Review: Four Plays of Aeschylus by Aeschylus and E. D. A. Morshead

Title: Four Plays of Aeschylus

Author: Aeschylus

Translator: E. D. A. Morshead

Genre: Tragedy

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Public Domain Books

Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I’ve already written a review in Romanian for Prometheus Bound, it would have been strange if I didn’t write something about the entire volume that includes four of Aeschylus’ tragedies: The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound.

What you need to know about Aeschylus is that he is one of the three emblematic figures of Greek tragedy along with Sophocles and Euripides. It is said that Aeschylus wrote around one hundred plays during his lifetime, but only seven survived the test of time, four of which I’ve mentioned above, while the other three form the Oresteia Trilogy. Aeschylus is also known for introducing the second actor on the stage. He gradually diminished the role of the chorus and he shifted the focus from the lyricism of the composition to the dialogue – an important change that gives the tragedy its dramatic characteristics we all recognize even today. For his artistic achievements, Aeschylus is also called the Father of Tragedy and he is praised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his famous work, Poetics.

The Suppliant Maidens (Ἱκέτιδες) is the earliest play of Aeschylus’ that survived to the present day, but it is less known in contrast with his other works. I actually read this one last because the subject didn’t appeal to me that much and I found the play pretty mediocre in theme and ‘action’. The subject has its roots in Greek mythology and it is the story of Danaus’ daughters who flee from Egypt to Argos, in order to avoid their incestuous marriages to the sons of Aegyptus, who were their cousins. The maidens (escorted by their father) find shelter in Argos hoping not to be captured by their suitors. In order to help the newcomers, Pelasgus (the King of Argos) asks his people to vote and their decision is crucial for the maidens’ destinies. Though the other two parts of the trilogy are lost, there are some scarce references to what happens to the maidens in Prometheus Bound and in one of Horace’s Odes.

E. D. A. Moreshead wrote about The Persians (Πέρσαι) that it “was brought out in 472 B.C., eight years after the sea-fight of Salamis which it commemorates” (p. 5), a play that had a great significance for those who fought against the Persian Empire in the Battles of Termopilæ, Marathon, Salamis and Plataea. The Persians might be the second play of a trilogy “standing between the Phineus and the Glaucus” (Idem.), Phineus being a prophet like Tiresias, who foreshadowed the conflict that is depicted in The Persians. I won’t spoil your read, but I will only add that, through this play, Aeschylus sends a patriotic message to his fellow Athenians and he revives their past victories against the Persians or the triumph of civilisation against barbarism, as Ovidiu Drîmba writes in his study of the history of theatre.

The Seven Against Thebes (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας) depicts the siege of Thebes along with the cruel fate of the two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, who were cursed by their father, the late King Oedipus, for not taking care of their blind parent and for their selfishness and thirst for power. From my point of view, the most lyrical and heartbreaking parts of the play are those recited by the Chorus of Maidens, who depict the terrific battle scenes and address helpless and desperate prayers to the gods to protect the city and not let it fall into the hands of their enemy. The irony is that the name Thebes doesn’t appear anywhere in the text, but Cadmea or Cadmus. The one that gave the play the name we all know was actually Aristophanes, who referred to it in his comedy Frogs as “the Seven against Thebes, a drama instinct with War, which anyone who beheld must have yearned to be a warrior” (p. 6).

In Prometheus Bound (Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης), Titan Prometheus is punished by Zeus for creating the first humans, for stealing the Sacred Fire from Mt. Olympus and for giving it to the earthlings to start the process of civilisation. Though Prometheus is bound to a rock on Mt. Elbrus and Zeus uses various types of torture to make the titan repent, Prometheus stands tall and doesn’t have any reason to be ashamed or to apologize for what he has done. He has the power to predict the future and that future will not be a bright one for Mighty Zeus. Prometheus is not afraid of Zeus because he is immortal; therefore, all he has to do is to endure all the torture until his saviour will fulfil the prophecy. Unfortunately for us, the second and third plays of the Promethean trilogy are lost, but we can find out who the saviour is by reading the Greek myths.

Overall, the plays were very interesting, due to their unique structure and well-known characters from history and myths, but the language was pretty old and sometimes difficult to understand – a factor that made the reading too slow for my liking. I’m sure that I would have enjoyed this volume a little more if the writing had been a bit more modern, but this is a matter of taste.

