The Oresteia Unplugged, Part 1: An Introduction
A few years ago I agreed with Veritas Press to write for their first Omnibus text book. True, I was an old friend of Marlin Detweiler, and I even remember offering a little bit of volunteer help when the Detweilers were developing those world famous flashcards, but I don’t think this connection has much to do with my obtaining of the assignment. The assignment was an introduction to Aeschylus’ Oresteia; the origin and nature of this assignment is a mini-drama all on its own and I might tell this story one day for you here in the Wood. For now, here is my first installment of the rough draft before any editors were able to take a peek at what I was doing–ah, the freedom! Sort of like blogging. Hey, now it is!
Although the marketing literature of Veritas Press spoke of the “experts” that were writing for this new release, I must confess that I had never even read a greek tragedy. Once it was a tad too late, and clear this was to be written for 7 th graders and not the parents of the 7 th graders (slight miscommunication there), Toby Sumpter and I finally came up with something a bit different than what you see below; I asked Sumpter to help me out at an hourly wage in order to get something together fast for seventh graders since that appeared to be his forte. Further, I’m sure the daring and brilliant editors of the Omnibus did with it what they willed once we released that new draft — I have not read the final print – so the following is not meant to reflect, for good or for bad, on the material you might find in Veritas’ Omnibus.
I present to you here the Oresteia of the modern day classical education revolution, live and raw–straight to you from the educational capital of the world, Moscow, Idaho (well, according to Wilson, give it another ten years) [for those of you new around here, this is sarcasm built out of a half-truth]. The following is the introduction to the work; soon I will publish the summary and commentary of the story itself. For those of you willing to take a look at this, I hope it inspires you to read the tragedy. It is some delightful stuff:
When Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia the old world of Homer was giving birth to Classical Greece. It was a time of enlightenment and prosperity. Tyranny was giving way to Democracy, the chaos of warring households was molding into the peaceful city of man, and the ancient demons that had always enslaved the Greek people were becoming nicer. This was nothing short of cosmic redemption; the gods were reconciling themselves to one another and to man. Under the wise and merciful hand of the goddess Athena, guilt, slavery, and chaos were done away with in the Athenian halls of justice.
The Oresteia is Aeschylus’ telling of this story by means of tragedy. Aeschylus retells the old Homeric stories and then continues them on to the time of the rise of Athenian democracy. Although a tragedy, the Oresteia ends on a very comic note in two different ways. First, Aeschylus ends the Oresteia comically in the technical, literary sense: the tragic prepares the way for glorious redemption. Everything ends happily, with a joyous processional and doxologies on the new faith, hope, and love to be found in Athens from that time forward. Second, the story is truly ‘comic’ in the more typical sense of the word. Aeschylus’ skillful and bold attempt to tell a successful story of redemption for his people is found a tad laughable. The new world rests on Athena bribing the Furies in the ancient courts of Athens.
I. Author and Context
Most of what we know about Aeschylus comes from the seven surviving plays out of the seventy plays he wrote. He was born at the end of the 6th century B.C. and died in 456 or 455 B.C. He had military experience as a young man in the Persian wars and we know he fought at Marathon. Aeschylus was a political conservative, who had faith in the government he was apart of, and yet he desired to warn the Greek people of their own responsibility to maintain the order of civilization lest they slip back into barbarity. One of the plays, the Persians, was officially sponsored by Pericles himself.
Greek life had been established as life in the polis since around 700 B.C., 200 years before Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia. Before 700 B.C., the Greek community was more agrarian, and consisted of small kingdoms ruled by monarchical war-lords. The cultural center was the ‘house’ (oikos), which transitioned to the ‘city’ (polis). Consequently, the most sacred bond of community changed from ‘blood,’ such as the bond of blood between a parent and a child, or between siblings, to the more public bond of covenant or contract, such as the bond between citizens and rulers and between husband and wife. This societal change provides the structure of redemption throughout the Oresteia. Agamemnon, the war-lord of Argos, and his oikos is cursed until his son, Orestes, finds refuge in Athen’s mature law courts. Although the polis was not a new invention, it was during Aeschylus’ days that Athens saw democracy firmly established for the first time. Pericles was an end to a long chaotic flux between the rule of the aristocracy and the rule of the tyrant. At the end of the Oresteia, the goddess Athena offers her city freedom from both tyranny and chaos.
