On Knowing Greek Quite Well

Virginia Woolf manages a fascinating analysis of Greek dramas in her ironically titled, “On Not Knowing Greek.” Woolf displays her extensive knowledge of Greek drama and the ‘originals’ presented therein, claiming “we understand them more easily and more directly than we understand the characters in the Canterbury Tales. These are the originals, Chaucer’s the varieties of the human species.” The originals possess a certain authenticity in that they are not only first created here, but present the models still currently used in literature—used, for example, by Chaucer. Thus by definition, Chaucer is inherently more convoluted and less accessible. Reading Greek tragedies, we find that qualities possessed by these originals come through the text innately and do not require complex, wordy situations fabricated by the playwright, as found in many works today, to be coerced out. “But in the [pages of] Electra or in the Antigone,” Woolf explains, “we are impressed by something different, by something perhaps more impressive—by heroism itself, by fidelity itself.” Lastly, the realm of ancient Greece allows for larger-than-life occurrences by nature. Today, it is difficult to imagine what life would be like in ancient Greece when we view the world through the English realm familiar to Woolf. She related ancient Greece to modern Italy in that “small incidents are debated in the street, not in the sitting-room, and become dramatic; make people voluble.” This is not familiar to Woolf’s contemporary English(wo)men. This analysis allows Woolf to access ancient Greece from the proper plane, and we can as well with her help. I find that viewing the classic texts through this lens gives them a freshness and immediacy that Woolf recognizes and we do too when we know where to look.--Justine