Theban themes and threads across 2000 years

The Ancient Greeks: Oedipus and his family

The Athenian tragedians of the 5th century BCE – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – wrote superb dramas about:

  1. the fates of King Oedipus of Thebes (the man who killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta) and his children, Antigone, Eteocles, Ismene and Polynices (Polyneices).
  2. the dynastic rivalry between the two sons, leading up to a disastrous war
  3. the unsuccessful attempts by their mother and sisters to reconcile the two brothers
  4. the intervention of the Athenian hero, Theseus, to ensure the decent burial of the warriors fallen in the war – at the earnest request of their grieving womenfolk.

In these plays, women are victims of strife and war – the ones who mourn openly, and the ones who insist upon the performance of the proper funeral rites for their menfolk.

In The Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus, seven warriors (Polynices and his allies) arrive from Argos and lay siege to the city.  The city is saved, but both Eteocles (current ruler of Thebes) and his exiled brother Polynices are killed.

Sophocles wrote three plays about the fate of Thebes and Oedipus and his family.  Oedipus the King is perhaps the best known.  Oedipus shows his determination to discover the truth about his history.  By the time of Oedipus at Colonus, the war between  Polynices and Eteocles is about to begin: both sides ask Oedipus for his support – he refuses.  Antigone deals with the aftermath of the war.  The besiegers’ corpses have been left unburied outside Thebes, on the orders of Creon, now the sole ruler, in contravention of religious law.  Antigone defies Creon and (symbolically rather than thoroughly) covers the corpse of Polynices with soil.  Antigone and Creon debate the conflict between a man-made law and a higher law.

In the Phoenician Women of Euripides, Jocasta tries to reconcile the two brothers (her sons) but fails.  The war commences.  In the end, the two brothers fight a duel and kill each other.  Jocasta kills herself in grief.  Creon (now the ruler) expels Oedipus from the city – Antigone goes with him.  The body of Polynices remains unburied.

In the Suppliants of Euripides, set outside Thebes, after the war, the mothers of the fallen besiegers (abetted by their sons), Adrastus (King of Argos), and Theseus’s own mother, all beg Theseus to overcome Creon’s decree and to arrange the burial of the exposed warriors.  When negotiations with Creon fail, Theseus launches a successful attack, and the mourners’ wishes are fulfilled.

Later adaptations – Latin

In the 1st century CE, Seneca writes the tragedies, Oedipus, based on Sophocles’s model, and Phoenissae, based on the two plays by Euripides mentioned above.

Later in the 1st century CE, Statius wrote his epic, the Thebaid, influenced by Greek and Latin models.  Here, in contrast with the Greek plays, the conflict between Oedipus’s sons is inflamed by the direct intervention of supernatural figures – gods, a fury from hell, and the ghost of Oedipus’s own father.  Indeed, both sons of Oedipus, and their allies, are doomed, as Jupiter himself makes plain:

                 manet haec ab origine mundi
fixa dies bello, populique in proelia nati.  [Book III, lines 242f]

[This day has remained fixed for war, since the beginning of the world, and the peoples born for battles.]

The plot of the epic follows the thread of the Greek tradition, outlined above (points 1-4) – much elaborated, with vivid description of vehement speeches and violent acts.  No gruesome, revolting aspect is spared the reader.   (One incident – Tydeus’s gnawing the head of Melanippus [Book VIII] – is mentioned by Dante in Inferno, Canto XXXII.)

The aftermath of the war between the brothers is covered in Book XII.  Here, Argia, widow of Poynices, and Antigone, his sister, meet on the battlefield, where the fallen warriors’ corpses still lie.  The women now prepare the body of Polynices for his funeral – but when they place it on the still smouldering pyre of Eteocles, the latter’s body rejects it, to the extent that two separate fires break out from the pyre.  The other widows go to Athens and plead with Theseus for help.  Theseus accedes to their request, attacks Thebes, and kills Creon.  The exposed corpses have their funeral.

The characters act as if they are exercising free will, but in fact they are following their destiny.

(Statius appears in Dante’s Purgatorio, Cantos XXI and XXII.  Statius is ranked by Chaucer with Virgil, Ovid, Homer and Lucan, in Troilus and Criseyde, Book V; and he is listed among many great poets, in The House of Fame, Book III.)

Later adaptations – Western Europe

It was Latin literature, rather than Greek, that influenced the European vernacular literatures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The anonymous 12th century Old French epic, Le Roman de Thèbes, is based on the Thebaid, but it is much influenced by contemporary methods of warfare and the Crusades.

Il Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia (the Story of Theseus and the Nuptials of Emilia) by Giovanni Boccaccio (14th century) shows the influence of Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’s Thebaid.  Here, Book I deals with the war of Teseo (Theseus) against the Amazons and his marriage to their queen, Ipolita (Hippolyta); Book II deals with Theseus’s war against the Thebans, to ensure the burial of warriors killed in the Theban civil war, at the request of their widows.  (Compare Book XII of the Thebaid.)

Then there is a change of emphasis.  Books III-XII cover the rivalry between the Theban cousins Palemone and Arcita over the beautiful Emilia, sister of Ipolita.  The young cousins are Boccaccio’s creation.  They fight over a lady rather than a city.

