Euripides: Rhesus and overenthusaistic coyotes
Rhesus is a play about connections missed and badly met that has seldom quite connected with audiences, which is probably why a few nineteenth century critics attempted to disconnect it from Euripides’s body of work. My own enjoyment of the play is probably somewhat disconnected from the plot.
Based on Book 10 of the Iliad, the play shows the Trojans trying to make sense of the Greek fleet’s seeming preparations for departure following a recent defeat. At the same time, the king of Thrace, Rhesus, arrives to help his barbarian allies, having been held up defending his own homeland. His timing is terrible: knowing that he would tip the scales in the Trojan favor, Rhesus only has time to make a speech or two and then off to bed so the spies Odysseus and Diomedes can sneak in the camp and stab him to death. It’s all terribly anti-climatic: Rhesus hasn’t had time to really anger the gods, aside from being a great warrior before Athena has him offed for it- his killing recalls the old Japanese saying that the stake that sticks up gets hammered down.
For me, the really tragic character in the play is the completely minor character Dolon, who volunteers to spy on the Greek camp using what he believes is a foolproof ruse: he will dress as a wolf and enter the camp on four feet only to run off on two. There’s something entirely and ridiculously human about Dolon; confident that this plan can’t fail, he’s convinced king Hector to give him Achilles’s great horses as a reward. He’s as enthusiastic as the Looney Tunes coyote with a new roadrunner killing gizmo from the Acme Company.
Of course, there’s a reason we still talk about Trojan horses and not about “Dolon’s deception” today: the plan fails. It’s hard to say who’s crueler here: Homer depicts Dolon’s fate in which Odysseus and Diomedes catch him in wolf’s clothing, make him spill his guts on the Trojan camp, and then sacrifice him like an animal; Euripides, instead, simply allows him to rhapsodize about his glorious successes to come, exit stage left, and then has a character mention much later in the play that, oh yeah, Dolon? He’s dead. There’s a suggestion that his mistake might have been to assume animalistic traits like a common scavenger; and then Euripides seems to despise trickery- the reason he despises Odysseus, a trickster who many Greek writers seemingly despised. Mainly, though, Dolon’s mistake was in assuming a great outcome for himself. If you wanted to write a very brief summary of the Greek tragedies, you could do worse than: men assumed things they’d have greater than they were allotted and the gods corrected them, painfully.
Still, who hasn’t been in Dolon’s position before: certain that our plans are going to turn out beautifully, only to find that reality has other ideas? As you get older, you find yourself making less grandiose plans for probably the same reason you don’t speed over hills and turns anymore while driving: landing hurts. But if you can get through your life without ever expecting too much from a business proposal, love affair, crazy scheme, or flight of fancy you’re probably lucky. Not sure you’d be very happy though.