Posts Tagged ‘Oresteia’

“The Eumenides” by Aeschylus

[Unless otherwise stated, all excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The first two plays of The Oresteia trilogy had dramatised a tragic impasse: the justice of the gods demanded that crimes be punished, and that humans should be the implements of the gods’ will, and carry out the punishment; but this punishment is also a crime, and the humans who mete it out must also be punished in turn. Any resolution of the drama that spans across these three plays should resolve also this impasse. Which, of course, by its very nature, cannot be resolved.

Much debate has raged over the nature of the resolution presented by The Eumenides, the final play in this trilogy. For some, it dramatises a decisive step forward: instead of the primitive code of personal vendetta and blood-letting, we have instead a civil institution that determines these matters: it is a step from darkness and barbarity towards enlightenment and civilisation. Other voices dissent. Would the horrors that have led to this point not have taken place had courts of law then existed? Are these horrors now things of the past, to be looked upon merely as relics of more savage times, and of little concern to our present lives? Of course not. And it would be absurd to think that Aeschylus was foolish enough to think that they were. So where is the progress?

And yet, there must be some progress, somewhere: otherwise, this vast drama could not have a resolution, and the torchlit parade of triumph with which the play ends would merely be hollow. Just what the nature of this progress is will, no doubt, continue to be debated, but, as in any major work of art, we should, I think, beware of any interpretation that is too simplistic: such an immense trilogy of plays was not, after all, written merely to demonstrate a thesis – whether that thesis extols progress from darkness into light, or whether it declares that any perceived progress is merely a semblance rather than reality. Aeschylus’ vision, both moral and artistic, was greater than either.

The play itself has a tripartite structure, with its centre of gravity lying in the middle section, which is the longest. This middle section is the earliest surviving example we have of a courtroom drama. But we have, before that, a sort of prologue, taking up about quarter of the play; and after the middle section, we have an epilogue, taking up another quarter of the play (these proportions are quite easy to determine when you have line numbers). The prologue sets up the issues that are debated in the courtroom drama; the epilogue addresses the issues that the courtroom drama had left unresolved. Such a structure, so satisfying in its symmetry, is very different from what we had in either of the two earlier plays; but then, this is a very different play.

However, one feature it shares with the other two plays is that the chorus does not appear immediately. In Agamemnon, we had, before the entrance of the chorus, a monologue delivered by a watchman keeping guard on the battlements of Argos; in The Libation Bearers had started with Orestes and Pylades at the grave of Agamemnon; and now, in The Eumenides, we have not one, but three scenes before the entry of the chorus. The chorus’ entry, when it comes, is possibly the most dramatic entrance in any Greek drama – maybe in any drama – for this chorus are the Furies themselves, the Erinyes, the most feared, the most horrific, of all beings. At the end of The Libation Bearers, Orestes had seen them, but we hadn’t: here, not only do they appear in the flesh, they are on stage for most of the duration of the play.

In the first of the three scenes preceding this entrance, we see a priestess of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. She first enters the temple, and, almost immediately after, emerges again in terror of what she had seen:

A sight too terrible to see or speak about

has sent me back out of Apollo’s hall;

I have no strength, I cannot stand –

I run, but on my hands and knees, not on my feet.

Inside, she had seen a suppliant, “a man abominated by the gods” (Orestes, we may guess); and around him, sleeping, were the Furies, with “disgusting streams of filth pour[ing] from their eyes”.

After the priestess’ terrified exit, we have a brief scene with Orestes, and with Apollo himself. Clearly, we are inhabiting a very different dramatic world now from what had been presented to us in the earlier plays: there, the presence of the gods, like the presence of the Furies, was felt, but not seen. Here, Apollo is as visible as the Furies soon prove to be. He too, like the priestess, inveighs against the disgusting Furies, “hated by mankind and by the gods”, and tells Orestes to go to “Pallas’ city”, Athens, where “we will have men who can judge this case”. This is a departure indeed from the earlier plays. There, it had been the will of Zeus, the will of the gods, that had determined human affairs: now, a god himself speaks of the judgement of men being the deciding factor.

There is another scene before the delayed entry of the Furies, and this is what may be termed a coup de théâtre: for there now enters the ghost of Klytaimnestra (or the “dream-image of Klytaimnestra”, as Ewans prefers to call it), as commanding and as terrifying dead as she had been alive. She enters in a rage, urging the sleeping Furies to awake, and to torment the son who had murdered his mother. Now, and only now, is the stage prepared for the entry of the Furies themselves: that which had so terrified the priestess, that had so disgusted Apollo, the audience gets to see in the flesh. Unlike the previous plays of this trilogy, this play can accommodate as real, physical presences, the gods, the ghost (or the “dream-image”) of the dead, and the Furies themselves. Whether we see them as real entities, or as symbolising different aspects of the human mind, they are all here, solid presences on stage. The Furies, of course, form the chorus, and, as in Aeschyus’ earlier play Suppliants, they are no mere spectators commenting upon the action: the chorus here are direct participants in the drama. Collectively, they may even be considered the principal protagonist: the play, after all, is named after them.

Apollo re-enters, and, making no attempt to hide his revulsion, commands the Furies to go: but they are not subject even to the gods’ commands: they answer back. It is their duty to torment the man who had murdered his own mother, as it is Apollo’s duty to protect the man who had, following the god’s own instruction, avenged the death of his father.

The prologue is now complete. We may move now to Athens, Pallas’ city, where Orestes has come, seeking absolution. The stage is, quite literally, set for the great confrontation.

We see Orestes now in Athens (space is as fluid here as it had been in The Libation Bearers), at the altar of the goddess Athena; but the Furies are in close pursuit. Orestes claims that he has been purified of the pollution of matricide, but that means nothing to the Furies, who assail him with accusations and with hideous threats:

… This is a song

for one who is doomed,

a blow to the heart that smashes the mind,

a song of the Furies to bind his wits,

a horrible sound to parch his brain.

We need not believe in the literal existence of the Furies to see in this a description of one driven mad with guilt: Orestes is in terror of incipient insanity, and the terror is real. Even after death, the Furies warn, they will continue to torment his mind.

It is at this point that Athena herself enters, in answer to Orestes’ call. She engages first with the Furies, but, unlike her brother Apollo, she addresses them with courtesy:

… you do not look like any other race,

not kin to any goddesses the gods have seen,

nor are you similar in shape to mortal women …

But to speak ill of guests who’ve done no harm,

that is not right; it would be far from just.

Athena expresses no disgust, no revulsion: not even distaste. But, after questioning the Furies on their cause, she feels that the story they tell is not the full story, and that if justice is to be done, a more balanced account must be considered:

You’d rather be renowned for justice than be just in all you do.

