|Orestes pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)|
For the last category of the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge: A CLASSIC PUBLISHED PRIOR TO 1800, I went WAY before 1800, about two thousand years earlier to 5th century BCE and read The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Aside from a handful of plays in high school read and/or performed, the only play I have read in my life was Lady Windermere’s Fan, which I read for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge and which I found to be not only delightful but also very quick read.
The Orestia was not quick or delightful actually. But the experience was interesting and worthy. What slowed me down was the essay by the translator Robert Fagles and W.B. Standford which preceded the plays which was almost as long as all three works put together. It was tough reading, very scholarly. But it added EVERYTHING to my understanding of the plays…without it I would have been pretty lost. Really, my only understanding of much of ancient Greek literature comes from the Psych 101 course I took in college over 25 years ago…and that was of course filtered through Freudian thought.
Briefly, the Oresteia is one of the many tellings (there are other extant versions of the story by Sophocles and Euripides for example) of the myth of the curse over the family of Agamemnon, he of the Trojan War fame. In this version, Agamemnon has willingly sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to win the war and naturally, his wife Clytemnestra isn’t happy about this. So she kills Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. Agamemnon is in turn avenged by their son Orestes, who kills his mother. Orestes is then pursued by the Furies for matricide. This all comes to a head in Athens where the goddess Athena presides over a trial to determine if Orestes can be acquitted of his crime and the Furies pacified by becoming "The Kindly Ones" (or the Eumenides , which is actually the title of the third play).
According to Fagles’ interpretation of the trilogy, what Aeschylus was trying to do with the plays was to show his audience the civilizing effect of law on society in the way the Furies are moved from a force of raw vengeance to a force for justice. That is paraphrasing a 90 plus page essay, but that is basically my take away in a nutshell.
I am glad to have read it for its reverberations in later literature. Let’s hope it pays off in my future reading. Already I am thinking of The Kindly Ones which is the title of the 6th book in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, which I read a few years ago.