 

Review: The Black Death and The Dancing Mania by Justus Friederich Karl Hecker

Title: The Black Death and The Dancing Mania

Author: Justus Friederich Karl Hecker

Translated by Benjamin Guy Babington

Genre: Non-Fiction. History, Medicine

First Published in 1832

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011

Published by Cassell & Co.

Rating 5/5 stars

Ever since I’ve heard about the Black Death and the Dancing Mania — in history class or in the Horrible Histories TV series — I wanted to understand better how they appeared, why, which were the symptoms of these odd diseases and how they died out.

The book I’m going to talk about today comprises of two studiesThe Black Death and The Dancing Mania — written by the German Professor of Medicine Justus Friederich Karl Hecker, also is considered the father of historical pathology. In these two works published in 1832, the  physician analyzes the main characteristics of the two pandemics, the causes which led the way to their spreading, the diseases viewed from the religious perspective, their various forms, the cures or procedures used by famous doctors of the Middle Ages and the way in which these diseases affected the human mind.

Even though Prof. Hecker doesn’t say anything about rats or fleas — which carried the plague from Asia to Europe and Africa — he gives an account of how the plague manifested itself in different countries of the world. Documents show that some people died from respiratory problems while others had blisters and buboes on their skin – located especially in the axilla and in the groin area – or other victims bled through the nose or other anatomical orifices. Through incisions and the opening of the buboes, some patients recovered, but these procedures took place towards the period when the epidemic began to decrease.

From a psychological and religious point of view, people saw the Black Death as a punishment sent from God, in order to make them pay for their sins. Medieval people, especially those from the lower ranks of the feudal system, were strong believers in supernatural phenomena because they were illiterate and poor, living in filth and ignorance. They were rude and their minds were subdued by the Church, which was very powerful. Meanwhile, the kings and noblemen lived in luxury and debauchery without caring too much for their subjects.

Due to the circumstances mentioned above, it is impossible to know the exact number of plague victims, but in the main European cities somewhere around ~10.000 and 100.000 people died. Because of this huge number of deaths, the deceased were randomly buried in large pits or in layers or even thrown into the river – such was the case in Avignon. Hecker writes that some plague victims were buried alive because of the general hysteria regarding the pandemic. Eventually, the pestilence died out and most of the towns and cities were depopulated or some were even abandoned because people had fled after the disease broke out, leaving behind sick children, parents, relatives and friends.

The Dancing Mania appeared in Western Europe and it probably had its roots in the human psyche. It might have been a negative mental response to the Black Death. During convulsions, the victims moved uncontrollably as in a dance, had hallucinations regarding religion, shouted and eventually fell with exhaustion or even dropped dead. People used to gather in public places to see the gruesome scenes and some of the spectators caught the mysterious dancing virus; therefore they joined the group affected by the disease. Priests began to perform exorcisms on the people possessed by the strange illness – known also as St. John’s Dance or St. Vitus’s dance – and that proved to be effective. The physician believes that the Dancing Mania might be an ‘ancestor’ of epilepsy, chorea and of hysteria. A particular branch of this unusual mania manifested itself in Italy — spreading from Apulia to the entire country — and it was called Tarantism, the cause of the illness being the bite of a tarantula.

In the last chapter, Professor Hecker reveals other lesser known mental disorders, convulsions and hysterical fits which alarmed people from certain communities during the seventeenth and nineteenth century. The examples the author gives show that women were most affected because: “Now every species of enthusiasm, every strong affection, very violent passion may lead to convulsions — to mental disorders — to a concussion of the nerves, from the sensorium to the very finest extremities of the spinal cord” (Page 127). It sounds a bit like hysteria, doesn’t it?  Well, I’m not a medical student to tell if Hecker was right or wrong about those mysterious diseases, but we mustn’t forget that the affected women usually belonged to the lower class. Who knows how hard and how many hours a day they were working and in what terrible conditions they lived?  In this chapter you will also find three awkward manias which resemble St. John’s Dance, fanatical sects, such as the Convulsionnaires in France and the Jumpers in Britain, religious ecstasy and the terrifying treatments of the convulsive people.

