09 February, 2009


Aeschylus - what a name! Apparently, it's pronounced "ehss-kih-lus", so I've learned something new about the guy so far at any rate. In high school I recall, I didn't even bother trying to pronounce it.

His Oresteian Trilogy is, of course, world famous by now. It was world famous back in his day too, but at that time the "world" consisted of the Mediterranean shoreline, so I think we can say this is a bit of a step up for this particular Greek playwright.

All joshing aside, the plays are marvelous. And yes, I tend to have a similarly enthusiastic response to nearly all the literature I read (with the very definite exception of Hemingway and a few others). Nonetheless, I am not alone in this reaction, although perhaps the generally nerdy - in the best of senses - population of UD is no more reliable a gauge for some purposes than I am.

The plot draws heavily upon traditional Greek mythology, so I'll basically recount the story as it's told there. We open in the play with the return of the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, to his home after the Trojan War. He's coming back to a house and family - the "House of Atreus", as its called - which has been cursed for several generations now. The family patriarchs have a habit of committing gross violations of the natural order of things: Agamemnon's own father, Atreus, is guilty of having killed his own brother's children and tricked the poor guy into eating them (for the record, this was meant to be just revenge for the "poor guy's" affair with Atreus' wife). Agamemnon himself has the grisly record of having sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, in order to win fair winds so that he can sail to Troy, kill some Trojans, and return a conquering hero.

Anyway, as the play begins, we very soon learn that the cycle of violence and vengeance in Atreus' house is not about to disappear anytime soon. Agamemnon's wife, Clytaemestra, has been conspiring with her lover, Aegisthus (the only surviving son of Atreus' brother) to avenge the deaths of Iphegenia and Aegisthus' siblings. They succeed in their plot, but the integrity of their motives is called into question when they promptly seize power and exile Orestes, Clytaemestra's son, and begin to mistreat her daughter, Elektra.

Resenting her mother's bad behavior, Elektra, about ten years later, prays for a champion to come and avenge her father's death. The next thing we know, Orestes shows up, bearing a firm order from Apollo to kill his mother or die trying. He does, and what follows is a vastly fascinating trial which poses the Furies against the gods in a struggle to decide Orestes' fate.

There's a whole lot of complexity in the actual play itself, but the central question is "What is justice, and how do we achieve it?" The play vacillates until the final judgment (and, I would argue, offers no firm conclusion even then) between reading justice as a dark, retributive force meant to restore order to the deepest elements of the world, and seeing it as primarily obedience to the will of the gods.

There's a lot that comes from this question, but I have no space to examine any of that here, obviously. I'd be very much surprised if it doesn't come up again very soon, however. In the meantime, I must say - read this yourselves! It's pretty short, even with all three put together: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. Definitely worth your time.

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