Seven Ways to Illustrate the Classical Unities

Lockdown boredom reached such levels today that I just had to deviate from the routine on the blog to provide both myself and you with a change of scenery. Ladies and gentleman, please enjoy literature discussed – in the form of infographics!

The Classical Unities

But before we start with any infographics, let’s just remind ourselves of those old grammar school days when such concepts as the classical unities were still actually taught in literature classes*.

The Classical Unities, also known as the Aristotelian Unities, and also – not very originally – known as the Three Unities, are the idea, originating in Aristotle’s Poetics, that a good tragedy should have unity of time, unity of place and unity of action. What these exactly mean, you’ll see illustrated below, but first we might as well pickup our trusty old Poetics and read what Aristotle actually wrote:

Aristotle on the Classical Unities

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

On the Unity of Time:

…Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit…

(Aristotle: Poetics, V)

On the Unity of Action:

…Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these—thought and character—are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action: for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents.

…Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. .. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

…Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the Unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence, the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too—whether from art or natural genius—seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus—such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host—incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to centre round an action that in our sense of the word is one.

As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

(Aristotle: Poetics, VI-VIII)

On the Unity of Place:

Yep. All of that.

The Aristotelian Unities

Good old Aristotle never mentioned unity of place. Perhaps he took it for granted. After all, once you’ve got unity of action (clearly the most important thing) and unity of time, how far can you spread it geographically?

Nevertheless any budding writer would do well to chew his way through Aristotle’s Poetics, because the one thing you can notice while he disperses poetic advice with a liberal hand, is that quite a lot of those things which he criticises as ‘bad’ are standard features of a certain kind of literature, ahem, ahem, you know, the kind which is published with glaring metallic letters on the front cover and has no literary merit whatsoever. So if you’re aiming to win, I don’t know, the Booker Prize, you’d better follow Aristotle’s advice; if on the other hand, you’re aiming to be published by Mills & Boon, you’ll do well to follow the exact opposite of his advice…

The Three Unities:

Now then when people started to read Aristotle again in Europe, almost two millennia years later, the third unity was most definitely added, and gained particular popularity in France where several famous playwrights did their best to adhere to it, so if you go out – what am I saying?! You can’t go out and see a play any more, classical French or otherwise.

So to the devil with that, let’s proceed to the illustrations:

Seven Ways to Illustrate the Classical Unities

Click on the gallery to enlarge the pictures.

Notes:

* You can tell that this post has been inspired by the lack of such things in the literature curriculum of Young Friend of the Elephants - currently home schooling owing to the coronavirus - or, for that matter, in Sophisticated Young Lady's, several years earlier (at the time not home schooling owing to no coronavirus).

Further Reading (or Other People's Take on the Same Topic):The Unities and the Short StoryClassical UnitiesAristotle's Poetics: The Three Unities

Lockdown Diaries: Day 70 (The Sea! The Sea!)

Locked Down in Lancashire, Day 70:

After more than two months in lockdown, we went on our first genuine day out…

…to the sea.

P1090782

A vast sheet of water, the commencement of a lake or an ocean, spread far away beyond the range of the eye, reminding me forcibly of that open sea which drew from Xenophon’s ten thousand Greeks, after their long retreat, the simultaneous cry, “Thalatta! thalatta!” the sea! the sea!

Jules Verne: The Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Lockdown is over.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 70 (The Sea! The Sea!)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 29 (Books That Make You Look Good When Dead?)

Locked Down in London, Day 29: Too Many Books?

A few years ago we had to have some repairs done to our roof and for a few days we had a workman in. On the last day he finished work early and had to wait for a colleague to pick him up with the company van. We sat him down in the living room with a cup of tea, and he looked at the bookshelves and asked: “How many books do you have?”

Well, truth be told, I don’t know. Mostly I feel that not enough. At some point however we did try to catalogue them by using a scanning program and although we never finished and keep forgetting scanning new books in, I was able to make an educated guess.

“About three thousand,” I said.

His jaw dropped. “Three thousand! And did you read them all?”

That made my jaw drop. “Well, of course…” I have read a lot more than 3000 books in my life, actually. The ones on the bookshelves – those are just my favourites.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 29 (Books That Make You Look Good When Dead?)”

How to Swindle Your Creditors, Or the Unedifying Story of an Ancient Greek Insurance Scam

The Mysterious Noise

3rd century B.C.
Off the coast of Attica, on the approach to Athens.

