Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripidesby Euripides
Euripides, the last of the three great tragedians of ancient Athens, reached the height of his renown during the disastrous Peloponnesian War, when democratic Athens was brought down by its own outsized ambitions. “Euripides,” the classicist Bernard Knox has written, —was born never to live in peace with himself and to prevent the rest of … See more details below
Euripides, the last of the three great tragedians of ancient Athens, reached the height of his renown during the disastrous Peloponnesian War, when democratic Athens was brought down by its own outsized ambitions. “Euripides,” the classicist Bernard Knox has written, —was born never to live in peace with himself and to prevent the rest of mankind from doing so.— His plays were shockers: he unmasked heroes, revealing them as foolish and savage, and he wrote about the powerless—women and children, slaves and barbarians—for whom tragedy was not so much exceptional as unending. Euripides’ plays rarely won first prize in the great democratic competitions of ancient Athens, but their combustible mixture of realism and extremism fascinated audiences throughout the Greek world. In the last days of the Peloponnesian War, Athenian prisoners held captive in far-off Sicily were said to have won their freedom by reciting snatches of Euripides’ latest tragedies.
Four of those tragedies are here presented in new translations by the contemporary poet and classicist Anne Carson. They are Herakles, in which the hero swaggers home to destroy his own family; Hekabe, set after the Trojan War, in which Hektor’s widow takes vengeance on her Greek captors; Hippolytos, about love and the horror of love; and the strange tragic-comedy fable Alkestis, which tells of a husband who arranges for his wife to die in his place. The volume also contains brief introductions by Carson to each of the plays along with two remarkable framing essays: “Tragedy: A Curious Art Form” and “Why I Wrote Two Plays About Phaidra.”
"In Grief Lessons, the contemporary poet and classicist Anne Carson's spare and beautiful new translation of four of Euripides' lesser known tragedies, we have a kind of primer on the intrinsic dangers of blind devotion to ideology." -The New Yorker
"An eclectic selection that provides an excellent introduction to Euripides's range. Ms. Carson's Euripides is bleak, moving, and provocative, offering a painful reminder of the resonance of these ancient plays with our own times." -The New York Sun
"Grief Lessons...reminds us that the difference between competent and inspired translation is more than a matter of even bravura technical competence. It involves a kind of discreet union between writer and translator, a certain convergence of aesthetic impulse and intellectual inclination. The issue of such a union can take a reader's breath away because it just seems so righta work that stands firmly on its own but is somehow contented to be the sum of its parts. Carson's is, in other words, an altogether worthy heir...It's a reasonable and reasonably provocative contemporary reading." -The Los Angeles Times
"Writing with a pitch and heat that gets to the heart of the unforgiving classical world, Carson..is nothing less than brilliantunfalteringly sharp in diction, audacious and judicious in taking liberties...Worth the price of admission alone is Carson's blistering essay afterword, written in Euripides's voice...This amazing book gets very close to the playwright's enigmatic answers." -Publishers Weekly*
Read an Excerpt
Grief LessonsFour Plays by Euripides
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Anne Carson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe scene is set at Thebes. The stage has two side entrances and a central stage building representing the house of Herakles. Nearby is an altar of Zeus Savior where Amphitryon, Megara and the children sit as suppliants.