Pagan gods reappear: Arcita is depicted as a protégé of the god Mars, Palamone of the goddess Venus, and Emilia of the virgin goddess Diana.

To resolve the dispute, Teseo arranges a combat between Arcita and Palamone.  The result is unexpected: it has features of the surprise elements or vicissitudes characteristic of romance.  Behind the scenes, the gods interfere in the process.  The humans have to make a “virtue of necessity”, as Teseo says:

                        far della necessitate

virtù, quando bisogna, è sapienza.     [Book XII, stanza 11]

[To make a virtue of necessity, when the need arises, is wisdom.]

Is Il Teseida an epic or a romance or a bit of both?   I think that, as regards medieval romance, the practice of chivalry can be combined with the pursuit of love (see, for example, Arthurian literature).

The Knight’s Tale (14th century) by Geoffrey Chaucer is a free adaptation of Boccaccio’s Il Teseida and is very much shorterIt concentrates on the rivalry between Palamon and Arcite, rather than the Amazonian and Theban wars.

In the Preface to his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden writes about what we know as The Knight’s Tale, as follows:

I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias [Iliad] or the Aeneis [Aeneid]: the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition as artful.

And indeed, Dryden includes his own somewhat free translation of The Knight’s Tale in The Fables.  Dryden overstates the case, but The Knight’s Tale is magnificent – as a romance rather than an epic.

The influence of the Theban stories can be seen too, both in Anelida and Arcite (which appears unfinished) and in Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer’s longest integrated story). The story of The Thebaid is summarized, indeed, in a passage in Book V of the latter.  In Book II, Pandarus discovers Criseyde and her friends reading a book about Thebes – whether from The Thebaid or from Le Roman de Thèbes is open to interpretation.  (What happened to Thebes foreshadows what will happen to Troy itself – but the Trojans fail to see this.)

In The Siege of Thebes (15th century), John Lydgate offers an addition to the Canterbury Tales in the form of a prequel to The Knight’s Tale, from the story of Oedipus to the intervention of Theseus at the end of the Theban war.

As its Prologue acknowledges, The Two Noble Kinsmen (circa 1613), by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, has as its primary source The Knight’s Tale.

In the Prologue, the playwrights express doubt as to how their own achievement measures up to Chaucer’s:

To say truth, it were an endless thing,

And too ambitious, to aspire to him.

They make a good point (see below).

(Act One resembles Euripides’s Suppliants, whether by accident or design.)

The surprise ending of the play resembles that of the source literature.  The play can be classified as a tragi-comedy, as happy and unhappy outcomes are mingled.  (Fletcher wrote, or co-wrote, several tragi-comedies himself.)

The play’s weaknesses are pointed out by its editors.  In particular, is the cousins’ rivalry, over a lady they have barely spoken to, of much interest to the audiences and readers of today?  In the Introduction to the Penguin edition (1977), N W Bawcutt states:

The theme of the main plot – two young men so equally noble that a girl cannot choose between them – is not one of the basic human situations with which an audience can readily identify itself, and presents artistic problems that the dramatists do not always overcome.

Arcite and Palamon take themselves, and their professions of love, very seriously – too seriously, perhaps.  Chaucer, by comparison, shows his skill in his use of irony, which lends some distance between the narrator and his characters.  (This is also the case in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where the reader gets to know the main characters well, but also is enabled to look at them from more than one angle and thus both to feel both sympathy with them and to take a critical attitude towards them.)

Much of the play is taken up by the serious story of the (unnamed) daughter of the jailer.   She falls in love with Palamon, herself.  She recognises the implications of her own lowly status:

 Why should I love this gentleman?  ‘Tis odds

He never will affect me; I am base,

My father the mean keeper of his prison,

And he a prince.  To marry him is hopeless;

To be his whore is witless.  Out upon’t!

What pushes are we wenches driven to

When fifteen once has found us!


[Act II, Scene 3, lines 1-7 (Penguin edition)]

The daughter’s love is unrequited; she becomes mad or distracted, somewhat like Ophelia in Hamlet.  However, she survivesShe plays an important role: unlike the main characters, she is not inhibited from frankly expressing sexual desire (see above).  She can be seen as more interesting and believable than the main plot characters, to present-day readers and playgoers.

Here, we have come a long way from the Greek dramas.  The latter have stood the test of time.  It is doubtful whether, on their own terms, they have ever been equalled, since.












LESS MISERABLE in 2019 (have a go with Victor Hugo)

A visitor to our home last year said to us, in a conversation about literature, that she had no patience with long works (for example, novels) – she appreciated what is short and to the point.  (I paraphrase.)  Do the people of today have the time, or patience, to spend much of their precious leisure time to read long novels?

There are alternatives.  Firstly, there are television and film (movie) adaptations, which aim to convey the essence of the original and which require the actors to convey their feelings and thoughts through body language.  TV adaptations in serial form allow the adaptor wider scope to deal with a long, complicated story.

