The End of Tragedy

After many long weeks, I've finally made it to the last volume of Euripides. Though this is not actually the end the corresponding volume of the Great Books series. I still have the comedies to go. But this still feels like an important milestone. Also, there are far fewer comedies, about 11. I may or may not review them all in one go. I guess you'll find out soon enough. Anyway, this volume contains Alcestis, Medea, Helen, and Cyclops.

Alcestis is about the death of a woman who is voluntarily dying before her appointed time in place of her husband, thanks to a deal brokered by Apollo, a friend of the husband. Everything was going according to plan until another long-time household friend, Hercules, dropped by. The husband tried to be a nice host and shield Hercules from the bad news. When he learned the truth, he hatched a plan to sneak up on Death personified and beat the crap out of him. He succeeds and death leaves Alcestis alone. The payoff here is entirely in the idea of Hercules beating up Death. So, yeah, I've pretty much spoiled the one good bit. Sorry, folks.

Medea is the one play where Jason, as in Jason and the Argonauts, makes an appearance. Apparently he fell on hard times, abandoned his wife and kids, and married some princess, allegedly in a scheme to better provide for said wife and kids. His old wife, Medea, is the same girl who betrayed her father and homeland to help Jason get the Golden Fleece. She really has nowhere to go and no recourse for this injustice. But she's a crafty sort and good with poisons. So she kills nearly every except Jason, including her own children. So I guess the lesson here is two-fold: even heroes, or especially heroes, can be womanizing jerks and one should never be that level of womanizing douche if one wants to avoid mass poisonings. In any case, like the anti-Odysseus stuff I've run into in other plays, it really bums me out to see the great classical heroes fall so low. I think that was part of Euripides' evil plan from thes tart, the bastard.

Helen is another one of those wacky Trojan War retcons. Apparently, the Helen that ran off to Troy is a fake made by Aphrodite who was actually incapable of forcing Helen to love Paris, owing to Helen's extreme virtue. Virtuous and chaste Helen, that really is something new. Hermes hid the real Helen in Egypt, under the protection of the Egyptian king. Her husband and the fake Helen get shipwrecked in Egypt on the way back from the war. Well, her husband, Menelaus, meets the real her. The fake Helen poofs into nothingness. And this would be fine and dandy except the old Egyptian king is actually dead and the new one wants to marry Helen at any cost. So, Menelaus is stranded there, in rags, with only his sword and handful of battered men, and facing off against the king of Egypt. He refuses to accept defeat because to lose to anyone other than the Trojans would dishonor the Trojans and the Trojans were such a worthy enemy that Menelaus finds that idea utterly repulsive and counter to the natural order of the world. So a wacky plan is hatched and they manage to get away with a stolen ship. The shipwrecked husband who can't get home and the faithful wife are a trope that's supposed to belong to Odysseus and his wife Penelope. But I guess with the new age of the evil Odysseus that trope was up for grabs again. On the Menelaus side, it works well enough. Helen seems like a pretty weird choice as a Penelope replacement, thus the need for the crazy Hermes theft and the clone Helen. Was there really no better couple to take on this idea?

Cyclops is actually a satyr play. No, I didn't misspell satire. The concept is actually related to weird, horny goatmen. This story is basically the classic story of Odysseus and the cyclops. Except everyone is drunk, there is a limitless amount of wine fit for the gods, and there are a bunch of satyrs. Things play out like they're supposed to except the satyrs escape with Odysseus and there are way more sex jokes, including one where the satyrs basically ask Odysseus if the entire Greek army got a chance to rape Helen. Stay classy, Euripides. The idea was to provide something comic and light-hearted to take the edge off after a series of tragic plays. Normal comedies wouldn't actually work because they, as we'll soon find out, have a lot of bitter social criticism that just makes everyone kind of hate the world.