Sunday 24 April 2016

What's Hecuba really to Hamlet?

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

Shakespeare's Ovid
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death takes me to Stratford on Avon to record a BBC Radio programme going out on Tuesday at 1000 pm about The Bard’s Putative Bookshelf.  

He had certainly read lots of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Arthur Golding’s juicy verse translation: Prospero’s famous speech summoning  ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ imitates one Ovid’s Medea delivers before chopping up a victim. Shakespeare absorbed many ghosts and disease metaphors from a 1581 multi-authored English translation of Seneca his Tenne Tragedies. He was eclectic with his Roman  history, keeping translations of Appian, Livy and the Gesta Romanorum handy as well as Plutarch’s Lives of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Coriolanus etc as translated by Thomas North from the French of Jacques Amyot.

The Play Scene in Hamlet by Daniel Maclise
But the most exciting Plutarch reference is the least understood.  It occurs in the player scenes of Hamlet, initiated by the arrival of the 'tragedians of the city' to offer their Lenten entertainment. In Act II scene 2, the player performs a speech by Aeneas describing the death of Priam and Hecuba's response to it.  

Hamlet wonders how the player could make himself go pale, weep, and speak with a broken voice for a woman about whom he in reality cared nothing. If he did really care about Hecuba, and have Hamlet's reasons for feeling strong passions,

He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

Hecuba's suffering, if depicted by a skilled actor, could inspire weeping and 'make mad the guilty'. It is this example that suggests to Hamlet the idea that 'the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.' Claudius subsequently watches a play dramatising actions so similar to crimes he has himself committed that he gets upset and has to absent himself from the performance.

Which Hecuba did Shakespeare really have in mind? Despite all the critics you have ever read, it was not Erasmus’ translation of Euripides’ Hecuba. It was a performance of Euripides’ Trojan Women in the fourth century BCE.

North's Plutarch's Lives
Shakespeare read about this performance in  Plutarch's little read  Life of Pelopidas, chapter 29. Plutarch is describing the crimes of an abominable tyrant named Alexander of Pherae. These included using humans as dog bait and massacring the male populations of entire cities. But Alexander had to leave the theatre out of 'shame that his citizens should see him, who never pitied any man that he murdered, weep at the sufferings of Hecuba and Andromache' (29.4-6). 
Sybil Thorndike as Hecuba in Trojan Women

Hamlet gets the idea for using a mimed murder to test Claudius’ conscience from Alexander’s sudden tears at seeing the women of Troy suffer as he had made his own victims suffer. The spine-tingling beauty of this is that Shakespeare is placing himself in a tradition of tragic theatre which even in 1600-1 went back two thousand years. We still perform Euripides’ Trojan Women today. I know of a few tyrants who should watch it.

Saturday 16 April 2016

Report from Lesbos

Menander Mosaic in Mytilini Museum
As the Pope flies into Lesbos (now Lesvos), I report on my own stay there last week. I was apprehensive given the appalling death toll and continued suffering of the refugees. I was afraid it was insensitive to be visibly enjoying myself in that context.  But I was encouraged by a Greek friend, writing a PhD at SOAS, who has been volunteering in the camps. She insisted that the islanders want life to go on as normally as possible.

Delicious Lake Kalloni Seafood
Arion of Methymna, Lesbos
The flights, hotels and restaurants were eerily empty. The crisis has had a catastrophic effect on the local economy.  If you haven’t booked a holiday yet, do choose the unbelievably beautiful island of poets Sappho, Alcaeus and Arion.  Hotels, restaurants and car hire are inexpensive. You won’t regret it and you will be lending a helping hand.

Eresos High School, south-west Lesbos
The museum in Mytilini is a revelation. Gorgeous mosaics and figurines reflect the ancient islanders’ twin obsessions with fish and theatre. We were the only visitors all morning.

Bust of Theophrastus at Eresos
I went to Lesvos because Aristotle lived there for a while. He researched the zoology of idyllic Lake Pyrrha (now Kalloni), including the ancestors of the cuttlefish (soupies) which we devoured in an excellent but empty restaurant on the marina. We paid homage at Eresos, home town of Aristotle’s friend, the philosopher-botanist Theophrastus. It is a dazzling seaside town where the secondary school is called the Theophrasteion.

