul Linebarger). His stories in The Rediscovery of Man have a hard-to-pin-down, formal quality to their language that is in some ways reminiscent of the classics.


23-29 January

Ancient Rome is besieged by the Volscians. Who can stand against them? None other than Caius Martius, whose success at Corioles earns him the name Coriolanus.

Yet this play isn't about war. It is a play about pride and envy. Coriolanus is the embodiment of the former. He is the victor in war, now beginning a political career. Plotting against his rise are Sicinius and Brutus, tribunes of the people and the play's embodiments of envy.

Shakespeare's treatment of these two qualities is striking. The tribunes are simply venal, with no redeeming qualities. Coriolanus' pride, however, is more complex. It leads to its possessor's success, yet also to his failure. He places pride above both love and loyalty, with tragic results. Pride is not portrayed as a positive or negative quality; rather, it is Coriolanus' single-mindedness that leads to difficulty.

The role of Volumnia deserves note. She is Coriolanus' mother, and plays a critical role in both past and present action. She speaks often about how she raised Caius Martius to be the epitome of the warrior. She succeeded, in part by her constant focus upon the virtues and strength of the warrior. Her success is a contributing factor in the tragedy to follow. Let her example be a warning to parents not to push their children to hard too exceed -- tragedy may be the harvest they reap.

Iphigenia in Tauris

Translated by Philip Vellacott
27 February

Another play in Euripides' version of the Oresteia, "Iphigenia in Tauris" reunites Orestes and Iphigenia, the last of the fated house of Atreus. In a foreign land Iphigenia has become a priestess of Artemis, presiding over the ritual sacrifice of all foreigners. Into this country comes Orestes, seeking to end the curse that hangs over his family.

This play is another that shows Euripides' mastery of subtlety. The action is simple, with Iphigenia's conflict so obvious that one would expect it to be the moral focus of the play. Yet it is not; instead, Euripides again comments obliquely on religion, the gods, and human nature. One must read carefully what the characters say. Their words are the key to understanding Euripides' message. As yet, however, I am not precisely sure what the message is! Certainly Iphigenia is not without her weaknesses, nor are the gods free of whims. Is Euripides arguing for human self-reliance, and against blind belief?

One of the joys of reading classic Greek plays is the sheer number of plays with strong female characters: Helen, Ion, Clytemnestra, Antigone, and now Iphigenia. They often outshine the men in sheer emotional power. Would that we had such a tradition today.

For the past few months, one thought has kept me wondering. I live in a town that is the same size Athens was at its peak. Yet where is our Aeschylus, our Euripides, our Sophocles?

Love's Labour's Lost

27-29 February

How better to celebrate the month of February and St. Valentine's Day than by a reading a Shakespearean comedy of love?

Rather a bittersweet valentine, perhaps, but one to my taste.

Seven Against Thebes

Translated by Philip Vellacott
27-28 March

Aeschylus' telling of the Achaean's attack on the seven-gated city of Thebes is also the penultimate chapter of the tragedy of the house of Laius. Eteocles and Polyneices, sons of cursed Oedipus, meet in battle and in so doing fulfill the words of prophecy.

Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy fascinated me for its portrayal of a turning point in the evolution of Greek society. Another fundamental societal change brings resolution to this play's action: the introduction of iron. Though its influence is less overt, this new element plays a similar role as the Erinyes' change in the "The Eumenides". However, in the tale of Agamemnon's house the change is positive; in the house of Laius, it closes the chapter but does not resolve the curse, as sorrow is still to befall "Antigone".

Notably absent from the play is action. The climactic battle occurs off-stage. The most prominent scene is a striking exchange between Eteocles and a soldier. In it, the soldier describes the seven champions who lead the assault on Thebes. As he describes each one, Eteocles responds with by describing the fighters who will take on each. The entire scene, while static, builds to a striking climax as we wait to see if Eteocles himself will fight. I'd love to see a good production of this play.


28-29 March

This play was a surprise. It's less like Shakespeare's other plays than any I've yet read, both in structure and plot. It was a collaboration, with the first two acts written by another; also, it re-tells the episodic story "Apollonius of Tyre". It makes for a real oddball of a play.

The structure of the play is unlike any other Shakespeare play. Each act opens with an expository verse monologue by an actor playing John Gower, the author of the a version of the tale that was well known at the time. Several of the monologues present "dumb shows": short, silent scenes that move the action along. This technique, while unusual, was necessary to present the story, which takes place over the course of two decades. The Gower parts create transitions between acts, without which the audience would be completely lost.

