the oresteia

I’m reading Aeschylus’ The Oresteia for my theatre history class. If you haven’t read it, and I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that most of you haven’t, then I will explain: it is a tragedy in three parts, buuuut I would take the term “tragedy” loosely here; it’s more a “drama” or “not a comedy,” mostly because it ends happily, and because there really isn’t a feeling of tragic flaw, or really even a feeling of a protagonist. The theme in general is revenge based on Fate. The first play, Agamemnon, deals with King Agamemnon of Argos returning home following the sacking of Troy. He brings with him a slave woman, a prophetess named Cassandra. His wife, Clytemnestra, is angry with him because he A) sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia1 to the god Artemis so that he could receive favorable winds on the way to Troy, and B) he brought back Cassandra, who, while a prophetess, is pretty much his concubine at this point.

Anyway, as is the case with Greek tragedies, Clytemnestra ends up killing Agamemnon and Cassandra. Her lover Aegisthus becomes the new king, and the both of them seemingly walk off into the sunset, happy as clams. Of course, the Chorus warns them of Orestes, Clytemnestra’s son, who will return and get revenge. But what does she care, right? Meh! Bah! Whatever, dudes.

Cassandra is probably my favorite part of this first play in the trilogy. She’s such an underrated character. Most prophet-type characters in Greek mythology — Tiresias, Calchas, etc — are already in Mystery Mode by the time the play starts. They’re weird, they’re scary, and they’re always right. But Cassandra is different. She is a prophetess not because she wanted to be one, but because she was forced to become one by Apollo. Apollo thought she was beautiful and wanted to sleep with her, but she said no (way to go, by the way). In his anger, Apollo granted her the vision of prophecy, but also cursed her so that no one would believe her prophecies. There is a part in Agamemnon where Clytemnestra beckons Agamemnon into his home, to walk on the “red” carpet as a conqueror. I’ll admit, I didn’t really understand this while I read it, but doing this apparently indicates hubris on Agamemnon’s part, so he is reluctant to do as she says. Eventually he decides to leave with his wife, and Cassandra is left alone, which is when she receives a prophecy from Apollo, where she comes to understand that she will be killed if she goes into Agamemnon’s home. She already knows Agamemnon is going to be killed. Of course, the Chorus does not understand her. Cassandra is such a brilliantly tragic character, so much more than Agamemnon or Clytemnestra. She is the proto-Medea of this play, though unlike Medea, who seems to have complete control over her fate, Cassandra has been cursed to have no control over it. One might wonder why she doesn’t just leave, run away, start her life anew, but her sadness seems more entrenched in despair and frustration at her circumstances: no matter where she goes, or what she does, she will always be tormented by the truth that she cannot share. Thus, I think she willingly decides to enter Clytemnestra’s home to be killed, because her life would be nothing but torment if she did not. It’s such a tragic twist, such a sad story, and it’s only a small part of the trilogy. Too bad, really. Clytemnestra’s story is really not that tragic. Yes, Iphigenia was sacrificed, but then ten years happened. Agamemnon’s gone, Clytemnestra hooks up with Aegisthus, then he comes back and suddenly she has to construct all this anger again. To me, Agamemnon’s death has less to do with revenge than it does with making Aegisthus the king. Aeschylus brings Cassandra into the fold to further anger Agamemnon, but again, is that enough to raise the ire of Clytemnestra? It is in this play, apparently, but it seems suspect to me.

Anyway. The second play is called The Libation Bearers. It deals with Orestes and Electra, another child of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, plotting to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus out of vengeance. Orestes finds Electra at Agamemnon’s gravesite, where she notices a lock of hair he has cut and placed on the grave. She almost immediately recognizes it to be Orestes’ hair, and the two meet each other after years of being apart. Orestes then plans to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by pretending to be a citizen of Phocis, where Orestes’ friend Pylades is from and where Orestes lived when he was away.

Interesting tangent: the term “libation bearers” refers to the libations that Electra’s slave women chorus group pours onto Agamemnon’s grave: first honey, then milk, then wine, then water. The reason they do this is because Clytemnestra had a dream where she gave birth to a serpent, and the serpent feeds from her breast and draws blood at the same time (my translation referred to “bloodclots,” which was kind of gross). She has these women pour libations as a way to reduce harm to Clytemnestra. So the next time you see a “homey” pour out some of his 40oz for a dead friend, you can trace that action all the way back to ancient Greece.

I almost forgot to mention the part of this play where Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus attempt some kind of communion with Agamemnon. It’s a really amazing piece of work, very dense and lyrically complex. What’s equally great is that they sort of succeed but sort of don’t. Agamemnon doesn’t show up, all ghostly and scary and shit, as he might in some lesser form of drama, but Orestes does receive the information about Clytemnestra’s dream with the serpent, which he believes to be himself, and is enough to make him decide to kill her and Aegisthus. The whole scene is charged with mystery and reads (at least) like a freak out creepy Ouija board kind of scene you’d find in a movie.