Secondly, there are audiobook and radio adaptations, in which actors read either the whole of a book or else an abbreviated version (the latter, particularly, in radio).  An example of the latter is the recent BBC Radio 4 series of Émile Zola’s ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle, set in the Second Empire of France.  This saves me from reading many or all of the twenty!  (I have read two better known ones – L’Assommoir and Germinal.)

I think that a case can be made that TV adaptations (in particular) of long “classic” novels are a valid re-interpretation of the originals.  (See, for example, the work of Andrew Davies in Britain.)

I admit that those who have read the book are bound to compare and contrast it with the subsequent film or TV series and may consider the book superior.  (I think, though, that the film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee [1995] is better than the book.)  On the other hand, viewers of a competent adaptation may be inspired to go back and read the original, with profit.

Of course, there is a large industry of films and TV series, written to a screenplay, without reference to a book.  (Some screenplays are worth reading in their own right.)

Arguably, though, certain “classic” works – epics rather than novels – do not lend themselves easily to an adaptation that brings out their qualities, for example, those by Homer, Dante and Cervantes.  This might also be said about Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The key to the concept of adaptations for the screen is the focus on the literary genre of the novel.

What is a novel?  It is a story about a stable group of characters, set in a particular time and place.  The psychology of the characters is realistic – but some allowance may be made for caricature.  The social background, indeed, the nature of the society in which the characters live is delineated realistically – perhaps with explicit or implicit criticism.  The story has dramatic features, and there are twists and turns in the plot or plots.  Often, the thoughts of some of the characters are open to the writer and hence to the reader.

The novel has been a predominant and popular literary genre for the past few hundred years, throughout the world.

Successful novels contain enough drama, dialogue and conflict to lend themselves to screen adaptation.  Those set in the past are often called “costume dramas”.

Given the capacity permitted by the tv format, very long novels can be screened – even those like Tolstoy’s War and Peace (BBC, 2016) and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (BBC, 2019) – both adapted by Andrew Davies.  In my opinion, they measure up very well to the needs of 21st century audiences-cum-potential readers.  I am impressed by the tv Misérables. To me, both the story’s strengths and its weaknesses are revealed.  I feel less obliged than ever to read the book.  I am enjoying watching the tv series, to the extent that it makes me feel “less miserable”!




Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ as a Christian play

I’ve just been moving some of our many books around, to make way for the installation of a new fireplace and fire.  A few were left in the living room, though.  Among them, I found: Nicholas Boyle, Goethe, The Poet and the Age, Volume I, The Poetry of Desire (1749-1750), published by Oxford University Press in 1991.  800 pages!  I browsed through the pages and looked in particular at the comments on the protracted history of Goethe’s Faust, which Goethe worked on repeatedly throughout his long life (he died in 1832).  The useful evaluation of the “Urfaust” (the first draft, circa 1774) is to be found on pages 218-229.

I have copies in German of the Urfaust and of the final Parts I and II of the completed work.  (Goethe calls it a “tragedy” – but is it really?)

I wish to re-read Goethe.  But first I have looked at again at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (circa 1589-92) – not only in its own right but also to compare it with Goethe’s Faust (and to write up my findings, in due course).

A few plays by the contemporaries of William Shakespeare’s stand out: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is one of them.  It appears to me that it is not a play that Shakespeare himself could have written.  Aspects of the protagonist could be said to be distributed among various Shakespearean characters – the ambitious Macbeth (aided and abetted by his wife), the uxorious Antony (who submits to Cleopatra), the arrogant Coriolanus, and the sage Prospero, who abjures his magical powers in the end.

I find that I have four copies of Faustus.  From my mother I have inherited a straightforward reproduction of the 1604 “A” text, in the 1909 Everyman edition of The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, with an introduction by Edward Thomas (poet).  Secondly, I have a copy of Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, edited by J B Steane, published by Penguin in 1969.  The text of Faustus is an unfortunate mixture of the 1604 “A” and 1606 “B” texts; and the criteria for the selections are not clear.  Then follow two very scholarly editions.  My third is: Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’, a 1604-version edition, edited by Michael Keefer, and published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, in 1991.  The fourth is: Christopher Marlowe, ‘Doctor Faustus’, A- and B-texts (1604, 1616), edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, and published in the Revels Plays series by Manchester University Press, in 1993.

Ah! The two versions of Faustus, which have caused the much pouring of scholarly ink.  Which one is the closer to Marlowe’s original intent? Let’s cut a long story short.  The main scenes of the “A” version look to be “Marlovian” by virtue of wording and style, but the comic scenes may be by a collaborator.  The “B” version contains additions by other writers and is much longer.  J B Steane makes a pithy comment on the differences, as follows (pages 261-2):

[This] editor’s personal opinion is that the play is artistically stronger in its shorter form.  The A text (1604) has everything essential to the presentation of the ‘tragical history’; the B text (1616) adds, for the most part, light, simple-minded comedy….There is quite enough knockabout and emptiness in the middle section of [the A text].  But at least the balance there is more favourable to the essential, the tragic and the poetic: in the B text we are much nearer to the ‘set of farces’ which we gather Doctor Faustus had become in [Alexander] Pope’s time.

The A version is indeed coherent and impressive – and actable.