AMPHITRYON Who does not know the man who shared his marriage bed with Zeus? Amphitryon, son of Alkaios, grandson of Perseus, father of Herakles, me! I used to own Thebes, where dragons' teeth sprang out of the earth like ears of corn and lived as men. 10 Their children fill this city. From them came Kreon, ruler of this land and father of Megara- wedding songs rang out when Herakles led her to my home as his bride. But he left Thebes behind, left Megara, left me- to live in that Argive city from which I was exiled because I committed a murder, 20 He wanted to dwell there, to ease my way back. The price was high: to civilize the entire world was his contract. I wonder, did Hera have her spike in him then or was it all just his fate? Anyway, the task is finished now except one last labor- the threebodied dog must be got up from hell. He went down there but has not come back. According to legend 30 Dirke's husband long ago was Lykos, despot of this sevengated city. And it is his grandson, with the same name, who came fromEuboia, murdered Kreon and rules us now. The city was divided, he fell upon it. Then our kinship with Kreon turned out a bad thing. And now that my son is down in the basement of the world, glorious Lykos wants us dead-Herakles' children, Herakles' wife (to quench the seed) and me, the man of the family I guess, 40 though I'm useless and old. Blood justice is what Lykos fears. So I-left in the house here to care for the children, along with their mother, when my son went underground- I've set us up at the altar of Zeus Savior, built by my son to mark his victory over the Minyans. Here we watch and wait, lacking everything-food, water, clothing, 50 on the bare ground, sealed out of our house. Who can help? Friends disappear or they are powerless. This is what misfortune means an acid test of friendship. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
MEGARA Old man-you who once demolished the Taphians' city, you who commanded an army for Thebes- 60 nothing the gods do makes sense! I was no outcast from luck on my father's side. He was rich and big and boasted of his power, long spears leaping around it, boasted of his children. He gave me to your son, to Herakles, a brilliant marriage. And now all that has vanished. You and I will die, old man, and Herakles' little fledglings- 70 like a bird I cover them with my wings. They fly to me asking one after another, Where is father gone? What is he doing? When will he come back? I put them off with stories. It shocks me, whenever the doors creak everyone jumps up as if to run to their father's knee. Can you ease me with hope or some way of salvation, old man? 80 I look to you. We could never cross the border secretly, guards are posted on every road. Nor can we hope for salvation from friends anymore. Whatever your thoughts, speak them. Death is at hand.
AMPHITRYON Daughter, I find it hard to rattle off advice like that. We're weak, let's play for time.
MEGARA Wait for worse? You love the light so much? 90
AMPHITRYON I do, I love its hopes.
MEGARA Well yes, but there's no use expecting the impossible, old man.
AMPHITRYON To delay evils is a kind of cure.
MEGARA This waiting gnaws at me.
AMPHITYON A clear path may open out of these troubles, for you and me. My son might come. Be calm. Wipe their tears and soothe them with stories, a bit of make-believe, 100
Even catastrophes grow weary, no wind can keep blasting all the time. And great happiness in the end falters. Yes, all is change. Best to keep hoping. Despair is the mark of a bad man. [enter Chorus from both side entrances into orchestra]
CHORUS (entrance song) Leaning on my stick I come, quavering my laments, like some old white bird- I am nothing but words, 110 just a shape of dreams or night. I tremble. But my heart is full! O poor fatherless children, poor old man, poor mother calling out to your husband in Hades. Come do not tire, heavy foot, heavy leg, heavy burden, uphill like a workhorse 120 I go. Take my hand, take my robe, where the foot falters. Old man side by side with old man-as our young spears once stood side by side in war, no shame to our glorious country.
Look how the gorgon-gaze of their father stares out of their eyes. Bad luck is not gone from these children, 130 but neither is beauty. O Greece! what fighters you will lose when you lose these!
But I see Lykos coming. Lykos, tyrant of this land.
[enter Lykos by side entrance with Servants]
LYKOS You people!-Herakles' people, if I may, a question: and since I am master here, yes! you must answer. How long do you think to prolong life? 140 What hope do you have? What defense do you see? Or do you believe he will come back from Hades? Hysteria! You, boasting you sowed the same marriage bed as Zeus, and you, that you married a world hero! What was so spectacular about those "labors" of his anyway? So he killed a water snake, or that Nemean creature- he did it with nets, not his own hands. Is this your claim? Is this why you think 150 his sons should escape death? A man who got a name for courage, though he was nothing-he fought animals! No good for anything else.
Never had a shield on his arm, never came near a spear: he used a bow!- coward's weapon-always ready to run. A bow is no test of a man's courage. No-but standing fast, staring the enemy down, facing the gash of the spear! 160 Now me, I'm not shameless, just cautious, old man. I killed Kreon, her father, I know that. I sit on his throne. Don't want those boys reared up as avengers on me.