The Furies are stung by the accusation, but, mollified perhaps by Athena’s graciousness, they agree to trust her to help arrive at a just solution. Athena turns now to Orestes, and, after hearing his self-justification, decides that the matter is “too large” to be settled by the judgement of a single human; and that

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

And so she summons, as her prophetic brother Apollo had foreseen, what Athenian audiences (and, for that matter, ourselves) would recognise as a court of law:

I will choose blameless men of Athens,

judges of murder, faithful servants of the law

which I will fund for all time as the bedrock of their plighted oaths.

Then must you call your witnesses, and show your proof –

sworn testimony which will aid your case.

No longer, then, the inscrutable will of Zeus, but, rather, the consensus of a representative selection of humans. And should we think this an unwonted diminution by Athena of the powers of her father, we should remember what the chorus of Argive elders had said so forcefully in Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy:

There’s nothing to refer to

except Zeus…

Zeus is all there is. Nothing happens, nothing can happen, that isn’t the will of Zeus. Whatever is determined by other gods – by Artemis, by Apollo, by Athena – is all part of the will of Zeus himself. The power of Zeus to make judgements in these matters is not abrogated by Athena’s action, but delegated, and that delegation must itself be the will of Zeus.

The Furies now embark upon a chorus, confident of their victory. How can their case be denied, after all, when Justice is the end? For Justice cannot exist without Fear. Banish Fear, and Justice itself would cease to be:

There is a place where Fear is good,

and needs to stand as silent guardian

on watch over the mind;

it’s right that pain should teach good conduct.

How could any man or city that does not

nurture an element of fear inside the heart

still worship Justice?

At the start of the proceedings, Apollo makes a sudden and unexpected appearance: he has come, he says, to testify on behalf of Orestes, who is his suppliant. Orestes is then cross-examined by the Furies in a stichomythic passage. Orestes admits to having killed his mother, but goes on to offer justification: firstly, he was following the oracle of Apollo himself; and secondly, Klaitemnestra herself had been guilty of murder: he had merely been meting out just punishment, in accordance with divine will. Why, asks Orestes quite reasonably, did the Furies not torment Klaitemnestra for the murders she had committed? The Furies reply that her victims had not been her blood relations

Apollo now testifies on Orestes’ behalf, and, again in contrast to the courteous Athena, he is abusive and intolerant, refusing even to recognise the Furies’ case. He begins his testimony with a self-aggrandising speech proclaiming his own greatness: he is a prophet who never lies. The oracular command to kill Klaitemnestra that he had given Orestes was the will of Zeus himself, and that cannot be overridden. But, counter the Furies, how could Zeus give a greater weighting to the death of a father than to the death of a mother, when he had himself imprisoned his aged father Kronos? Apollo, here caught out, reverts to abuse:

You utterly revolting beasts, hated by all the gods…

Imprisonment can be reversed, Apollo continues, but death cannot. But this leads him into another contradiction: should not the death of the defendant’s mother therefore be punished?

Apollo’s response to this is somewhat unconvincing, especially to the modern audience. The mother, he says, is no real parent: she merely nurses the foetus in her womb. The true parent is the father. If modern audiences find this claim absurd, it is not something that had been entertained by the Furies either: in their earlier cross-examination of Orestes, they had explicitly stated the contrary:

You murderer, did she not nurture you

within her womb? Do you renounce the life-blood given by your mother?

Orestes, for his part, had not denied the blood-kinship.

Apollo ends his testimony by openly offering Athena a bribe: if Orestes is set free, if “he might be pledged to you for the rest of time”, then Athena would

… gain this man, goddess, as your ally,

and his heirs – and it would be so evermore;

all his descendants would be faithful to the pledge made here.

But this is a pledge Orestes had himself made earlier quite freely:

And now from a pure mouth I solemnly entreat

Pallas Athena, ruler of this land, to come

and be my helper; she will gain without a war

me, my country, and my citizens

as just and faithful allies for the rest of time.

Athena now gives a speech not merely to the Athenians on stage, but also, one imagines, to the Athenians in the audience. The institution she is founding is one to be maintained and revered, so they may live their lives “neither anarchic, nor beneath a tyrant’s rule”. As Ewans says in his notes, at this point in the earlier plays – that is, at the point immediately preceding the dramatic resolution – Kassandra, in Agamemnon, had foreseen someone coming to revenge the murders she knows are about to be committed; and Klaitemnestra, in The Libation Bearers, had warned her son of the Furies who would spring from her spilt blood to torment him. Athena, in sharp contrast, speaks of hope.

But the path towards hope is not clear. The Furies, in their previous chorus, had spoken of the concept of Justice breaking down if Fear is to be banished. If the Furies are to be defeated, how can there be hope for a city that is not “anarchic”?

Aeschylus addresses that question in the epilogue, but first, the jury must cast its votes. And here, we run into what, I gather, is quite heated scholarly debate. Athena states that should the vote be evenly split, then Orestes must be given the benefit of the doubt (this was, I gather, the practice of Athenian courts). This is entirely correct on her part: the rules of the vote must be made clear before the vote takes place. But does the jury consist of an even number of men? Or does it consist of an odd number of men, with Athena joining them to make up an even number? For Athena certainly votes: she says so explicitly, and says further that she is casting her vote for acquittal. But is hers the casting vote when an even number of jurors had failed to arrive at a decision? Or is hers the vote that results in an even split?

W. B. Stanford, in his notes for the translation by Robert Fagles, argues for the former, citing an essay by George Thomson. The argument he presents is, briefly, this: for Athena to mediate successfully with the Furies after the trial, she must command their trust; and if her vote effectively overturns a verdict made by the mortal Athenians of the jury, she is unlikely to command any trust at all. But Ewans, in his own notes, disagrees with characteristic combativeness. Among other things, he insists, the Greek text where Athena announces her own vote cannot be interpreted to indicate that her vote is a casting vote only, to be used if, and only if, the jurors fail to reach a verdict.

As ever, I shall refrain from entering such scholarly debate: as a layman in these matters, and as one who cannot even read the original text, this is not for me to judge. But I will note that every translation I have consulted renders Athena’s announcement, made after the other jurors have voted but before the counting, makes quite clear that hers is not a casting vote:

It is my task to cast the final judgement here;

and I will give Orestes’ cause this vote.

(Translated by Michael Ewans)

My work is here, to render the final judgement.

Orestes, I will cast my lot for you.

(Translated by Robert Fagles)

It is my task to render final judgement here.