It also makes me think of motivations for other characters. Like, why didn’t Antigone and Ismene try this with Polynices? It’s weird how characters react to things, you know?

Anyway, the recurring theme in these plays is one of “blood for blood,” and endless cycle of revenge killings. Iphigenia is killed by Agamemnon. Clytemnestra then kills Agamemnon and Cassandra for what he did. Orestes eventually kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in revenge. This cycle seems endless, but as we find out in the third play, it is not so.

So Orestes and Pylades come to Clytemnestra’s house and Orestes ends up killing Aegisthus fairly easily. But when it comes time to kill his own mother, he has reservations. He asks Pylades for advice, and Pylades reminds him of Apollo, who is basically running the show from behind the scenes. Orestes ends up killing Clytemnestra, which results in the second best scene in the play: the Erinyes (or the Furies, if you want the Roman name) chasing after him. You know whenever the Nazgul are chasing the Hobbits? It’s like that. Only Orestes can see them, but they are chasing after him like a bat out of hell. It’s a great ending to the second play, because it shows that there are consequences to our actions. Orestes felt he was in the right, but the Erinyes feel differently.

Which leads us to the last play, which is called The Eumenides, and deals with the trial of Orestes by Athena. The Erinyes are like the Richard Belzer and Jerry Orbach of family killings — they’re out to stop them. Orestes believes killing Clytemnestra was right, the Erinyes believe it to be wrong, and Athena steps in and decides to find the verdict through a trial. It’s a pretty interesting scene, watching the Erinyes trying to get at Orestes, furious with Athena for having a trial instead. Apollo shows up again, to act as a witness (or attorney, really) for Orestes. Apollo’s a weird character in this trilogy. First he screws up Cassandra’s life just because she won’t sleep with him, which, in my mind, is a tremendous act of hubris (and, in Agamemnon, Cassandra’s description of the moment Apollo tried to get it on sounds a lot more like rape than love, so I don’t blame her for saying no). Then, he guides Orestes into killing his mother, and then he sits at his trial and defends him. What a guy, eh?

There’s another great scene at the beginning of this play, where the Ghost of Clytemnestra tries to rouse the Erinyes from some kind of slumber cast upon them by Apollo. Orestes is being trafficked, so to speak, to Athens by Hermes, and Apollo’s buying him some time. Apollo’s like the ancient Greek’s version of Saul Goodman. But what’s great about the scene is that it gives us a chance to see Clytemnestra again, this time dead and presumably in the land of the dead. Why she chooses to appear here is uncertain, but she leaves just as soon as the Erinyes begin to wake up, so I guess she’s a dream? Who knows.

Anyway, long story short, Orestes is acquitted because the jury is split evenly, but Athena votes for Orestes. Apollo’s defense for Orestes’ alleged crime is, I shit you not, just, maybe you should sit down for this: that men are better than women, in marriage, at least. I shit you not! His reason behind this is that Athena was born from Zeus without a mother.

… I shit you not, guys. Read the damn play yourself! I feel like this kind of misogyny can’t even be called misogyny. It’s like some kind of proto-sogyny, where the men just don’t even know what the hell they’re doing, they’re just saying, “Dude men are better than women!” like a five year old would, just because he heard it from his parents. It’s disconcerting, really. You honestly can’t put modern bias on ancient times, but on the other  hand, there is no disagreement that ancient Greece was A) wholly patriarchal, and B) did not care for women that much. At least in the writings we have. Sucks. Really sucks.

I gotta hand it to the Greeks, though: they make their gods really fucked up.

So Athena buys this and votes for Orestes’ acquittal. The other votes are split, so Orestes wins. This could’ve been the end of the play, but instead, the Erinyes go apeshit, arguing with Athena and threatening to ruin the Athenian crops. Athena gets them to calm down and ends up promoting them, in a way; they now will take care of the city’s prosperity. Nice! This scene is also great because Athena calls the Erinyes the “old gods” and fully acknowledges that she is a “young god,” and that they have more wisdom than she. How is that possible? She’s a god! How do some gods have less wisdom than others?

Oh Greeks, you are magnificient.

One of the greater themes this trilogy brings is that of justice, not in vengeance, but in a court of law. Of course, the “laws” presented in this court seemingly have no bearing on anything worthwhile, aaaand Apollo’s defense plan is 100% utter bullshit, but it’s a start, at least. If anything, it says to me that you shouldn’t have gods judge what mortals do. Especially Greek gods.

So that’s everything you probably wanted to know about The Oresteia and then some. Tune in next week, when I ramble on about plays you don’t know and don’t care about! Huzzah!

  1. By the way, did I mention that I typed these names out off the top of my head, without looking? Because I did. Oh yeah.

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