Shakespeare

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Top Ten Tuesdays – Authors I’d Love to Meet

Published May 12, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I found out recently about the Top Ten Tuesdays event being held by The Broke and the Bookish, and I thought it looked like fun, though I’ll likely not participate every week.  Anyway, this week’s seemed sweet, so here goes.  (Plus this is a nice change of pace from struggling to write the last five pages of my paper.)

I’m assuming for this list that I have access to a TARDIS.  Because it would be no fun if I limited myself to currently living authors who speak English.  (Well, okay, actually, there’s always translators, but currently living is a drag!)

  1. The poet who composed the Iliad.  I have so many questions for him!  Starting with “what’s your actual name?”  I’d want to get the full, original version of the epic, of course, so we’d know what got changed and altered over time.  And I’d want to ask how much of the story he’d made up, and how much already existed.  (The quarrel over Briseis is largely believed, these days, to be his invention.  But was Briseis herself already part of the myth?  Was it his idea to change Achilles’ male love interest from Antilochos to Patroclos, or was that tradition already present?  Or was the entire homoerotic subtext unintentional and/or added later?)
  2. Euripides.  Again, more questions than I could count!  But the big one is “which is the real you?”  Because some of his plays are brutally misogynistic, but others feature incredibly strong and noble female characters.  Look at The Trojan Women or Iphigenia at Aulis, for example; it’s hard to read those and think the author is a misogynist.  On the other hand, it’s hard to read something like Orestes and think anything else.  I’d also want to know about all his now-lost plays, and I’d want to know just how much of what he wrote was politically motivated, and what the politics were.  Some of it’s pretty obvious (again, The Trojan Women is an excellent example) but the rest…not so much.
  3. William Shakespeare.  (Well, duh.  Who wouldn’t put him on their list if they have a TARDIS or other time-travel device?)  Mostly, I’d want to ask him about Troilus and Cressida.  Because in reading the introduction, there’s something weird going on there.  One official listing of plays made it sound like it had been performed, but the oldest copy of the play itself says it hadn’t.  And why was it never performed again?  Even more importantly, what made him choose to depict the Trojan War like that?  Absolutely everyone comes out looking terrible, Greeks and Trojans alike.  (Though the Greeks do come off a bit worse than the Trojans, but…even Hector comes off as a bit of a mindless blowhard, despite that he usually topped lists of “noble Pagans”.)  But it’s a very different kind of terrible than that of Shakespeare’s contemporary Haywood, who also wrote plays about the Trojan War.  (Which, btw, were terrible.)
  4. Mary Shelley.  Towards the end of her life, I think.  Just to let her know how much her first and most famous novel has meant to society.  (Hence the reason it would have to be near the end.)  Because in reading a biography of her, I got the feeling she never understood how important Frankenstein was going to be in the long run.  But her creation has spawned two entire genres, and is better known than anything her husband ever wrote.  Yet in her own time, she was mostly just looked at as “Percy Shelley’s widow” and I’d want her to know that eventually she would, in fact, be appreciated for her own work, instead of seen as merely a bystander of his.
  5. Sophocles.  With a recording device, so I could get all his now-lost plays.
  6. Aeschylos.  Ditto.
  7. The poets of the Epic Cycle.  Okay, compressing here.  The Epic Cycle originally consisted of a number of epic poems about the Trojan War:  the Cypria, the Iliad, the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Sack of Ilion, the Returns, and the Odyssey.  (There was also an additional, much later epic called the Telegony, which was about Odysseus’ son by Circe, who ended up unwittingly killing his father.  But it doesn’t quite fit in with the others, in part because it’s pretty much certain to have been written at the behest of royal families who liked to claim descent from Odysseus, as a method of bolstering their claim.  (It gave him additional sons for them to be descended from.))  Most, if not all, of the poems in the Epic Cycle have been, at one time or another, attributed to “Homer” and were presumably written in the same style as the two surviving epics.  But there are a lot of question marks, mostly because only the Iliad and the Odyssey have survived.  While that probably means they weren’t as good–certainly, that was Aristotle’s opinion–from the point of view of a scholar of mythology (or the ancient Greek language, or Greek literature) they would still be of incredible value.  Hence that I’d want to go meet the poets and record a performance of their epics.
  8. Sappho.  The most famous female poet of the ancient world, whose love poems inspired the modern meaning of the word “lesbian.”  But most of her poetry is lost.  And there are still those in the academic community who argue about whether she really was in that kind of love with the girls she wrote about (my vote:  yes, she was) and whether she ran a “school” and so on.  There are so many questions that could only be answered by meeting her.
  9. Catullus.  To slap him in the face.  Not that he actually did anything much wrong, it’s just that this perverted teacher I had as an undergrad…well, actually, better not to get into that; I’d rant all day, and never get my paper written.  Let’s just say that I have a lot of negative associations now.  (Strangely, I have fewer similar negative associations with Aristophanes, despite that the same teacher pulled something even worse in Greek class than he had in Latin class.)
  10. Ovid.  To ask how much of the Metamorphoses was his own invention, and how many of the tales now recorded only there were already present in the myths and he was just the first/only one to write them down.

