The Tragedy of Greek Life: A Short Essay

Virginia Woolf wrote “Greek Literature is the impersonal literature” in her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek.” Woolf is right in that we cannot entirely come to know Greek as it once was, as a language, culture, or performance. Time erodes the languid motions an actor may have made across the tempered stage as well as it erodes the tone of despair in the voice of a woman who’s lost her life to a god’s war. In modern times, we have no gods to fear, no destiny to fight that’s of any obvious measure to us. But I have to disagree with Woolf. Greek literature is quite personal actually. Its themes, its losses and victories, love and wars, are quite universal. It’s this nature of universality that allows us to translate the classical to the modern.

It is Euripides’s plays in which I found myself most invested. I credit this to the women of the plays and the nuanced complexity of human emotions, love, and folly within them. It is also these plays in which I believe most prove my point that Greek literature is personal. I cannot fathom murdering my own children to carry out revenge against my husband—but I can emphasize with the hot knife of betrayal like a wound in Medea’s heart. Jason’s scorn for Medea, and relative fear, echo the ways in which toxic relationships are still carried out today. Alcestis’s love for her husband is a love that is timeless in nature. Do we not dream, as children, of what a love so selfless might feel like? Do we not learn, as adults, our own shortcomings in how we dole out love? There are inconceivable circumstances that birth a rage that is applicable to the lack of control we all may feel at one point of another. The persistent theme of a resistance to eros is no different than one’s own resistance to modern-day fate. It is human nature to fall helpless at a set of circumstances beyond one’s control—to fight this lack of helplessness and tear ourselves apart before fading away. Who, in the formation of an identity, doesn’t forget themselves in the hopes of birthing a new self? This birth is self-harm at its worse and revival at its best. Every single one of us could easily have picked up the mask and assumed the role of an Athenian tragedian.

What we are witnessing in culture is a continuous revival. There is a return to the study of Greek tragedies (and comedies) because these tragedies reach their hands into our chests and touch heartstrings that can only be felt by what the classical Greek writers had to say. We, too, are caught in the middle of our own lives as the characters immortalized in these Greek plays once were. But the question remains: Who are we before the fall of gods and eros that destine us to ruin?

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