In a small city-state in southern Greece 2,500 years ago, a singer called Thespis first stood on stage in the guise of a fictional character. The Greeks not only invented drama, specifically tragedy: they also developed it into a form so accomplished and powerful that it remains one of the most important artistic achievements of all time. This Folio Society edition brings together all the surviving Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, in the acclaimed University of Chicago translations, illustrated with masterpieces of world art and with newly commissioned prefaces.
From the beginning, the Greek tragedies showed human beings in conflict with the gods: they also dramatised conflicts between families, men and women, and individuals. It was the first time such events had been shown on stage: a momentous development. Yet there is nothing rudimentary or crude about these plays: they were born, as theatre director Sir Peter Hall puts it, at ‘an extraordinary pitch of sophistication and maturity’. They have shaped the entire concept of Western tragedy as well as influencing philosophy and psychology, art, music and literature. They are an essential part of our cultural inheritance.
Aeschylus (525–456 BC) was the first of the great Athenian tragedians. Little is known of his life except that he fought at the Battle of Marathon, where his brother was killed. His play The Persians is the world’s earliest recorded tragedy. Its subject is the defeat of the Persians in the Battle of Salamis, which had taken place less than a decade before and at which Aeschylus probably fought, but there is no triumphalism here. The Greek playwright tells the story from the point of view of the Persians. In its dramatic climax, the ghost of King Darius is told by his wife that his son Xerxes has led the Persian army to defeat and the audience is invited to share his grief and disappointment. With this play, and with works like the magnificent Oresteia, Aeschylus became the foremost playwright of Athens.
‘The gods meant nothing except to make life hard for me,
and of all cities they chose Troy to hate. In vain
we sacrificed. And yet had not the very hand
of God gripped and crushed this city deep in the ground,
we should have disappeared in darkness, and not given
a theme for music, and the songs of men to come.’
Euripides, The Trojan Women, 1240‒45
‘I pity you, children. You have come full of longing,
but I have known the story before you told it
only too well.’
Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 57-59
According to Plutarch, in 468 BC Aeschylus was beaten to first place in the Dionysia tragedy competition by a newcomer, Sophocles (c.496‒406 BC), previously a soldier, politician and associate of the famous orator and statesman Pericles. Sophocles used myths that were familiar to his audiences, such as the stories of Electra and Antigone. This allowed him to introduce tragic irony, a dramatic effect in which the spectators are aware of the truth while the characters are not – as seen in Oedipus the King, considered by Aristotle to be the ideal tragedy. Notwithstanding Sophocles’ reputation for purity and perfection of form, he was also a great experimenter. His greatest hero, Ajax, dies halfway through the eponymous play; in The Women of Trachis, the hero and heroine never meet on stage; and Philoctetes, set on a desert island, is the only Greek play to feature no female characters at all.
Only seven of each of Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ plays survive. Euripides (485–406 BC), however, has left behind a total of nineteen. His plays encompass a broader range of society than those of Sophocles and Aeschylus: his characters are as likely to be peasants as kings or warriors. Madness is a powerful theme that runs through his plays: both the madness that comes from sexual passion or anger, as in the Medea, or that induced by the gods, as in The Bacchae. When the queen Agave emerges from her Bacchic frenzy, holding the head of her son whom she has just murdered, her words – ‘But who killed him? Why am I holding him?’ – exemplify tragic irony, and the painful moment when a character stands on the brink of realisation. Though we no longer inhabit a world that, in the words of Ruth Padel, ‘crackles with gods’, Euripides’ plays, like all the Greek tragedies, still speak powerfully to us all.
‘Thus he went down, and the life struggled out of him;
and as he died he spattered me with the dark red
and violent driven rain of bitterly savored blood
to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.’
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1388–92
When two great classicists decided to translate the canon of Greek tragedy, their aim was to avoid the flowery and overly picturesque style of previous verse translations, and use direct, simple language. These translations, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore for the University of Chicago, have become the standard texts, not only for study but on the stage, where the power and drama of the original can still be felt today.
The Folio Society has commissioned new prefaces from a diverse range of acclaimed authors. Poet and academic Ruth Padel discusses how Aeschylus’ plays stress the conflict inherent in human relations with divinity. Simon Goldhill is Professor in Greek Literature at King’s College, Cambridge and an authority on Greek tragedy. He shows us that ‘Sophocles explores with heartbreaking intensity how a noble commitment to what seems good cannot be separated from an extremism that breaks apart the very bonds of society it claims to defend’. Sir Peter Stothard, Lawrence Norfolk and Germaine Greer introduce the three volumes on Euripides. They pay tribute to his timelessness, with Professor Greer remarking that ‘Euripides’ great characters are not distinguished by heroic exploit or high intelligence or innate nobility; their explanations of their terrible actions are rationalisations and evasions, like our own’.
For over 2,000 years Greek tragedy has proved an enduring subject for art, whether on the red- and black-figure vases of ancient Attica or in the studios of 19th-century painters. This edition reproduces 33 great European paintings, ranging from Pallas Athene, attributed to Rembrandt, to Ajax by Nicolas Poussin. Each plate is tipped in, facing the title page of the play in question. Busts of each playwright are reproduced as frontispieces to each volume.
Review by PAULALOUD on 18th Aug 2013
"I was able to purchase this set on Sale and LOVE it! The poetry of the language, the classic tragic stories of ancient Greece laid the groundwork for so much of modern literature. The Chicago Univer..." [read more]
Review by Nightstalker1 on 13th Nov 2012
"This is a great collection of Greek Tragedies. Anyone who wants to uinderstand the mindset of ancient Greeks will find this collection extremely valuable. I recommend these books to everyone"