Wow, I seem positively monomaniacal, don’t I?  I should probably change number 9 on the list to Virgil, and ask him about how much of the Aeneid was based on previously existing Roman mythic variants and how much was just to please Augustus, but…nah.

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Thesis musings

Published March 20, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Don’t let the title set off warning klaxons shouting “boring!”:  my thesis is going to be about the Trojan War, as dealt with in literature and art for 3000 years.

Okay, maybe that still sounds boring, except that I’m focusing on gender issues and the role of Achilles.  So I’ve got all kinds of fun stuff like men in drag, and men loving other men.  (Though, strangely, the two are not actually connected.  Not directly, anyway.)

So, if anyone’s read any of my previous entries about my eventual thesis, then those (un)lucky individuals already know that the course I took last semester ended with a massive research paper that was, well, I thought it was an early concept sketch, as it were, of my Master’s Thesis.  But after the fact I realized that there was no actual, you know, thesis involved.  I was just essentially doing a literature and art review covering well over 2000 years.  It’s interesting stuff–books have been published about far less interesting things–but it’s not a thesis.

The entry that follows is partially filling the few interested parties in on what I’m thinking now, and partially just a writing practice for me, trying to determine what I actually want to make the real thesis about.

So, last semester’s paper started out about sexuality–focusing on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos and how it’s been re-interpreted and re-presented/represented–but morphed into being about gender roles about two weeks before it was due.  (Never a good time for a topic shift!)  But that still doesn’t qualify it as a thesis.

I started that final paper out with an introductory section given the “cute” title of “Manliest of the Achaians” since it was about gender roles (particularly regarding the definition of masculinity) and because one of the often repeated ways that Achilles is described in the Iliad is “best of the Achaians.”  I tried to cobble together some kind of pseudo-thesis for that paper, saying that his primacy as an icon of masculinity was best proven by examining the exceptions, or some such rubbish.

But the thing I’ve been thinking of lately, whenever I come to dwell on the subject, is how the reverse is true.  No, not the reverse, exactly, but….well, in short, I’ve been realizing that despite his sometimes being held up as a paragon of masculinity, there has never been a time–that I’m aware of–in which Achilles actually was all that masculine.

Sure, he fights better than anyone else in his entire war…but only when he’s not sulking in his hut/tent.  Sulking is never regarded as manly in any of the cultures I’m dealing with.  (I would love to visit a culture where it was regarded as manly, though…)

Sure, he talks a good game about loving his concubine, Briseis, but he completely ignores her when he gets her back, because Patroclos, the one person he truly loves, has been killed.  Admittedly, in the culture where these tales began, loving a man more than any woman was not considered a stain on a man’s masculinity, but the homoerotic aspect of their relationship has tainted his masculinity in many succeeding cultures.  (For example, the 20th century performances of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in which Achilles appeared in drag, or wearing a feather boa. (Not making that up, btw.  Read it in the introduction to the play.))

Sure, he’s the most handsome man in the Greek camp…but put him in a dress, and he’s more beautiful than all the daughters of Lycomedes.

And that’s just the original myth I’m talking about, primarily as described in the Iliad.  (Though the stuff in drag on Scyros came from later Greek sources, like the Athenian tragedians.)  There’s all kinds of new wrinkles as time progresses and the definitions of masculinity shift.  Like the bit with him retiring from the war?  In the Middle Ages–and this was inherited by authors as late as Shakespeare–he withdrew from the war because he was in love with Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and so he was withdrawing to obey his lady, as any proper Medieval knight would.  But that was still a stain on his masculinity, a willing subversion of it as proof of love.  (This is particularly the case in later authors who deal with that version of the story, especially Shakespeare.)  And in the 18th century, particularly in England, the kind of masculinity on display in ancient times–the bravado, the violence, the drinking, the noise–became detested, and was no longer acceptable for a man obeying social dictates.  (If you’re familiar with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Squire Western represented the old, no longer accepted style, and Squire Allworthy represented the new masculine ideal.)  So everything about Achilles that had been his more manly side–the violence, the bad temper–became defiances of proper masculinity.