Assos with view over to Lesbos
From Lesvos for 10 euros you can get a sturdy return ferry across that tragic, turbulent sea to Ayvalik in Turkey. For a day trip you don’t even need a visa. Then you can travel up the coast to Assos, one of the most impressive archaeological sites I’ve visited. Aristotle spent two years there. You can see Lesvos from the Doric temple of Athena or the wonderful Assos Hellenistic theatre.  

Beware the Prices at this Turkish port cafe
One warning: in the Ayvalik Port Café, don’t let them cynically overcharge you 8 euros/25 Turkish pounds for an iced coffee.  I was ripped off when the Turkish proprietor figured out I wasn’t Greek but northern European.

One of the Camps as Seen  from the  Mytilini/Ayvalik Ferry
The migrants’ camps are almost all on the north-eastern coast of Lesvos. We could just see the one nearest Mytilini from the Ayvalik ferry. If you want to help, support the bona fide Lesvos Solidarity charity recommended by my expert volunteer friend.  

Lyric Poets of Lesbos Alcaeus & Sappho
And book that Lesvos holiday. Swimming, seafood and ancient history make a superb combination. I witnessed just one bad piece of behaviour in four days. A shopkeeper, presumably a Golden Dawn sympathiser, refused to serve both me and a Syrian woman on the ground that we weren’t Greek. Everyone else was internationalist, hospitable and friendly. The people of Lesvos want to welcome you on holiday. Let’s help them continue to help the refugees.

Monday 11 April 2016

Aristotle's Attempt to Pursue Happiness

I've always had a problem with the way Aristotle’s thought is taught. At my uni in 1981 all his historical context, natural science and radical potential were removed. He was presented in the anachronistic guise of an Oxford Analytical Philosopher with a dash of Utilitarianism and a sprinkle of Philosophy of Mind.

I’m writing a book which argues that Aristotle did more to create the inner contours of all our minds than any other individual in history.  Being intuitively convinced that life experiences and material environments affect intellectual theories, this week I went with our 17-year-old daughter Sarah Poynder and two Greek friends to visit all eight places in which we know Aristotle resided.

Stageira, his birthplace in 384 BCE, was a small, dazzlingly beautiful city-state in northern Greece where his father was a doctor. Stageira was trying—but failed—to remain independent of the expansionist Macedonian monster to its west.
Camerawomen Christina and Sarah in Academy

Aristotle spent twenty years at Plato’s Academy in Athens from the age of 17. His nicknames there were ‘The Mind’ and ‘The Reader’.  His entire philosophical system fundamentally disagrees with Plato’s.

Awesome:   Assos Doric Temple of Athena + VIEW
When Plato died in 348 BCE Aristotle was not appointed Head of the Academy. A philosophical friend called Hermias, who ruled Assos on the coast of what is now Turkey, invited him to stay. Assos is a cliff-top city with a breath-taking temple of Athena.

With Sarah and Aristotle at Lake where he Studied Cuttlefish
Two years later Assos, an independent realm, came under pressure from the Persians. Hermias was tortured to death by them. Aristotle, who had married Hermias’ daughter, sped off to Lesbos and did natural science, probably with his friend, the botanist Theophrastus of Eressos.

Pella. As Impressive as Philip Wanted it to be
After three years Aristotle was summoned by Philip II the One-Eyed of Macedon to his gargantuan court in Pella to teach the court teenagers including the young Alexander to think.
Aristotle's daily walking path in Mieza

Plutarch says Philip built Aristotle a school to do this in at Mieza, a heartbreakingly lovely Macedonian glade, sacred to the nymphs.

    The assassination of Philip and the departure of Alexander to Asia at last allowed Aristotle to return to Athens and set up his Lyceum where he spent 12 golden years. He wrote 150 books, gave specialist and general public lectures, supervised research and collected books. 

 But when Alexander died, anti-Macedonian feeling at Athens meant Aristotle had to pack his bags one more time. He died on his mother's family estate at Chalkis, beside (some said by drowning in) the churning waters caused by the mysterious Euripos tides.