The story was not what I expect from Shakespeare. In the first act Pericles is set the Oedipan task of solving Antiochus' riddle or perishing. This creates a fine dramatic situation reminiscent of Portia's riddles in "The Merchant of Venice". Antiochus even grants Pericles time to consider the riddle, giving the play necessary time for another plot line to take root and flower. Yet these expectations were dashed with Pericles' easy solution to the riddle and subsequent flight. Until the end, the play lurches along from one such episode to another, full of shipwrecks, death and attempted murder, brothel-house conversions, et cetera. The lack of subtlety in its broadly painted action* made me think it was surely one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, but I was completely wrong; it was one of his last.

This isn't to say the play is without merit. The brothel scenes in Act Four are quite amusing, and the play does have its share of dramatic irony. But it is the most atypical Shakespeare play of I've read.

* There's a scene in which a young woman in mortal peril is rescued by the sudden appearance of pirates. The stage direction "Enter Pirates" might be the funniest I have ever read, being so transparent a deus ex machina.

The Persians

Translated by Philip Vellacott
26-27 May

What if a Greek playwright wrote a play and nothing happened?

That's close to the plot of "The Persians". The play consists of three characters relating the defeat of the Persian under Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis. There's no dramatic conflict. The only character who really makes a good showing is Darius, and he's dead.

Depending on the political state of Athens at the time this play was first performed, it could have been either a warning against military hubris or a celebration of an unexpected victory. Since the Battle of Salamis occured only eight years before the play's creation, the latter seems to be the case. Rather a pity, that; an uneasy Athens would have made the play an interesting veiled warning, rather than a self-congratulatory paean.

All's Well That Ends Well

27-29 May

It's a Shakespearean comedy, which means women vs. men. As usual, the women are the victors; the men are exposed by their deeds, to their embarrassment.

Actually, the play's quite a bit deeper than that. As young Bertram is tricked by Helena and Diana, so Parolles is caught in his own web of deceit by the French lords. The crooked tongues of both of the accused almost bring their downfall. It's enough to make one wonder whether Mr. Shakespeare was trying to prove that all young men are fickle and self-centered; after all, the only youthful male roles are Parolles, Bertram, and a clown. The unfair sex makes a poor showing, with only the King and lords demonstrating some honor. Yet even the King is ready to cast Diana into a dungeon because she thwarts his desire! Is it time to give up on the male of the species?

Well, not quite. For their part, the women feel no compunctions about resorting to trickery. Diana in particular has some cutting words for the King. Yet the most damning portrayal of humanity is found in Helena.

For all her virtue and purity, Helena's love is of a destructive variety. She loves Bertram and wishes to be his wife, but he does not love her. This prompts us to ask the obvious question of why she thinks that an arranged marriage will cause Bertram to love her. The answer, of course, is that she isn't really in love; she's infatuated, which is very different. Her infatuation blinds her to the reality of her situation, and leads to her heartbreak when Bertram leaves her without a kiss.

One of the play's themes is the importance of honor. Neither Parolles nor Bertram have it; I contend that Helena does not show it either. Part of the concept of honor is understanding how one's actions can affect others. Helena is blind to this knowledge. Her love is as a child's. When she grows up we might discuss her honor, but I contend that she is too immature for the concept to apply to her.

It's interesting to note that regret for an unappreciated love is an essential subtheme of the play. If you've lost someone through your own actions, this play will remind you of that fact.

The Suppliants

Translated by Philip Vellacott
25-27 June

"The Suppliants" begins with the fifty daughters of Danaus, himself a descendant of Zeus, arriving on the Peloponnesian coast. They have fled from Egypt, seeking to escape forced marriage. Knowing that the Egyptians are in pursuit, they appeal to the king of Argos for sanctuary.

That's most of the action in this play. Most of the text is exposition and argument, with the daughters of Danaus attempting to persuade the Argives that their claim of sanctuary should be honored. They seek self-determination:

Right or no right, I will not be
Man's chattel won by violence.

It is a cruel irony that their struggle to preserve their independence will lead to more violence. This was the first play of a trilogy, the rest of which is lost. Its speculations on what is the correct course of action for the state makes it kin to the Oresteia; it's a pity we'll never know Aeschylus' particular solution to this ethical dilemma, though we can guess what it would be.