However, all of that is still just a literature review, a summary of how things changed over time.  And while that would be fine and dandy if I was writing a book for public consumption (and yes, I’d like to do just that), it’s not acceptable for a Master’s Thesis.

But I have totally no clue what, precisely, my thesis is, coming off that base.  Admittedly, there’s still some time yet before I need to think about that.  (Not sure how much, exactly.  At least a year, most likely.)  But I feel like I ought to have a better handle on what I want to do with my thesis, in case anyone asks me.

In fact, it came up today at the museum.  The director was saying something about why (straight) men can’t bring themselves to admit that other men are attractive, and then she started apologizing to me, and saying how that was just the sort of thing that comes up sometimes, and of course I laughingly assured her that it was nothing out of the ordinary to me, since my thesis involves just that kind of issue.  Then I had to try to explain what my thesis actually was, and it started getting awkward.  But that was okay, ’cause it’s an informal setting (which sounds bizarre, considering I’m talking about the director of the museum) and I’m still only a volunteer there.  But if a professor should ask me about it and I don’t have a good answer…!  Then I’m gonna feel realllllllllly weird.

Complications, as always.

Published December 5, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

So–as I should have posted last night, if I hadn’t been too flippered by the fog–my final paper for my class (and thus my Master’s Thesis beyond it) has suddenly changed.  Instead of addressing sexuality, now it’s addressing gender.  To a certain extent, that doesn’t change too much, because after people re-discovered Homer and started seeing the homoerotic quality of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos, their sexuality affected the way they were portrayed in terms of gender.  In other words, whether they were portrayed as masculine or effeminate, or somewhere in the middle.  (Though usually it’s been one or the other.)

The odd part, to me, is the fact that sometimes gender has been re-written in the same text over time.  In order to have more information about Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, I ended up checking the same volume of it out of the library that I had checked out earlier in the semester.  (Which feels absurd, considering that as a graduate student I get to hold onto library books for five months.  But it was by far the most recent edition they had.)  Anyway, reading through the introduction, I got to the part that detailed how the play had been performed in the twentieth century.  (Technically, it also described all known earlier performances, but there were only a handful of them.)  The shocking thing is that although Shakespeare definitely portrays Achilles and Patroclus as being sexually involved, neither one is presented as in any way effeminate, and yet in some of the performances in the latter half of the twentieth centuries, they (and especially Achilles) became decidedly so.  (Giving Achilles effeminate costumes and mannerisms in that play makes no sense to me, considering that the text itself portrays him as close to “macho meathead” as Shakespeare can get.  Well, no:  its portrayal of “Ajax” (God, I hate the Roman spelling!) is as close to “macho meathead” as Shakespeare can get, with Achilles running him a close second.)  That performance detail actually tells us a lot more about the twentieth century’s attitudes towards homosexuality than it does about Shakespeare’s!  (Especially since Achilles, at least, is not homosexual in the play, as he’s also in love with Polyxena, as per Dares, making him bisexual.)

Anyway, getting back to the whole changed topic thing, that means I came back from campus last night with seven more library books, Troilus and Cressida being only one of them, and the simplest to deal with.  The others are on gender and masculinity.  I’m not sure any of them really have what I need, though.  It’s hard to know what to type into the library catalog search to get a good historical overview of changing historical perceptions of gender image over time.  A lot of titles looked like they were about that kind of thing, only then I would look at their table of contents, and they’d actually only be about the changes to gender roles in “modern” America.  (Modern in quotes because naturally the books are at least ten years old, if not older, so in addition to everything else, they’re out of date.)  This complicates things enormously.

But on the other hand, it’s going to give me a lot more lee-way to play around with interesting stuff that didn’t necessarily fit in the old thesis.  Particularly the stuff about Achilles’ time in drag on Scyros.  There’s a lot of really fascinating portrayals of that period, and one of the really remarkable things about it is how many of the paintings from the 17th century (and there are a huge number of them on Wikimedia Commons from the 17th century) depict him as being entirely indistinguishable from the actual girls.  As opposed to one I found from the 19th century, where he wasn’t even trying to look like a girl.

