“Why does tragedy exist?” – On Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides; translated and with an introduction by Anne Carson

The Ancient Greeks intimidate me. As they should, I suppose. I have an endless fascination with mythology, and, sadly, what feats of human spirit I encountered were mere brushes against the immortals. And so, very young, I learned of Odysseus and Theseus and Herakles and Helen and a host of other fated humans, and they, to my mind, always paled in comparison to the caprice and the power of the gods themselves.

Funny what an education—what reading—does to one’s perspectives. Pooh-pooh the gods—it was the men and women that lived in spite of them. In college, I read the plays and the poetry of the Greeks. No more filtered Cliff Notes here in the form of quaint-ified books on mythology. In college, I sat with others as we read The Iliad—Rage! we murmured. I read The Odyssey, read some Romans here and there. Read a lot. And I read Medea. Medea, I know now, like Emma Bovary, is my spirit animal. That woman is awesome. Murders and all. If it were not for the connotations, I might just name any future spawn Medea.

And so when The Classics Circuit announced an Ancient Greek Tour, I immediately thought of Medea, of unearthing her, and reading her. But then I found the NYRB Classics edition, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripedes, and realized that there was no way I could go wrong. If I wanted humanity, if I wanted to keep pitting our mortal heroes against the immortals above them or the immortals inside them, this was what I should read.

We have to begin with Anne Carson’s preface to the book, “Tragedy: A Curious Art Form,” whose only flaw is that it’s too short, and I really do want more of her brain. The essay begins: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” And she goes on to describe Euripedes thus:

He was also concerned with people as people—with what it’s like to be a human being in a family, in a fantasy, in a longing, in a mistake. For this exploration too he used ancient myth as a lens. Myths are stories about people who became too big for their lives temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods. In crisis their souls are visible. To be present when that happens is Euripides’ playwriting technique.

Moreover: “There is in Euripedes some kind of learning that is always at the boiling point. It breaks experiences open and they waste themselves, running through your fingers.”

[How to even dare write this blog post—to talk about Euripides and his art at all—when Carson has said it so perfectly in a few lines. Bah, poets.] [No, really, how to talk about Euripides and his heroes, when so very many have done it before me, wrote books about it, spent their lives dedicated to the dissection of a line? And so, as with the reigning philosophy in this blog: I am winging it.]

* * *

HERAKLES. I read Edith Hamilton’s classic, Mythology, in tandem with Euripedes’ Herakles. Hamilton was such a significant part of the literary devourings of my childhood—and now, well, I found the text childish—simplistic, toned down, tamed, quaint.

Reading Euripedes, it’s easy to witness what Carson, in her preface to the play, notes: “Herakles has reached the boundary of his own myth.” As all tragic heroes, he is myth made man, man made myth. If you’ll allow it: an alpha hero brought down. And this demands a transformation.

But Hamilton describes Hercules’ Greek tales as a testament to and record of “his simplicity and blundering stupidity”—hinting that this is because he’s the strongest man on earth. In sweeping strokes, Hamilton paints a portrait of an arrogant man, quick to anger, inconsiderate, dumb: “Intelligence did not figure largely in anything he did and was often conspicuously absent . . . His intellect was not strong. His emotions were.” Even this quality—one that marked utmost tragedy: his stubbornness in holding on to sorrow and guilt and grief, Hamilton paints him as a whining boy—his blunders and bumblings merely excuses to act out. Basically, Hamilton present us with a cliché: the dumb brute.

Carson agrees to a point, but does so amazingly, going beyond this cliché. Because Euripedes does. He sends Herakles to overturn this cliché. To turn him from the perfect hero—to, well, a man made stronger, more noble, and more heroic, because he refuses to bow down to the caprice of the gods, to his own hubris.

* * *

HEKABE. Hekabe is Priam’s wife, the mother of doomed Hector and Paris—but this is the Hekabe after Hector and Priam and Paris. Here is the widow, the defeated queen, the grieving mother.

From Anne Carson’s [lacking] preface: “. . . the Euripedean Hekabe, a character who, until the final scene of this play, has committed no other sin than that of having been born.”

Reading Euripedes, we realize that, for Hekabe—and for countless others—loving is the greatest sorrow. You bear witness, you continue to hurt:

HEKABE: Ah here it is then. Here is my agony.
No lack of groaning. No lack of tears.
I am someone who did not die when I should have died.
Zeus failed to destroy me—he keeps me going!
so I can witness more evils, worse evils
than ever before.

How much pain and sorrow and suffering can a woman go through? The efeat of her kingdom, the loss of her husband, the murders of his children. “Euripedes pushes her to the very limit of human being and then, on the last page of the play, pushes her beyond . . . Revenge brings her to life.”

* * *

HIPPOLYTOS. Phaidra, thanks to Aphrodite, is madly in love with her stepson, that self-righteous virgin prig, Hippolytos. Nice one. There’s pain, yes, and a lot of shame. And one of the best opening lines ever— Aphrodite declaring: “You know who I am. You know my naked power.” There’s such horrific meddling from the gods in this play. Seriously now.

Basically, Theseus kills HIppolytos because Phaidra killed herself and left a note blaming Hippolytos, saying he drove her to this, that he seduced her. She used this shame to her advantage, for her justice.

