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Terrific translations and commentaries on four plays.
on May 17, 1999
Vellacott has provided excellent translations and commentaries on four of the plays of Euripedes, including his classic "Medea." They should be required reading of any college student. "Medea" is a study in how unbridled passion can overcome reason and lead to tragedy. This may be particularly pertinent with respect to the ongoing war between Athens and Sparta at the time the play was first presented. Medea, who had helped Jason in his quest, become his wife, and given him two sons, feels betrayed since he is marrying the daughter of the ruler of Corinth. With horrible vengence, she kills the bride and the king and then her two sons. "Hecabe" is a play about the wife of Priam, King of Troy, and the mother of Hector, Paris, Cassandra, and others. At the start of this play, the war between the Greeks and Troy is over and Hecabe is now a slave of Agamemnon. The ghost of Achilles had appeared and demanded a sacrifice over his tomb before the Greeks can set sail for home. They vote to sacrifice Polyxena, Hecabe's young daughter, despite the tears and entreaties of Hecabe. After Polyxena's noble death, Hecabe learns that her last child Polydorus had been murdered by the King of Thrace, Polymestor, to whom Polydorus had been sent for safekeeping. This finally drives Hecabe mad and she seeks vengence for Polydorus's death. Euripedes shows in this play the effects of war and vengence on innocent lives and how cruel men at war can be. "Electra" is another retelling of the vengence story of Electra and Orestes. In this version, they are less heroic and more realistic then the way they are portrayed by Aeschylus and Sophocles. Interestingly, the one true noble and honest character in the play is the peasant husband of Electra, who refuses to tough her because he is beneath her station. Was Euripedes making a social comment about the upper classes of Athens of his time? The final play is "Heracles." In this play, the wife of Heracles, his three young sons, and Heracles' father Amphitryon are in danger of being killed by the usurping king of Thebes, Lycus. Lycus wishes them dead since he had killed Megara's father, King Creon, and taken his throne and Lycus doesn't want the three sons to grow up to avenge the death of their grandfather. Heracles is believed by many to be dead. But, he returns in time to thwart and kill Lycus. Unfortunately, the goddess Hera, who has always had a hatred of Heracles, sends the minor goddess Madness down to drive Heracles temporarily insane. In his fits, he kills his wife and sons. When sanity returns to him, he realizes what he has done and how immoral the gods are. The Greek gods are not an acceptable standard for moral behavior. Man can serve as a standard, and this is exemplified in the play by Theseus, ruler of Athens.