And then there’s the libretto that inter-library loan managed to get for me!  It’s a .pdf of a microfilm (or was it microfiche?) of the booklet that was being handed out at the initial production of “Achilles in Petticoats” in 1773.  It’s more than a little hard to read because the letters weren’t too well inked before being pressed onto the page, and of course they use those “long s”s that look like “f”s, which makes it hard to read, too.  (It’s easy enough to guess that there was never a word “paffion” but when half the other letters in a word are nearly indistinguishable, that just makes it that much harder to read.)  However!  It is totally worth the effort!  Because oh-my-god is it funny!  It starts out with a scene between Lycomedes and one of his courtiers, and the courtier says that he can tell that Lycomedes has fallen in love with that girl Pyrrha who was left behind by her mother, and that he’s sure she’ll respond favorably, because why else would her mother have left her there but to become the king’s lover, and besides the girl has so much of the coquette about her and so forth and so on.  None of which would be funny, naturally, if one didn’t know that Pyrrha was actually Achilles in a dress.  Then we learn that Lycomedes’ wife is jealous of Pyrrha, and when Lycomedes learns that Pyrrha spurned the advance he sent through his courtier/procurer he tries to force himself on “her” only to get the crap beaten out of him, and when his wife hears about that she just becomes more convinced that Pyrrha is a threat (apparently thinking the violent rejection was only for show?) and determines to marry “her” off to her nephew.  Only after the queen has told Pyrrha about the match she proposes with her nephew are we left alone with Achilles and Deidamia, when he starts lamenting his fate as the most miserable man in the world, though she of course counters that her own position is far worse than his.  Not that he listens to her:  he’s being stereotypically “masculine” in his dealings with her, so far, by telling her (though not in these words) to shut up and let him think.  It gets worse, of course.  Where I last left off reading, “Ajax” (presumably meaning Telamonian Aias, rather than Locrian) had challenged the queen’s nephew to a duel over Pyrrha.  Someone’s not going to be happy when he learns the truth, methinks.  LOL!  I totally want to re-write this play into a slightly less mythically mangled (and definitely less misogynistic) version.  The whole concept of having Achilles be so convincing at pretending to be a girl that men are fighting over him is just too funny!  (And yet, Patroclos isn’t on the dramatis personae at the beginning!)

And on an amazingly related note, I want to talk about the book I got from Amazon.com today.  It’s the first shipment of the stuff I ordered on Black Friday (none of which actually turned out to be on a Black Friday sale, go figure) and the shipment consisted of a video game (which I had ordered for myself, not as a gift for someone else) and a book compiling all known Sophocles fragments.  As soon as the package was opened, I set the game aside, and pounced on the book.  (This is probably abnormal.)  Seriously, I sat down and went through the entire book, reading every fragment of any play that looked like it was going to have even a slight impact on my thesis, and a number of fragments that didn’t.  (Including “The Searchers” which is a large chunk of a satyr play about Apollo trying to get his cattle back from the infant Hermes.  Nothing to do with my paper, but it’s most of a satyr play!  How could I not read it?)  Anyway, one of the plays ties into my paper–and the libretto I was just talking about–deliciously.

It’s called “Achilleos Erastai” or “The Lovers of Achilles” and although the actual fragments themselves (having been quoted in various other works) are rather tame, it’s enough that the scholars are pretty sure that it was a satyr play, and the satyrs were all trying to make Achilles into their eromenos.  (Though this would likely have been set during his boyhood with Cheiron on Mt. Pelion, so it’s not quite as freaky as you might think.  Although satyrs trying to make any human boy their eromenos is freaky in and of itself.  (Have you seen the size of the equipment they have on Attic vases?  Yikes!))  Apparently, there was a play in a later era in which Heracles “had that role” (not sure if the book meant he was trying to make Achilles into his eromenos, or actually succeeded) so the book theorized that he might theoretically have been in it as well (being commonly involved in satyr plays) but not necessarily, and based on Plato’s famous assertion in the Symposium that Patroclos was the erastes of the relationship, he might also have been in it.  Man, it would be awesome if that play had survived!  I bet it was hilarious!

That reminds me, though.  I want to go to the Perseus Project and see if they have that other play, the one with Heracles….

So little time, so little certainty.

Published December 3, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

I need to know everything I’m going to need to do tomorrow, today.

Let me try to rephrase that so it makes sense.

