Repost: Brain fail

Published September 11, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

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Sep 1: Brail fail

Trying to get my reading done is really killing me. It’ll be better in later weeks; this week is “the history of history”, so it’s rather dry and dull. Once we get into things like macro and micro history, it’ll be a little more interesting. (A little too 18th century for my tastes, but…still more interesting than what we’ve got right now.)

In other news, I gotta say, it’s sometimes hard to reconcile two wildly different eras when dealing with literary works.

See, I tried to read Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. I got up to Cressida’s first appearance on stage with her confusingly-named servant, Alexander. (My question there is: did he know the name Alexander was connected to Troy and didn’t know how, or did he just need a Greek name and picked that one at random?) So during the scene, they’re discussing the war, and out comes the bombshell that Shakespeare (or rather the chain of earlier writers through whom he had gotten the story of the Trojan War in the first place) had conflated Aias and his brother Teukros. And mistaken Hesione for Priam’s daughter instead of his sister. The generational thing doesn’t bother me so much as combining such different characters as Aias and Teukros, though. For cryin’ out loud, that makes Aias, the number two bad-ass among the Greek army, a half-blood bastard! It’s one thing for his brother to be half-Trojan, but for Aias himself to be half-Trojan? That’s seriously messed up. (Admittedly, in the Iliad, there’s no information about the identity or origin of Teukros’ mother, but given his name she still pretty much had to be Trojan. What with Teukros also being the name of the legendary founder of Troy and all.)

Now, admittedly, I knew going in that it was going to be messed up. I knew from the dramatis personae at the beginning that he was using all the Roman names (Ajax, Ulysses…) and that he had bizarrely conflated Calchas and Chryses. (And of course the title made it obvious that he was going with the alternate Cressida over the traditional Chryseis.) But this bit with Aias and Teukros….man, it’s gonna take me a while to get over that one!

But I have to eventually, ’cause I do want to finish reading the play. Though it’ll probably make me mad for its massive and horrifying inaccuracies. But I want to see what he did with the various characters. I want to see how the Elizabethan condemnation of Helen’s loose morals will compare to the Athenian one. I want to see if his Achilles is as flawed as the original, and if he’s flawed in the same ways. I want to see if his Odysseus is as evil as the Athenian one. And I’m curious as to what his Thersites will be like. It’s astonishing to me that Thersites is even in it. As far as anyone can tell, Thersites was invented for the Iliad, and that’s why the poet goes out of his way to describe who Thersites is and what he looks like, even though most characters are merely described with standard epithets, and visual details are rare and only to fit the meter of the line. (For example, at one point Achilles’ hair is described as being ξανθος (variously translated as yellow, tawny or auburn) but normally his appearance is taken for granted as already known.) In fact, a number of major characters (including Patroclos and Agamemnon) are first mentioned only by their patronymic! (A fact I might not have noticed if it wasn’t pointed out in Troy and Homer by Joachim Latacz, I feel obliged to admit.) Given that Shakespeare got the story from Chaucer, who got it from some French and Italian authors, who presumably got to it largely via Dictys, Dares and Virgil…the fact that Thersites is present is really surprising. I know for a fact he wasn’t in the Aeneid, and I’m pretty sure he’s not in Dictys or Dares, either. (Neither of those was written by anyone the least bit familiar with Homer. That’s clear.) Hmm, maybe the Medieval authors also had Ovid at their disposal? The Italian ones surely would have…and I’m pretty sure Chaucer knew at least some of Ovid’s works, as well. (In fact, didn’t he translate something of Ovid’s into the English of his day? Or am I totally losing my mind?) Thersites might have been mentioned in the Metamorphoses…though I’m not sure…which is alarming, considering how recently I read the sections of that that pertained to the Trojan War.

Maybe my brain has been more fried by this reading assignment than I thought. That does not bode well for the paper I have to write. I wanted to get the reading done in enough time to get at least a start on the rough draft tonight, but…that’s totally not going to happen, since I still have seven or eight pages left. As long as I can get the first draft written tomorrow morning, I should probably be okay. I hope. It’s gonna be rough, though. Especially because I feel like there’s extra pressure on for this first paper to be writing “at the graduate level,” because otherwise I feel like the professor’s going to pull me aside and say “what are you doing in this class?” and…yeah, I’m just freaking out a bit about it. Can’t help it. Hopefully, I’ll feel less freaked out after I’ve got a draft or two hammered out.

Anyway, getting back to Shakespeare, it occurs to me that he had another possible source for a few of the characters: Dante. Several of the names come up in the Inferno, which has Odysseus and Diomedes being unjustly punished for having won the war through strategy instead of just brawn. I’ve only read that small section of the Divine Comedy, admittedly, but it was totally messed up. And completely contradicted about 90% of the Odyssey. And, rather amusingly, one of the major laments that Dante insisted that the two of them had as they were being punished was for failing to guard the north gate, thus allowing the ancestors of the Latin people to escape from the conflagration. And why is that amusing, you might ask? Two reasons, actually. The first reason is that even in context, that doesn’t make sense, because there’s no inherent reason that they should want to prevent the Latin people from existing. (Especially in Odysseus’ case. Diomedes eventually settled down in Apulia, so he could have had later reasons for wishing Aeneas had died at Troy, but Odysseus has no reason to wish for the non-existence of the Romans.) The only plausible reason they could have for wanting to prevent Rome from rising is if Dante is actually saying that they wouldn’t be thus experiencing punishment without Christianity, and that Christianity wouldn’t exist without the Roman Empire. (Historically, there’s a certain amount of logic to that thought, but it seems a bit blasphemous for a thought being expressed around 1300.) The other reason is the one that’s really funny, though. And that one is that in the Greek versions, Aeneas was not the ancestor of the Latin people. Odysseus was. He fathered a son named Latinos on Circe, and that son went to Italy, and became the ancestor of the Latini. In fact, in one of the Greek versions, Aeneas himself was captured and enslaved, and awarded to Neoptolemus as part of his spoils. (Presumably, he was spared for his filial piety. Or because they were afraid of pissing off Aphrodite by killing her son.) I think I’ll probably be able to guess if Shakespeare was influenced by Dante based on how he represents Diomedes. If he seems like little more than a copycat follower of Odysseus, then he’s probably gotten that from Dante.

In any case, there’s one other thing I both want and fear to see in Troilus and Cressida, and that’s how Shakespeare portrays Patroclos. He’s probably my favorite character in the entire Trojan War cycle, so I want to see if Shakespeare got him right, but I’m going to be horrified if he’s portrayed negatively. (Especially because I like Shakespeare as a writer, so if he mutilates characters I love, it almost feels like a personal betrayal. Even though I know that’s a totally absurd statement.) It all depends on his sources. I don’t think Dictys or Dares dealt with the romantic side of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos, so that should at least prevent any homophobic stereotypes from entering into the portrayal. (I’ve read both Dictys and Dares, but it’s been a while. Well, no, that’s not true. I actually re-read Dares pretty recently, but it’s very short. Dictys is much longer, so I’ve only re-read part of it. Because it’s not very good and frustratingly wrong. That’s the one that confused Atreus and Catreus. I mean, yeah, their names are similar, but for cryin’ out loud!)

I feel like I had more to say on the subject, but….I need to stop putting it off and get back to my homework. Bleh. I can’t wait to get this book over and done with.

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