This is a ballot for Orestes I shall cast.

(Translated by Richmond Lattimore)

It is now my office to give final judgement;

and I shall give my vote to Orestes.

(Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones)

The last vote is mine

and I cast it – for Orestes.

(Translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish)

It is my place to give my judgement last:

And I shall cast this vote in favour of Orestes.

(Translated by Oliver Taplin)

Leaving aside the very strange syntax adopted by Lattimore, what Athena says is clear in all these translations: we are at a point before the votes are counted, and she is casting her vote now, with not a hint that this is to be used only in case of a tie.

Whatever the solution is to this, the votes are counted; the jurors (including or not including Athena, depending on interpretation) are split; Orestes is, therefore, acquitted; and Apollo, his task now achieved, departs as abruptly as he had arrived. But all is far from settled. We enter now into the last act of this three-act structure – or, according to the line numbers, the final quarter of the play.

The Furies, previously so confident, cry out in anguished rage. But they had previously agreed freely to put their trust in Athena, and they cannot go back on it now. They pour out their fury in terrible threats, and then in self-pitying lamentation:

We are deprived of all we live for; in our misery

our anger will be terrible, and we’ll let

the arrows fly out from our hearts

to cause this country suffering in return –

unbearable! The blight will drip

to kill your plants and children.

Justice! Justice!

I will rush down into the plain, and pour into the earth

the stain that will destroy all human life.

I’ll weep. What shall I do?

They laugh at me. In Athens I have suffered


We are the miserable, greatly suffering Daughters of the Night;

no-one respects us, so we grieve.

Their occupation’s gone.

Athena does not leave the scene, as Apollo had done, and her reason for staying does not appear to be fear of the Furies’ threats: rather, it is because she acknowledges the justice of their cause. She reminds them that they had not been defeated: the votes had been evenly split. Orestes is freed, but not exonerated. But, as if to underline the impotence of their anger, the Furies repeat their threats and their lament, word for word.

Athena mediates with them. She proposes a new role for the Furies: they may become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones. They may live in Athens and bring blessings upon the city, and be respected and revered. Her powers of persuasion are great: the Furies agree, and the play – and the entire dark, blood-drenched trilogy – ends with a triumphant torchlit parade.

What are we to make of this ending? Many have found it somewhat anti-climactic, given all that has gone before. Is this really how all the darkness, all the terror, is resolved? Does this answer the seemingly unanswerable questions that the previous plays had posed? Is this really a progress into light from the darkness in which we had begun? Or is it just a cop-out?

We must, I think, refrain from making simplistic interpretations here. The two alternatives – that there has been a decisive progress towards civilisation, and its opposite – both seem to me far too simplistic to offer a satisfying resolution to this sequence of plays. We must look further.

And we must note two points. Firstly, Athena, unlike Apollo, had recognised the validity of the Furies’ case: instead of summarily judging in favour of Orestes, she had said quite explicitly that the issue was too complex for any single man, or even for any single divinity, to resolve:

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

Secondly, the Furies, in accepting Athena’s proposal, do not change their nature. And neither is their power diminished. At three separate points, Athena clearly indicates this:

I have inspired these goddesses both great and hard to please

to settle here; for they have power

in all affairs of men.

If anyone encounters them

he doesn’t even realize they’ve struck him down.

For all the errors of his ancestors

drag him into the net, and silent death,

for all his mighty noise,

turns him to dust beneath their rage.


A Fury can do much, and has great power

both with the gods above and those below;

and in the world of men, it’s clear they always work their will

right to the end; some they give cause to sing,

to others a life dimmed by tears.

And later still:

From these terrifying faces

I see great advantage for my citizens;

for if you always honour them

they will be happy, you will be happy,

everyone will see that Athens is a land

where Justice rules.

Athena acknowledges here what the Furies had themselves proclaimed earlier: there is a place where Fear is good.

The progress celebrated at the end of the play is not the emergence of civilised institutions from the dark barbarism of private vengeance and retribution; rather, it is the delegation of moral judgement from Zeus to humans. No longer are humans subject to the frequently inscrutable will of the gods: they must determine among themselves, and for themselves, where moral good lies; they must determine who is guilty, and who is to be acquitted; they must determine when to punish, and what that punishment should be. For without this last element, without punishment, justice could not exist – neither divine justice, nor human. We cannot do without Terror: we cannot do without the Furies.

But is this, too, perhaps, too simplistic an interpretation? After all, the goddess Athena had, at best, intervened when humans had been unable to reach a decision; at worst, she had overturned the humans’ decision. Either way, divine intervention was required, and the delegation of moral law to humans has proved imperfect. The further one looks into this, the more complex it all appears. Perhaps there is no resolution. What resolution can there be, after all, that could requite the terror of Kassandra as she enters the House of Atreus, where she knows she will be butchered? Her cries of terror resound still, even after the peroration of the final triumphant torchlit procession.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Eumenides]

“Agamemnon” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

I beg the gods; release me from these sufferings …

Agamemnon is the first of the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus known as The Oresteia: it is the only trilogy of Athenian drama that has survived in its entirety, and, if only for that reason, appears to have a grander and wider scope than most of the other surviving plays. It begins (as, interestingly, does Hamlet, another mighty tragic drama that addresses the theme of revenge) with a soldier keeping watch at night upon the battlements. And (again, as in Hamlet) the soldier’s opening line introduces a motif that runs through the rest of the work. In Shakespeare’s play, this opening line is a seemingly innocuous “Who’s there?” – an appropriate opening for a play in which we find the protagonist wrestling with who and what he is. Here, we are introduced in the first line to several themes. There is, firstly, the suffering – although, comparing different translations, the Greek word that is rendered by Ewans as “suffering” possibly has no exact equivalent in English: Fagles translates it as “pain”, Lattimore as “weariness”, Lloyd-Jones as “toil”, etc.; and in the translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, the word, whatever it is, is simply replaced with the pronoun “it”, so the play begins with a startlingly simple “Gods, when will it end?” I am in no position to judge which is best, but since it is Ewans’ translation I have been reading, let us stick with that. We have here the theme of human suffering – or of something, at least, that we humans may wish would end. There is also the desire for release. And finally, there is the reference to the gods, to some sort of divinities who, presumably, have the power to grant that release.

