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Perhaps the greatest of the Greek tragedians Aeschylus wrote plays but only seven have survived complete Among them is this classic trilogy dealing with the bloody history of the House of AtreusIn Agamemnon the warrior who defeated Troy returns to Argos and is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia before the start. Let good prevail So be it Yet what is good And who is God As many deeply conservative societies have discovered time and time again societies in which there is only one right order and this order is warranted by the highest authorities recognized by the society when change comes and come it always must not only do those in power tumble but the authority of the godspriests ancestors laws whatever the highest authorities happen to be in that society comes into uestion New myths new godspriests new stories must be told to justify and establish reassure and mollify the people whose ideological or religious supports have been pulled out from beneath them In the city of Athens during the Golden Age this was done in the agora the marketplace and in the theaters In his lifetime Aeschylus ca 525 456 BCE witnessed the invasion of Attica by huge Persian armies the bold abandonment of the fortified city of Athens and withdrawal twice of the Athenian people behind the wooden walls of the Athenian navy and the multiple defeats of the Persians and their allies including other Greeks by the hugely outnumbered Athenians and their Greek allies He also witnessed the political transition from tyranny to isonomy to democracy in Athens and the concurrent growth of Athens from just another small unimportant Greek city state to major power He himself contributed greatly to the transition of Greek tragedy from a religiously inspired performancerite involving a chorus and a single actor to something we his distant descendants can recognize as powerful theater During the transition from tyranny to democracy when first the middle class essentially landowning farmers and artisans and then the lower class the thetes acuired a direct voice in Athenian politics political activity was carried out not only in the agora the popular assembly and the Council of Five Hundred but it was also performed on stage Remains of the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus where Aeschylus dramas were performed Indeed the theater was so important in Athenian public life that plays were produced at all the most important public festivals and addressed conflicts troubling the Athenian policy makers the populace flocked to see them and talk about them In 461 BCE the last step to democracy in Athens was initiated with the stripping of all but ritual responsibilities from the Aeropagus a body of men drawn essentially from the city s aristocracy The lower and middle classes formed the overwhelming majority on the remaining decision making organs of the state and were therefore in power for a while Curiously enough while all this innovation was going on in Athens one of the most damaging epithets was innovator So the men who willed the demotion of the Aeropagus led by Ephialtes who was later murdered for his trouble had to argue that the Aeropagus had usurped its powers uite false and thus the removal of the aristocrats from the center of power was a return to the status uo ante even false but we all know that democratic decision making has precious little to do with the truth The Athenians needed a efficacious justification for this change They also needed a soothing of the many riled spirits brought about in the populace by all these changes In the Oresteia first performed in 458 Aeschylus did all of this and much much During this Golden Age playwrights wrote trilogies which were intended performed and perceived by audiences as coherent wholes The Oresteia is the only one which has come down to us intact The three plays are structured together with both dramatic and ideological intent At the end of the Trojan War Agamemnon returns victorious to his palace But ten years earlier in order to thwart the will of Artemis and still the fierce winds keeping the fleet on the Greek shore he had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia and his wife Clytemnestra has neither forgotten nor forgiven She slays him horrifically and now it is their son Orestes who is obliged by the received morality to revenge his father by killing his mother High drama and madness ensues but behind all that excitement is the structure of Aeschylus purpose justify the new order the new morality At the very outset of the trilogy the chorus recalls that even the gods have changed and changed again from the rule of Ouranos through that of Kronos to Zeus with son killing father before the father could do the same to the son And one cannot be sure of doing the right thing by obeying a god since the gods themselves disagree about right and wrong Uncertainty has been established perhaps the received ways are mutable I m not going to try to summarize the complicated plot and recall the many striking characters From this beautiful moving and complex masterpiece I just want to draw out here the one theme I ve been working on in this review When Orestes kills Clytemnestra at Apollo s urging the Erinyes the Furies representing the old order the old morality hasten to avenge the matricide by tearing Orestes apart But Apollo and Athena representing the new order and morality intervene The passages involving the Furies are particularly haunting both dramatically and poetically The new order is confirmed with a trial in which Athena casts the deciding vote Orestes is acuitted Athena convinces the Furies to accept the verdict and they are then given a place of honor though not power and agree to ensure the city s prosperity The old is replaced by the new honored and bound into the polis all s well that ends well except for the house of Atreus Despite Aeschylus efforts Athens new democracy did not last long but that is another story As Sophocles has Ajax say in the eponymous play Long immeasurable time brings everything hidden to light and hides what is apparent Nothing is not to be expected Change is the law of the world Aeschylus was in the battle at Marathon and most probably also at Salamis In fact the epitaph on his gravestone possibly written by himself mentions Marathon and not his plays This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide Euphorion s son and fruitful Gela s pride How tried his valour Marathon may tell And long haired Medes who knew it all too well Read in the translations of Robert Fagles and of Philip Vellacott Fagles is terse and collouial while Vellacott s is literary redolent of older elevated diction Both are very readable but I do prefer Vellacott s Rating

