Plays, Racine

Classics Spin #23: Review of La Thébaïde by Racine

La Thébaïde by RacineI did it! I finally completed a Classics Spin book. My pick for this month’s spin was a play: La Thébaïde by Racine.

La Thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis by Racine follows the bitter war fought between the two sons of Oedipus and Jacosta: Étéocle (Eteocles) and Polynice (Polynices). At the start of the play, we learn that Eteocles’s term has ended. According to Oedipus’s decree, it is now his brother’s turn to rule Thebes. Unfortunately, Eteocles refuses to share the throne with Polynices. Although Antigone initially supported Polynices’s claim to the throne, she can no longer stand by and look on while her brothers fight each other. Thus, she and her mother arrange a meeting with the two men, in hopes that they might finally lay down their weapons and come to a peaceful agreement. Why don’t Eteocles and Polynices rule together? But waiting in the wings is their uncle Creon, who insists that only one man should be king. The law must be respected, even if the people are unhappy. Jacosta is convinced, however, that Creon wants the throne for himself.

Racine was one of the three greatest playwrights of 17th-century France (the other two being Corneille and Molière). He is best known for his tragedies — a genre that appears to have lost its appeal in the 21st-century. As you might expect from the character list, La Thébaïde is a tragedy. Nothing good can come from an incestuous marriage:

Tu ne t’étonnes pas si mes fils sont perfides,
S’ils sont tous deux méchantset s’ils sont parricides :
Tu sais qu’ils sont sortis d’un sang incestueux,
Et tu t’étonnerais s’ils étaient vertueux.

Jacoste, Act 1, Scene 2

Although this is not Racine’s best play, it is not terrible (he also wrote it when he was 25!). The dialogue is brilliant even if the characterization is lacking. My favorite character was Creon because he had layered motives. Despite knowing that Creon aspired to the throne, I was often struck by how reasonable he sounded. I also enjoyed the tension between passion and duty. The play gave me many story ideas…

I don’t know how many English versions there are of this play. I suspect, not many. But if you have enjoyed other plays by Racine and you come across a copy of La Thébaïde, I recommend you give it a try. I will certainly be reading other plays by Racine in the near future. The only other play by him that I have read is his most famous: Phèdre.

Satire, Swift, Jonathan

Review of A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

I haven’t reviewed a book in a while, so let’s do it!

Image result for a tale of a tub jonathan swiftWhat was it about?

It is near impossible to answer this question. It is mostly an allegory on the Reformation and an implied defense of the Church of England. However, every other chapter is a digression (A Digression Concerning Critics, A Digression in the Modern Kind, A Digression in Praise of Digressions, and A Digression Concerning Madness). The digression chapters are supposed to infuriate the reader because they have nothing to do with the story and often aren’t about anything at all. There are also a couple of prefaces at the start of the work. Finally, Swift loves insert random Latin quotes into his works. I believe that some of the quotes in this satire were in fake Latin. Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub is both a satire on religion and on the literary and political movements of seventeenth-century England.

What did I think of it?

I have taken two graduate courses on seventeenth-century French literature, so I have a basic understanding of the literary movements of the period. I also have more than a little obsession with Christian history. But even with that background I had difficulty following A Tale of a Tub. The religious satire was clearly a defense of the the Church of England. A coat given by a father to three of his sons represents the Apostolic faith. The three sons are named Peter, Martin, and Jack. I’ll let you guess who the three sons represent. The religious satire was OK. It was a bit too obvious for my liking. Oddly enough, I preferred the digression chapters even though they infuriated me. While I had difficulty understanding them (which I believe is the point) I noticed that Swift was ridiculing contemporary publishing and the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns. In fact, the companion work (which I reviewed in 2015) is called The Battle of the Books. He also made a reference to Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. I love it when I am able to recognize intertextuality. I would like to revisit the digressions at some point because I’m sure I missed a lot the first time around. But again, I’m not sure if I was supposed to read them carefully.

A Tale of a Tub was brilliant in its construction even if the religious satire fell a bit flat. It reminded me of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, which I definitely will be reviewing soon. Swift is a difficult satirist to read because he addresses seventeenth-century English society. But that is also why I enjoy reading Swift. He encourages me to work for my humor. I hope than in a few years I will be able to appreciate A Tale of a Tub more.

Favorite Quote

“Having thus paid my due deference and acknowledgment to an established custom of our newest authors, by a long digression unsought for, and a universal censure unprovoked; by forcing into the light, with much pains and dexterity, my own excellencies and other men’s defaults, with great justice to myself and candour to them, I now happily resume my subject, to an infinite satisfaction both of the reader and the author.”

Satire, Swift, Jonathan

Review of The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift

What was it about?

Parnassus has two hills. The tallest is occupied by the Ancients and the shortest is occupied by the Moderns. The latter constantly feel threatened and offended by the height of the Ancients’ hill with respect to their own. The Moderns therefore propose a solution; they offer to use their own shovels and lower the hill of the Ancients so that the two hills can be of equal size. The Ancients do not accept the offer, responding instead that the Moderns should be grateful that the Ancients have allowed them to exist peacefully as a colony. The bickering between the two hills eventually grows into a full-fledged battle. But the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns is not a battle between individuals but between books housed in King’s Library. The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift is a satirical look at the tension between ancient and 17th century ideologies. Do the moderns stand on the shoulders of giants or are the ancients irrelevant for the enlightened world?

What did I think of it?

Jonathan Swift is a brilliant satirist. Whereas most satire today is straightforward and obvious, Swift’s satirical works contain layers of meaning. The reader is also expected to have a fair bit of knowledge about philosophy, history, politics, and religion. The Battle of the Books was harder for me to understand than Gulliver’s Travels because I am not well-versed in ancient or 17th century philosophy. As a result, there were many parts that I did not understand. What I did take from the book, though, is Swift’s insight that the Moderns are dreamers and think that they are self-creating but they are, in truth, constantly indebted to the philosophers who preceded them. Still, Swift doesn’t let the Ancients off the hook either. The allegory of the bee and the spider was my favorite part of the tale because it outlined the different ways in which the ancient and 17th century philosophers approached the acquisition of knowledge. I was a bit disappointed that the story ended so abruptly, but there were many parts that gave me food for thought. Overall, I enjoyed the short tale and hope to read more of Swift’s works in the near future.

Favorite Quote

“Then Aristotle, observing Bacon advance with a furious mien, drew his bow to the head, and let fly his arrow, which missed the valiant modern and went whizzing over his head; but Des Cartes it hit; the steel point quickly found a defect in his headpiece; it pierced the leather and the pasteboard, and went in at his right eye.”