Saturday, 23 January 2010

Racine; Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah

Since I have three different books with selections of Racine's plays in, the only one of the plays in this volume that I hadn't already read was Iphigenia.

Iphigenia was the daughter of Clytemnestra (a sister of Helen of Troy), and Agamemnon (the king who led the Greeks at Troy). Agamemnon and all the kings who swore to aid Helen if she should need it are assembled at Aulis, ready to depart for Troy. They are held back by unfavourable sea conditions and are eventually told that to gain passage to Troy Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia. Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia under the pretext of marrying her to Achilles. The play begins with a conflicted Agamemnon regretting his decision to send for his daughter, and sending someone to prevent her arrival. They are, of course, too late.

Racine's interpretation of the myth is interesting, as in the end he has another character, Eriphile, sacrificed in Iphigenia's place. Although some Greek variants have Diana whisk Iphigenia away at the last second to serve her in a temple in Tauris, replacing her form on the altar with that of a deer, none have someone else sacrificed in her place. It would be interesting to see how Racine would have then handled the story of Agamemnon's eventual return to Mycenea, since in saving Iphigenia he has removed Clytemnestra's motivation to kill her husband upon his return. This was the first account of myth I've read where I've truly felt sorry for Agamemnon and his predicament and felt that his decision really did cause him anguish. I also though he portrayed the tension between Agamemnon and Achilles very well. But since Eriphile is hardly a likeable character, you don't feel sorry for her, and thus this 'tragedy' has a happy ending. It seems more comparable with Euripides' Alcestis than with an actual tragedy.

Phaedra is the story of the wife of Theseus, who in Theseus' absence falls in love with her step-son Hippolytus. Determined to die rather than to admit her shameful love she is saved from death at the last moment by news that Theseus is dead. Her maid then convinces her that her love for Hippolytus is no longer shameful and that she should make known to him her feelings. Hippolytus, however, is in love with another girl, and Phaedra's confession appalls him. To make matters worse, news suddenly reaches them that Theseus isn't dead, and he shortly returns to a troubled home.

Again, Racine does a very good job of making his characters likeable. As a reader you can sympathise with Phaedra because she knows her urges are wrong and does everything she can to resist them. She is a struggling pious woman led stray by her nurse, so you can pity her downfall just as much as you can pity the fate of Hippolytus - who despite being appalled by the discovery of Phaedra's affection is honourable enough to keep his silence over her confession. He is also made a bit more human and likeable by the addition of a love-interest (in ancient myths Hippolytus scorns all women, and dedicates himself to the virgin huntress Diana). Of all the plays by Racine that I've read, I like this one the most. It's well constructed, well paced and a powerful tragedy.

Athaliah is the only one of the plays in this collection which doesn't draw on Greek myth. Instead, it is an old testament story of the fall of Athaliah, daughter of the infamous Jezebel. For their impiety Jezebel, her husband Ahab and Athaliah's son Ahaziah - since he belonged to the house of Ahab - were killed by Jehu. Athaliah, in return, attempts to exterminate the house of David. Since she herself had married Joram, a descendant of the line of David, this ammounted to the slaughter of her own grandchildren. This achieved, Athaliah becomes Queen. One child, however, survives. Joash is spirited away and hidden in the temple of Jerusalem, where he is raised under a false name and ignorant of his lineage until he reaches an age where he can reclaim his throne. Athaliah tells of the confrontation of Athaliah and the priest protecting the young Joash, Jehoiada.

Athaliah has the grandeur of an opera despite still being at heart a family tragedy. It was nice to read a play based on an old-testament story but I found it a lot harder to sympathise with Athaliah and hence, as a tragedy, I just didn't find it as powerful as the first two. Athaliah is a ruthless queen who shows no repentance - her unwillingness to have Joash killed outright seems to come rather from a confusion on her part rather than from some sudden bloom of compassion. The political and religious aspects of the play certainly make it very interesting, but I also feel that they get somewhat in the way of the tragic aspect, which relies on you sympathising with people, not political parties or religions.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Mackenzie; The Man of Feeling

The back cover of this book contains a quote by Robert Burns, referring to The Man of Feeling as "A book I prize next to the Bible" and I can certainly see why. The book narrates a small series of events in the life of the empathetic and compassionate Mr. Harley as he travels to London in the pursuit of a successful career. They're small events, but they're touching, and because they're small, there is a sense of realism to the story. We might wish that we were like the super-hero in that other novel we read, but we know that however much we wish, we can't be them. But you could be Harley, if you tried. Harley might not save the world, but it is certainly a nicer place for his having been in it.

The novel brings in to question morality, and our attitude to the world and makes you ask: who is the bigger fool: the compassionate man who through his compassion, is occasionally made a fool of? Or the cynical man who through his lack of compassion misses many of the joys of life? Who the wiser, who the better?