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Of the Trojan War In The Libation Bearers Orestes Agamemnon’s son avenges his father by murdering his mother In The Furies Orestes flees to Delphi pursued by the divine avengers Erinyes of his mother After being purified by Apollo he makes his way to Athens and is there tried and acuitted at the court of AreopagusWritten in a grand style rich in dic. Murder betrayal revenge torment you might wonder Why would I bother reading three Greek plays when I could see the same sort of lurid problems on an episode of Jerry Springer And fold laundry at the same time Two possible answers First you re not going to get patricide matricide human sacrifice and unintentional cannibalism on daytime TV because we still draw the line somewhere and you have to admit those are pretty dramatic More importantly though along with the dysfunction in the House of Atreus comes a searing examination of guilt retribution and justice It s a lot of philosophical bang for your buckThe first play in the trilogy Agamemnon sets up the conflict for the remaining two Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan War to his wife Clytemnestra who has spent the last ten years plotting revenge because he sacrificed their daughter to appease a god at the outset of the journey The verbal interplay at their reunion is the stuff of English majors dreams Clytaemnestra s subseuent murder of Agamemnon with the help of a lover who has his own history with Agamemnon is the stuff of Mafia dreams though actually I m only guessing on that one However Clytaemnestra s revenge creates the conflict that drives the other two plays and generates the ethical conundrum Aeschylus ultimately wants to solve For now Clytaemnestra s son Orestes needs to avenge his father s death but what happens if you kill your own mother And how is the cycle of revenge ever supposed to end The Libation Bearers has Orestes debating what he should do sort of like Hamlet until the advice of his sister and the chorus women wins the day and that s when the excitement kicks up a notch Clytaemnestra s death at the hand of her son calls forth the avenging Furies ancient goddesses of chthonic tradition who appear here as gorgon like horrors swathed in black heads writhing with snakes It s so dramatic Also it s fitting for Clytaemnestra is like a Fury herself in avenging her daughter s death she acts within the old paradigm of blood ties that the Furies champion wherein maternal claims are stronger than marital So even though Orestes does his duty to avenge his father in accordance with the current ethos he s pursed by snaky haired horrors for killing his mother Like his father Orestes appears to be both an agent and a victim of fate for in following the gods direction to avenge his father s death he both aligns himself with the Furies spirit of vengeance and becomes subject to it Perhaps Orestes contradictory relationship with the Furies is Aeschylus s commentary on a theology rife with snares and contradictions In The Eumenides Aeschylus resolves the problem but his solution to the blood feud tradition is hardly unproblematic itself read it and lose sleep But you ll know for sure why this is a masterpiece

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Tion and dramatic dialogue the plays embody Aeschylus’ concerns with the destiny and fate of individuals as well as the state all played out under the watchful eye of the gods Still powerful and provocative after years these great tragedies offer unparalleled insight into the world of ancient Greece and the origins of the Western dramatic tradition.. I have suffered into truthYou know the rules now turn them into justiceThe outrage stands as it stands you burn to know the endNever try to cut my power with your logicWe spoil ourselves with scruples long as things go wellOld men are children once again a dream that sways and wavers into the hard light of dayWhich is all to say that this trilogy is bananas and savage and graceful and that Aeschylus was doing Shakespeare things about two thousand years before Shakespeare More thoughts here

10 thoughts on “Ὀρέστεια

  1. says:

    Seeing the Oresteia on stage is an overwhelming experience to say the least Reading and discussing the drama at university felt like going through the Disney version of it by comparison Hearing the screams seeing the blood and madness following real people on their anxious road down to hellish destruction while they stare at you the audience with blind eyes that is almost than one can bear even if one is familiar with the intertwi

  2. says:

    Let good prevail So be it Yet what is good ? And who is God? As many deeply conservative societies have discove

  3. says:

    This is pretty fantastic I'm surprised I think I like this old Greek trilogy of plays better than all the others that I've

  4. says:

    Murder betrayal revenge torment you might wonder “Why would I bother reading three Greek plays when I could see the same sort of lu

  5. says:

    The Greeks had an intoxicating culture or at least it seems to us All of the iniuities and superstitions of the ancient people have been buried or lost leaving only the perfect skeletons of buildings and the greatest of their literary producti

  6. says:

    I can only vouch for this Robert Fagles' translation but yes astonishingly gripping after than 2400 years

  7. says:

    I have suffered into truthYou know the rules now turn them into justiceThe outrage stands as it stands you burn to know the endNever try to cut my power with your logicWe spoil ourselves with scruples long as things go wellOld men are children once again a dream that sways and wavers into the hard light of dayWhich is all to say that this tri

  8. says:

    And the blood that Mother Earth consumesclots hard it won’t seep through it breeds revenge and frenzy goes through the gui

  9. says:

    i read now no 2 the main conflict between son and mother the erotic freedom of the women the mother is destructive for the son as he

  10. says:

    ForewordAcknowledgementsA Reading of 'The Oresteia' The Serpent and the Eagle Agamemnon The Libation Bearers The Eumenides The Genealogy of OrestesSelect BibliographyNotesGlossary

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