Many plays have twists and turns in the plot and take the audience by surprise.  This is not exactly the case with Marlowe’s Faustus.  The pleasures of the play are derived from the majestic blank verse of the main scenes, from the comic scenes (which provide “comic relief”), and from the spectacle of the Seven Deadly Sins.

As for the fate of the protagonist, he slides inexorably down the slippery slope towards his damnation and confinement in Hell.  Occasionally he hesitates and reviews his situations but he persists in his course.  It is fair to say that he receives advice (conflicting!), but he has to take responsibility for his decisions. (Don’t blame Mephistopheles!)

In his day, Marlowe was regarded as something of an anti-authority rebel, especially in theological terms.  However, on the face of it, Faustus reflects traditional Christian theology: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Now, the prescribed remedy for sin is repentance.  In the A version, Faustus is told by the Good Angel that he can still be saved, if he can repent [Revels A II.iii.79] ; but it appears that he cannot, as his heart is already hardened.  This accords with Calvinist doctrine, prevalent in the Church of England in Marlowe’s time.  (Here is raised too the old philosophical question as to the relative strengths of free will and predestination.)  In the B version, the matter of repentance is diluted: Faustus is told that he can be saved, if he will repent [Revels B II.iii.80].  (See Keefer, Introduction, pages lxv-lxvi, and Bevington & Rasmussen, Introduction, page 29, for discussion of this distinction.)

Any indications that God’s arbitrary power and Christian doctrine are to be deemed intolerable have to be detected between the lines of the play.

I see Faustus’s fault largely in a sort of intellectual laziness.  He sees magic as a quick way to power and to sexual love. He has no patience for the slow ways to knowledge – proof in argument, logic, medicine, law or divinity.

Anyway, to back up my point, I shall call upon the only passage I am taking the liberty of quoting from this marvellous work:

 These metaphysics of magicians

And necromantic books are heavenly….

Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.

O, what a world of profit and delight,

Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,

Is promised to the studious artisan!

All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings

Are but obeyed in their several provinces,

Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds;

But his dominion that exceeds in this

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.

A sound magician is a mighty god.


[Revels A I.i.51-2, 54-64]




My next task is to examine Goethe’s Faust, and to contrast and compare it with Marlowe’s Faustus.





Grief – real and fictional

Television at its best

Yesterday evening (6 October), I watched a long documentary on TV – Troubles: The Life After.  Ordinary people (mainly, women) recalled the murders of loved ones at the hands of armed men (on whatever side) over the course of the thirty-year Northern Ireland “Troubles” (1968-1998).  This term is a euphemism for violation, death and destruction: three and a half thousand people lost their lives and over forty thousand were injured.

The grief over their losses remains raw, fresh, vivid. Those killed were innocent of any crime; their deaths were pointless, as peace and reconciliation were hindered, not helped, by the taking of life; none of those responsible, in these cases, was ever brought to justice. As was said, everyone on Northern Ireland was affected by the “Troubles” and knew of people who were bereaved.

I was forcibly reminded of my visits to Northern Ireland, in 1969 and this year.  The people are friendly.  The infrastructure has been modernised, in the interim.  There is a fragile peace, of a sort, but the fundamental divisions remain.

I was also reminded of another TV programme, one of a series, shown on 3 October – Upstart Crow.  This is a sort of 16th century situation comedy, with satirical references to 21st century issues.  The protagonist, William Shakespeare himself, is portrayed (by David Mitchell) as a pompous plagiarist, who, nevertheless, succeeds in producing the plays that his company requires to stay in business.

In the final programme of the series (3 October), however, Williams’ confidence and complacency were shaken by the sudden death of his young son, Hamnet (an historical event – 1596).  The final note was one of sorrow and regret in place of the usual sallies of wit.

The programme ended, with Mitchell’s voice-over, intoning the words:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

The passage is recognisably Shakespearean, but, to my disappointment, I could not remember where it comes from.  It comes, indeed, from King John.  These words are uttered by a mother (Constance) about the loss of Arthur, her son.  In the course of the play he is first seized by his enemy and later dies (an historical event – circa 1203).

Here we have references to two real deaths and a moving fictional treatment of each of them.  The fiction brings out the reality of grief.

No easy comfort is available to the bereaved of Northern Ireland; their grief still “fills their room”.


‘God’s Plenty’

BBC Radio 4 offers its listeners a weekly music and chat programme.  It has been running since the 1940s.  The presenter interviews a famous person and asks them how they would cope if they happened to be stranded on a desert island, alone.  (The execution surpasses the craziness of the concept.)  The imaginary compensations granted to the castaway are: one luxury item, eight gramophone records (CDs, I suppose, nowadays) and books – the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and one other book.

I admit that I don’t listen to the programme; but it has made me think.

In the unlikely event that I were stranded, alone – whether on a desert island or not – what (on the lines of the offers made above) would I choose to have with me?

The choice of a luxury item can be deferred.  Perhaps it could be a comfortable bed.

I’d happily choose to have the Bible and Shakespeare, as I dip into them from time to time already.

And the third book?  The answer is: the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer – available in the excellent Riverside Edition, first published in 1987, which provides background information, including help with Chaucer’s medieval English.