Tomorrow, I’ll be going down to campus early so I can hit the library, because it’s a long drive to campus, and I want to get all my librarying done on a day when I’d be there anyway, so I don’t have to make the drive any more often than necessary.  So that means I need to figure out tonight what books I need to look for.

And that, as they say, is the rub.

Because I have no real clue.  Or rather, I know one thing I need to look for.  I need to see if any of the library’s copies of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” have notes/introductory material that will be useful to me.  Because despite the play’s horrifically anti-Homeric story and brutally anti-Homeric characterizations, it is a major reoccurrence of Patroclos as Achilles’ lover, rather than merely his friend.  So I naturally want to know a lot about the play’s background, how it came to be written, when and why, not to mention how Shakespeare knew about the classical interpretations of Homer to know about the love between those two (Plato, maybe?) to be able to blend some of the original myth into the awful Dares-inspired Medieval version.  That’s probably asking a lot from a simple introduction.  The copy I got out of the library earlier in the semester (before I found out about the Kindle app for my iPad that made the Kindle edition actually readable) had a massive introduction that I hadn’t read, planning on reading it after reading the play itself.  But if its notes were any indication, the introduction was probably more interested in modern performances of the play than in the play itself.  And its notes definitely indicated a lack of understanding of the difference between the real myth and the Dares version that inspired the play.

The introduction to my physical copy of the complete works of Shakespeare talked about some very odd goings-on in regards to the original publication of the play, including some stuff that made it sound like it was never actually performed, in combination with other things that said it had been performed, making for what seems to be a major mystery.  From what little I know of the time period, I can come up with a number of possibilities, but they’re all nothing but theories–no, not even theories, not even hypotheses–ideas that are at least mildly plausible as possible explanations, but with zero information, I couldn’t put them in a paper except as hypothetical questions, and that doesn’t seem like a very appropriate thing to do.  I do suspect that it might be significant that the initial publication rights (which were never used) were granted in 1603, the year that James I came to the throne.  I have no idea, mind you, precisely how that’s significant, but it does seem like a place to start looking, y’know?  There’s all sorts of possibilities there.  Shakespeare might have written it for a patron who fell out of favor when the monarchy switched over, one of the characters might have been suspected of being a parody of someone who was popular with the new king, one of them might have been a parody of some well-known Catholic or an imitation of some Elizabethan stereotype of Catholics….there are a lot of possibilities there, but all they are is me tossing out wild ideas more or less tied to the kind of thing that might go on in a time of regime change.  I know that James I was not as rigid a person as his son, and that both the books I read on the history of homosexuality said that he was romantically involved with men as well as women, but I have no idea if either of those things at all ties to the play’s strange publication history and nearly non-existent pre-20th century performance history.  (According to the introduction, the first confirmed professional production of the play was in something like 1895.  Though that introduction was written in 1974 (it’s even older than I am!) so it might have since been proven to be otherwise.)  For all I know, the play was oddly published and virtually unperformed just because it was so bitter and everyone in it was an idiot, a jerk or both.  Seriously, despite its pro-Trojan bent, even Hector came off badly.  That alone might have been enough to make audiences rebel against it, for all I know.  Certainly made it even harder for me to get through it.  For the record, I am neither pro-Trojan nor pro-Greek; I find that both sides have appealing and unappealing personalities, and the real tragedy of the myth is that so many good people have to die for the crimes of others.  That’s what makes the movie “Troy” so offensive:  the worst criminal of the lot gets away scot-free just because they cast Legolas in the role!  Er, or maybe they cast him because they wanted to let that villain escape at the end.  I don’t know.  It’s kind of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” type of argument… (I guess that makes it “which came first, the awful script or the casting?”)

Oh well.  This isn’t accomplishing anything.  I still have to give my presentation one more going-over, and then I need to check some call numbers for the library–though I still don’t even know what I want to look for there other than a recent edition of “Troilus and Cressida”–and then I want to do some more work on my novel.  Though I’m torn about what to name the new character I’m introducing.  He’s the reincarnation of Pandaros–and considering how annoying Pandarus was in “Troilus and Cressida” he’s definitely going to die a horrible death so I can wreak vengeance upon his hide for making me suffer through that (he didn’t even die in the play!)–so I want the name to be at least kinda-sorta like Pandaros, but that’s actually kind of a tall order.  Hah!  Maybe I should drop the “Pan” part and call him Dares, after the version of the myth that ruined the story for so many centuries!  Double pay-back!  Okay, yeah, I’m liking that!  Sweet.  I definitely think best when I’m typing.  Man, that’s weird…

Also weird is the fact that I’ve become so used to typing the proper Greek spelling “Troilos” that I have trouble forcing myself to type “Troilus” instead.

