The Oresteian Trilogy (458 BCE) (Comprised of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides)
Penguin Classics, pp203
Translation by Philip Vellacott
And so we come, at last, to the first pieces I had have previously read from the Penguin Classics range, The Oresteian Trilogy of Aeschylus, made up of the three plays Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. It won the first prize at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BC.
Agamemnon, king of Argos, returns home following the Trojan War. His wife, Clytemnestra, has been planning his murder as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. In Agamemnon’s absence, Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin. The second strand is set with the discovery of Agamemnon’s keeping of the concubine Cassandra, whose entrance heralds death. So is set the stage for a very Greek tragedy.
Agamemnon is the first part of the Oresteian trilogy (originally a tetralogy, containing as it did the satyr play Proteus, now lost). This first part of the trilogy is a play haunted by the constant spectre of death.
“What is this persistent dread
Haunting, hovering to show
Signs to my foreboding soul” (P.76)
The Libation Bearers
The Libation Bearers continues the story of Agamemnon, opening with Clytemnestra’s nightmare in which she gives birth to a snake. Fearing retribution she orders her daughter Electra to pour libations on Agamemnon’s tomb. At the tomb, Electra meets Orestes, who has returned from protective exile in Phocis, and they plan revenge upon Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus together. Electra, pretending to bear news of Orestes’ death, finds Clytemnestra who calls Aegisthus to share in the news. Orestes kills them both. Immediately, Orestes is beset by the Furies, who avenge patricide and matricide in Greek mythology, and this brutal plays reveals its dark beating heart.
“A raging sea of gall batters my heart
The iron goes through my soul; out of the savage flood.” (p.110)
The Furies pursue Orestes from Argos and into the wilderness. Orestes makes his way to the temple of Apollo, hoping to be for relief from the Furies. Apollo bears a portion of the guilt of the act, for he had encouraged Orestes to kill Clytemnestra. Apollo sends Orestes to the temple of Athena. There, the Furies track him down and, just before he is to be killed, the goddess Athena, patron of Athens, steps in and declares that a trial is necessary. Apollo argues Orestes’ case and, after the jury splits their vote, Athena decides against the Furies. She also renames them the Eumenides, or kindly ones, and declares that thereafter all future hung juries should result in acquittal, since mercy should take precedence over harshness. The Eumenides specifically extols the importance of reason in the development of laws, and, like The Suppliants, lauds the ideals of a democratic Athens.
“So, Heaven’s firm ordinance has now been told,
The task which Fate immutably assigned
To our devotion. Who will then withhold
Due fear and reverence? Though our dwelling lie
In subterranean caverns of the blind,
Our ancient privilege none dares deny.” (P.161)
This trilogy fulfils every modern conceivable notion of what tragedy is – however The Oresteian Trilogy confounds modern expectation, ending as it does, in line with what other extant Greek tragedy shows us – a happy ending. The dark heart of this drama has been leading to this; an extolling of the virtue of the city state, for this is what the best of Greek drama does, and what Aeschylus did so formidably.
Philip Vellacott’s translation of these three plays is truly great, managing to expertly maintain the balance of poetry and plot that exemplifies Aeschylus. Like all great drama, these three plays work on very different levels, open to much interpretation and debate. My few thoughts on this trilogy seem almost negligible. The Oresteian Trilogy is amongst the finest drama ever written – the plays hold up as well as they did in Ancient Greece. Aeschylus was a master storyteller, and it is little wonder his work has stood the test of time. But I am no Greek scholar, and am ignorant of much of this culture. Perhaps with more reading I will understand more of its depth, but for the time being this brief note shall have to do as my commentary upon The Oresteian Trilogy.