The watchman’s opening speech is only some forty or so lines long, but it more than sets the scene for what is to come: it introduces some of the main themes and motifs, and, more importantly, I think, it sets the emotional temperature of what we are about to witness; and also, it seems, it sets a pattern that is repeated throughout, both in this play, and in the two other plays of this trilogy: an anxious hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, a profound apprehension. The watchman here is anxiously awaiting news that Troy is taken, and that the ten-year war is finally at an end; the news comes, with, quite literally, a flash of light; but the watchman’s joy is cut short almost immediately by a fear of what is to come next. The joy is never more than merely temporary – a point we should, I think, always bear in mind, even at the triumphant torchlit celebration with which the trilogy ends. But let us not anticipate.

We are in Argos, at the palace of Agamemnon, leader of the allied Greek troops that has been fighting in Troy for ten years. All is not well. As we find out later, there is much unrest at home occasioned by the war fought abroad; and the suffering is not restricted to the soldiers who were sent to Troy:

… and all through Greece a woman waits at home

with patient sorrow in her heart

for each of those who went to Troy.

Many things touch their feelings:

each one knows the person she sent out;

instead of him

a pot of ashes comes back home.

The end of this war, the news of victory, should indeed be a cause of rejoicing, but the rejoicing of the watchman is cut short for reasons that he, rather ominously, refuses to tell us:

I’ll say no more; upon my tongue

a great ox sits. The house itself, could it take voice,

would tell most clearly. I prefer to speak only for those

who’ll understand; to those who don’t, I haven’t said a word.

Only now does the chorus enter – a chorus of the elders of Argos, who had deemed too old and too decrepit to travel to Troy to fight. And there follows a chorus of some 220 lines – the longest in any of the existing Greek plays. This may, to the modern audience (or to the modern reader), seem undramatic: who, after all, wants to start a play with a long narration? Show, not tell, as any creative writing course will tell us. But if it does seem undramatic to us, that is, presumably, a measure of the extent to which our conception of drama differs from that of the ancient Greeks. Aeschylus obviously deemed it important, and it deserves close attention.

Much of this chorus (consisting of a long introductory section followed by six pairs of strophes and antistrophes, with the first of these pairs rounded off with an epode), is indeed narrative, but the narration embeds many symbols and images that we must bear in mind if the rest of the play is to make its proper impact. 

The long introductory passage of this chorus tells of the Zeus sending out Agamemnon and his brother Menelaos to avenge the outrage committed by the Trojan prince Paris: he had abducted Helen, wife of Menelaos, and this is a crime for the gods themselves demand retribution. But the image describing this is a curious one: the Greeks, wronged by Paris, are compared to vultures who have lost their chicks, and, with them, “the toil of nurturing their young”. And it is on hearing these vultures’ lament that the gods send out Agamemnon and Menelaos, as instruments of divine justice. But, at the same time, Agamemnon and Menelaos have agency as well: they and their men cry out “with all their hearts for mighty War”. The avenging armies are, simultaneously, both instruments of divine will, and also free, autonomous agents. Aeschylus isn’t much interested here in choosing between the two: he insists on both.

The chorus now turns its attention to Klytaimnestra, sister of Helen and wife of Agamemnon, asking her what news she has received from Troy. Since the Greek dramas have come to us with no stage directions, directors (and translators) must provide their own. In some versions, as the chorus asks these questions of their queen, she comes out and, in silence, offers sacrifices to the sacred fire; in others (as in Ewans’ translation), the questions are directed towards the palace, but its doors remain shut, and no answer is given. Either, I think, can be theatrically effective.

Now the sequence of six strophes and antistrophes begins. In the first pair (which is followed by an epode), we are told of an omen that had appeared: two eagles had been seen swooping down and devouring a pregnant hare. The priest Kalchas interprets: the eagles are obviously Agamemnon and Menalaos, and the hare is Troy. However, the omens are “part good for us, part bad”: the hare had been pregnant, and the unborn are devoured too. And in the course of this narration, a refrain develops:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail.

The next pair of strophe and antistrophe, somewhat surprisingly, interrupts the narration with a meditation on the nature of Zeus: “… there’s nothing to refer to except Zeus”. Zeus is all there is, and all that is is Zeus. Zeus, we are reminded, had overcome his own father,

The one who once was great

and bursting with never-conquered might.

But that never-conquered might has now been conquered, and the conqueror, Zeus, is omnipotent: he is all that is. We need to remember this in what follows: Aeschylus would hardly have placed this seeming diversion at this point had he intended otherwise.

The second antistrophe runs into the third strophe mid-sentence, and continues the meditation on the nature of Zeus, who has ordained that “men learn from experience”. Ewans, in a footnote here, says that the original words, “pathei mathos”, literally means “learn from experience”, and that the traditional rendition of these words as “learn by suffering” is a mistranslation “with full Christian (and Wagnerian) overtones of redemption through repentance”. I have, however, also seen criticisms of Ewans’ criticism, claiming that Ewans makes too much of this, and that, given the lack of exact correspondence between Greek words and English, “learn by suffering” is not a mistranslation. As ever in these matters, I will leave the scholars to argue this one out (I have no choice really!), but will note that anything with Christian overtones is, perhaps, best avoided here, as the view Aeschylus gives of the nature of divinity is very far from Christian theology.

But no matter how we learn, whether from suffering or from experience, the pain is not dispelled:

But still, in sleep the pain

of memory drips down inside the heart; the calm

of reason comes even to those who do not want it.

I think the favour of the gods who sit on sacred thrones

are gifts that hurt.

The third antistrophe returns to the narrative. Agamemnon and Menelaos are the instruments of divine will, and the gods will grant them victory, but it is a gift that hurts: to achieve this victory, Agamemnon will have to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. The eagles had devoured also the innocent unborn: in order to revenge the crime of Paris, the innocents of Troy must also be put to the sword. And Artemis, who “hates the eagle’s feast”, demands that if the Greeks are to spill the innocent blood of Troy, they must first spill innocent blood of their own.

How much choice Agamemnon has in this matter is not clear. He is, after all, both the instrument of divine justice, and also an autonomous agent. And in this perplexing paradox lies the horror: to avenge a crime, Agamemnon must himself commit a crime; and he is both not responsible for it, and responsible for it, at the same time.

We may wish to put this down to civil war between the gods – of Artemis rebelling against the will of Zeus; but that is too easy an answer. Aeschylus had gone out of his way to tell us, just a few lines earlier, that Zeus is all there is. Zeus could easily have overruled Artemis, but he hadn’t. This is the collective divine will: Agamemnon must revenge the crime of Paris, and, in so doing, must himself be guilty of a monstrous crime. He is caught in an infernal machine from which there is escape. He may learn through experience: this ability to learn is the gods’ gift. But it is a gift that hurts.