NaNo is over!

Published December 1, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

And after two weeks of “oh my god, I’m never going to be ready for this presentation” I’m suddenly in a state of “wait, am I too read for this presentation?”  Because it has to be ten to fifteen minutes long, telling the rest of the class what I’m doing my final paper on.  (Which seems weirdly grade school for a graduate level class, but whatever.)  I’ve been frantically reading for the last two weeks, when I wasn’t trying to get my novel written (see below) and today I finally said “okay, this last book is so musty it’s making me sick, so I’m just gonna start writing the presentation” which makes good sense, considering the presentation is on Thursday.  Since I know what I want to write my Master’s Thesis on, the final paper and the accompanying presentation are both sort of fledgling versions of the thesis, starting to do the work that I’ll eventually do in a few semesters’ time.  (Given where I am in this, I could technically start it next semester, I feel confident in saying, except for the fact that I’m way short on credit hours, and would thus have to keep taking classes after finishing my thesis, which would just feel weird.)   Aaaaanyway, it’s sort of intellectual/cultural/gender-studies/LGBT-studies history (I feel like I’m making up a crazy new sub-category) following the way that cultural changes across the millennia have changed portrayals of the Trojan War in general, and Achilles in particular, with emphasis on his love life and especially his relationship with Patroclos.  So I had to start out by telling what the myth is, in case people don’t know it (or only know bizarre Hollywood mutant versions), and then I go into the actual thesis, describing the changes to the myth and the changes in attitudes towards same-sex love that precipitated some (but not all) of the changes.

I’m only up to Shakespeare, and it’s already six pages long, single-spaced.  I know I spent too long on the myth itself because it’s hard to know where to stop going into detail, but even so, this thing is going to be freakishly long by the time I’m done, since it doesn’t start getting complicated until after Shakespeare’s time.  (Though as much as I hated Troilus and Cressida, I’m glad I read it:  despite generally following the Dares/Dictys version of the myth that was the only one known in western Europe in the Middle Ages, Shakespeare knew just enough about the original to present at least the accusation of Patroclos being Achilles’ lover.  (‘Tis never confirmed or denied, so what else to call it but an accusation?)  And none of the books I’ve looked at that covered the Trojan War myth through time mentioned the fact that Shakespeare brought the homoerotic component back to the myth, despite how amazingly important that is!)

I don’t know how long it takes to read a single page of text (planning on reading it aloud once I finish it to time myself) but I’m quite sure it’s going to be way over 10-15 minutes.   The good thing is, that means I should have plenty of information already to write my paper.  The bad thing is, that means if I want to do my final paper right, incorporating as much information on the topic as I currently have…it’s probably going to be at least thirty pages.  He did say we could turn in longer papers if we want, but I think that might be pushing it a bit too far.  I’ll have to ask him about it in class.

So, NaNo!  Well, as I may have said before I left for November (don’t remember, don’t feel like looking it up), my novel this year was to be called “Helen of Space” and it was to start out looking like a simple re-hash of the Trojan War, with the slight modification that it was taking place on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, and that both sides had giant robots.  (So, Trojan War meets Gundam Wing, right?)  But it only looks like that’s what’s going to happen, because then aliens attack and kill Paris before he can even meet Helen!  (Only Helen has the same name, btw.  Everyone else has different names kinda/sorta/maybe/a little like their original names.  I’m just using the originals here to save time.)  That was the original concept, which didn’t really go any further than the death of Paris.  My ideas are often like that; I come up with the set-up, and charge ahead without thinking about what comes next.  Since this was to be a NaNo novel, though, I kept coming up with more events as I awaited November’s start, so I had a lot more than that by the time I actually started writing.  In fact, I had this wonderful full-circle thing, where it looks like the war is off, and then…Oops!  It’s back on again!  There’s even a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon that leads to Achilles withdrawing from the war.  (Though the girl being taken away from Achilles isn’t Briseis this time (she already dumped him) but Iphigenia, so Agamemnon’s motivation is very, very different, and Achilles’ selfishness is more pronounced…but this time the war is neither clear-cut nor does it have any particular justification apart from mutual paranoia.)  And just when things look worst, like it’s going to spiral down into death and despair as Cassandra predicts (poor thing; she remembers every single one of their reincarnations, where they’ve replayed the war over and over again), then the aliens come back, and the enemies become allies once more, and happy endings all around.  Well, no, it’s not quite that pat, but characters live or die based on their own actions and on whether or not I want them to live or die, not based on what happened to them in the original myth.  (Spoiler:  neither Patroclos nor Hector is going to die.  They’re my favorites, so I’m not letting anything happen to them!)

