Friday, April 29, 2022

Andromache by Euripides - murder clears the way in family squabbles. Anything goes.

Andromache by Euripides, performed sometime around 425 BCE.  Another example of the Euripidean mess, in my opinion – the title character vanishes halfway through, and the tragically murdered character never appears on stage – but compared to The Children of Herakles a brilliant mess, full of interesting things, in the end looking rather more like a soap opera than a tragedy.

I read the John Frederick Nims translation in the University of Chicago edition.  Nims has a nice introduction that surveys critical attempts to clean up the mess, as well as scholars who just dismiss the play:

(Professor Lucas comes up with a deadpan diagnosis worthy of Euripides himself: the poet, in these difficult days of plague and Spartan invasions, was temporarily out of his head.)  (70)

It is possible that the play was some kind of special commission, not performed at the Dionysian festival but created as anti-Spartan propaganda.  Thus the blustering Menelaus, full of threats but a coward when pushed.

More convincing to me is that Euripides likes the mess.  He can be a Dostoevsky-like writer, allowing many points of view, contradictory and even ludicrous, without putting his full weight on any one of them.  He often seems like a true skeptic.  I am not much of an “interpreter” myself, enjoying the way complex works of art have multiple meanings, which is perhaps why I get along well with Euripides.

ORESTES: A piece of wise advice (whoever gave it):

In disputations, listen to both sides.  (108)

Setting aside that Orestes, in this play, is a Machiavellian villain.

Andromache has some superb fights.  The early one, the murderous Hermione versus the relatively helpless Andromache, that’s a good one:

HERMIONE: Father and daughter intimate, mother and son,

Sister and brother – murder clears the way

In family squabbles. Anything goes. No law.

Now that’s a point of view, however insane.

Old, brave Peleus versus craven Menelaus is good, too, although my favorite part is the little detail where Peleus has trouble untying the rope that binds Andromache – “What did you think you were oping? Bulls? Or lions?” – thus insulting simultaneously Menelaus and praising Andromache.

Hey, there’s the deus ex machina again at the end, for all the good it does most of the characters.  Euripides is not lazy, or not merely lazy.  He loves the god descending from the machine, often, given the staging, literally descending from some kind of machine.  These endings are part of his metaphysics.

Greek art, and later art, is full of depictions of Andromache, but as you might guess not from this story but from the Trojan War: Andromache parting from Hector or with her earlier threatened child, her poor murdered son.  In the above curious piece of late 18th century Derby porcelain, owned by the British Museum, she is standing with the urn containing Hector’s ashes.  The events of the Euripides play are in her future.

Next week’s play is The Acharnians by Aristophanes.  How exciting to add comedies to the readalong; how irritating that even after reading about it I do not remember anything about this play.  Euripides is a character in it!   That should be fun.


  1. I agree that this play was a mess, and rather confusing to a newwcomer. However, I did find a lot in if to enjoy. I havde decided that when this readathon is finished, I will read a play at time in a few years' time. I am also going to investigate Greek historians (the Landmark editions) and philosophy. You have got me hooked.Thank you.

  2. The next Euripides, Hecuba, is much more tightly constructed, if I remember right, which I doubt.

    So glad to hear how you are enjoying the plays. In my opinion, the quality does not lapse, almost all the way out to the end.

    The historians are superb. The philosophy is of the highest interest, and Plato is a literary artist of high quality, which helps. I, too, am thinking of spending more time with the philosophers. A (slow) philosophy readalong would be highly useful to me, but I doubt many, or even few, would be interested.

  3. I see what you both mean about the drama being a mess. It’s strange, isn’t it, how Euripides never brings Neoptolemus on stage. Andromache is considered a concubine & a slave. Hermione feels no shame in abusing her. And yet Neoptolemus feels no barrier to enjoying Andromache? Couldn’t have hurt to hear from the man directly at least once.

    In my Penguin Vellacott edition, Hermione charges Andromache with “witchcraft” for her infertility. I would love to know what the original Greek says. Any number of English words could have been used instead— “sorcery”, for example—but Vellacott chose one that speaks of an especially *female* curse. No small detail, I’d say.

    I thought it was interesting how no place is sacred in the world of this drama. The characters sought protection at the shrines/sanctuaries. Didn’t matter. One of them even gets slaughtered at one.

    Count me in as one of the few who would be interested in a philosophy readalong. A read of The Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro/The Apology/Crito/Phaedo) would be great. Or Phaedrus or Symposium which are more bite-sized.

  4. "A brilliant mess" sums this up rather well. Especially with the ending, when our title character, offstage, is betrothed in marriage to somebody we've never previously heard of. Then again, maybe that ending succinctly demonstrates Andromache's slavery - as she was previously promised to Orestes but then claimed for Neoptolemus by Menelaus, so too is she now bartered off to keep the peace. The slavery theme is, after all, introduced pointedly in the first scene of the play, when Andromache calls her maidservant a "companion in slavery" (though she still gives her orders). Interestingly, Menelaus says to Andromache that "a slave should never show insolence to those of free birth", even though she was herself of free birth. Maybe the most class-conscious line from these plays to date, from the chorus: "Should some disaster befall a man, the well-born have no lack of remedy". Andromache's noble birth doesn't seem to help her much in this play - but then again, would Peleus and Thetis intervene on her behalf if she were a born slave?

    I read this in John Davie's translation, which unlike the others I've read is written in straight and what he calls "more relaxed" prose. It seemed to enhance the soap opera feeling you pointed out, and also played up what I found to be the humor. There are some great insults, particularly to Menelaus who certainly deserves them: "You are not fit, I think, to be Troy's conqueror, nor does Troy deserve you" (Andromache); "Do you call yourself a man, you coward with cowards for ancestors?" (Peleus). Hermione's nurse comes in with "O ladies, dear ladies, what a day this has been - one trouble after another!", which sounds like she's about to talk about how she spilled coffee on herself and then got stuck in traffic, rather than that she's trying to prevent her mistress from suicide: "Now, dear ladies, I'm exhausted from trying to keep my mistress from using the noose." Hermione has a great (metered) line that sounds like it belongs in a Smiths song: "I was crushed by the visits of wearisome women."

    But the funniest bit to me was Hermione's xenophobic early speech: "You foreigners are all the same, of course: fathers sleep with daughters, sons with mothers, sisters with brothers, closest relatives commit murder against each other." It's almost like she hasn't been reading the Greek tragedies.

  5. Maybe I'll test the waters with the philosophy idea next fall. The big selfish advantage of a readalong is that it keeps me writing, so who cares how many people are actually interested.

    I love these comments. It is always enjoyable to see the bits you all have pulled out of the plays, Hermione's crazy rant, being one of the best. That would have been, in fact, a good Smiths line, or title.