Translations of major works are available in modern English translation, e.g. those by N Coghill and B Stone, published by Penguin (London).

Why this choice, given all the other possible ones?

There is great variety: lyrics, mini-epics, and collections of stories.

One of the remarkable things about Chaucer’s work is the way he is influenced by continental literatures (Roman/Latin, French and Italian).  He is hence a cosmopolitan rather than a merely English poet.  Moreover, he adapts the originals and blends them and makes something new.  (‘Poetry’ means ‘making’.)  In some passages, he translates closely, but in many places he paraphrases, makes omissions, or adds his own material.  (Compare, for example, Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.)

Chaucer’s writing addresses religious and philosophical topics, in particular, the matter of determinism versus free will – a serious business, but conveyed in readable, digestible ways.  (See, for example, Troilus and Criseyde and the ending of the Knight’s Tale.)

He uses much humour and irony and gentle satire.  See, for example, the comical discussion between the cock and his hen wife in The Nun Priest’s Tale about the significance of dreams.  (The cock refers to learned books, whereas his wife relies on personal experience; and experience, on this occasion, would have provided the better guide concerning the risk a fox poses to chickens.)

Chaucer invents believable, memorable characters, e.g. the talking Eagle (in the House of Fame) and the Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales).

He evokes pathos, especially as regards the fate of the eponymous protagonist in Troilus and Criseyde.

He gives us a gallery of characters from many walks of life (apart from the highest and lowest classes) in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

He is a master of the use of the narrator as a literary device; and the narrator even puts himself, as a character – into the Canterbury Tales.

An early, favourable critic of Chaucer (and translator/adapter) was John Dryden (1631-1700), himself a prominent poet in his day.  He comments on him at length in the Preface to his Fables, Ancient and Modern.  He is generous in his praise; and he sums up his verdict with the phrase: “here is God’s plenty.”

Hundreds of other poets shine; but as a companion to cheer me up, if I were to be stranded on a desert island, I have found no one yet to compare with Chaucer (other than Shakespeare himself).

To go or not to go? Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare.


Plots of stories and dramas often centre on love rivalries, involving three or four people.

In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Filostrato (14th century), set in the time of the mythical Trojan war, the main characters, Troiolo and Criseida fall in love, have a relationship, but keep it secret.  Unfortunately for them, a personnel exchange is arranged, whereby Criseida is obliged to leave Troy and go over to the other side (the Greek camp), to be with her renegade father.  Then she is wooed by Diomede, and she accepts him in the place of her former lover. Troiolo is left to bewail his fate.

When the lovers first hear about their impending separation, Troiolo proposes to Criseida that they steal away from Troy while they have the chance:

         andiamcene in un’altra regione….

e’ son di qui remote

genti che volentieri ci vedranno….

Fuggiamci, dunque occultamente.


[Part 4, from stanzas 144f, Mondadori edition, Milan, 1990]


“Let us betake ourselves to another region….There are, remote from here, peoples who will receive us gladly…Wherefore let us make our flight secretly.”

[Translation by Griffin N and Myrick A, Cambridge, Ontario, 1999 – available online.]

In reply, Criseida gives reasons for not taking flight, namely, the adverse consequences for the Trojans’ war against the Greeks (in which Troilus himself plays a great part), and for their own reputations, and indeed for the quality of their relationship.  She promises, instead, to return to Troy ten days after her enforced departure to the Greek camp.  (In the event she does not.)

Filostrato is the main source of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  In it, Chaucer’s Troilus makes the same proposal (about leaving together) to his Criseyde.  Troilus assures her that, between them, they do have enough wealth to live on.  He adds:

         And hardily, ne dredeth no poverte,

For I have kyn and fremdes elleswhere

That, though we comen in our bare sherte,

Us sholde neyther lakken gold ne gere

But we been honoured while we dwelt there,

And go we anon; for as in myn entente,

This is the beste, if that ye wole assente.


[Book 4, lines 1520ff, Riverside Chaucer, 1987]


         And you need have no fear of taking hurt

Through poverty, for I have friends elsewhere,

And kindred; though you came in your bare shirt,

You would not lack for gold and things to wear;

We should be honured if we settled there.

Let us go now, for it is plain to me

This is the best, if you will but agree.


[N Coghill’s translation, Penguin, 1971]


Criseyde gives reasons similar to those of Boccaccio’s Criseida, and also swears to return to Troy after ten days.  (She does not.)

Now, some of Chaucer’s works are sources for some of those by William Shakespeare.  Chaucer’s Troilus is the principal source for the love plot in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.  In brief, the story is speeded up; the personality of Cressida suffers in the process.  But Cressida should be seen in context, i.e. as a victim of male oppression; and the reader (or spectator) of the play should ask how many choices she actually has.

I’d like to move on to a very different play, namely, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It has often been said that the plots of the Dream are devised by Shakespeare himself and are not derived from other writers.  True, there is a love rivalry plot, to do with Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Lysander.  But as I have said at the beginning, this topic is very common.  Here, the conflicts are resolved, with a happy ending.  In Act 1 Scene 1, Hermia and Lysander are presented with a difficulty – the impending marriage of Hermia, against her will, to Demetrius (her father’s choice).  (Patriarchy!)  As in Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s Troilus stories, the man suggests to the woman that they take flight, at an early opportunity.  Lysander says, reassuringly:

         I have a widow aunt, a dowager,

Of great revenue; and she hath no child.