II. Nature & Significance of the Book
The Oresteia was Aeschylus’ last work we know of, written two years before his death. It is the only trilogy of Greek tragedy that we have, a collection of three different plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Like all of Aeschylus’ works, the Oresteia is pioneering. With boldness and daring, Aeschylus paved the way for later classical tragedy. He pushed his Greek language over its own limits to express a number of moods: from the deep insight of the sage to the delicate judicial discourse of a goddess’ court. Aeschylus also pioneered tragedy itself. According to Richard Lattimore, “tragedy, for us, begins with Aeschylus.” (Lattimore 4) Because of the Oresteia’s status as ‘literature,’ emphasis should be placed on the fact that a tragedy was a play, something to be performed, acted, and sung. This form of poetry was likely a direct growth from more liturgical and choral performances that preceded it. Tragic plays were very public and were written and performed for yearly competitions; Aeschylus won first prize thirteen times.
The Oresteia illuminates the transformation of the Greek mind from its heroic training in Homer to its refined classical expression.
III. Main Characters
The characters that take the primary role change for each play of the trilogy. In the first play, Agamemnon, Agamemnon’s wife Clytaemnestra is primary. Agamemnon is necessary for the plot, but his presence and action is insignificant. The play opens with Agamemnon absent, still journeying back to his land of Argos from his final victory at Troy, and before the play closes, Agamemnon is already dead. The world of this first play is barbaric, static, and claustrophobic; the characters are trapped in the house of Atreus, enslaved by the house’s curse. Agamemnon is a passive character, a successful warlord who is nevertheless manipulated with the deceitful and ‘manlike’ words of his wife; led on to slaughter by the strong and necessary hand of Fate, he is ‘netted’ with his royal robe and stabbed to death by Clytaemnestra. The personality of Clytaemnestra drives the little bit of action there is in this first play.
The second play, The Libation Bearers, opens up to a world of action. The main character isAgamemnon’s son, Orestes. He is energetic, as is his sister, Electra. Both characters passionately greet in the open daytime air, quickly plot and prepare themselves to revenge the death of their father, and at the close of this second play, Orestes and Electra have already carried out their plans in full.
The third play, The Eumenides, is a processional from the depths of the earth to the high court of Athens. Gods and goddesses begin making dramatic performance in the world of men. Athena is now the main character, and Apollo plays a significant role as well. Orestes and Clytaemnestra are the only actors present from the first two plays. The Furies come in as full personalities and dominate the stage; their transformation in this play provides Aeschylus with the title: ‘Eumenides,’ meaning the ‘kindly ones.’
IV. Plot Setting
As already mentioned, the Oresteia is a re-telling and continuation of Homer. As Robert Fagles put it, Aeschylus “deepened Homer with even older, darker legends and lifted him to a later, more enlightened stage” (Fagles 14). These older, darker legends are primarily with respect to the cursed and savage house of Atreus, the royal palace of the land of Argos. Studying this tale briefly will help a first reading of the Oresteia:
Once upon a time there was a man named Tantalus of Lydia, the true founder of the house of Atreus. Tantalus gave the gods his son’s flesh to eat. The gods sent Tantalus to Hades and brought his son, Pelops, back to life. Pelops was corrupt like his father and he murdered an older man in order to marry the older man’s daughter. Pelops’ sons, Atreus and Thyestes, continued the family tradition. Thyestes seduced Atreus’ wife and in return, Atreus murdered Thyestes’ children and fed them to Thyestes. Thyestes fled with his one surviving child, Aegisthus, and cursed the house of Atreus. Aegisthus thus grows up as an exile, banished from the house. Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon married Clytaemnestra and Menelaus married Helen. And as the well known story goes, Agamemnon and Menelaus spent a decade warring against Troy in order to revenge Paris’ seduction of Helen. At the beginning of this war however, Agamemnon sacrifices his virgin daughter Iphigeneia to the gods in order to get a good sail out to sea.
Most of these events are recalled during the course of the Oresteia, but the opening setting of the Oresteia begins with Agamemnon’s return from the successful toppling of Troy.
Stay tuned for the amazing story.