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I’ve decided to read all the Greek Tragedies that I haven’t read yet. In actuality, what I’ve decided is to read through all the books on my shelves I haven’t read yet, and the first group happens to be my collection of the Grene and Lattimore Tragedies.

Today: three by Aeschylus (in two parts)

The Suppliant Maidens; translated by Seth Bernardete.

Right from the beginning, Bernardete says that this play is uninteresting. I would say he’s correct.

The plot is a tiny section of the story of Danaus: his fifty daughters (the maidens from the title) ask entry into the Greek city of Argos as they flee the lust of their cousins, the sons of Danaus’s brother Aegyptus. The king of Argos, Pelasgus, first hesitates and then lets them in. The end.

Probably this is only of interest to diehard classics scholars. Or perhaps it reads well in the Greek. Judging by this play and the next one, I rate Bernardete as a poor translator. His lines don’t read very well. There is too much switching of subject and object. Sentences are weak and ambiguous. Couple this with the weak source material, and you have a total pass. I am very, very tolerant of what most people call uninteresting and obscure, but this doesn’t even appeal to me.

Always looking for the silver lining: I find it interesting that Pelasgus offers the maidens food and lodging right away. Perhaps this is normal procedure for royalty treating royalty, but, in the context of modern times, it strikes me as an example that culture can be so constructed as to ensure that people in distress are taken care of. Ever since working at a homeless shelter, I have wondered if many of the dysfunctional parts of our society are really necessary. I’m going to file this away for further thought.

The Persians, translated by Seth Bernardete.

Once again our translator deprecates the work he’s going to translate, though not as much as he did Suppliant Maidens. This play is at least a curiosity: the only surviving tragedy with a subject matter pertaining to current events (well, events within 10 years of the play’s composition). The play depicts old men in Sousa, the capital of the Persian Empire, worrying about the fate of King Xerxes and the progress of his army. Xerxes’ mother joins the general gloom. A herald arrives, telling of the Persians’ defeat at the naval battle of Salamis. The queen and the old men decide to summon the ghost of Darius to ask for advice. The ghost, who seems impatient, explains that Xerxes’ arrogant display, where he claimed to have conquered the Ocean itself by crossing the Bosporus and throwing chains into the sea, angered the gods and caused his downfall. He predicts future defeat for the Persians. Xerxes himself arrives, and they all wail and moan.

There are some elements of something interesting here: ghosts, military disaster and a unique setting for a Greek Tragedy. Sadly, though, this play can’t help but seem to be a part of something greater. And, once again, Bernardete’s muddy translation makes the very quick script go by too slowly. It was interesting to imagine the Athenian audience of the play, all or most of whom would have been veterans from the victorious side of this war, feeling at least a little compassion at the misery their enemies must have felt. But that’s about it.

It’s interesting as a curiosity – appealing perhaps not just to Greek scholars but also to history buffs. If you’ve just read Herodotus, or even if you’ve just watched the film 300 and want a little epilogue to the story of the Persian Wars, it might be worth reading this one. But edifying literature it is not.

(Continued in part two)


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