From Athens is her house remote seven leagues;

And she respects me as her only son….

If thou lovest me, then

Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night,

And in the wood….

There will I stay for thee.


[Act 1 Scene 1, lines 156ff, Penguin edition, 1967]


Could these lines have been inspired by Shakespeare’s reading of Chaucer?



Friends for a reason, friends for a season

I have just read the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1908-1980), first published in 1987, based on her experiences in Romania and Greece between 1939 and 1941 (i.e. during the Second World War).  It is a story of war, seen from the point of view of numerous civilians caught up in it.

Native Romanians and Greeks feature in the pages; but most of the characters are British – people who have either chosen to live abroad or have been posted there to work for the British Government.

At the very end of the story, Harriet Pringle (principal character) and Guy (her husband) are obliged to flee from Greece as the Germans invade (1941).  Harriet thinks about the scattering of the people they have got to know:

Harriet thought of Charles left behind with the retreating army, of David taken by the enemy, of Sasha become a stranger, of Clarence lost in Salonika, of Alan who would share the fate of the Greeks, and of Yakimov in his grave. Not one of their friends remained except Ben Phipps; the ‘vainest and the emptiest’.

Note that Harriet is a woman in a man’s world; and the above-named are all men.

One conclusion I draw from my reading is that the people named (and others described in the trilogy) are acquaintances and temporary colleagues rather than genuine friends – friends only for a “reason” (e.g. work) and a “season” (the period 1939-41).  Moreover, there are many squabbles among them – they are not united in the face of adversity.

The British exiles go through various emotions as the war continues and the territories of allies and neutrals are lost to the “Axis” – ranging from hope (which turns out to be ill founded) to ironic humour and to worry (even panic).  Finally they get to grips with the practicalities of getting away (or even staying put).  Their predicament is exacerbated by the fact that, while troops can be evacuated from Dunkirk as France falls in 1940, they find themselves on the “wrong” side of Europe – beyond the easy reach of Allied forces that might keep the enemy at bay or rescue them.

The Brits tend to be unrealistic about the true nature of their plight.  (Make some allowance for hindsight, here.)  One can read signs, between the lines, of the gradual but steady decline of the Britain as a world power.

The air of unreality that hangs over the Brits is reinforced by Guy Pringle’s enthusiastic putting on, in Bucharest, Romania, in 1940, of an amateur production of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play set in the context of the legendary Trojan War.   It is performed to raise the morale of the British residents and to impress the Romanians.  The casting is inspired, and the performances are widely regarded as a success.  But what an incongruous choice!  Shakespeare’s language is difficult in places, especially in this play, even for people whose first language is not English.  Indeed, it is seldom performed.

One characteristic of Troilus and Cressida is the squabbles among the Trojans (whether to keep Helen or to hand her over to the Greeks), balanced with the squabbles among the Greeks (as to how best to restore the authority of Agamemnon while persuading Achilles to return to the front line) – quite apart from the actual war itself.  (See too Homer’s Iliad, while noticing the major differences in plot, characterisation and tone.)

A second feature of Troilus and Cressida is the evidence displayed that both Helen and the eponymous Cressida are women in a man’s world: they can be reduced to the status of bargaining counters – in other words, “articles of trade….weak and oppressed” (see Prof R A Foakes’s  Introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition of the play).  At the same time, none of the male characters can be taken seriously as a hero (with the possible exception of Hector), either in matters of war or in those of love – they are proud and self-serving.  The end of the play is neither tragic nor comic (certainly, it’s not funny).

At the end of Troilus, the war is still going on.  But (outside the framework of the play) Troy will eventually fall.  One Part of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy is itself called ‘The Fall of Troy’ – a clear allusion made to the momentous Fall of France in 1940.

It so happens that, earlier this year, I had re-read Troilus and Cressida, before reading the Balkan Trilogy for the first time.  The reference to the former, within the body of the latter, came as a pleasant surprise.

Returning to the Trilogy: Harriet Pringle has a mind of her own, intelligence, perception and sensitivity.  However, by virtue of her married status (Britain, 20th century style), and the roles that both she as an individual accepts and that societies as a whole ascribe to her, she trails behind her husband Guy, in his wake; and she makes a series of concessions to his wishes and needs, in order to keep him happy – swallowing her pride but feeling resentment.

The 21st century reader may see things differently from Harriet intellectually while sympathising with her predicament emotionally.  (Make up your own mind.)

The Balkan Trilogy is an excellent read.  You feel you’re there, in time and place.

Troilus and Cressida is an excellent read too.  (You may never get the chance to see it performed.)

History and Tragedy

                  Here I and my sorrows sit;

Here is my throne, bid kings come to it.


(Constance, King John, Act 1, Scene 3)

I have been re-reading some of William Shakespeare’s history plays plus Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.  The “biopics” and “All the President’s Men” of their day!