Given all the characters, all the interpersonal relationships, and the need to create a mounting atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, I quickly realized that this wasn’t one novel: it was a whole freakin’ trilogy.  And as November wore on and I learned how much work I had to do for class, I despaired of finishing even the first book during the month of November.  (I know NaNo is technically supposed to be about writing 50,000 words, but for me that’s never been difficult, so I don’t consider myself to have won unless I’ve finished the whole first draft.)  It took me all the way up to November 30, but I just barely managed to finish book one.  Of course, now I don’t know what the title of book one is.  I’ll probably still use “Helen of Space” for book three, but I have no idea about the first two.

And something is scritching around inside my wall, so I think I’m going to go take a bath where I (hopefully) can’t hear it.

You’re killin’ me, Will!

Published September 19, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

I know it was foolish of me, but I tried to finish reading “Troilus and Cressida” last night.

I managed to get to the end of Act 1.

So I had left off immediately after learning that for some reason Shakespeare had combined Aias and Teukros, right?  Well, as soon as I started reading again, then there’s another horrible bombshell, because he starts describing the man’s personality, and accuses him of literally having every possible vice and character flaw.  (Seriously:  the line reads that there is “no attaint but he carries some stain of it.”)

As I am quite the fan of Aias–he’s my second favorite (lol, that’s appropriate) after Patroclos (well, that part’s new)–that already ticked me off.  Yes, he’s always described as speaking slowly, but slow of speech is not the same thing as slow of wit!  And one of the most common epithets used to describe Aias is “great-hearted” because he’s so gentle of spirit, kind of heart, and generally awesome!  When Helen is on the wall identifying all the Greeks for Priam, Aias is singled out as being the most handsome man there, and in ancient Greece, “handsome” encompassed all mental virtues as well as physical ones.  (Literally.  They used the same word for “good” as for “handsome” and about half a dozen other positive traits…which is probably both why Athene wanted the golden apple, because the word for beautiful was also the word for “good” in a number of other contexts.  Also why they thought Alexander/Paris was a good choice to be the judge, because they mistook his fair face for a fair mind.)

Anyway, I struggled on past the egregious assault on Aias’ character, and kept going, and apart from balking at the idea that Troilos managed to live to the age of 23, I mostly had no other problems with the rest of that scene.

But then the Trojans left the stage and the Greeks came out.

Oh.  My.  God.

It’s hard to describe what that did to me.  It’s one thing to see Hollywood abusing Greek myths, because Hollywood is generally abusive to source material unless the creator is alive and present and ready to sue them for screwing it up.  (Okay, that was slightly unfair, I admit.)  But William Shakespeare, revered as one of the greatest writers of all time, many of whose plays I dearly love….seeing him mutilate this source material that’s so dear to my heart…!

Actually, it brings up the very good question of why the heck I would put myself through this agony, and I don’t really have an answer.

(Unless I do end up doing my thesis on how the portrayal of myths have changed across time, because if I do, and if I focus on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos, then both Chaucer and Shakespeare would be important steps.  (Though I don’t know, off-hand, if Patroclos is in Chaucer’s version.  But even if he isn’t, that in itself is relevant.))

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There was actually one moment after the Greeks came out that I liked, which I’ll get to below.  But…only the one.

Because we quickly got to what I presume will be the Greek sub-plot of the play.  Odysseus explained that there was a morale problem among the troops, and that it was because of Achilles, who stays in his tent all day with Patroclos.  That would be fine and dandy if this was the tenth year, and the reason was because Agamemnon had taken Briseis away.  That is, after all, how the story goes.  But no, this is only the seventh year of the war, and Briseis isn’t even listed on the dramatis personae at the front.  (The annoying thing about it being the seventh year is that I won’t get to see Pandaros die.  He was totally freakin’ annoying me.  But at least I can savor his death in the Iliad, which is a fairly nasty one, too, a fact I can enjoy since it’s him.  He was, after all, always hateful.)  Anyway, no, the reason–according to Shakespeare’s “Ulysses”, who I hope is pulling an Athenian stage Odysseus and lying through his teeth for his own nefarious reasons–that Achilles is hanging out in his tent all day is because Patroclos is performing insulting imitations of the elder kings to amuse him.