The narrative continues, but all hint of triumph or glory is now lost: the chorus tells of the sacrifice, of how Iphigenia was led to the altar “with a bridle to silence her”, how she was lifted up “like a goat, with her head inclined”. But they stop short of the point where she has her throat slit by her own father: it is too horrible even to narrate.

What happened after that I did not see, nor will I speak of it.

And only now does Klytaimnestra make her long delayed first entrance (at least, her first speaking entrance).

The chorus’ narration should not, I think, be taken merely as exposition: if seen as such, it would appear merely cumbersome. But if it is seen as a drama in its own right, then the effect is electric. As in The Persians, the drama we see on stage is not that of the events being narrated, but of the people on stage – in this instance, the chorus of old men – trying to understand the significance of these events, trying to understand what these events tell us about the gods, about the nature of human free will, and the nature of divine will. And what they understand brings little comfort.

Klytaimnestra has news. Troy has fallen, and their absent king will now return. In a long speech, she describes how the news had travelled so quickly. She had arranged for a series of beacons, from mountain-top to mountain-top, to be lit to signal the fall of the city, so the news can be relayed by light across the continents. And that night, the night-watchman had seen the last light of that series of beacons bursting into light. Klytaimnestra it was who had arranged this: the watchman in the play’s opening scene had spoken scoffingly and yet fearfully of the “waiting, hopeful woman who plans like a man” – such gender confusion being, for this watchman and, one suspects, for the Greeks in general, abhorrent. Klytaimnestra describes the travel of the news by fire in a speech that appears to be more than mere boasting of her organisational powers: there seems something almost elemental to it: even fire obeys her bidding, and “Haephistos was my courier”. But then, her second speech takes an unexpected turn. Instead of triumph, or of joy, she speaks of the bloodbath that, even as she speaks, is being visited upon the people of Troy; and she expresses her hope that the Greeks reverence the city’s gods and not desecrate their shrines, so they may return safely. Once again, we see that pattern repeated: hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, apprehension. And finally, in a short coda to her speech, she echoes the refrain that had earlier appeared in the chorus: “Yet may the good prevail.” On the surface, this means “May our men return safely”, but the original audience, who knew the myth, would, most likely, have looked beyond the surface: Klytaimnestra may well have a very different idea of what constitutes the “good”.

Klytaimnestra now returns into the palace, leaving the chorus again on their own. And again, they ruminate on Zeus, on the punishment he had meted out to Troy for having broken his law; and this drifts into apprehension of the punishment Zeus might yet mete out to the Argives, should they also – as Klytaimnestra has more than hinted – have similarly broken his law. They speak also of the deep unrest among the people of Argos at the absence of their king, and of their anger at the devastation brought home to them by a war that was being fought merely for the sake of another man’s wife. As always, fulfilment of hopes does not bring joy: it brings merely apprehension.

Now the herald enters with news of the fall of Troy. Time is very elastic here: in a naturalistic play, there would be a gap of a few days, at least, between Klytaimnestra receiving the news through a relay of fire, and the arrival of the herald, but here, that time is compressed to but a few minutes. The herald’s speech is initially triumphant, telling as it does of victory at Troy, but, with Klytemnaistra’s last speech still ringing in our ears, even that triumph contains within it the seeds of terror:

Nothing stands upon the plain of Troy;

the altars and the shrines of gods are all destroyed…

Klytaimnestra enters again, but she has no desire to listen: she knows about the fall of Troy already. She has come to talk. She boasts about her knowing when others had doubted her knowledge; and she asks the herald to tell her husband to come quickly, for she is waiting for him, like a faithful wife. And, having said this, without waiting to hear another single word, she returns into her palace, leaving the scene as abruptly as she had entered.

The chorus then questions the herald further, and his initial note of triumph now dissipates: the Greeks, on returning, had met with a fearful storm; the other fleets had separated, and of Agamemnon’s own fleet, only his ship had survived: the others are all drowned. Zeus is meting out retribution already on those who had committed crimes – even those crimes that had been committed to fulfil his own purpose.

The herald now leaves, but not before he, too, has echoed the chorus’ apprehensive refrain: “May all turn out as best it can.” The chorus is left once again to ponder on events, and, once again, these ponderings are themselves the substance of the drama: what do these events signify? Paris had transgressed, and Troy had transgressed by condoning Paris’ transgression; so they paid a terrible price, and the terrible price they paid is the judgement of Zeus. But there is now an obvious parallel to be drawn between Troy and Argos, for Argos too has transgressed. These ponderings are not comments on the drama: they are the drama. The drama consists of us humans trying to make some kind of sense of a world that is, to human understanding at any rate, unintelligible.

Only now, almost half way through the play, does the eponymous Agamemnon enter. He enters magnificently in a chariot, and at the back of his chariot is his “conquest”, the Trojan princess Kassandra, now a captive slave, and chosen by Agamemnon to be his concubine.

Agamemnon speaks in triumph, but we know the pattern by now. Klytaimnestra enters, and, like a dutiful wife, greets her husband. We do not need to know the myth to be fearful. She then instructs her maidservants to lay between the chariot and the door of the palace tapestries of crimson and of blood red, so Agamemnon may tread upon them, as the victor he is, and enter again his home. So a river of the most vivid red appears before Agamemnon, representing both his triumph and – as we can now be certain – his destruction. Agamemnon himself is doubtful: even as a victor returning in triumph, would not this be sacrilegious, and, somehow, obscene? – an affront to all that is holy? It would indeed. But Klytaimnestra convinces him. And so the man who had trodden on real blood before – on innocent blood, including that of his own daughter – now treads the symbol of that blood towards his own bloody end. Zeus, had delivered justice on the Trojans, with Agamemnon his instrument for that justice; now, justice is to be delivered on Agamemnon, and the instrument this time will be Klytaimnestra. Link by link, the chain is forged.

All this time, Kassandra, sitting at the back of the chariot, has remained tantalisingly silent. Agamemnon’s instruction concerning her was to treat her well, for “the gods look kindly from afar on those who conquer, but do not abuse their power”. So, after Agamemnon has entered the palace, Klytaimnestra, with a kindness that we can be sure by now is assumed, asks her to follow. But Kassandra keeps still, unresponding. Whatever power Klytaimnestra was able to exert over her husband, she cannot over her husband’s slave. In frustration, she enters the palace, without Kassandra.

One shouldn’t, I am told, sully literary criticism with subjective impressions, but since this is merely a blog post rather than a learned essay, I don’t see why I shouldn’t: the scene that now follows is, to me, among the most extraordinary I have encountered in any play: one has to go to the storm scenes in King Lear, or to the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester on the heath, to come across anything of comparable tragic intensity.

