[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
Aeschylus (410 BC)
Limited Editions Club, 1965; stone and blue cloth with gold embossing and labels, in slip-case of same colour; illustrated by John Farleigh; copy number 353 of limited edition by Joh. Enschede en Zonen of Haarlem, Holland; with Prometheus Unbound of Shelley.
Victory and power proceeded from intelligence.
They do not get more elemental than this. Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik. Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind. Zeus, who makes the O T God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. We do not have the balance of the trilogy, and what we have is not a ripping night out at the theatre.
Zeus is a real bastard. As the hero says, ‘I know that Zeus measures what is just by his interest.’ That is not a bad definition of a dictator, and Prometheus also says: ‘This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.’ There are other mordantly modern touches. When Prometheus exclaims ‘Alas!’ Hermes says ‘That is a word Zeus does not understand.’ ‘Now, first, when the gods entered upon their anger/ when they split into parties, and strife rose among them’, Zeus gets it into his head to make the whole human race extinct, and to form another race instead.’ When Prometheus applies the power of his mind to ease mankind, he has to face the wrath of a very personal God.
People in the west are now brought up with a very Platonic idea of God as eternal and changeless, and one thing that immediately strikes us as curious is that Zeus, the God of Aeschylus, is capable of changing. It looks like these Greeks held that things must either grow or decay. Well, for all the strife in heaven – that is scandalously on show in Milton – this tale is indeed elemental. Rex Warner, the translator, referred to a Harvard scholar, J H Finley, who compares Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov, and King Lear as works having the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’ That is a powerful remark.
Aeschylus is better known now for the trilogy of Orestes, sometimes called Orestheia. When Paris takes off for Troy with Helen, the Greeks go after them. ‘She took to Ilium her dowry death…alas, for the bed sighed for their love together.’ Cassandra, who was not created for a cheery night out, says:
But I; when you marshalled this armament
For Helen’s sake, I will not hide it,
In ugly style you were written in my heart
For steering aslant the mind’s course
To bring home by blood
Sacrifice and dead men that wild spirit.
But the wind will not rise for the fleet, and to appease the gods, King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. The gods relent and the Greeks go to war for a slight to pride caused by a randy tart.
The god of war, money changer of dead bodies,
Held the balance of the spear in the fighting,
And from the corpse-fires at Ilium
Sent to their dearest the dust
Heavy and bitter with tears shed
Packing smooth the urns with
Ashes that once were men
And all for some strange woman
The young men in their beauty keep
Graves deep in the alien soil
They hated and they conquered.
The Greeks win a kind of revenge, but at hideous cost. What of Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and mother of the sacrificed daughter, must she avenge her daughter and kill her husband? Yes. That is the first play. What of Orestes? Must he avenge his father and kill his mother? Yes. That is the second play. Will the cycle ever be broken by a law? Yes. That is the third play.
The late Tony Tanner wrote wonderful introductions to all of Shakespeare’s plays. When he came to introduce the great tragedies, he made this most remarkable contribution to scholarly criticism.
‘Western tragedy opens with a troubled and apprehensive watchman or guard on the roof of the palace of King Agamemnon, watching and waiting for news and signals concerning the outcome of the Greek war against Troy. He conveys a sense of unease and disquiet. Something, which he dare not, or will not, articulate is wrong within the palace or ‘house’ for which he is the watchman. It is night-time and the atmosphere is ominous, full of dubiety and an incipient sense of festering secrets. The long drama of the Oresteia has begun. Some two thousand years later, Hamlet, the first indisputably great European tragedy since the time of the Greeks, will open in very much the same way – on ‘A guard platform of the castle’ (of Elsinore), at midnight, with a nervous jittery guardsman – Barnado – asking apprehensive questions in the darkness, and revealing that, for unspecified reasons, he is ‘sick at heart.’ The similarity betokens no indebtedness of Shakespeare to Aeschylus (whose work he could not have known), but rather a profound similarity of apprehension as to what might constitute a source for tragic drama. Shakespeare does not start where Aeschylus left off: he starts where Aeschylus started. And the subject, which is to say the problem, which is to say the potentially – and actually – catastrophic issue which they both set out to explore in their plays – the drama they dramatized – centres on revenge.’
How was mankind to move from the vendetta to the rule of law where the state is said to have a monopoly of violence? People who do not see why Hamlet pauses forget that his father’s ghost wants Hamlet to take European civilization back two thousand years. Orestes did pause to ask if it was right for him to kill his mother. His mate gives a brief rallying call to a Dorothy Dixer, and Orestes says: ‘I judge that you win. Your advice is good.’ As lines go, it is about as valid as Mama, quel vino es generoso, except there it was the son who was about to make the final exit.
Tanner remarks that although the Greeks had a lot to say about guilt, they had no word for conscience. This is how Tony Tanner sees the difference between the two plays. ‘We could say that, what for Orestes is a very short ‘pause’ and a very brief ‘scan’, becomes in Hamlet almost the whole of the play. Because, between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which has permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity, and more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’
These are searing insights. Those who cling to the preposterous Oxbridge dream that ancient Greece and Rome were civilized presumably take the view that the Sermon on the Mount meant nothing. But there is no doubting that the tragedies of Aeschylus record in dramatic form and poetry myths that still run very deeply in our consciousness. They are discernible stepping stones on our ascent from the primeval slime.