AMPHITRYON Let Zeus defend the Zeus-part of his son. The rest is mine: Herakles, I'll show this man knows nothing about you. 170 To hear you abused-no! Against unspeakable charges, like cowardice, I call the gods to witness. I call the lightning of Zeus, the chariot of Zeus, in which you went to shoot the giants down and raised a cry of victory with the gods. Go to where the centaurs live, ask them- those monsters on four legs-ask what man they judge the bravest: they'll say my son! 180 Whereas, if you ask Dirphys, your own local mountain, to praise you, she couldn't name a single deed of yours. And then you denounce that tactical masterpiece, the bow.
Listen, you'll learn something. Your hoplite is the slave of his weapons. If he breaks his spear he's dead. Dead too if his comrades on either side aren't good men. But the one who aims a bow- world's best weapon-can shoot a thousand arrows 190 and still have some to save his life. He stands back, wounds his enemy with invisible shots and keeps his own body unexposed. This is intelligent warfare, to damage the enemy, stay safe yourself and don't trust to luck. These are my views, opposed to yours- it's an old debate. But now, 200 why do you want to murder these children? What have they done to you? I grant you're smart in one way: a coward yourself, you fear the sons of a hero. Still, this lies heavy on us-to die for your cowardice! You would be the one to die, if Zeus were just. But let's say you're determined to take over this country- then allow us to go into exile, 210 You should beware of violence you know, the wind may change. God might come round on you. PHEU! [cry] O land of Kadmos (yes I reproach you too!) is this how you defend Herakles and his children?
Herakles who all alone fought off the Minyans and let Thebes look through the eyes of freedom. Nor can I praise Greece-Greece is a coward! Greece should have come with fire and sword to help these poor little birds of his, 220 in return for all he did- he cleared the sea, he changed the world! O little ones, they do not avail you, not Thebes, not Greece. You look to me, a weak old man, a whisper of a man. Strength left me some while back. I tremble, I blur. But if I were young, still master of my body, 230 I'd bloody that fair head of his, I'd run him out of town at the end of my spear!
CHORUS Slow start, good speech.
LYKOS Towers of words. I will use actions. Here! [to Servants] you-go to Helikon and you to Parnassos. Tell the woodsmen there to cut logs of oak. Bring them here, pile up wood around the altar and set it on fire. Burn these people alive! So they realize 240 no dead man is going to rule this land. I am master here. And you defiant old men will be groaning not just for Herakles' children but for your own house as it falls. Remember, you are my slaves.
CHORUS O sons of earth, whom Ares once sowed with teeth ripped out of the dragon's jaw, stand up now! Break this man's ungodly head- 250 he's no Theban. A foreigner! Evil! You will never lord it over me. You will not enjoy the work of my hands. Go back where you came from, use your arrogance there. While I'm alive, you shall not kill Herakles' children- he isn't buried so deep. He did good for this land. You ravaged it, robbed him. Am I a troublemaker if I help a friend in need? 260 O right hand, how you long to grip the spear! But weakness kills longing. Else I would have stopped you calling me a slave and we'd live happily in Thebes. But here you strut. This city must have lost its mind to put up with your despotism.
MEGARA Old men, I thank you. Friends ought to show righteous anger on their friends' behalf. I only hope your rage does not cause you suffering, 270 But Amphitryon, hear me. Think. I love my children, how could I not? And death is awful. Yet to strive against the necessary turn of things is simply stupid. Yes we must die but there is no need to die mutilated by fire-a laughingstock to our enemies! That's worse than death. We owe our house a finer dignity than that. 280 You have known glory in war-unbearable for you to die as a coward. And my husband, whose fame needs no witness, would prefer these children not be saved if the price is dishonor. It breaks a good parent's heart to see children disgraced. I must take my husband's example. Look, you think your son will come back from Hades? What dead man comes back? 290 Or do you hope to soften up Lykos? Not likely. When your enemy is a savage, flee him. With men of culture you can negotiate, they have a sense of shame! It had occurred to me we might plead for exile for the children. But wouldn't that be worse- to trap them in a salvation made of abject poverty? You know the saying, people in exile get one day of smiling from their friends. 300 Dare death with me. Death stands by you anyway. I call on your greatness of soul, old man. He who battles fate shows courage, but the courage of a fool. No one will ever make necessity not happen.
