This trilogy of sixth-century plays by Aeschylus — Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides — traces part of a longer, grimmer family history. These three plays, at first glance, are about the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytaemnestra, and then their son Orestes’ revenge of his father. But the story is laced with references that go back generations. This is the house of Atreus, Orestes’ grandfather, “the embodiment of savagery,” as Robert Fagles says. Atreus’s brother Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, and Atreus feasted him on his own children’s flesh, calling down Thyestes’ curse. Atreus’s son Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to coax good winds toward the battlefields of Troy — and we all know how that turned out.
These plays boil with blood, with doom and foreknowledge and revenge, but they are also full of an incredible transformative power. They tell the story of a people just beginning to emerge from blood feud into a more orderly system of justice through democracy and courts, even when the need for vengeance cries out from the ground. We watch as the Furies change from terrifying demons into the blessing angels of Athens. This groundswell, this sea-change is eerily beautiful.
Jenny: I have read almost no Greek literature (except French versions), not even basics like the Iliad and the Odyssey, so reading these plays made me feel like I’d walked into the middle of the world’s most violent soap opera. Who are these people? Why are they all so upset with each other? Her father is who, again? She’s sleeping with him? Hey! Watch that blade!
But as I kept reading (and reading Robert Fagles’s superb notes), I began to settle into the rhythm of the work. Certain cultural values — loyalty, respect for the gods, hospitality — began to come to the forefront. While there are still things I’m not sure I’m clear about, and would probably have to study to understand — the use of the chorus, for instance — the whole shape of the plays became more, not less, clear and interesting as I read.
Teresa: I’ve only read bits and pieces of The Odyssey as well as Oedipus and Antigone—and The Aeneid to cover the Roman side of the Trojan War—and I’ve seen a production of Ion by Euripides, but this particular corner of Greek myth is not one I’ve explored before. So although I had a vague sense of some of the relationships coming in, I was fuzzy about the details. It didn’t take me long to get wrapped up in the passion and intensity of the work. To call it a soap opera is absolutely right! And one that seems to have no possible happy ending.
What struck me most of all, especially in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, was the futility of this cycle the characters were caught in. Murder, revenge, revenge against the avenger, and on and on. And this is called for by the Gods! It’s a hopeless situation, and Clytaemnestra, Orestes, and all the others are just caught up in it.
Jenny: That sense of destiny and inescapable fate makes the plays so intense. Cassandra stands out for me as a symbol of that fate: she sees Agamemnon’s murder, and her own, but even when she prophesies it (and even though, in this last case, she is believed!) she can’t do anything about it. A life for a life for a life. Everything seems to be behind it: the people, the religious rites, the gods, the soldiers, the natural world. I was interested to see that men and women were equally caught in those nets. Even though Electra doesn’t perform the murder herself, she’s right there with Orestes, urging it, and the roles of Iphigenia and Helen are just as important in triggering war, sacrifice, and fury.
One of the things that caught my attention most in these plays was the sense of personality I got from the characters. With pieces this old, I can sometimes expect to see “types” — the hero, the avenger, the murderess, the seer. Instead, even the chorus had its opinion, and wasn’t afraid to speak up. I got a strong sense of who Clytaemnestra was and how she felt about her husband (hint: not good.) Electra’s reluctance to believe that Orestes could really have returned from exile tugged at my heart.
Teresa: I was really fascinated in the role of the chorus here. My (extremely vague) memory of the other Greek plays I’ve read is that the chorus generally provides commentary, sometimes “speaking truth to power,” but not actually acting. Here, the chorus doesn’t just speak up; it gets involved. By The Eumenides, the chorus has become the Furies, and they put Orestes, and by extension Apollo, on trial!
But that trial left me terribly conflicted. I wanted something to happen to make the cycle of violence to end, and at heart I fully support Athena’s command to “worship the mean,” but she still takes sides, and when one side is characterized as representing womanhood and the other manhood, I can’t fully get behind it. Could she not have brought about the same result without choosing a side?
Jenny: Oh, see, I saw this differently. I saw her as bringing the cycle of violence to an end by refusing to decide the issue herself, except as a tie-breaker. When she essentially creates the court of Athens, bringing in citizens to decide for or against Orestes, and forcing Apollo — a god! — to be a mere witness, in my view she is saying that no one from now on can simply take matters into his own hands. It reminded me vividly of a museum I visited in Germany once, the Criminal Museum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It contained all kinds of terrible instruments of torture — thumbscrews, cages, scold’s bridles. I had to remind my students that this was an advance, this was jurisprudence. This meant that one clan wouldn’t just sweep in and kill your whole family, obliging you to go kill their whole family, world without end, amen. My students took some convincing, and so did the Furies, but I think they came around in the end.
In fact, I think it was that transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides that I found most moving. They are the embodiment of blood-revenge, of dysfunctional families, of violence being handed on, generation after generation. And even though their case against Orestes was watertight (I thought), they agreed to accept Athena’s vote and become blessing angels instead. Life instead of death, for everyone.
Teresa: I absolutely agree that it was an advance—the outcome was definitely a positive one, and I like your point about Athena’s creation of the court and bringing the option to take matters in your own hands to and end. This is absolutely a good thing. But I wish that Athena herself had remained more stolidly neutral. The fact that she rendered her own opinion, and that she does so before the jury even decides, makes Orestes’s masculine side seem just a little more correct in the world of the play. That’s what I regret about it.
But the fact that resolution of these plays could elicit such differing reactions shows that the Greeks and their ideas still have resonance and richness for us today. Yet another reason to continue reading—and debating—the classics!
This post is our contribution to the Ancient Greeks Tour for the Classics Circuit, which is running from January 26 to February 4. For links to more posts on Greek literature, check out the tour schedule.