The Oresteia

Status: published

Next up on the list was Aeschylus' Oresteia\"\". In summary, it is a trilogyof plays recounting Agamemnon's death, his son Orestes seeking vengeance, andthen Orestes seeking absolution by a court of law convened by the goddessAthena. I chose a translation from a new series from Oxford University Press.It is a verse translation. I'm usually more of a fan of literal prosetranslations but I found this edition surprisingly readable and sensical. Andit definitely livens up the Chorus sections of the plays.

On the topic of the Chorus sections, they do certainly need livening up.Whenever possible, it is preferable to see a play rather than read it. This istrue of all theater, not just ancient Greek theater. You simply lose too manyelements reading the text alone. The Chorus, for example, would have originallyinvolved singing and dancing. On the page, you lose that and are instead leftwith large, long-winded sections of the play that seem to convey veryinformation per line and generally just bog the play down. Unfortunately,unless some serious revival of Greek theater happens, the text is the best mostof us will ever get.

And regarding the actual narrative, the first two plays of the trilogy,being Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, do little to fleshout the story beyond what was summarized in passing in the TheOdyssey. It is a simple retelling with little embellishment. Keep in mind,however, that The Odyssey had already been an established part of theGreek canon for approximately 600 years and it is unlikely thatOresteia was even the first to revisit the fate of Agamemnon and hishousehold. And even today, adaptations of known stories are often balked atwhen they try to stay as true to the original as possible. This was likely trueto at least some degree in Aeschylus' time.

The final play in the trilogy, The Eumenides is definitely thecreative heart of the trilogy. It deals with the practical and ethical issuessurrounding revenge, polytheism, and "zero tolerance" punishment. Agamemnonkilled his daughter, his wife killed him, his son killed her, and then theFuries attempt to kill him. Seeking one's own justice simply encourages othersto do the same, potentially creating an endless web of retributions, ashappened in several cities in Renaissance Italy and the medieval IcelandicCommonwealth. Such a cycle could even grown into a civil war. The more powerfulthe parties involved, the more dangerous revenge is to the social order.Humanity's solution for this problem seems to typically be the creation ofcourts. And with the help of the goddess Athena, Orestes is able to receive ajudgement and end the revenge cycle.

The trial reveals a practical problem of polytheism: the god Apollo advisedOrestes to kill his own murder while the Furies outright condemn the slaying ofany mother. Morality is not uniform across the pantheon. What pleases one godmay displease another. And before you know it, the gods are divided and you arestuck fighting besieging Troy for a decade. On the other hand, acknowledgingthe fickleness of the gods as a whole does a lot to undermine any potentialtheocracy and the influence of augurs on political matters.

The Furies have something of a zero tolerance policy for matricide. If youkill your mother, revenge ghosts will hunt you down and kill you. This soundsfairly reasonable at first. Why kind of sick bastard kills his own mother? Thecomplication lies in the fact that it does not matter how awful of a person themother may have been. This effectively leaves children no recourse against evilmothers. The point Aesychlus makes, through his characterization of Athena, isthat circumstances and motive matter in judging a crime.