Kassandra now breaks her silence – but not, at first, with words, but instead with inarticulate screams. She then calls out – not to Agamemnon, nor to Klytaimnestra, nor even to the ghosts of her slaughtered family, but to Apollo, whom she calls her “destroyer”:

Ah! Where have you led me? To what house?

For nothing is secret to Kassandra. She knows – she knows all. She has the gift of prophecy. Apollo had given her this gift for he had desired her, and she had, in her own words, “pledged [her] body to him, and then broken [her] word”. Apollo, unable to revoke his gift of prophecy, had then deemed that her prophetic visions would never be believed; and now, as she faces her own imminent extinction, she knows that it is he, the god, who has brought her to this end. She knows the hideous bloody future she is to face inside the house, and also its hideous bloody past. She knows that inside the house, she, now a mere slave and thus of no real consequence, will be ripped apart by Klytaimnestra’s sword.

The chorus cannot quite believe her: her prophecies are doomed not to be believed, after all. But they can’t quite disbelieve her either, as she sings an agonised threnody to her own death. No matter how we may choose to interpret the ways of the gods, this is the reality for humans, who have no option but to suffer.

So far, Aeschylus has given us two strands of causality heading towards a single event: there are the outrages in Troy, crying out for revenge; and there is the outrage on Agamemnon’s own daughter, Iphigenia. Both point to the killing of Agamemnon. But now, a third strand is introduced – this one spanning generations. Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, had been betrayed by his own brother: Thyestes had seduced Atreus’ wife. And, in revenge, Atreus had, under the guise of friendship, invited his brother to a feast, but had feasted his brother on the roast flesh of his brother’s own children. Thyestes, on realising the horror, had left with his surviving son, and had cursed Atreus and his house. This curse too must have its fulfilment. All these strands are converging fast upon what appears now an inevitable focal point: the killing of Agamemnon.

And what value can the life of a mere slave, a mere captive concubine, have in the context of such matters? Yet, it is to this seemingly insignificant figure to whom Aeschylus gives the most potent and powerful expression of grief and of terror. And, as she walks into the house in which she knows she will be butchered, she asks that she, a foreigner and a mere female slave, be remembered alongside the more powerful who will fall with her:

… in the house I will lament

my own and Agamemnon’s fate; I’ve had enough of life.

Oh strangers,

do not think I am trembling, like a bird scared of the trap;

I simply beg you to be my witness after my death,

when one more woman dies in recompense for me,

and for the man so badly married yet another falls in turn.

I ask this of you as a stranger who is about to die.

The various strands, the various chains of causality, may meet at a focal point here, but, Kassandra knows, this is not by any means the last link of the chain. And that she, Kassandra, a mere dispensable slave girl, is also part of that chain.

Once again, the chorus is left on its own, and soon, they hear the death cries of Agamemnon from inside the palace, and they are in turmoil. This turmoil seems to me to be depicted in comic terms. I realise that our modern responses are likely to be quite different from those of ancient Athenians; and I realise also the very stylised nature of the representation of events. But it is hard to see how, given the extreme seriousness of the context, lines such as these can be seen as anything other than comic:

  • Let us take common counsel; is there some safe plan?
  • … I vote that we do something; it’s a time for no delay.
  • Yes, we are wasting time…
  • I haven’t got a plan to offer; and no-one should act unless he has already planned.

We should not be surprised by such an incursion of the comic at such a moment: sending in the clowns at moments of the greatest seriousness would have been as effective in Greek times as it had been in Shakespeare’s (the gravediggers in Hamlet, say, or the man who brings in the asp to Cleopatra), or, indeed, still is in our own. But whatever humour there is here is cut short by the opening of the palace doors, to reveal a now triumphant Klytaimnestra, and the butchered bodies of Agamemnon and of Kassandra.

Klytaimnestra now has no reason to dissemble:

Much I have said before to suit the moment, and

I’m not ashamed to contradict it all

She describes in some detail how she killed Agamemnon, how she struck her blows, and how Agamemnon

blowing out rapid spurt of blood

… strikes me with black showers of murderous dew

The chorus is, naturally, horrified, but this is Klytemnaestra triumphant. All she had planned for – planned “like a man”, as the watchman had so scornfully put it – is now fulfilled. What outrage, she now asks, had this chorus of elders shown

when he, not caring much about it, just as if an animal was dead

out of abundant flocks of fleecy sheep,

killed his own daughter, dearest fruit sprung from

my labour-pangs, to charm away the winds from Thrace? 

The elders weep for their murdered king, but Klytaimestra offers us instead an unforgettable and resonant image of their dead king in Hades: traditionally, the dead are greeted in the underworld by those who had loved them, and here, Klytaimnestra imagines Agamemnon

…at the swiftly flowing crossing

of the stream of tears

And at this crossing,

His daughter, as is right,

Iphigenia, will

Embrace and kiss her father lovingly.

One might have expected the play to have ended here, but Aeschylus adds another scene which may, to the modern audience, seem a bit strange: at this late stage of the play, when the climactic point has already passed and we are, in effect, winding down, he introduces a new character, Aigisthos, the lover of Klytaimnestra, and a surviving son of Thyestes, who had been feasted on his own sons’ flesh. He, of course, has his own reasons for revenge on the House of Atreus, and he re-tells the story we have already heard from Kassandra of the hideous feast to which his father had been treated (though conveniently omitting his father’s adultery, the original cause of this particular chain of crimes).

He had, he claims, helped Klytaimnestra with the planning of the deed, but when asked why he had not done the deed himself, he claims simply, and somewhat unconvincingly, that the deceit required was “clearly woman’s work”, and that, further, he was already known as an enemy of the house. The roles of the Macbeths seem here reversed: it is now the woman who commits the deed, and the man merely helps urge her on. The reversal of traditional gender roles that the watchman had seemed to fear in the opening scene, and which no doubt would have been emblematic to the original audiences as a sign of confusion, of the overturning of the natural order of things, appears here, at the end of the play, to be a fact. Nonetheless, it is he who walks in when everything has already been done, and assumes power.

The chorus objects, and Aigisthos, who was happy to be away from the scene to leave the woman to do the dirty work, appears quite willing to put down this much lesser opposition of old men – men who, even ten years earlier, had been deemed unfit for war. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is Klytaimnestra who stops him.

No, dearest man; let us do no more harm.

So many things have now been done that they will be a bitter harvest.

There has been enough torment already; let us not be stained with blood.

The desire not to be stained with blood must sound very strange, coming as it does from a woman who, from her own account of the killing, has been stained with the spurting blood of Agamemnon.

