Art Imitates Greek Tragedy

by: Douglas Grant1

The stories behind the stories that demand our attention…

Art Imitates Greek Tragedy

Tread Carefully, Spoilers Abound…

It is fairly common knowledge that classical works of literature, and enduring stories of yore, still resonate in the tales being told today. Unbeknownst to many, the anecdotes “conceived” by the current entertainment industry have their roots in notable works by Shakespeare, the Bible, and in the folklore and mythology of Greece and Ancient Rome. But you might be surprised to learn just how inundated Western Culture is by these timeless tales. To demonstrate the gargantuan hold that the great Greek Tragedies still posses, the best of the best in this era of the Golden Age of Television are dissected and exposed, as Art imitates Greek Tragedy…

Game of Thrones: Iphigenia in Aulis

In a stupefying subplot in Season 5 of Game of Thrones, heir apparent to the Iron Throne Stannis Baratheon burns his own daughter, Shireen, at the stake. He does this at the behest of his sorceress-mistress, Melisandre, as an offering to The Lord of Light, to increase the chances of a successful military campaign against the Boltons. This heart-breaking decision mirrors one from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, where the Greek coalition leader, Agamemnon, must make a similar sacrifice to appease the goddess Artemis. “Every beat of the Greek myth is the same as Stannis’ story: The troops are stuck and starving and the general….must sacrifice his own daughter to turn the fates to their favor. The mother begging for mercy, the disapproving second-in-command who can do nothing to stop it, the daughter who says she will do whatever it takes to help – it’s all a clear echo.” This scene is just one of many throughout the series that have shocked its audience, and perhaps George R.R. Martin borrowed heavily from Greek Tragedy to counter the optimistic Disneyfication of popular stories from today’s fantasy genre.

PeakyBlinders

Peaky Blinders: Prometheus Bound

In Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound, the title character is being punished by Zeus, not only for stealing both fire and the craft of metalwork, but also for disrupting Zeus’s plan to eradicate all mortals. This is after Prometheus was instrumental in securing Zeus’s victory in The War of the Titans.

In the British gangster drama Peaky Blinders, clan leader Thomas Shelby is being pursued by Inspector Campbell from Belfast, not only for stealing machine guns and ammunition bound for Libya, but also for leading Birmingham’s criminal overlords in enterprises of bookmaking and robbery. Like Prometheus, Tommy plays two sides in serving Campbell in his designs.

Both Prometheus and Tommy Shelby maintain strategic value to those who would ensnare them in their plots, mostly for their in-depth knowledge of the machinations that drive the respective worlds they live in. This makes them dangerous allies to Zeus and Campbell, but necessary ones nonetheless. This is until Prometheus and Tommy have served their purpose, but neither man has any intention of being disposed of after their usefulness has expired. Both men have other cards to play, mostly in the form of information that only they possess.

In the play there is a priestess named Io who is lustfully pursued by Zeus and then encounters Prometheus after having fled in fear for her life. Knowing Zeus all too well, Prometheus understands her predicament. In the show, Inspector Campbell conscripts the help of Grace Burgess, an agent whose father was killed by the IRA, and who is working undercover to undermine the Peaky Blinders. However, when Campbell turns his eyes on Grace as a potential life partner, she flees to Tommy. Like Io’s interaction with Prometheus, Grace is able to find some solace with Tommy before she too is forced to abscond to a faraway land.

Vikings

Vikings: Seven Against Thebes

Vikings tells the story of a Norse farmer turned raider Ragnar Lothbrok, and his ascension to the throne by killing any Scandinavian earls or kings who cross him. However, jealousy compels his brother, Rollo, to betray Ragnar by forming an alliance with Jarl Borg, an earl with an entire army at his command. The two brothers eventually meet on the battlefield, and their armies clash. Although Ragnar and Rollo are gradually able to salvage their former alliance through their belief in strong tradition and familial bonds, years later Rollo betrays Ragnar yet again, this time aligning himself with the French Crown.

This story is reminiscent of Aeschylus’s play Seven Against Thebes, where the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, each claim the right to the crown of Thebes. Eteocles resembles Ragnar in that he is the one currently ruling as the play commences. Polynices is redolent of Rollo because he is the brother who craves the power his brother holds, and like Rollo he raises an army from a neighboring region, Argolis, to lay siege to Thebes. As is the case with Ragnar, Eteocles agrees to meet his brother and engage him in battle. Although in the play the single combat results in the death of both brothers, in Vikings the power struggle has been postponed until this point in the series, with Rollo poised to challenge his brother’s authority once more, and the audience eager to see the inevitable showdown.