CHORUS Had I strength in my arms and someone were assaulting you, I'd stop it. But I am nothing. Now it's your task, Amphitryon, to thrust a way through this bad luck. 310
AMPHITRYON Not cowardice or love of life prevents me dying: I want to save the children of my son- impossible as this seems. Look! You have a sword, here's my neck- stab me! murder me! throw me from a cliff! But grant us one favor, king, we pray. Kill us first, before the children. We cannot watch that. Unholy sight-their souls breaking free of life 320 as they call out to us. And the rest-if you're set on it-do it. We haven't the strength not to die.
I add a prayer: you, grant us this alone. Let me dress my children for death. Open the doors (we are locked out) and allow them this much at least of their father's wealth.
LYKOS It shall be so. I instruct my servants to unbar the doors. 330 Go in and dress, I do not begrudge you clothing. When you are ready I shall hand you on to the world below.
[exit Lykos by side entrance]
MEGARA Children, come with me into your father's house. It is still ours in name.
AMPHITRYON O Zeus, in vain I shared my wife with you! In vain I shared my son. Your love is not what it seemed. In fact I surpass you in virtue-and you a god! A big god. 340 Herakles' children I did not betray. But you-you know how to sneak into other men's beds, how to get whatever sex you want, but not how to save your own kin. For a god, you're an idiot. Or simply immoral.
[exit Amphitryon, Megara, children into house]
CHORUS [first choral ode] Sing sorrow! on top of joy. So Apollo sings driving the gold pick into his beautiful voicing lyre. And I sing of the man who went underground, down to the dark- 350 whether I call him son of Zeus or of Amphitryon. I want to place a crown of praise upon his labors. To sing of noble actions is a glory for the dead. First he cleared out the lion from the grove of Zeus and hooded himself in its big yellow jaws. Laid low the wild mountain centaurs 360 with arrows of blood, arrows like wings-those monsters known to the long barren fields, to the river, to the farms, to the grasslands where they filled their hands with pine branches and rode Thessaly down. Shot the deer with golden horns 370 that used to ravage men, and offered it to Artemis who kills wild things. Broke the mares of Diomedes, bridling their bloody jaws, their murder meals, their man-eating joy- their tables of evil. Crossed the river Hebros where the streams run silver, 380 working for his lord of Mykenai. Slew Kyknos on the Melian shore, whose hospitality was to chop his guests in bits. Went west to the halls of evening, where the Hesperides sing and plucked a gold fruit from apple branches. Killed the snake with fiery scales 390 that coiled its coils there. Sank through the sea and set a calmness on the lives of sailors. Drove his hand straight up through heaven in Atlas' place and held the starry houses of the gods aloft all by himself. Hunted the Amazon army across rivers and rivers, to the other side of a hostile sea, 400 gathering every Greek as he went- hunting the goldchased belt of the daughter of war. Her wild gold spoil fell to him, kept in Mykenai to this day. Burned to death the thousand heads of the deadly dog of Lerna. Dipped his arrows in her poison to kill threebodied Geryon. Other races, other glories, he ran, he won. 410 Now's he sailed to Hades, place of tears- last of his labors. He comes not back. His house stands empty. Charon waits. The journey waits. The children wait- looking to you! You, gone. 420 If only I had the power of youth to shake my spear and join my comrades, I'd stand and save these children-force on force! But as it is I lack myself. Here they come dressed for death, once the sons of magnificent Herakles. Here is his wife, pulling them along, and the old father. 430 Oh sad pity. I cannot restrain my tears, my old man's tears.
[enter Megara, children, Amphitryon from house]
Excerpted from Grief Lessons Copyright © 2006 by Anne Carson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Euripides (c.484-c.406 BC) was born into a probably prominent family from northern Attica. Starting in 455 BC, he competed in twenty-two of the annual Athenian dramatic competitions and won the first prize five times; today eighteen of the ninety-some plays he is believed to have written survive. Ridiculed in the comedies of his contemporary Aristophanes, Euripides left Athens late in life for the court of King Archelaus of Macedonia. Otherwise almost nothing is known of the life of the writer whom Aristotle called “the most tragic of “tragedians.”
Anne Carson is professor of classics and comparative literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has been honored with the Lannan Award for Poetry and the Pushcart Prize for Poetry. In 2000, she received the MacArthur Genius fellowship. She was twice a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.