She tells the old men to return to their homes, which they do: it seems a surprisingly weak and anti-climactic end to their part, given their prominence in the rest of the play. But if there is a sense of bathos in the departure of the chorus, then that is clearly what Aeschylus had wanted; the chorus’ part in the drama has ended, but the drama itself is much larger than them. The chorus now departed, we are left at the very end of the play with the weak and cowardly figure of Aigisthos, with the blood-spattered Klytaimnestra, and with the two butchered and mangled bodies.

How are we to interpret Klytaimnestra’s final words? Up to this point, she had been dominant, triumphant. Has the strain of it all now brought her down? Is all that strength that we had witnessed on the point of collapse here, at the very end? Ewans, in his footnotes, certainly seems to think so, but I can’t say I am convinced. She is certainly still strong enough to prevent Aigisthos from killing the old men of the chorus, as he had threatened to do. But as well as being strong, she is also, I think, a tremendously intelligent character – certainly more so than Aigisthos – and she knows that if Agamemnon’s deed had terrible consequences, so, by the same logic, must hers. She wishes not to be “stained with blood”, and yet she knows that she already is.

If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’;

we have been mangled terribly by the god’s heavy claw.

It is not that she feels remorse: at no point does she express that. But what we see here is the same pattern that we had observed from the very beginning of the play: anxious hope, fulfilment of that hope, and, almost immediately, apprehension – fear of what comes next for us humans mangled so terribly by god’s heavy claw. For, as the chorus has told us, there is nothing that is not Zeus, no event that has not been destined by him. We do what Zeus has destined us to do; but – and here is the terrible, inexplicable paradox – we do it also as free agents, and bear the responsibility.

And Klytaimnestra knows all this. Or she has come, through experience, to know it.  And she fears what comes next. As we all do: we all know the pattern by now. And there are two more plays still to come.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Agamemnon.]

Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

Tony Harrison’s “Oresteia”

Some verse dramas hold the stage in translation, but others don’t, and I am not entirely sure why that should be. Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, though both written to be read rather than performed, hold the stage magnificently in any number of translations; Shakespeare’s plays, too, even when separated from Shakespeare’s English, are successfully performed around the world in just about every language there is. And yet, despite many years of theatre-going, I have yet to see a performance in English of plays by Racine or Corneille, by Goethe or Schiller, or by Pushkin, that I would describe as dramatically compelling. It’s tempting to say that the fault lies with the translations, but I don’t think that’s the case: John Cairncross’ translations of Racine, for example, are, I think, magnificent; but while they compel the reader’s attention in the study, they seem to me less effective when it comes to compelling the audience’s attention in the theatre. These plays, in English translation, are often wonderful dramatic poems, but I remain unconvinced about their qualities as poetic dramas, and would hazard the guess that Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Pushkin, etc., whose works are among the undisputed peaks of the western canon, were, unlike Shakespeare or Ibsen, greater poets, perhaps, than they were dramatists. But this is just a guess: unable as I am to read any of these writers in the original, I can’t, and don’t, insist upon it.

When it comes to ancient Greek drama, we have a further complication: not only do we have to negotiate translation into another language, we have to deal with dramatic conventions that are very alien to modern conceptions of drama. Once again, these works are compelling when I read them in the study, but less so when I see them in the theatre. In all these years, I have seen only one production of a Greek play that worked in performance – a thrilling production of Sophocles’ Electra, featuring Fiona Shaw in the title role, and directed by Deborah Warner: I saw this some quarter of a century ago now, and I still remember coming out of the theatre at the end, genuinely shaken by what I had experienced: it had the same sort of effect on me as I get from seeing a good production of King Lear. But as for all the other productions I have seen of Greek drama, they have generally fallen pretty flat. Maybe I have just been unlucky: maybe there have been many other productions as powerful as that production I’d seen of Electra, and I just happened to miss out on them; but, having been disappointed by so many productions over so many years, I can’t help feeling that these Greek tragedies, without dispute among the greatest of literary masterpieces, are best treated as closet dramas, to be read, much as we’d read, say, Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Friends of mine who know Greek tell me that no translation comes close to matching the originals, but then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? When one puts in effort into something, one wants to have something to show for it; and who, having put so much effort into learning Greek to the level where they can read Aeschylus or Euripides, would care to concede that plebs like me, who haven’t put in that effort, could appreciate these writers to the same level? I don’t dispute them, of course: I have no doubt they are right. However, I will insist that these works, even in translation, are profound experiences. I have, over the years, not only amassed but have even read a wide range of translations, explaining to guests who scan my bookshelves and wonder why I have a dozen or so translations of Sophocles that a man must have a hobby. And, since each translation is necessarily an interpretation, I find it fascinating comparing them, and trying to piece together from the different perspectives of the various translators something of what the original vision may have been like.

My most recent reading of Greek tragedies was The Oresteia of Aeschylus, in the translation by the poet Tony Harrison. Perhaps “translation” is not the right word for it: I argued in a recent post that the successful translator of poetry cannot afford to be too literal, since the literal meaning is but one of many things – and not necessarily the most important thing – that a translator needs to convey. And it can be argued that, beyond a point, so far is the translated version from the original in terms of literal accuracy, that it can no longer be regarded as a translation as such. Whether Tony Harrison’s version is too far from the original to be still considered a “translation”, I do not know: comparing with the other translations I have, he obviously takes far more liberties with the literal meaning. But it may be that he is closer to Aeschylus than the more literalist translators in some other aspects – the sound, say, or the nature of the impact made on the reader or the hearer. I cannot tell. What I can tell, though, is that his is by far the most striking version of these three plays that I have encountered. I do not mean that as a criticism of the others, but where the others are eloquent, polished, fluent, Harrison is rugged, abrasive, uncompromising, often relying on sound to convey the sense.

This may be demonstrated by a few examples. Take, for instance, the repeated refrain in the first great chorus. Michael Ewans (Everyman) renders it:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail!

Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics) translates this as:

Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones (university of California Press) has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail.

While Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (Methuen) go for:

Sing songs of sorrow, but let the good prevail.

Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press), meanwhile, has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber), like Harrison, himself a poet, does away with the repeated refrain altogether, rephrasing the essence of it in different ways each time it appears. And I think, comparing the different versions, we can see the essence: the line is in two halves – the first an expression of lament, the second of hope. But all too often in the translations, the expression of sorrow appears more potent than the expression of hope, leaving us with a slight sense of anti-climax. Presumably this is why Fagles has expanded the latter half of that line – to give it a greater weight. Harrison’s version, however, is very different from any of the above:

Batter, batter the doom-drum, but believe there’ll be better!

