THYESTES AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF ENGLISH TRAGEDY
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Two volumes. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Mentor Books, 1955.
Harsh, Philip. An Anthology of Roman Drama. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1965.
(Selections from Thyestes are translated by Ella Harris.]
One classical Roman dramatist (Seneca) greatly influenced English tragedy, especially in the development of the ever -popular revenge tragedy. Although Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is much closer physically to Thyestes than Hamlet, both plays dramatize unbridled revenge. Seneca's Thyestes was the prototype and the model from which dramatists drew inspiration. Seneca ( 3 BCE to 65 AD) blended grotesque physical horror anticipating the "slasher" movies of our day, with allusions to stoic philosophy. In the Renaissance, Marlowe, Kyd and Shakespeare will perfect the form.
Study suggestions. As you read the selections below, consider the following:
1--the chain of being
2--evidences of stoic philosophy
(A link for background information on Stoicism.:
3--the role of fortune
5--macrocosm and microcosm imagery
6--the chain of being
Be able to discuss the following:
1-How descriptive are the acts of violence? Give examples.
2-Do supernatural elements play a part in this play?
3-What is the role of the chorus?
4-What elements in the play seem to blend with what was discussed regarding Medieval tragedy?
Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves provide needed background....
Hamilton: (p. 236ff.)
THE HOUSE OF ATREUS was an ill-fated house. The cause of all the misfortunes was held to be an ancestor, a King of Lydia named Tantalus, who brought upon himself a most terrible punishment by a most wicked deed. That was not the end of the matter. The evil he started went on after his death. His descendants also did wickedly and were punished. A curse seemed to hang over the family, making men sin in spite of themselves and bringing suffering and death down upon the innocent as well as the guilty. Tantalus was the son of Zeus and honored by the gods beyond all the mortal children of Zeus. They allowed him to eat at their table, to taste the nectar and ambrosia which except for him alone none but the immortals could partake of. They did more; they came to a banquet in his palace; they condescended to dine with him. In return for their favor he acted so atrociously that no poet ever tried to explain his conduct. He had his only son Pelops killed, boiled in a great cauldron, and served to the gods. Apparently he was driven by a passion of hatred against them which made him willing to sacrifice his son in order to bring upon them the horror of being cannibals. It may be, too, that he wanted to show in the most startling and shocking way possible how easy it was to deceive this awful, venerated, humbly adored divinities. In his scorn of the gods and his measureless self-confidence he never dreamed that his guests would realize what manner of food he had set before them. He was a fool. The Olympians knew. They drew back from the horrible banquet and they turned upon the criminal who had contrived it. He should be so punished, they declared, that no man to come, hearing what this man had suffered, would dare ever again to insult them. They set the arch-sinner in a pool in Hades, but whenever in his tormenting thirst he stooped to drink he could not reach the water. It disappeared, drained into the ground as he bent down. When he stood up it was there again. Over the pool fruit trees hung heavy laden with pears, pomegranates, rosy apples, sweet figs. Each time he stretched out his hand to grasp them the wind tossed them high away out of reach. Thus he stood forever, his undying throat always a thirst, his hunger in the midst of plenty never satisfied. His son Pelops was restored to life by the gods, but they had to fashion a shoulder for him out of ivory. One of the goddesses, some say Demeter, some Thetis, inadvertently had eaten of the loathsome dish and when the boy's limbs were reassembled one shoulder was wanting... To Pelops two sons were born, Atreus and Thyestes. The inheritance of evil descended to, them in full force. Thyestes fell in love with his brother's wife and succeeded in making her false to her marriage vows. Atreus found out and swore that Thyestes should pay as no man ever had. He killed his brother's two little children, had them cut limb from limb, boiled, and served up to their father...Atreus was King. Thyestes crime was not avenged in Atreus lifetime, but his childrens children suffered.
Graves suggests (Volume 1, p.141) the origin of the myth stemmed from the mythologists' revulsion at cannibalistic practices in ancient Greece.