The sun is beating down on a calm, brilliantly blue Aegean but a refreshing breeze is caressing our faces as we’re sitting on board a fat merchant ship sailing from Byzantium towards Athens with a cargo of grain. A fellow passenger, by the name of Zenothemis, is waxing lyrical about the beauty of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, now visible in the distance, to the Captain and Dikaiopolis, a busybody merchant who embarked in Euboea. Suddenly the Captain hears a noise. Zenothemis is either deaf or too fond of his own voice, for he claims to hear nothing, but the Captain and Dikaiopolis can both hear the noise coming from below and we all – captain, sailors, Dikaiopolis and our invisible selves – troop down into the hold to see what’s going on…

Continue reading “How to Swindle Your Creditors, Or the Unedifying Story of an Ancient Greek Insurance Scam”

Herodotus: A Quiz

It’s been a while since we last talked of Herodotus which is a bad thing. So I was just about to write a new post to add to my Best Stories of Herodotus… and then I got seduced by the idea of doing a quiz instead.

Herodotus, c.484-425 B.C.

How well do you know your Herodotus? Take the quiz to find out! 🙂

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Artemisia, Hero(ine) of the Baddies

On this blog we don’t do a black and white view of the world, therefore even the Baddies can have heroes. And since we’re writing about Herodotus here, in this case the Baddies are Xerxes and his Greece-invading Persian lot, while their hero is, in point of fact, a heroine: Artemisia, the queen of Caria.

Continue reading “Artemisia, Hero(ine) of the Baddies”

Ode on a Grecian Urn (Answer)

As mentioned last week, six years ago I forcefully dragged my family to Delphi; and despite themselves, they so liked the place that they gave me a Greek vase as a thank you present:

I gave you a chance in last week’s post to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on the vase, and today… well, you’re getting the answer. 🙂

Which is:

Theseus kills Procrustes

We’ll hand over to Robert Graves here:
On reaching Attic Cordallus, Theseus slew Sinis’s father Polypemon, surnamed Procrustes, who lived beside the road and had two beds in his house, one small, the other large. Offering a night’s lodging to travellers, he would lay the short men on the large bed, and rack them out to fit it; but the tall men on the small bed, sawing off as much of their legs as projected beyond it. Some say, however, that he used only one bed, and lengthened or shortened his lodgers according to its measure. In either case, Theseus served him as he had served others.
(Robert Graves: Greek Myths)
The picture on my vase is, of course, only a replica. The original is this kylix (wine-drinking cup), c. 440 B.C.:
The Labours of Theseus. Photo by Egisto Sani [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr.

 

Ode on a Grecian Urn (Guess the Picture)

What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

(John Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn)

Six years ago I dragged my family to Delphi – three hours coach travel from Athens in thirty degrees heat. As it happens, my family is – mostly – interested in history but they had extreme doubts as to why they were asked to see some more Greek ruins; after all we already visited the Acropolis and the Agora of Athens, the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Knossos in Crete… But I couldn’t imagine a visit to Greece being complete without having visited Delphi, home to the Delphi Oracle, where Apollo himself dealt with the invading Persians… and well, Delphi, right?

As it happened, they were all really impressed by the ruins in Delphi (even Young Friend of the Elephants, aged 5, who had zero interest in traipsing around on hot mountain sides among ancient ruins but was more than happy to crawl into random holes in the ground) and they got me a Greek vase as a thank you present.

This one:

It took me quite a while to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on this side of the vase.

Today’s challenge is for you to work it out for yourselves. 🙂 I’m making it easier for you by turning it into a multiple choice question – please vote. I’ll give you the correct answer next week. Have fun!

.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

(John Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn)
You might also like:Guess the PictureA Take on the Column

Vulcano, la forja de los dioses

Read this in English

Hefesto y Vulcano

Hefesto, el dios herrero, era tan enclenque cuando nació que su madre Hera, disgustada, lo arrojó desde la cima del Olimpo para librarse de la vergüenza…

Robert Graves: Los mitos griegos

Bueno, exactemente aquí ya puedes ver de dónde sacaron los espartanos su idea de arrojar los recién nacidos con defectos físicos o enfermos de los acantilados del Taigeto. Pero en cuanto a Hefesto, el dios del fuego y de la forja, el herrero de los dioses del Olimpo, él tenía suerte en esta primera caída: se cayó en el mar, donde la ninfa Tetis lo encontró y lo llevó a casa. Unos años más tarde, Hefesto estableció una pequeña forja submarina, y le pagó por la amabilidad con unas chucherías domesticas, por no mencionar unas joyas estupendas que llamaron la atención de Hera. Debido a lo cual no sólo se le permitió regresar al Olimpo sino que también se le dio Afrodita para su esposa… Pues eso acabó bien, o, al menos, hubiera acabado bien, si Hefesto entonces calló. Pero no, dedicó unas palabras poco prudentes a Zeus, quién, de nuevo, lo arrojó de la montaña… Esta vez tenía menos suerte, como que se cayo en tierra, y se quedó cojo para el resto de su vida inmortal.

