Euripides Retcons the Orestia

Status: published

So, my new UPS driver has decided that he only likes delivering one packageat a time. So if I have, say, three packages coming in a day, things get alittle complicated. UPS always flags these delays as "external factors". Butit's totally just the UPS driver not searching for my packages in the truckproperly. I work from my home office pretty much all the time so I can usuallyjust harass him into grabbing my other packages when he arrives now that I knowwhat is going on.

What does any of that have to do with the great books of Westerncivilization? Well, long story short, my next few books arrived out of order.Rather than waiting around to get the first volume of Euripides, I just startedon the second volume\"\".

This volume starts with Euripides own version of Electra. Ingeneral, the story is basically the same as ever. Electra is unhappy with beinga women and wants to get all stabby until Orestes shows up. Then Orestes savesthe day. The only major difference in this version is that Electra has beenmarried off by Aigisthos, her mother's lover and co-conspirator in Agamemnon'sfather. He married her to a farmer. His reasoning was that it would keep herfrom finding some noble lover who could help her get revenge. The poor farmer,fearing that Orestes would kill him when he gets back, never touches Electra inany remotely sexual fashion. When Orestes shows up, he thinks that the farmer'sbehavior bespeaks a hidden nobility that sometimes crops up among those ofbaser birth. It's good news for us filthy peasants that that is even possible.But Orestes still marries Electra off to his best friend. Oh well.

Then there's Iphigenia in Tauris. So, if you'll recall, the allegedreason Agamemnon's wife killed him in the first place was because he hadsacrificed their daughter Iphigenia because some prophet told him the godsdemanded it if they were to get the winds needed to make it to Troy. As itturns out, she was actually swapped at the last second by the goddess Artemisfor either an animal or the god Pan in animal form. She was then sent off to bea priestess in some barbarian land. Through a wacky series of bizarre demandsfrom the gods, Orestes ends up unintentionally stumbling upon his long lostsister and rescues her. All that trouble and the girl had been safe the wholetime. The end.

Euripides Orestes fills in the gaps between the murder ofClytemnestra by Orestes and his eventual exile during which he is chasedrelentlessly by the Furies. During these few days, Orestes is mostly catatonicfrom grief. But he recovers shortly after the opening of the play. Now, otherplays tell us seemingly conflictingly that Orestes is either exiled or chasedoff by Furies after the murder of his mother. As it turns out, both are true.And the reason for his exile isn't just that he killed his mother. No, there'smore. Shortly after Orestes' recovery, Agamemnon's brother Menelaos and hiswife Helen show up to morn the death of Clytemnestra who is Helen's sister andthus Menelaos' sister-in-law twice over. Orestes begs for Menealos' help indealing with the people's anger over the murder of Clyemenestra. He saysthere's no suppressing a whole city of angry people. So Orestes is forced toflee. But before he does, he gets some revenge for Menealos' refusal. He killsHelen, just sort of on his way out the door. It's pretty intense and sudden. Ilike it.

Finally there's Iphigenia at Aulis. This play is pretty amazing.The dialogue is intense. The plot has a rapid succession of interestingdevelopments. The story is basically that of Iphigenia's "sacrifice" as a childto please the gods. It opens with Agamemnon having second thoughts about thewhole plan. Before the start of the play, he had written a letter toClytemnestra. The letter states that Iphigenia is to be married to Achilles andthat she should be sent to Agamemnon's army immediately. He has composed asecond letter which tells her to ignore the first. He sends his slave off withthe letter. Menealos intercepts the slave and flips out on Agamemnon. Aftermuch arguing, Menelaos eventually sees that killing a child just to get Helenback in pretty monstrous. But the two of them come to the conclusion that ifthey don't do it, Odysseus will use their inaction as a means to seize controlof the army. This is a pretty impressive change in character for a fellow whohad to be tricked into joining the campaign. As with Sophocles' Odysseus, Ican't say I much hold with this notion of Odysseus as some kind ofMachiavellian monster. It just does not fit with the Homeric stuff at all. TheGreeks are just grasping for their Loki. So they decide to go through with it.Then Iphigenia shows up, along with Clytemnestra, which Agamemnon stupidly didnot expect. Before long, Achilles bumps into Clytemnestra and she beginsfawning over her son-in-law to be. Except Achilles has no idea what the hell isgoing on. When they figure it out, Achilles is angered that his name has beenused in treachery and that someone wants to kill an innocent girl. So he vowsto defend the girl with his life. But soon the camp learns of the plan and thegods' wishes. They openly revolt against Achilles, even his own Myrmidons. Thesituation is defuse when Iphigenia decides that she wants to be sacrificed.Through a very heart-wrenching speech, she explains that if she lets herself besacrificed, she can basically take credit for the destruction of Troy. Everyoneis persuaded, even Achilles. Achilles goes as far to insist that he never wantsto marry any woman who isn't just like Iphigenia. The sacrifice goes forward.Iphigenia is swapped for what appears to be a deer. And everyone sees this.Even Clytemnestra knows the truth. This play kind of undermines the whole "Ikilled my husband because he killed our daughter" bit, leaving her as justbasically evil. Oops.

Overall, I find Euripides a much better read than Sophocles and worldsbetter than Aeschylus. Euripides has really toned down the chorus such that hisplays resemble modern plays a great deal and thus are much more accessible inwritten form. It's worth giving Euripides a shot even if you've read otherGreek tragedies and couldn't stand them.

And to end, here's a classic Euripides joke that some of you may never haveencountered: Euripides goes to the tailor looking to buy a new toga. He trieson one that is far too small and rips it in the process. The tailor says,"Euripides, you-buya-dees."