Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Background on Aeschylus and the Oresteia

The Oresteia is the only Greek trilogy that has survived to the present. It is said to have won first prize in an Athenian festival in 458 B.C. Aeschylus, is known to have written
at least seventy plays of which only seven have survived. Although he won at least thirteen prizes equivalent to the Oscars for Best Picture, his gravestone speaks only of his service and valor at the Battle of Marathon (490 B. C.).
The trilogy was based on a popular group of legends surrounding the royal family of Atreus, king of Mycenae and father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. The two brothers were married to sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen (of Troy). When Helen was seduced and abducted by Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon led the fleet of “a thousand ships” against Troy (possibly ca. 1250 B. C.).
The Trojan War lasted a legendary ten years. When Agamemnon returned, he was murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin.
In the second play of the trilogy, Orestes returns several (?seven) years later to Mycenae to avenge his father. He is accompanied by his sister Elektra and cousin Pylades, and is urged on by the god Apollo, one of the “younger gods” from Olympus. After he kills Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the Erinnyes (“Furies,” old earth goddesses) set upon him. Apollo finds that the Furies are unmoved by his purification of Orestes. Unable to deliver on his promise to protect Orestes, he sends him to seek Athena’s protection.
In Athens, Athena persuades the Furies to submit the question of Orestes’ guilt and of their right to punish him to a debate adjudicated by a court of Athenians. A verdict is arrived at with Athena having to cast the deciding vote. The whole of the third part of the trilogy is devoted to his "action."
Following is a list and brief description of the characters involved in the legends, the Oresteia and in Agamemnon Must Die (Agamemnon in short). They are grouped by “generations.” Names significant in Agamemnon are in capitals.
Atreus, his brother Thyestes (father of AEGISTHUS), and his wife Aerope.
AGAMEMNON, Menelaus and Anaxibia were born to Atreus. CLYTEMNESTRA and Helen were married to the brothers and Anaxibia was married to king Strophius of Phocis.
Iphigenia, ORESTES and ELEKTRA were born to Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. PYLADES was the son of Strophius and Anaxibia.
Non-royals were ARISTIDES, one of the Chorus of Elders mentioned in the Oresteia and named in Agamemnon, the WATCHMAN, and the HERALD, named AGATHON (in Agamemnon but not in the Oresteia).
The significance of the Oresteia for the development of Greek drama and of Greek
and Western religious and political thought continues to be a subject of much scholarship.
I first read it in the translation by Richmond Lattimore (1942, 1959) which seem to me then and still to breathe the worshipful tones of Greek civilization as interpreted by C. M. Bowra (The Greek Experience) and Werner Jaeger (Paideia). It was then clear that the trilogy told of the triumph of rational new gods over bloody-minded old ones, and/or the rise of humane/democratic justice from the barbaric cycle of vengeance.

Two generations of classics professors and scholarship have passed. The landscape has changed. I have not “kept up” with this research but have told the story, selecting from variations from Aeschylus’ version and elaborating on characters as I felt would make sense and “connect with” a modern audience.
The images of Aeschylus in this post were downloaded on April 15, 2014 from the Wikipedia article on the dramatist/poet.  The one near to top of this post is an image of a bust in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, while the other is of a bust in the North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh, NC).

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