Bates

Bates Motel: Oedipus Rex

This updated version of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho has very overt allusions to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the tragedy of the king of Thebes who married his own mother. The incestuous sexual tension Norman Bates feels toward his mother is the textbook Oedipus complex, and he repeatedly feels threatened by any man who becomes a potential love interest for Norma. Furthermore, aside from his confusing infatuation, he struggles to discern the truth about the death of his father, fearing that he may have committed patricide in a fugue state. This resembles Oedipus’ own quest for truth as he goes through the play with increasing apprehension, eventually coming to terms with the fact that he was the one who murdered his father, King Laius. Both men are driven into deteriorating mental states as they continue to uncover pieces of the whole truth.

Bloodline

Bloodline: Ajax

Parallels can be drawn between the family drama Bloodline and Sophocles’ tragic play Ajax. Shortly after the events of The Iliad, Ajax, hero of the Trojan War, becomes enraged when Achilles’ armor is awarded to Odysseus instead of him. He swears revenge on Odysseus and Agamemnon, convinced that the Greek leaders have conspired against him, but is tricked by the goddess Athena into believing that the sheep and cattle that were taken by the Achaeans as spoil are actually the Greek leaders, animals he then tortures and kills.

Deceased Robert Rayburn, the patriarch in Bloodline, is Achilles, and his last Will and Testament – which bestows the family’s vast inheritance to his next of kin – is Achilles’ armor. Danny Rayburn (Ajax), the troubled eldest sibling, assumes he is one of the rightful heirs to the Rayburns’ wealth, but fate has other plans for him. Like Ajax, Danny wants to hurt those who’ve taken away what he feels is rightfully his, and in this case those individuals are his siblings. John, the good son, is Odysseus, and Kevin, the hothead, is Agamemnon. Meg, like Athena, is the real trickster here, as she has the power of attorney to omit Danny’s name from their father’s will and then lead Danny to believe it was Robert’s decision all along.

By the end of the first season, Danny has been killed and the other Rayburn siblings learn that he’s run out on a son they never knew he had. Ajax too leaves his son, Eurysaces, unprotected as he goes off to deal with his shame. Both Danny and Ajax suffer from burning humiliation, and these feelings dictate their actions. The acts of retribution that follow eventually lead them both to the grave. In both cases, the surviving members closest to the deceased struggle with the decision regarding what’s to be done with the body, but where Odysseus has respect for his fallen enemy, John is unforgiving.

TrueDetective

True Detective: Antigone

Greek symbolism abounds in Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective. Among the many allusions woven into Season 2’s story are several references to Greek myths. For example, the killer wears a raven mask and burns out the eyes of Ben Caspere. This imagery is associated with the god Apollo, and the raven he made a “sacred harbinger of death” that would peck out the eyes of his enemy.

In terms of Greek tragedy, the reference has no ambiguity here. Ani Bezzerides’ full name is Antigone, after the heroine of Sophocles’ play of the same name. “Ani has a lot in common with her namesake….she and Sophocles’ Antigone share a hot streak of stubbornness that defines both of their personalities. Both women are extremely strong-willed, refusing to cater to the whims of the patriarchy, represented in Antigone by Creon and his decrees and in True Detective by the widespread corruption of the likes of Frank Semyon and Ray Velcoro.”

Taking this a bit further, the audience needs only to look at how the season concludes. Ani, like Antigone, is fighting against a power structure she cannot possibly overcome. In Jordan Semyon she finds a sisterly bond much like the one Antigone shares with Ismene: two women who’ve lost those closest to them and find themselves in an extremely difficult situation together. Ani and Antigone both feel that they must pay respects to their loved ones in death while spurning the authority figures who are trying to stop them. Antigone’s goal is to honor her brother by giving him proper burial rites, even in defiance of Creon’s edict. Ani must validate the sacrifices of Ray, Paul, and Frank by getting their story into the hands of a reporter who will likely use it to take down the remaining co-conspirators of the Caspere case. Both stories share one common thematic element: one woman against a corrupt, unjust world.

  1. With an introduction by Michael Shields. []

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