I will end this review here, hoping that it was an interesting read for you and I invite you to look through these two fascinating works of Justus Friederich Karl Hecker, if these subjects interest you

Review: The Real Midnight in Paris by Paul Brody

A History of the Expatriate Writers in Paris That Made Up the Lost Generation

Title: The Real Midnight in Paris

Subtitle: A History of the Expatriate Writers in Paris That Made Up the Lost Generation

Author: Paul Brody

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Literature, Literary Guide

First Published in 2012

Published by BookCaps Study Guides

Imprint: HistoryCaps

Rating: 4/5 stars

Several months ago I wrote a Romanian review for Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, which is one of my favourite movies of all time. Due to this amazing film and also to my fascination with the City of Lights, I bought a short literary guide in e-book format entitled The Real Midnight in Paris, written by Paul Brody.

The author explains who the expatriates were and why they settled in Paris after the Great War ended instead of returning to their homeland. “This group of young artists, most of them born between 1895 and 1900, would become known as the Lost Generation. In 1920s, Paris, they were all between 20 and 30 years old and eager to test the boundaries of life” (page 1). As the previous quote already suggests, these young people had a strong interest in arts, especially literature that brought them together as well as “the seismic shift in culture that signalled the painful birth of the Modern World” (Idem).

Perhaps, no one anticipated then that the First World War and the Second World War would change dramatically the way people used to live, their culture in general, politics, mentalities and so on. The Great War was also the first historical event where most of the men belonging to the middle class had to fight. We should mention here writers such as Ernest Hemingway or Wilfred Owen, who died in the line of duty. Thus, traumas, disillusions and frustrations linked to the war not only left their mark on the young survivors’ minds, but they also influenced and shaped the works they created.

Moreover, these intellectuals, who came from restrictive and conservative countries, saw Paris as the refuge they needed, due to the “climate of intellectual freedom and experimentation was unlike anywhere else in the Western world” (page 2). Because of this, thousands of American and European expatriates flocked to the City of Lights, where they could experiment, share and debate with other artists their outstanding ideas in the now famous literary salons, cafes and publishing houses. Besides the modernity and freedom for artists and their arts, Paris also reminded them of the Old World, with its charming boulevards and the ornate buildings of the 19th century, which became the cliché image of the Romantic Paris, which some of us love and others hate.

In the first two chapters, you will read about the historical background of the Great War, the post-war effects that led artists and writers like those who will establish the Avant-garde movement to move to Paris, the most important Salons, Cafes and Bookshops – such as Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare and Company and “Gertrude Stein’s Saturday evening salons” (page 13). In such gathering places, literature and art radically deviated from the traditional norms and principles thanks to the outburst of various movements we still recognise today: Cubism, Dadaism or Surrealism. Next, you will learn which historical factors put an end to the Lost Generation and then Paul Broody gives you some essential information about the Forerunners of the Lost Generation such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce. Later on, in the chapter entitled Primary Representatives of the Lost Generation, you will read about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers and artists. The final factual chapter ends the study with the Critical Reception regarding the works of the Lost Generation.

Before I go, I must add that this study was pretty good. Some would say it is too short, but I think that, for a beginner, it is a guide that gives you a taste of the 20s and if you are longing for more, you have the seventh chapter where you can find enough titles for further reading, such as the works of the main writers of the Lost Generation. If you need to better understand this literary period, but don’t want to read too much, this guide may be the book for you.

Review: Wicked Words by Terry Deary

Title: Wicked Words

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown                

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published: 1996

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2013

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories Special

Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I’m no stranger to the English language, I was still curious to read what Terry Deary had to say about it, the origins of some of its words and the great writers who influenced and changed its shape forever. As you already know from the title, today I’m going to review Terry Deary’s Wicked Words, the third Horrible Histories book I’ve read this year.

In the Introduction, we are told that words are power and they can hurt as deep as a sword. But, In order to gain this power and learn how to use it, we have to read this book. So, the purpose of this short volume is to make the young readers be both accustomed to and entertained by the English language and its secrets. Before the timeline, there’s a chapter dedicated to prehistoric times, the first language humans spoke (which made the difference between our survival and extinction) and what archaeological findings reveal about this topic. The Horrible Histories timeline for the English language stretches from Rome’s rule over Britain to the 20th century. But it also includes Gutenberg’s printing press, two of the most influential English writers and Dr Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary.

The table of content of this book is arranged alphabetically and each letter comprises a chapter or two and an aspect of the English language. Personally, I would have preferred the chronological order because it was strange to read about Dickens before Shakespeare. But let’s move on. In this book, you will read about the history of the English language (divided into six brief parts), Anglo-Saxon literature, stylistic literary devices such as alliteration, great English writers and poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, William Caxton, words and their etymologies, euphemisms, slang words, swear words and many more. You will also find fragments from, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Vision of Piers Plawman, The Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol etc. However, but beware, the endings of these literary works are spoiled in this book; so skip those parts if you haven’t read them yet.