The characters are perhaps overly sentimental at times (I dare you to keep track of the amount of times someone cries), but rather than frustrate the reader it is more likely to simply make you smile. Overall, the novel is simply a charming read that will inspire you with a love for life and leave you with the general impression that it is all worth it after all. I can't help but feel that the world would be a slightly better place if everyone read this book.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Walpole; The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto was first published in 1764, and was advertised as a translation of an Italian story (an excuse I'm sure many modern authors wish they could hide behind until they knew the success of their work). I have a soft spot for the Gothic novel, so it was inevitable that at some point, I had to read what most consider to be the first Gothic novel, and one of the most influential.

The story focuses on three days in the lives of the Manfred, the Prince of Otranto, and his family. Conrad, Manfred's son is about to be married, but on the wedding day is fatally crushed in a shocking freak event. Manfred, in a fit of fear inspired by his son's death of an old prophecy foretelling the end of his line, is determined to produce another male heir by any means necessary, and to that purpose turns his eyes upon his son's betrothed.

Whilst I cannot say that Otranto is the best Gothic novel I've ever read (that would undoubtedly be The Monk) it's far from the worst and is a worthy example of its genre. I liked the mixture whereby a some seemingly supernatural events could be explained naturally, whereas some were genuinely supernatural - it brings to the novel the same uncertainty that people have in real life about such events (some are explicable, some are apparently not) which I felt heightened the tension and suspense generated. The servants and their mannerisms are welcome humorous relief from the oppressive tension that surrounds Manfred and his castle, and their speech authentic and believable. Manfred's own reactions are also, I thought, very believable, in his constant attempts to cover things up and provide false explanations to excuse his behaviour. The story flows quickly and doesn't lull, leaving the reader no time to be bored. The tension is well managed, with relief enough to not leave one feeling exhausted by it's constant presence, and forceful enough to create the necessary atmosphere where it counts.

In summary: it's good. I'd certainly read it again, and happily devote more time to studying it. But, as I said before, it's not the best Gothic novel I've ever read.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Longus; Daphnis and Chloe

Longus was a Greek writer around 200 AD (give or take a couple of decades). We know little about him. We can speculate as to where he came from (possibly Lesbos), but we can't be sure. The book itself is the tale of two young teens, Daphnis and Chloe who were both abandoned at birth and found by shepherds who then raised them as their own, and trained them to be a goatherd and a shepherdess. In time they grow from friends into lovers, but in their childish innocence they don't even know what love is, let alone how to complete the physical act. The story follows the two as they realise they love each other, through the numerous adventures which almost separate them forever, to the end where they find their parents and are married.

As you can probably guess from that brief summary, telling a realistic story is not Longus' aim. His aim, as he states himself, is to cheer the unhappy and the ill, to give instruction to young lovers, and evoke fond memories in old lovers. And as far as those aims are concerned, his story is spot on.

In a word, this story is charming. Longus is the voice of wisdom, fondly recounting the follies of youth. Daphnis and Chloe are so innocent, and Longus so tactful in his telling, that even when dealing with sex his story maintains its charm and innocence. It might not make you laugh out loud, but it will make you smile again and again at its accurate portrayal of the harmless foolishness of young lovers.

The book is short and easily accessible - you don't need to be a classicist to understand it or appreciate it. You don't need an in-depth understanding of Ancient Greek culture, mythology or society. You don't need to be a genius. Anyone could pick this book up and pass a pleasant afternoon in reading.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Thomas Paine; Common Sense

"Besides, what have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of Europe..."

For those who aren't American, and therefore, shockingly, weren't taught American history at school, Thomas Paine was one of the founding fathers of America, and wrote the pamphlet Common Sense inciting the colonies to declare themselves independent from Britain.

The book, from the Penguin 'Good Ideas' series actually contains not just Common Sense, but also Agrarian Justice. Common Sense, as I said before, deals with arguments as to why the colonies should declare themselves independent. Agrarian Justice deals with the idea that whilst land, unfarmed and uncultivated, cannot be owned and does not belong to anyone, the effort put in to maintaining a piece of land and cultivating it to make it more fruitful can be owned. But since the two (the land itself, and its cultivation) cannot be separated, a problem arises in that people are cheated of their natural property (the land) because none of it is left which is not being cultivated by someone else. It then proposes a solution to that problem.

Of the two I found Agrarian Justice more enjoyable, as it contains more interesting philosophical ideas for you to get your teeth into, think about, and possibly disagree with (the idea of how society emerged, and what we can count as property is dealt with by several philosophers such as Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke). Common Sense is mostly just that - common sense - so it's an agreeable read, and interesting historically, but there's not a huge amount in there to disagree with, or to really make you think on a philosophical level.