Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Αἰσχύλος stuff

This is in honour of the new book I bought last week, which is: Alan H. Sommerstein (ed), Aeschylus: The Persians and Other Plays (Penguin Classics, 2009).

I got it because while I was over in Spain I was reading the old Everyman's Library volume The Lyrical Dramas of Aeschylus, trans John Stuart Blackie, but I didn't bring it back to England with me. (It's a very nice book, by the way.)

I am a Penguin Classics baby, born and bred. But this is the first new one that I've bought for a while. It apparently sits alongside, rather than replacing, the earlier volume by Philip Vellacott (Prometheus Bound and Other Plays, 1961), which is still advertised in the end-papers of the newer one. (Likewise, Vellacott's The Oresteian Trilogy managed to coexist with Fagles.)  Perhaps Penguin believe that some readers will continue to be attracted by Vellacott's cleaner pages and his more flowing blank verse, or maybe there's simply not much point any more in designating books as out of print. But Sommerstein has nearly twice as many pages, more information, and more up-to-date scholarship (nevertheless, it has limited scope : - you won't learn anything much about performance history, or the post-classical critical heritage, or about feminist or continental-style or historicist readings of Aeschylus).

As befits an honoured trade imprint, Penguin Classics have certain features to distinguish them from self-published rubbish like The Littlest Feeling: for example, the combination of two different types of finish on the jacket - one very glossy, the other more matt. (Well Jell!)

On the other hand, there are some unexpected features that you would hardly associate with the glory days of Rieu and Radice. The editor's name appears as above on the title pages, yet is reduced to plain "Alan Sommerstein" on the book's rear jacket. The fonts are all messed up for a long section between pages 49 and 53. The numbered notes are unable to cross-refer to each other by number, so you end up with notes like this:

84. remember Athens: Cf. on 285.

The only way to follow this cross-reference is to flip back to the text (of The Persians, in this case), locate line 285, find the footnote number on that passage (which is, in fact, 32) and then return to the notes to find out what it's saying. Hmm. This is the kind of thing writers often have to resort to while they're still pulling their notes together, but they're supposed to go back and clean it up after they've finished. Aren't they?

Sommerstein's translation is taken over wholesale from his three-volume Loeb Aeschylus. This isn't an entirely happy piece of short-cutting. In the Loeb, the translation sits alongside the original and is designed, really, just as an aid for students reading the Greek. But here, very little reference is made to the Greek text. The (rather few) mentions of Greek words are all transliterated into the Roman alphabet; in fact the Greek character set does not get used at all. The notes generally don't include any discussion of textual reconstruction or variant translations or difficult cruces. I'm not a Greek scholar, but surely there must be plenty of those.

The translation itself encloses speculative words and ellipses in angled brackets. Taken out of the Loeb context, these can be a bit piquing:

.... and may Zeus, god of strangers, watch over
the words of our foreign lips as we honour them  for putting an end
to our wandering, <so that we speak in manner no one will censure>.
Now <come>, you gods
of the family of Zeus, pray hear me... 
(The Suppliants)

PROMETHEUS: <                              >! That is how one ought to insult the innocent.
(Prometheus Bound)

XERXES: <                        >

CHORUS: <                        >
(The Persians)

This edition also includes all the fragments from the Aeschylean plays that are considered to be in the same tetralogies as its four complete ones, and here things get really strange, because we now encounter square brackets as well as angled ones. See what you make of this:

CHORUS OF SATYRS: And friendly [Ny]sian (?) delight will set me dancing:
<I will wear (?)> a g[l]eami[n]g
tunic by the unwearying brilliance of the fire...
(from Prometheus the Fire-Bearer, F204b)

I suppose this fragment was constructed from painfully reassembled flakes of papyrus. But we need a bit more explanation, particularly about those bracketed characters within an English word.

Before I finish with diacritics, I can't resist quoting this note on the word "ballên", which exemplifies the arithmetical (not literary) use of brackets:
This word for 'king' is not Persian but apparently comes from the Phrygian language of north-western Asia Minor (Pseudo-Plutarch,On Rivers 12.3-4); in Sophocles' Shepherds, whose setting is Troy, the Chorus use it in addressing (Priam or some other prince) (Sophocles fr. 515).
Maybe a scientific manner seems appropriate when you're talking about the Fragments.

I'm not writing all this intending to impugn Sommerstein's hard work or to have a whinge about declining standards (but I must admit that fault-finding is great fun). In truth I think this book is a terrific, informative and very enjoyable addition to the series. And above all, it makes Aeschylus more available to a Greekless reader like me. That's all that matters, isn't it?