In the end, I think that this book is great for children who are interested in language and grammar because Terry Deary explains everything clearly and inserts jokes, games riddles and stories along the way. For me, on the other hand, this book didn’t have a lot of new information to offer because I already knew enough about the English language and its history. Also, I wasn’t a big fan of the football metaphor for the various invasions of Britain, but I guess it might work for younger readers. Overall, it was a nice read, so please give this book a try, if you or your kids are into languages and British humour.

Review: Maggie Elisabeth Harrington by D.J. Swykert

I Live in Two Worlds

Book 1 of Maggie Elisabeth Harrington

 

Title: Maggie Elisabeth Harrington

Subtitle: I Live in Two Worlds

Author: D.J. Swykert

Genre: Literary Fiction

First Published in 2013

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2016

Published by Magic MasterMinds LLC

Series: Maggie Elisabeth Harrington

Rating: 2/5 stars

In March, I received a message through the contact form from author D. J. Swykert, who informed me about his book entitled Maggie Elisabeth Harrington (a fictional story with a real person as its protagonist) and he was looking forward to reviews. I read a few pages from the first chapter and the story sounded like something I would be interested in. However, as I read the book, I began to enjoy it less and less until I had to push myself to finish it just because it was a short novel.

 Maggie Elisabeth Harrington is a thirteen-year-old girl living in a small mining town in upper Michigan, called Central Mine, with her stern father and grandmother. Maggie is a lonely and idealistic girl, but she also loves animals and suffers when someone harms them, whether those animals are the kittens her father drowns every summer or the mother-wolf shot for the bounty. Maggie hates the rules imposed by the Methodist Church or the moral standards set by society because she is a free-spirited girl who wants to live her life however she wants to, if possible with her crush, Tommie Stetter, the son of her father’s boss. Maggie is a very caring person, she longs for love and it hurts her to notice that her father doesn’t have any paternal feeling for her as if he hates her or considers her guilty for her mother’s premature death. Her grandmother doesn’t talk too much either, but, at least, she treats Maggie better than her father and she gives her chores to do inside and around the house.

Because of her feeling of helplessness, she has every summer when her father drowns the kittens, Maggie promises herself that when she will grow up, she will not tolerate cruelty to animals any longer and she will do something about it. The challenge she will have to face will be to save the wolf pups and take care of them without anyone knowing it with the exception of Tommie and his sister and Maggie’s best friend, Annie, who will give them shelter and scraps of food. “This is how a wolf pack came into my life. I do not know why God has given them to me to look after, but I am glad to have them. I am not feeling lonely anymore. My life is becoming full, the way I have always hoped it would be.” (Loc. 599)

Maggie has strong and modern opinions about religion too, which actually astonished me at first because her story takes place in the 1890s, in Victorian times. “I don’t understand why you have to make life so complicated when it’s really very easy. If you don’t harm anything, and don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, and you work real hard for the things you have, I don’t understand why you have to do all this praying and studying to get into heaven.” (Loc. 249) She also questions the very existence of God Himself, which is pretty hard to believe that a thirteen-year-old girl can think so maturely and profoundly. But Maggie’s qualities stop here.

I hate to say this, but Maggie’s voice becomes very annoying as the book progresses.  She has a few obsessive ideas in her mind and repeats them a lot. I think it wasn’t necessary for her to remind me of every single chapter one of the following thoughts that cross her mind:  she’s not sure if God exists or not, she loves Tommie and she thinks he’s very handsome, Annie is a very practical person, Maggie is angry with her father for drowning the kittens or she is afraid that someone wants to kill her wheels for the bounty.

Though the book is not very long, I felt like I was reading it endlessly because the story drags on and on and it’s too explanatory, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination. If the story had been a little shorter (without every thought that crosses Maggie’s mind) and the other characters had been better fleshed out, I would have enjoyed this novel more than I did. It also had a lot of telling that made the reading experience even harder. However, what saved the book was the historical setting and the depiction of the harsh life the miners and their families had.

In short, if you are interested in how a teenage girl sees life, love, religion and the environment and if you enjoy character-driven stories set in the past, then give Maggie Elisabeth Harrington a try.