Admiral Constantinides explains Euripos Tides
One way you can read all of Aristotle’s sensible, grown-up, rational, humane ethical philosophy (and before everybody yells, yes I DO know what he said about slaves and women) is as a response to the extreme personalities, militarist cultures, autocratic tyrants, wild debauchery, frequent murders and court intrigues and paranoias he had experienced directly.

Tidal waves of Chalkis where Aristotle is said to have drowned himself 
Our journeys between Lesbos and Turkey, at this particular time, deserve another whole blog, which will be posted in a couple of days. A short film of the entire Aristotle biopic is also in preparation and will be posted online. And now I’m going to have an ouzo in the Gloucestershire rain and summon my inner Aristotle to help me reflectively infer general principles from the empirical data I have recently collected.

Assos, Turkey: Leonidas, Sarah, Self and Murat
THANKS TO EVERYONE, most ESPECIALLY DR LEONIDAS PAPADOPOLOUOS, CHRISTINA PAPAGEORGIOU and Murat Başkurt, but for hospitality, transport, company and expert advice also to the entire Papadopoulos family in Thessaloniki, Eleni Fanarioutou, Rear-Admiral Simeon Constantinidis, George Plakoutsis, HMA John Kittmer, David Bates, Bess Kittmer-Bates, Richard Poynder, Prof. Roddy Beaton, Prof. Walter Puchner, Prof. Peggy Reynolds and Lucy Reynolds.

Saturday 2 April 2016

Heaney and Fergal's Aeneid

Teenage Signature inside Mackail's AENEID
The publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the sixth book of Vergil’s Aeneid coincided with my receiving, from an Irish in-law, the huge privilege of access to Heaney’s school textbook translation of the epic. It is the 1953 reprint of J.W. Mackail’s The Aeneid of Virgil Translated into English; Heaney signed it with his name (twice) and his school form number.  He will have used it at St. Columb’s, the Roman Catholic boarding school in Derry to which he had won a scholarship at the age of twelve. 

"Kill me but I'll win the Language War"
The books of the Aeneid he annotated  heavily were near the end. The figure who attracts most attention is Turnus, the indigenous Italian, killed with studied brutality by the colonising Trojan leader Aeneas. But in one of the most beautiful episodes in world poetry, Juno extracts from Jupiter the promise that if Turnus must die, the people of Latium, despite their defeat, will be allowed to retain their name, their customs, and crucially their ancient tongue. In Mackail’s translation, Juno says:

"OK, but Let Them Speak Latin"
‘Bid thou not the native Latins change their name of old, nor become Trojans and take the Teucrian name, or change their language, or alter their attire: let Latium be, let Alban kings endure through ages, let Italian valour be potent in the race of Rome. Troy is fallen; let her and her name lie where they fell.'

Not so did English die out in the land of the conquered Irish. Although the first language of everyone in Ireland was Celtic (Irish Gaelic) until the sixteenth century, fewer than a million can now speak it at all. The parents of a friend of mine were still being punished for speaking it at school in the 1940s. I flew into Dublin this week (you know you’re in Ireland when there are horses grazing by the runway of the international airport) and was pleased to hear Irish, rare in the east of the island, before I got through Security.

Pre-Lecture Drinks with Emily and Matthew
I had been invited by super-competent under- graduate Emily Gallagher to speak to the splendid Classical Society at Trinity College, where a local joke is that Vergil was clearly an Irishman, his name being the Latin form of Fergal. My topic was the longevity of the Irish tradition of classical scholarship: there are Old Celtic annotations on manuscripts from as early as the sixth century CE. By the end of the twelfth, Celtic speakers could read good versions of the Aeneid, Statius’ Thebaid and Lucan’s Pharsalia in their mother tongue.

Hearing Irish, the direct descendant of Celtic, makes me tingle. It is an Indo-European language of high antiquity, introduced into Ireland three thousand years ago. There are no Irish writers on whom the linguistic dispossession of their people does not weigh heavily. Much of Ireland may have gained independence from Britain back in 1922. But unlike the conquered ancient Italians, the Irish had no Juno to guarantee that if their leader was sacrificed, they would be allowed to carry on speaking Latin/Italian rather than be forced to speak Phrygian/Trojan at school.

I’ll update you on Heaney’s thrilling Vergilian  marginalia when I’ve managed to decipher them all.