I just about rage-quit the play then and there.

Because Patroclos is the nicest guy in the entire war!  He’s even nicer than Hector!  He’d never say or do anything to offend the old or the powerful or the inoffensive!  (He would, I think, insult Thersites, because who wouldn’t?)  Yes, he mocks his enemies in battle, but trash talking is normal and they all do it.  (And some of Hector’s trash talking had a much nastier edge to it than Patroclos’.  Uh, assuming he didn’t realize that last victim of his was Hector’s half-brother.  Then saying that stuff about him was rather cruel, considering he was, essentially, saying it to Hector.)  In fact, I doubt it’s an accident that the two nicest of the young warriors in the Iliad are also the two whose deaths form the emotional crux of the story.  Though that does say rather terrible things about Greece in the Archaic Age…

Really, the only reason I intend to eventually go back and finish the rest of the play is that there were a couple of places where the language Odysseus–sorry, “Ulysses”–used implied that Shakespeare knew that Achilles and Patroclos were lovers, so I want to see how that plays out, if it ever goes beyond the subtext level, et cetera.

Okay, so moving past my whiny complaints, let me get to the part that I liked.  As soon as the Greeks come out, Agamemnon and Nestor begin talking about how they’re having so much trouble in the war.  Then we get the following speech from Odysseus:

Agamemnon,

Thou great commander, nerve and bone of Greece,

Heart of our numbers, soul and only spirit

In whom the tempers and the minds of all

Should be shut up, hear what Ulysses speaks.

Besides th’applause and approbation

The which most mighty for thy place and sway,

And thou most reverend for thy stretched-out life,

I give to both your speeches, which were such

As Agamemnon and the hand of Greece

Should hold up high in brass, and such again

As venerable Nestor, hatched in silver,

Should, with a bond of air strong as the axle-tree

On which heaven rides, knit all the Greekish ears

To his experienced tongue, yet let it please both

Thou great, and wise, to hear Ulysses speak.

So we get through that whole lengthy speech, and he’s just saying “let me talk now,” right?  Followed by Agamemnon somewhat snippily telling him to speak, with the implication of “did you think I asked you out here without wanting your advice?”  That made me crack up for a rather surprising reason:  I had Odysseus do something similar in my novel.  Of course, my Odysseus doesn’t have such beautiful poetic diction, because I’m not a very good writer.  (At least I’m honest, right?)  But there was just something about the notion that I had unwittingly done something that Shakespeare had done centuries ago that made me feel good.  But then, as Marlon said, “Happy feelings gone!”

Anyway, just to be doing, I want to quote myself, too.  The context is the hoplon krisis, the debate over who will receive the armor of Achilles, and the chapter is in first-person narration by Aias.  (The whole novel is like that; every chapter has a different narrator.  It’s kind of more a long sequence of vignettes than a proper novel.)

“It is a most difficult task to guess what man will be of most use to these combined forces in our desperate effort to regain Helen, fair Queen of Lacedaemon, from the Trojan barbarians,” Odysseus begins, “and I do not envy those who will be asked to make this decision.  But if I may humbly state my case, I hope I will be given leave to speak.”

All that was just the introduction?

“He just asked you to,” Diomedes says.  He’s angry.  He must want the armor, too.  But he doesn’t want to compete with both of us.  Or just one of us.

Odysseus is favored by Athene.  I have no divine patron.  Am I doomed to lose for that?

So, essentially, as soon as I got to the last line of “Ulysses”‘ speech in the play, I found myself quoting myself and saying “All that was just the introduction?”  Arrogant, I know, but….sometimes a girl just can’t help herself.

(In defense of my novel, let me hasten to point out two things.  One, it’s not always in the present tense.  It just depends on the events of the chapter, and the fate of the narrator at the end.  Two, the staccato sentence structure in the narration is peculiar to Aias.  No one else’s narration is like that.  But since the ancient authors all say he speaks slowly, I wanted to indicate that somehow, and giving him short, simple sentences seemed to make more sense than just repeating that he speaks slowly.)

Repost: Brain fail

Published September 11, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

Original URL: http://39years.blog.com/2014/09/01/brain-fail/

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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