SELECTIONS FROM THYESTES:
CHARACTERS in the Play:
Megaera, a divine fury
Chorus of men from Mycenae
Atreus, King of Mycenae, son of Pelops
Thyestes, brother of Atreus
Tantalus, son of Thyestes, and two other sons of thyestes
Aerope, wife of Atreus
Pelops, the father of Atreus and Thyestes
Let dark fortunes of a violent house
Among unstable kings be brought to naught.
Let evil fortune on the mighty fall.
The wretched come to power; let chance toss
The kingdom with an ever-changing tide...
Thyestes has not yet bewept his sons;
When will they be destroyed? Lo, even now
Upon the fire the brazen pot shall boil
The members shall be broken into parts;
The father's hearth with children's blood be wet,
The feast shall be prepared...
Let not a grandson, readier for that crime
E'en than his father's father, follow him,
Nor let the father's error please the sons.
Let thirsty Tantalus' base progeny,
Wearied at length, give up their fierce attempts;
Enough of crime...
Up, do a deed which none shall e'er approve,
But one whose fame none shall e'er cease to speak!
Some fierce and bloody crime must now be dared,
Such as my brother seeing shall wish his.
A wrong is not avenged but by worse wrong?
What deed can be so wild 'tis worse than his?...
Thee populace not only must endure
Their master's deeds, but praise them.
He [Thyestes] took my wife [Aerope]
Adulterously, he took my realm by stealth...
From this has flowed every disaster, exiled and in fear
I've wondered though my realm; no place is safe from
From brother's plots; my wife has been defiled...
No deed that keeps the bounds
Of former evils, I will leave no crime
Untried, and none is great enough for me....
Whoever will may on the slippery heights
Of empire stand, but I with sweet repose
Am satisfied, rejoice in gentle ease,
And, to my fellow citizen unknown.
My life shall flow in calm obscurity,
And when untouched by storm, my days have passed
Then I will die, a common citizen,
In good old age...
High in place, I feared,...
Yea, feared the very sword upon my side.
How good it is to be the foe of none...
At last the wild beast [Thyestes] is within my toils:
Lo, I behold him with his hated brood.
My vengeance now is sure, into my hands
Thyestes has now completely fallen
...Fortune long endures:
Sorrows and pleasures each in turn depart
...Here Atreus entered, dragging in
His brother's sons, the altars were adorned...
Ah, who can tell the tale?....
...he took the sword and wielded it
Nothing was lacking to the sacrifice.
Earth trembled, all the grove bent down its head,
The palace nodded, doubtful where to fling
Its mighty weight, and from the left there shot
A star from heaven...
Atreus stood firm and faced the threatening gods...
So cruel Atreus gazes on the heads
Devoted sacrifices to his rage:
He hesitates which one shall first be slain,
And which be immolated afterward
It matters not and yet he hesitates
And in the order of his cruel crime
He stood unmoved, no useless prayers were heard...
Double murder thus complete,
What did he then?
As crested lion in Armenia woods
Attacks the herd. nor lays aside his wrath
Follows the bulls, and satisfied with food
Threatens the calves but languidly; so threats
Atreus, so swells his wrath, and holding still
The sword with double murder wet, forgets
Whom he attacks; with direful hand he drives
Right through the body and the sword, received
Within the breast, passes straight through the back.
He falls and with his blood puts out the fires:
Bv double wound he dies.
O savage crime!
Art horrified? If there the work had ceased,
It had been pious.
Could a greater crime
Or more atrocious be by nature born?
And dost thou think this was the eNd of crime?
'Twas its beginning.
What more could there be?
Perchance he threw the bodies to wild beasts
That they might tear them, kept from funeral fire!
Would he had kept, would that no grave might
The dead, no fire burn them, would the birds
And savage beasts might feast on such sad food!
That which were torment else is wished for here.
Would father's eyes unburied sons might see!
O crime incredible to every age!
O crime which future ages shall deny!
The entrails taken from the living breast
Tremble, the lungs still breathe, the timid heart
Throbs, but he tears its fibre, ponders well
What it foretells and notes its still warm veins.