PHAIDRA: Not from bad judgment
do people go wrong—many are quite reasonable—
no look, it’s this:
we know what is right, we understand it,
but we do not carry it out. Either from laziness,
or we value something else, some pleasure.
Pleasures are many,
long talks and idle time (that sweet badness)
and shame.
There are two kinds of shame.
One is harmless, the other kills a house.
If right action were ever clear,
These two things wouldn’t have the same name.

Here, Anne Carson’s explanation of shame: Aidos (“shame”) is a vast word in Greek. Its lexical equivalence include “awe, reverence, respect, self-respect, shamefulness, sense of honor, sobriety, moderation, regard for others, regard for the helpless, compassion, shyness, coyness, scandal, dignity, majesty, Majesty.” Shame vibrates with honor and also with disgrace, with what is chaste and with what is erotic, with coldness and also with blushing. Shem is felt before the eyes of others and also in facing oneself.

In Euripedes’ own “Why I Wrote Two Plays About Phaidra”—which is a very simple but stunning explanation [or attempt of] of who Phaidra could really be—he writes:

Human forms are puny. Desire is vast. Vast, absolute, and oddly general. A big general liquid washing through the universe, filling puny vessels here and there as it were arbitrarily, however it slights on them, swamping some, splitting others, casually ruinous—an “Aphrodite” as we call that throw of the dice that comes up and changes the game. Doesn’t win the game. Just changes it.

* * *

ALKESTIS. Admetos’ wife Aklestis takes is place when death comes knocking. After searching far and wide, approaching friends and family, for someone to take his place, Aklestis volunteers to give her life in exchange for her husband. Which inspires in Admetos a completely irrational grieving—

ADMETOS: Take me with you, for god’s sake, take me below!
ALKESTIS: Aren’t there enough people dying for you?

Does Admetos not once realize that his wife is in this position because he’s too proud to die? And isn’t Alkestis the true heroine of this story, as Euripedes insists she is? She tells him—throws her sacrifice oh-so-nobly in the face of his whining: “I die—I did not have to die—for you.”

The arrival of Herakles complicates things. Admetos is a good host, so much so that he’s willing to accommodate Herakles’ merrymaking in the midst of this deep mourning, and even lies to him about who really died. As a servant notes: “You could hear these two songs in our house at the same time: / [Herakles] on the one side, without a care for Admetos’ pain, / us, on the other, bewailing our lady.” Here, the house divided.

But Herakles finds out about Admetos’ extreme graciousness, and his tragedy. And so off he goes to wrestle to win Alkestis back. And he does. Which is demonstration of Herakles’ power—that is, bargaining is the crux of this tragedy: Admetos wants out of a contract, Alkestis steps in, Admetos grieves for his wife, but can’t find enough in him to keep up his end of the deal—to die, demmet. And in the midst of this inescapable deal—Herakles gets his shit done by wrestling. I love it.

* * *

There you go. I’m out of faux-profound conclusions, haha—I just feel really accomplished for reading Euripedes. He’s, well, he’s a genius. There ought to be more of him, now. Literature will rest easier then.

12 thoughts on ““Why does tragedy exist?” – On Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides; translated and with an introduction by Anne Carson

  1. I have this on my shelf, and I’m SO EXCITED to read it now. Wonderful write up about these plays. The only one I’ve read is Hippolytus which I found fascinating. And I did read Edith Hamilton a few times in high school. Definitely time to revisit. Thanks for that reminder.

  2. If it were not for the connotations, I might just name any future spawn Medea.

    I wanted to do the exact same thing, and then I thought – hm. Maybe not. Do you know Christa Wolf’s Medea? It’s quite good.

  3. I completely agree with Carson’s view that Euripides was a playwright concerned about “people as people.” I think it is this quality that makes each one of his plays so enjoyable to read.

    Great post. I love all the details. I also used Edith Hamilton’s Mythology during my high school years and it certainly seems very watered down now that I’ve read many of the actual texts. It still makes a nice introduction though to mythology for first time readers.

  4. I think that yours may be my favorite post thus far on the tour. I particularly like it when my fellow “tourists” include a bit about how they first became acquainted with the classics. For me, I was aware of Edith Hamilton’s book, but my (5th or 6th grade?) class read Parts of Bullfinch’s Mythology. My brothers and I also read the Classics Illustrated Comic Book versions of the Iliad and Odyssey when we were quite young, which I honestly have to say influenced me greatly.

    Thanks also for bringing the Anne Carson book to my attention. I may have to buy that immediately!


  5. whose only flaw is that it’s too short, and I really do want more of her brain.

    This is how I feel about all of the Carson intros I’ve read. She really knows how to leave a person wanting more! Which I suppose is better than overdoing it. I will not lie; I crave to sit with her over tea and listen to her monologue about Greek tragedy for hours on end.

    This is on my TBR and I can’t wait to read it.

  6. I thought Carson’s translations were marvelously visceral. I read them in conjunction with the old Chicago translations and each helped me appreciate the other more. One side note though: the afterword about Phaedra is Anne Carson writing as Euripides, not Euripides himself.


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