Adelanto rápido a los tiempos romanos. Como sabemos, los romanos fueron muy ingeniosos en la ingeniería (mi favorito es el corvus, una puente para el abordaje de las galeras cartaginenses, la solución clásica para el problema de cómo-cambiar-una-batalla-del-mar-en-que-somos-inútiles-en-una-batalla-de-tierra-en-que-somos-mucho-mejores), por no mencionar sus varios otros éxitos que llamaron la atención. A pesar de esto, parece que los romanos no tenían ninguna imaginación cuando se trataba de su religión: tanto que no se molestaron en inventar la suya propia, sino que sencillamente importaron la antigua griega. Y así Hefesto, el griego, se convirtió en Vulcano, ciudadano de Roma. Larga vida a los dioses, bajo un nombre u otro.

La forja de Vulcano por Jacopo Tintoretto [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Pues pasó que cuando Hefesto volvió al favor de Hera, abandonó su herrero submarino y establició una forja nueva en el Olimpo. O al menos eso dice la leyenda pero las leyendas son sujetos a cambios… y dicen que Hefesto tenía forjas en lugares distintos.

Los colonos griegos en Sicilia ya tomaron nota del lugar, pero probablemente debemos la ubicación de la forja de Vulcano a los romanos, quienes elegiron el lugar perfecto: una isla pequeña cerca de las orillas de Sicilia, convinientemente llamada…

Continue reading “Vulcano, la forja de los dioses”

Vulcano, the Forge of Gods

Leer esto en castellano

Hephaestus and Vulcan

Hephaestus, the ugly and ill-tempered Smith-god, was so weakly at birth that his disgusted mother, Hera, dropped him from the height of Olympus, to rid herself of the embarrassment…

Greek Myths by Robert Graves

Well, right there you can see where the Spartans might have got their notions of throwing sickly newborns off the cliffs of Taygetus. But as regards Hephaestus, god of fire and the blacksmith of the gods of Mt Olympus, in this first fall he was lucky: he fell into the sea, where he was found by the nymph Thetys, who duly took him home. A few years later, Hephaestus repaid the kindness by setting up a little undersea smithy and making for her some useful household odds and ends, not to mention some fancy jewellery which caught the eye of Hera. Owing to which not only he was allowed to return to Olympus but was given Aphrodite for his wife. All’s well that ends well, or would have, except that he then said some unwise words to Zeus, who once again hurled him off the mountain… This time he was less lucky, because he fell on hard ground and remained lame for the rest of his immortal life.

Fast forward to Roman times. As we know, the Romans were quite ingenious when it came to engineering (my personal favourite is the corvus, a bridge for boarding Carthaginian galleys, the classic solution to the conundrum of how-to-turn-a-naval-battle-at-which-we’re-****-into-a-land-battle-at-which-we’re-so-much-better), not to mention their various other achievements that clamour for attention. Despite of this, the Romans seemed sadly lacking in imagination when it came to their religion: so much so that they didn’t bother to come up with their own – they merely imported in the Ancient Greek one. And so Hephaestus the Greek became Vulcan, the citizen of Rome. Long live the gods, under one name or another.

Vulcan’s Forge by Jacopo Tintoretto [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Now it so happened that when Hephaestus returned to Hera’s favour, owing to his ability to make fancy jewellery, he abandoned his undersea workshop and set up a new smithy on Mt Olympus. Or at least so says the original myth but myths are subject to change… and Hephaestus is reputed to have forges in more than one place.

The Greeks settlers on Sicily have already noted the place, but ultimately we probably owe the location of Vulcan’s forge to the incoming Romans who have hit on just the spot: a little volcanic island off the shores of Sicily, conveniently named…

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Call No Man Happy

The Best Stories of Herodotus returns today – after a shamefully long gap – with a story that has nothing to do with our favourite topic, the Greek-Persian Wars. Because The Histories of Herodotus is so much more than the long-winded retelling of a few gory battles: in his effort to unearth the causes of the war, Herodotus went as far back in time as the origins of the War of Troy and ranged across the Eastern Mediterranean and across subjects in a way that modern historians would never dare. Today’s story is a great example.

Let’s introduce the three protagonists first: Solon, Croesus and Cyrus.