The differences are striking. Clearly, Harrison’s is not a literal reading, but what we get is by far the most forceful. “Batter[ing] the doom-drum” sounds far more active and energetic than merely crying or singing of sorrow, while “believe there’ll be better” strikes a note of defiance that I cannot find in any of the other translations. The preponderance of the hard “b” and “d” sounds gives the line a greater muscularity, and the near-rhyme of “batter/better” – the two words that that open and end the line – knits the two halves together. Whether all this brings the line closer – at least in spirit – to the original, I do not know, but it is certainly more striking than any of the others.

Throughout Harrison’s version, he uses alliterative clusters, compound words (as in German), words forced together almost with a violence, with the impact of the sounds and rhythms compensating for the lack of a clear syntax. For instance:

Calchas the clanseer saw into the storm-cause –
Artemis she-god goaded to godgrudge

The clans and the clanchiefs clamour for sea-calm
The god-sop that gets it makes their guts sicken

The cure for the stormblast makes strong men craven


A surge of choler and grudge sweeps over my spirit,
spitted on pain like a stabwound or spearthrust.
Drops like the spindrift spat off a seaswell
break from my eyes like the sight of this curl.


so men get gulled get hauled into evil
recklessness starts it then there’s no stopping

so a Father can take his own she-child take her
and kill her his she-child his own flesh and blood

The war-effort wants it the war-effort gets it
the war for one woman the whore-war the whore-war

a virgin’s blood launches the ships off to Troy

It is tempting to fill this post with further examples, but let us not try the reader’s patience more than is absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that all other translations I have read seem, in comparison, too refined, too polite.

In his illuminating introduction, Tony Harrison describes his attempt to find a poetic style and diction that could form an equivalent in English to Aeschylus’ verse, that would achieve, as he puts it, “both the weight and the momentum”, and mentions, significantly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “a Professor of Greek, who achieves both the sweep and the grandeur I have always found in Aeschylus”. And he quotes two lines by Hopkins:

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deep

The critic D. S. Carne-Ross had asked “Does this not read like an inspired translation of some unknown fragment by Aeschylus?” To which Harrison replies:

Indeed it does, like an inspired Victorian translation, and I have always felt that Hopkins, with his clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line, and his thorough knowledge of Greek, had everything necessary to render a great translation of Aeschylus, except, perhaps … a feeling for the theatre …

Harrison himself was clearly aiming himself for the “clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line”, and I think he succeeded magnificently. As for how this will work in the theatre, I really do not know. This translation was commissioned by the National Theatre, and was performed there, under the direction of Peter Hall, in the early 1980s. I would have loved to have seen it, but I was back then a student in the north of England, and certainly didn’t have the finances in those days to come down to London. But something such as this demands to be read as well: without getting into that debate yet again on whether or not a play is better seen or read, experiencing it on the printed page was spellbinding. As with Christopher Logue’ magnificent version of The Iliad, this is great poetry in its own right.

With this translation, the work itself seemed, as it were, renewed: it was like seeing something familiar from a completely new perspective. (Which, after all, is the whole point of reading different translations.) I must admit, though, that I still find the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, the most compelling. Perhaps it’s the old story of Hell being more interesting than Heaven: the whole trilogy represents a journey from darkness to light, from Hell to Heaven (at least, a Heaven of sorts), and, as with Dante, it is Hell that makes the greater impact. (Milton, too, struggled to make God as interesting as Satan.) And the Hell that is presented in Agamemnon, once etched on the mind, is hard to erase. That long narration by the chorus of the sacrifice of Iphigenia; Agamemnon’s homecoming – where he is persuaded to trample the blood-red tapestries into his palace; Cassandra’s prophetic terror before the doors of the Argos, before she walks in to meet her death; Clytemnestra’s narration of how she killed her husband and his slave, and her imagining the dead spirit of Iphigenia in the underworld, greeting with a kiss her father who had killed her … these have long haunted my imagination, and will continue to do so.

In comparison, I find little in the subsequent plays that affects me anywhere near so powerfully. This is not a criticism of the work: it is, rather, a reflection of my own sensibilities, and expectations. In the second part, Aeschylus narrates how Orestes returns, and, with the help of his sister Electra, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This same story is told both by Sophocles and by Euripides in their plays, both titled Electra, but where the younger dramatists were more interested in the psychologies of the participants of the drama, Aeschylus seems to draw back from the individual characters, and focuses on the larger moral pattern. And similarly in the last part, The Eumenides: the focus is not so much on the individual characters, but on the broader question of how we humans, blinded though we are with rage and maddened with blood, can emerge from darkness into light. This is clearly what Aeschylus intended, and this is, indeed, what lies at the heart of the trilogy as a whole, and it is but a reflection of my own personal preference that the psychological approach of Sophocles and of Euripides attracts me more.

But the larger moral pattern that emerges is, nonetheless, fascinating. Aeschylus dramatises the emergence of light in the darkness: from a Hell in which our passions and our instincts reign supreme, and lawless revenge but feeds upon itself, so that each act of vengeance is but a new crime that also cries out for blood, we are presented, by the goddess Athena, with a new way of ordering our lives – a new way rooted in civil discourse, legal institutions, consensus and compromise. In short, civilisation. But, however desirable that civilisation is, however preferable to the horrors of our instinctive bloodlust, it is simply not, for me at any rate, as dramatically interesting.

However, there is of course more, far more, than my crude summary above suggests. The emergence of civic institutions from the darkness of lawless primal urges should not, I think, be seen as something happening in time – i.e. it is not the case that one replaces the other over time: rather, the two co-exist, and will go on co-existing within our divided minds. The final acquittal of Orestes, and the subsequent torchlit procession of triumph, do not cancel out the slaughter of the helpless Iphigenia, or the elemental terror of Cassandra: such terror cannot be cancelled out, or banished, for they live with us still. And neither can the Furies be banished: Athena herself, at the end, incorporates them into the newly-formed legal system: no matter how civilised we may be, no matter how many curbs and restraints we may put upon our primal urges for the sake of being able to live together with what harmony we can muster, at the bottom of it all lies a terror than cannot be wished away – not even by a goddess.

But a step has been taken, an important step: the gods, who used to order mortals to commit acts of revenge – which themselves are crimes calling out for further revenge – have now delegated their powers and responsibilities to humans: it is now up to us to shape our morality, to determine for ourselves, through discourse and consensus, guilt and innocence, and treat both accordingly. But at the bottom of it all lies terror. We cannot do without terror. Even through the triumphant songs at the end, there sound the screams of Cassandra as she walks into the palace of Argos to meet her doom.