There are many by Shakespeare.  In chronological order – the order in which the fictionalised events happened – they comprise: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra; Macbeth (it has some relationship with Scottish history); King John, Edward III (perhaps a part), Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III (perhaps Shakespeare was a contributor to Part I), Richard III, Thomas More (perhaps Shakespeare contributed a small part), and finally Henry VIII (together with John Fletcher).

So, the history plays form a large part of his output.

The plays are about politics and display examples of good and bad leadership.  Who (if anyone) is best?  Who is the legitimate ruler?  How is legitimacy determined?

If you had happened to live in Ancient Rome (for example), would you have preferred Julius Caesar or Antony or Brutus or Cassius or Octavian (Augustus)?  (Apply this to medieval history and modern history too.)  Some have leadership qualities but all are flawed.  The second lesson is that human nature has not changed at heart, and we all have emotional drives – will, power, lust, love – which can take over our lives and which can ruin those of others.

It is interesting (at least to me) to compare recorded history (told by chroniclers) with dramatisations (eg those by Shakespeare and his contemporaries).  Good critical studies and well written academic editions of the works give the reader an insight into the variations.  (Retain some scepticism, as (surely?) there is no such thing as absolute historical truth.)  But at least we can say (can’t we?) that an effective drama has psychological and sociological truth – which takes us back to political battles and human desires.

For some readers, doubtless, and viewers of dramas, it is preferable to enjoy a play without engaging, actively or passively, in literary criticism.  The latter forms another world, a different world.  I like it.

This year already I have worked my way through a version of Richard III based on the First Quarto (1597), with minimal editing and notes.  (John Drakakis, ‘Shakespeare Originals’, 1996.)  (I note that, in history, Edward IV is deemed to be responsible for the death of George Duke of Clarence, but in the play the blame is shared between Edward and Richard.)

This year too I got hold of the new ‘Arden 3’ (Lander & Tobin, Bloomsbury, 2018) edition of King John, as I admire this play.  I looked for new insights.  However, I was somewhat disappointed by the depth of the editors’ background writing.  On looking again into the 1974 Penguin, edited by R L Smallwood, I find that he is strong on all the essentials:

  • the historical background
  • Shakespeare’s use of sources (see in particular the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John)
  • his selection and telescoping of historical events
  • textual issues, too.

I went back to my own copy of The Troublesome Reign, edited by Charles R Forker (‘Revels Plays’, Manchester, 2011).  (The Reign is anonymous, but Forker attributes it to George Peele.)  This edition succeeds in throwing light on the historical background of both the Reign and Shakespeare’s John, and the influence of the former on the latter; so it fills a gap arguably left by the Arden 3 book.

I was tempted to seek out versions of other plays, edited by Forker, and bought both his Edward II (Revels, 1994) and his (Richard II) (Arden 3, 2002).  I found them illuminating – for example, about the influence of Marlowe’s play on Richard II. 

Kings die in these plays (some of them after being deposed) – that is their tragedy.  But, if their country does not unite behind the successor, all are affected and many suffer.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings.


[Richard himself, Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2]





Games of the English Throne, Shakespeare style

In several of his plays, from the very early ones, Wm Shakespeare addresses issues of power and politics – politics often carried out through war.  See, for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, from the history of Ancient RomeSee too the tetralogy Henry VI Parts 1-3 plus King Richard III, and King John, set in the Middle Ages of England and Wales, which were composed in the early 1590s.

The Henry VI plays paint a bleak picture of a country at war with itself, while also losing territory in France, at the hands of the resurgent French.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  The continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather repetitive for the reader (or the viewer).  After many battles and murders, Edward Duke of York becomes King Edward IV, displacing Henry VI.  His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself.  And in the sequel, Richard III, Richard stays his coup d’état and becomes king himself, till supplanted in turn by Richmond (Henry VII).

Richard III has a long history of success in performance.  Shakespeare’s Richard fascinates because of his ambition and single-mindedness and his ability to deceive and to manipulate.  (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” [Act 5 Scene 3].)  Some of his wickedness rubs off on his co-conspirators (some discarded by Richard when they oppose him) but they do not match him in intellect and drive, with the possible exception of King Henry VI’s widow, Margaret.

Richard III then gives us a story in black and white colours.  Richard himself – the main character – is a “baddie”.  He gets, though, his “come-uppance”.

Shakespeare lays more murders at Richard’s door than can be fairly blamed on him: the play is not an accurate reflection of history, but it is fun – a guilty pleasure, perhaps.

Like the Henry VI plays, King John is not a popular play – it is seldom performed.  In my opinion, this is a pity, as I see great merit in it.

In King John, there are (I would argue) many important characters, apart from the King himself.  King John is no match for Richard III, in interest.  He is devious and self-serving; he plots against his nephew, Arthur (a rival claimant to the throne); but he ends up being ineffectual and a follower of his counsellors rather than a leader.  As King John declines, in health and in power, the reins of leadership are taken up by others, including a cardinal, who comes close to matching Richard III for deviousness and specious arguments.  The play could be said to end on an anti-climax, in contrast with the climax of Richard III.