Continue reading “Call No Man Happy”

Why Read the Classics?

In 1981, the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote an essay titled Why Read the Classics?. It’s less than ten entertaining pages, so I recommend you read it if you can lay your hands on it. (It’s been published in a book form, in a collection of his essays, bearing the same title.)

What follows here is the 14 definitions of what classics are as put forward in the essay – 14 definitions worth thinking about:

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The Battle of Marathon (According to Herodotus)

Casus Belli

In 491 B.C. King Darius I of Persia sent out his envoys to the various Greek city states, demanding of them earth and water – in those times, a sign of submission, the acceptance of, in this case, Persian rule. Some city states were cowed into complying while others refused; but the demand went down particularly badly in Athens and in Sparta:

…the Athenians cast these heralds, when they made their request, down into a pit, and the Spartans had thrown theirs into a well; and the heralds were told to take their earth and water to the King from there!

(Herodotus: The Histories, Book VII.133) 

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The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry II

While Byron chose to tell the story of the Battle of Salamis short and sweet in The Isles of Greece – which, by the way, is part of a much longer poem, Don Juan -, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus wrote an entire play based upon it.

ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε
ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ
παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη,
θήκας τε προγόνων: νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.

O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.

Aeschylus: The Persians

The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus

Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.

Continue reading “The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry II”

Salamis (According to Herodotus)

Salamis – an island in the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, opposite Mount Aigaleo, 16 kilometres west of Athens.

Salamis – a battle that defined history for centuries to come.

The Warriors of Salamis (Achilles Vasileiou), battle monument on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
The Warriors of Salamis by Achilles Vasileiou, on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
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The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets (El imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol)

I first heard this evocative phrase in a history class at university many years ago but in certain countries (the English and the Spanish can raise their hands here) it’s pretty well-known. And I don’t know about you but it makes me think of ships ploughing the oceans, armies marching and merchants haggling over exotic goods. I think of kings whose word was law over diverse lands, of gold and glory and of a confusion of languages to equal that of Babel. In fact, in my mind I can see the big globe in the library of the Escorial, turning slowly….

He oído esta frase evocador en una clase de historia en la universidad hace muchos años pero en ciertas países  (los españoles y los ingleses pueden levantar las manos aquí) es bastante bien conocida. No sé nada de ti, pero me hace pensar en barcos cruzando el mar, ejercitos en marcha y comerciantes regateando mercancías exóticos. Pienso en reyes cuyos palabras eran la ley en tierras distintas, en oro y gloria, y además en una confusión de idiomas igual que la de Babel. De hecho, mentalmente veo el gran globo en la biblioteca de El Escorial, girando despacio… 

The library of the Escorial with the big globe / La biblioteca de El Escorial con el gran globo
The library of the Escorial with the big globe / La biblioteca de El Escorial con el gran globo. Photo by José Maria Cuellar via Flickr. [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Continue reading “The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets (El imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol)”

Nine Quirky Facts (Nueve hechos raros)

Nine Quirky Facts I Read Last Year

Books are not merely a source of entertainment but also of knowledge… (today’s cliché). How many of the following nine facts do you know?

Nueve hechos raros que leí el año pasado

Los libros no son sencillamente una fuente de entretenimiento, pero también lo de conocimiento… (cliché de hoy). ¿Cuáles de los nueve hechos siguientes ya sabes?

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Dark Earth’s Far-Seen Star: Delos Through the Eyes of Pindar

There is a line by Pindar, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet, in which he describes the island of Delos, one of the most barren and inhospitable of all Greek islands, as ‘the dark earth’s far-seen star’:

Hail, god-reared daughter of the sea,
earth-shoot most dear to bright-haired Leto’s children,
wide earth’s immoveable marvel,
who of mortals art called Delos,
but of the blessed gods in Olympus the dark earth’s far-seen star…

Dark earth’s far-seen star – the island as seen from above by the gods, glowing with light in the dark sea – is one of those memorable phrases that turned the famous Roman poet Horace into one of Pindar’s life-long fans. Sadly, not much else of this Procession Song survives today (you’ve just read half of what there’s left).

Continue reading “Dark Earth’s Far-Seen Star: Delos Through the Eyes of Pindar”

Delphi: Shaping the Future of the Past

Delphi is just a small town built into the hillside under Mount Parnassus – home to the Muses – and overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. It’s three hours drive from Athens and even at the height of the tourist season you can escape the crowds here.

Gulf of Corinth view from Delphi P1010130
View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi

Continue reading “Delphi: Shaping the Future of the Past”