When hc at last has satisfied himself
About the victims, of his brother's feast
He makes secure. The mangled forms he cuts,
And from the trunk he separates the arms
As far as the broad shoulders, savagely
Lays bare the joints and cleaves apart the bones;
The heads he spares and the right hands they gave
In such good faith. He puts the severed limbs
Upon the spits and roasts them by slow fire;
The other parts into the glowing pot
He throws to boil them. From the food the fire
Leaps back, is twice, yea thrice, replaced and forced
At last reluctantly to do its work.
The liver on the spit emits shrill cries,
I cannot tell whether the flesh or flame
Most deeply groaned. The troubled fire smoked,
The smoke itself, a dark and heavy cloud,
Rose not in air nor scattered readily;
The ugly cloud obscured the household gods.
O patient Phoebus, thou hast backward fled
And, breaking off the light of day at noon,
Submerged the day, but thou didst set too late.
The father mangles his own sons, and eats
Flesh of his flesh, with sin polluted lips;
His locks are wet and shine with flowing oil;
Heavy is he with wine; the morsels stick
Between his lips. Thyestes, this one good
Amid thy evil fortunes still remains:
Thou knowest it not. But this good too shall die.
Let Titan, turning backward on his path,
Lead back his chariot and with darkness hide
This foul new crime, let blackest night arise
At midday, yet the deed must come to light.
All will be manifest.
The ancient order of the universe
Has perished! rise and setting will not be!...
Lest all the world to ruin should be hurled,
And formless chaos cover gods and men,
And nature once again enfold and hide
The land and sea and starry firmament.
With the upspringing of its deathless torch
Bringing the seasons, never more shall come
The king of stars and give the waiting world
Changes of summer and of winter's cold...
High above all and equal to the stars
I move, my proud head touches heaven itself
At last I hold the crown, at last I hold
My father's throne. Now I abandon you,
Ye gods, for I have touch the highest point
Of glory possible... Is it enough?
Ev'n I am satisfied...
I long to see his color when he sees
his dead son's heads, to hear his words that flow
With the first shock of sorrow, to behold
How, stricken dumb, he sits with rigid form.
This is the recompense of all my toil...
His head that is so heavy now with wine,
He vomits, Mightiest of the gods am I...
Spare not to drink, there still remains
Some of the victim's blood, the old wine's red
Conceals it; with this cup the feast shall end.
His children's blood mixed with the wine he drinks...
Lo now he sings...
ATREUS TO THYESTES:
Thyself hast banqueted upon they sons.
An impious feast?
'Tis this that shamed the gods!
This backward drove the daylight whence it came!
Me miserable. What cry shall I make?
What wailing? What words will suffice my woe?
I see the severed heads, the hands cut off,
Greedy and hungry, these I did not eat!
I feel their flesh within my bowels move;
Prisoned, the dread thing struggles, tries to flee,
But has no passage forth; give me the sword,
Brother, it has already drunk my blood:
The sword shall give a pathway to my sons.
It is denied? Then rending blows shall sound
Upon my breast. Unhappy one, refrain
The hand, oh, spare the dead! Whoe'er beheld
Such hideous crime?
...Behold, the father feasts upon his sons,
The sons lie heavy in him--is there found
No limit to thy base and impious deeds?
Crime finds a limit when the crime is done,
Not when avenged. Even this is not enough.
Into thy mouth I should have poured the blood
Warm from the wounds; thou shouldst have drunk the blood
Of living sons. My hate betrayed itself through too much haste.
I smote them with the sword,
slew them at the altar, sacrificed
A votive offering to the household gods,
From the dead trunks I cut away the heads,
And into tinest pieces tore the limbs;
Some in the boiling pot I plunged, and some
I bade should be before a slow flame placed;
I cut the flesh from the still living limbs,
I saw it roar upon the slender spit,
And with my own right hand I plied the fire.
All this the father might have better done:
All of my vengeance falls in nothingness!
He ate his sons with impious lips indeed,
Alas, nor he nor they knew what he did!
I call upon the gods who guard the right
The avenging gods will come and punish tee:
To them my prayers commit thee.