King Henry VI, Parts 1-3

28-30 June, 1-5 July, 5-7 July

Unlike last year, this time I decided to read a historical cycle of plays straight through. It wasn't easy; the plays themselves weren't hard, but with all the Richards, Edwards, and Dukes of this-and-that running around, keeping all the characters straight became a challenge. Unfortunately, some of the most distinctive characters in the Henry VI plays have small parts: for example, Joan la Pucelle in Part One, and Jack Cade in Part Two. It's only in Part Three that we get a character who begins to really grow in richness; that is, of course, Richard, Duke of York.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Shakespeare had to stick to the historical record. It made for some disappointing drama. The bishop of Winchester, who initially shows promise to plague Henry's reign, expires quietly halfway through. While this might be accurate, it's bad stagecraft. Let's face it; it's hard to write a good trilogy when its central character is a weak and ineffective king who would rather abdicate than fight. At this stage in his career, Shakespeare was unable to endow Henry the Sixth with the strong character that he would later give to Henry the Fifth.

The plays do have their moments, but they're not as close together as I'd prefer. The symbology of the roses selected by the houses of Lancaster and York were interesting, but after their appearance at the end of the first play they disappeared completely until Richard III.

If you plan on reading them, I'd suggest keeping running notes of relations between the characters.

King Richard III

8 July

The reign of Henry VI ends with the ascent of Richard III, the Duke of York, to the throne. In Richard, Shakespeare has finally created a character that transcends the historical background of this cycle of plays. He is thoroughly and cheerfully amoral; his naked ambition, communicated through his actions, apostrophes, and asides, renders him a charismatic villain. The penultimate scenes rang a little false, but otherwise Richard was great fun to observe.


23-4 July

I've finally run across a play that shows how far removed Greek culture is from the present day. Even though I might not have agreed with their actions, I have been able to understand Medea, and Orestes, and Hippolytus; but Ajax's action in this play by Sophocles leave me wondering.

The play deals with the end of the warrior Ajax's life, when, bewitched by the goddess Athena, he slaughters a flock of sheep, thinking they are Odysseus and his warriors. When he discovers his error, his shame drives him to a desperate act.

This is where I lose my understanding of the relation between the gods and men in Sophocles' time. If Ajax was under a god's spell, then how is he responsible for his actions? I would understand if he was distraught at the realization that he had been a plaything of the gods, but Athena herself makes clear to Odysseus (120-133) that this indeed the state of the world (a message which Odysseus understands all too well). However, Ajax's dishonor he holds to be the fault of none other, though it clearly is. Is honor so strong a thing that it cannot stand truth?

It is something to ponder, then consult again with Sophocles.

It's interesting that Sophocles' depiction of Odysseus is the most sympathetic I have yet read. It just to show that mythic figures sometimes reflect more the storyteller's own nature than some intrinsic character of their own.

The Winter's Tale

25-7 August

As Shakespeare goes, "The Winter's Tale" is a bit thin. The plot, taken from an older play (with significant embellishments), recalls the creaky plotting of "Pericles". Characters whose nature changes on a dime then stay constant for years. The inconsistency would work if the tale were an imaginative fancy such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; unfortunately, that's not the case. It might be fun to stage, but there is little of interest when it comes to Shakespeare's great strength, characterization.

At least the play gives us the famous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear", which I've seen used out of context more times than I can count.

The Tempest

26-30 December

My, what a short play. Is this why it was the first one I was assigned to read in grade school?

Really, the action ends almost before it begins. Whereas the tragedies and histories had a grand sense of unfolding, the action in "The Tempest" is static. Even at the beginning of the play, Prospero knows what he wants to do, and his surety of his own power is not in error; events unfold to their destined conclusion. There is no surprise. As a whole, the play has a ring of finality about it, as if the characters have finally learned that their lack of reality allows them to forgo the conventions of traditional drama. Or am I perhaps reading too much into the fact that was Shakespeare's last solo play?

The correspondences between Prospero and Caliban were particularly noticeable in this reading. Both were deposed from what they considered their fiefdom. Both were estranged from others: Caliban due to his form and manner, Prospero because of his indifference to worldly concerns. Yet Prospero is the most powerful being on the isle (as demonstrated by his mastery of Ariel), while Caliban is the most abject. Feel free to spend pages analyzing this duality. It's an endeavor that could last for quite a while.

Reading Queue

2000 queue

  • Aristophanes, The Birds and Other Plays
  • Aristophanes, The Clouds/The Birds/Lysistrata/The Frogs
  • Aristophanes, The Wasps/The Poet and the Women/The Frogs

Last updated 13 January 2001
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons

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