Michael's Reviews > Aeschylus I: Oresteia

Aeschylus I by Aeschylus
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Jul 24, 2011

really liked it

Having seen the hill of Argos rising from across the Peloponnesian plain from where we stood at Mycenae this spring, I had to go back to this famed trilogy of Greek tragedy and reread for the first time since college. The issues and conflicts were more complex than I think I had understood back then. Clytaemestra makes a powerful case for the justice that she deals out to Agamemnon, in that first play. She neglects to mention the role of Aegisthus, however -- her conflict of interest.

In The Libation Bearers, Clytie has sent servants to carry oils to pour onto Agamemnon's grave. She is reportedly spooked by a dream she had. Orestes, the son, and his sister Electra are quite put out by this opportunistic show from their father's murderer. It finally drives them to take action of their own. The sense I took from this and the whole trilogy was that, for the ancient Greeks, settling grievances by killing one another, especially family members, was a recognized, if not routine, course of action. The House of Atreus, the original patriarch, was bloody but did not seem unique. One suggestion of mercy was universally spurned as inadequate to the situation.

The Eumenides are the Furies, and the title of the final play. Orestes is pursued by these harpies who must haunt murderers to balance the cosmic scales. For all that he thinks he dealt justice, they must exact their own vengeance upon him. Apollo calls them to account, and the scene where he challenges their actions illustrates the confusing mishmash of laws and whims that make up the dramatic action. No one knows what the gods will do; the gods don't agree; they don't even know each other in all cases; and the conflicting rules that seem to result made me dizzy as I tried to follow or discern the approved notion of justice in this lurid soap opera of misdeeds.

Literature has, over time, improved upon the dramatic structures of these tragedies, I think; but in their starkness, in the simplicity of their unities, and in their plain talk of the characters' motivations, these still have psychological truths to speak to us through the melodrama of their plots. The attitudes toward the gods were far more ambiguous than I remembered from my college readings. Among the mortals, certainly none of Aeschylus's characters are pure. While we sympathize with Orestes, the issue of who is a hero and who a villain is left for the audience to settle for themselves. Along that line, the choruses are often the wisest of all.
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