The wider distribution of power and influence, among the characters in King John, is, for me a strength rather than a weakness.  Richard III implies that, with the dethronement of one man, all is well that ends well, whereas John ends on a note of ambiguity (albeit coupled with some hope placed in the young King Henry III).

Shakespeare’s early history plays reflect aristocratic societies, where warrior lords are continually engaged in combat – in civil wars in England or in battles in France.  The loyalty of powerful lords has to be won by a king or claimant to the throne and cannot be taken for granted.  Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade people to co-operate or even to compel them.

These societies are patriarchal.  Certain female characters in Henry VI assert themselves, particularly, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI) and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester; but Joan is executed and Margaret and Eleanor are exiled.  In King John, Blanche is married to the Dauphin, in order to seal an alliance between England and France – apparently with her consent.  But more typically, the ladies use their allotted speeches to express deep grief at their loss of loved ones.  In King John, Constance laments the capture of her son Arthur by King John’s forces, foreseeing his gruesome end; in Richard III, the Duchess of Gloucester (Richard’s mother), Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV) and Queen Anne (Richard’s wife) mourn the grim fate of Edward IV’s young sons (the ‘Princes in the Tower’).

In both King John and in Richard III, there is a dramatic episode where a major character deploys rhetoric to defend his life (or his eyesight) – George Duke of Clarence in Richard III, Prince Arthur in King John.  The Clarence episode (Act 1 Scene 4) is a bravura piece of writing: its length may not be strictly justifiable, in dramatic terms; and Clarence’s dialogue with his murderers is often cut in performance (as the play as a whole is one of Shakespeare’s longest).

To conclude: Richard III is entertaining, because of the brilliance of the title character and because of the “happy ending”.  The merits of the King Henry VI plays and King John lie in their analysis of the exercise of power and the conduct of politics – in the case of John, a particularly cool and ironical examination.


The ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Ulysses’


Reading challenges

Having re-read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I thought I’d take another look at James Joyce’s (in)famous Ulysses (read and re-read years ago).  Homer is readable in translation – Joyce is barely readable, and lots of explanatory notes are required, even for a re-reading.  (I now draw upon the “1922 text” version, put out by OUP and edited by Dr Jeri Jones [1998].)  At least one can pick one chapter at random and concentrate on that.


Take for example Chapter 9, called ‘Scylla and Charybdis’.  This  consists of a philosophical discussion (set in a library) and centres largely on Stephen’s putting forward his hypotheses concerning Shakespeare (based on his works rather than recorded facts about his life) to a few friends.  The underlying (barely perceptible) conflict has been said (by commentators) to be between dogma and mysticism, through which a latter-day Odysseus (the reader?) should steer.


By contrast, the roughly corresponding passage in Book 12 of the Odyssey describes vividly and concisely Scylla, the man-eating, cave-dwelling monster, and Charybdis, the powerful, sucking whirlpool, which use every opportunity to kill sailors trying to steer the narrow course between them.  (In the event, six of Odysseus’s men are taken and eaten).  Nothing as clear and exciting as this appears in Ulysses.



Both the Odyssey and Ulysses are about the return of a hero or heroes (a protagonist or protagonists) to their home.  Homer’s Odysseus has been away from home at the legendary Trojan War and needs to return to his family in Ithaca; and his family want him back.  His fellow soldier Menelaus suffered his own delays on his way home (see Book 4).

James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is inspired by the city of Dublin, his love for his wife, and by his admiration for Odysseus, also known as Ulysses.  His protagonists (Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom) are all searching for an improved home life.

The Odyssey is dynamic and action-packed –with the constant thrust of the hero’s return home and his drive for revenge upon his wife’s gluttonous, proud suitors.  By contrast, Ulysses is static.  Nothing much happens.  Stephen may stay in touch with Leopold.  The state of the Blooms’ marriage may improve.


In the Odyssey, actors reveal their character through their stories.  (Some of Oysseus’s are lies!)  Notable are Books 9-12, where Odyssey tells the story of his adventures (the Cyclops etc) to his hosts.  In Ulysses, actors reveal their character through their internal monologues – the extreme case being Molly’s long monologue, in the final chapter, about her life, her courtship and her marriage.



Leopold is an ordinary 20th century man, very loosely based on the mythical warrior and hero, Odysseus; and his unfaithful Molly = Odysseus’s faithful Penelope (rather ironically, perhaps).  (Stephen Dedalus = Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope.)

In the Odyssey, there are three relationships – not only Odysseus and Penelope but also two others.  Menelaus has accepted back Helen as his consort, after the end of the Trojan War, as Telemachus discovers (see Book 4) – number 2.  In Book 11, the ghost of Agamemnon informs Odysseus how his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered him on his return home from Troy – number 3.  Perhaps Leopold and Molly Bloom can also be compared with   Menelaus and Helen, insofar as they are contemplating a reconciliation.



The climax of the Odyssey (albeit before the very end) may be said to come in Chapter 23 when Odysseus reveals his true identity to Penelope and they exchange their stories (their trials and tribulations).


Ulysses ends, aptly, with Molly’s fond recollection of Leopold’s marriage proposal, years before:


and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.