What my observations are meant to register is a cultural change intermixed with an economic change. If Penguin Classics can no longer afford proof-reading editors, or to commission their own translations of classical texts, that's partly an economic matter but it's also partly a value judgment: these things don't seem as important as they once did. And that must go with a changed perception of what kind of audience a book of Aeschylus' plays is likely to command. As an audience we aren't, it seems, so concerned as we used to be about having a version that acts, nor with being offered an assimilable flavour of Aeschylus's tragic grandeur (Aeschylus as English Lit). But we expect fuller disclosure and we're prepared to work harder; we accept that an interest in Aeschylus is likely to involve a bit of archaeology.



Πέρσαι (=Persai) (=The Persians)

Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας (=Hepta epi Thebas) (=Seven Against Thebes)

Ἱκέτιδες (=Hiketides) (=The Suppliants)

Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης (=Prometheus Desmotes) (=Prometheus Bound)

[If you have the same sort of limitless if shallow curiosity that I do, you'll probably like to know that the Greek name for Aeschylus' lost Prometheus Unbound is Προμηθεὺς Λυόμενος (Promētheus Lyomenos). So the two plays are more visibly a pair in English than in Greek.]

These play-titles are probably not Aeschylean (maybe the individual sections of a tetralogy didn't even have titles - Sommerstein's suggestion). But they are the names that emerged as soon as other authors or theatre producers or scholars wanted to talk about them.



It's a striking fact, even if it's mainly an accident, that the earliest surviving European drama is seriously interested in non-Europeans. Sommerstein emphasizes the unexpectedly multiculturalist implications, e.g. the unqualified sympathy for the Persians in their time of disaster, the assumption of common human emotions and values. He doesn't mention the very different views held by some other commentators, e.g. that in The Persians we witness a maturing identification of Asia with "the Other", that the foreign setting is really just an ingenious way of paying compliments to Greek success while branding Asian culture as barbarian, that is, exotically different and ultimately inferior, and un-democratic.

The play-text supports both views to a certain extent (and they are not merely opposites). Either way, it tends to emphasize that Aeschylus, understandably, has very little inwardness with Persian culture, and this consideration is slightly depressing; I'm finding it the hardest of his plays to like.

The context doesn't provide much assistance. If the Hypothesis is to be credited, then Aeschylus won the 472 competition with a group of four plays that are, to say the least, wide-ranging; the others tell stories from the heroic age, unconnected either to each other or to The Persians. We naturally take our ideas about connected plays from the only surviving trilogy, Aeschylus' Oresteia. That is a very closely-knit group of three tragedies, telling self-contained but vitally-connected episodes in a single story. Maybe the reason for this unique survival is because it was exceptionally closely-knit. Nevertheless it seems likely that the trilogies that contained Seven Against Thebes and The Suppliants were also of this type. But it also appears that a trilogy could be, as in this case, a much looser medley whose thematic connections (if any) were little more than ornaments. Each play really stood on its own. (By the time of Sophocles and Euripides these looser aggregations had become increasingly the norm.) So we have to take The Persians on its own merits.


Sommerstein lays out the position that in the "shield scene" you can infer an ingenious though tacit plot-development in which Eteocles is undecided which of the seven gates he is going to defend, though the positions of some of his champions are already chosen, and he ends up trapping himself into fighting his own brother. I tend to think, as others have done, that this intrudes the wrong kind of dramatic interest and distracts from our appreciation of the scene as steadily momentous. (The scene was evidently much admired. Euripides has a mischievous tilt at it in The Phoenician Women.)


Sommerstein's book really comes into its own with The Suppliants. His account of the Danaid trilogy (and satyr play) is persuasive; few fragments remain of the other three plays, but we begin to see a shape emerging that convinces because of its resemblance to the Oresteia. The overarching theme would then be the claims of Aphrodite, which would have come to the fore in the third tragedy (The Danaids) - in the end, Greek tragedies always seem to come down to the will of the gods. We can see this theme bubbling under the main action of The Suppliants and becoming exposed in its coda; we don't know for certain whether it was the first or second tragedy, but Sommerstein argues that it was probably the second. The main action of The Suppliants, however, allies it with later suppliant plays: what is the Greek city-state, in this case Argos, supposed to do with these unwelcome foreigners? It was evidently a hotly-debated topic then, and of course it still is. Other plays that dwell on this theme include Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, and Euripides' Children of Heracles, Suppliant Women and, to a certain extent, Phoenician Women (where the Chorus are foreign exiles living in Thebes).

PROMETHEUS BOUND (possibly by Aeschylus' son Euphorion, and if so perhaps 431 BCE)

Once the most read of the plays of "Aeschylus", but its untypicalness does seem fairly apparent when we come to it forewarned by scholarly doubts.



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