(Wilson’s article appeared in the London Review of Books, 10/8; via Norm Silverman.)
Aeschylus’ Oresteia begins with the story of a grieving, righteously angry woman seeking justice for her daughter. The child was killed by her father, the woman’s husband, in order to enable a vast war. Each of the three plays is radically different in style, mood and action. But each centres on female anger and female grief at violent loss of life and the willingness of family members to kill one another. The trilogy is about language and the mysterious will of the gods, about tyranny, freedom and political change, and about a slow path to maturity for one young man (Orestes) and an entire culture. That ‘maturity’ turns out to involve the subordination of women and of the family, which is conceived as feminine, to enable the creation of a political community like real-life historical Athens, in which male citizens use the law courts and the institutions of democracy to legislate for structures of power that can contain, marginalise and silence other members of the community – women, immigrants, enslaved people. All the plays’ intertwined elements are knotted into a central set of questions about how to suppress, silence or pacify female rage, and how to reconcile the close kinship of the household with responsibilities to the larger community or city-state.
In Agamemnon, the long first play, the mood is dark and the language is dense, metaphorical and hard to parse. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, has set up a relay of torch fires to bring her news of her husband’s victory at Troy, and the image of the relay signal also connects to the play’s larger story: the way events from far away and long ago still haunt the house of Argos. At Aulis, on the way to Troy, Agamemnon was forced to choose between sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia or abandoning the war to recover his brother’s wife, Helen. ‘Which of these is free from evil?’ he asks, in Oliver Taplin’s translation. Jeffrey Bernstein has the wordier ‘Which of these two ways is without evil?’ David Mulroy, the punchier ‘Can either choice be right?’ Agamemnon is in a position where there is no right answer, no guiltless way to act.
The terrible moment is figured as in part a choice, in part an act of compulsion: Agamemnon ‘placed his neck beneath the harness/of what had to be’. The ambiguity of his freedom, or lack of it, is compounded by further mysteries, such as when the cycle of violence began. Was it with the killing of Iphigenia? Or longer ago, when Menelaus married Helen, taking a ‘lion cub’ into his house? Or was it when Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, tricked his brother into eating his own children? Or further back still, in the dark plans of Apollo, god of light, and the will of Zeus, ‘whoever he may be’, the god who killed and usurped his own father? The play’s riddling language hints at the way one word, phrase, action or body can turn into another, often at a terrible price. The death of Iphigenia becomes the death of Agamemnon. More broadly, in one of the Chorus’s most powerful images, Ares, the war god, is presented as a money changer who ‘trades men into jars’ filled with ash. The living become the dead, who in turn haunt the living.
Despite the first play’s title, Agamemnon – a flustered, confused, fragile conqueror, who sees himself as a victim even before his wife axes him to death in the bath – plays a relatively small part in it. Two extraordinary female characters dominate its action. Clytemnestra, a wonderfully intelligent, articulate, determined strategist, is described as a woman whose heart ‘organises like a man’: she has spent the past ten years plotting her husband’s murder, which will allow her (along with her feeble lover, Aegisthus) to seize the throne. Greek tragedy almost never shows violent action; the killing is represented by screams from the wings. But Clytemnestra’s triumph over her husband is represented on stage verbally and dramaturgically, above all in the great central scene in which she persuades the reluctant victor to enter the house and trample on the rich red tapestries looted from Troy, providing a visual acknowledgment that his victory has involved an assumption of infinite privilege (‘and who could drain it dry?’) and the ‘crushing underfoot’ of precious things, starting with his own child – ‘the treasure of my labour pains’, as Clytemnestra puts it. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars in which Athens and other Greek cities fought off attempts at invasion by the Persian army; he is clear-sighted about the greed and egotism of this conquering hero. Clytemnestra hides her intentions in elaborate riddling before the murder, but once her husband is dead, she presents it as orgasmically thrilling: he ‘spouted out a jet of blood/that showered me with a drizzle of dark dew’, in Taplin’s lushly alliterative version; Mulroy has a rather less sexy interpretation of the verb (ἐκφυσιάω, which suggests ‘to snort out’ and is used elsewhere for snoring, and elephants squirting water from their trunks): ‘he vomited a shining clot of blood.’
The second great female character in the Agamemnon is Cassandra, who seems, on her first entrance, to have a non-speaking role. In 458 bc, tragedians had only recently begun to use three actors rather than two, and Aeschylus brilliantly exploits the audience’s expectations to create surprise and confusion when the third actor, playing the foreign woman enslaved by Agamemnon, speaks. Still more surprising, the outsider turns out to know far more than any native-born Greek about the house of Argos – where, as she well knows, she will die alongside her captor. Queen Clytemnestra’s aggression, deceit and violence are counterbalanced by the insight and courage of Cassandra, who is blessed and cursed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy; she sets aside grieving for herself and her ruined city to step towards a death that will, as she also knows, bring down her killers.
The Libation Bearers, the middle play of the trilogy, centres on the tomb of the dead Agamemnon and his surviving daughter, Electra. As in the first play, there are contrasting female characters: Electra, driven to murderous plots by long-standing grief and rage, and Clytemnestra, who becomes desperately aware that, like Cassandra before her, she is on the way to death. Electra’s brother, Orestes, returns from exile and, urged on by his sister, his friend Pylades and the oracles of Apollo, steels himself to kill his mother and Aegisthus.
These murders echo those of Agamemnon and Cassandra in the previous play, though they are represented very differently. Clytemnestra luxuriates in the bloody slaughter of her husband, but Orestes hesitates, especially when Clytemnestra bares her breast to remind him that the body he threatens to kill is the source of his life. At the play’s end, Orestes presents the murders as an act of political liberation, freeing Argos from a ‘pair of tyrants’; but he begins to see visions of the Furies, the doglike, snake-haired goddesses who pursue and torture those who shed the blood of their own family members.
In the final play, The Eumenides (‘Kindly Ones’, a traditional euphemism for the Furies), the goddesses are visible to the audience: they serve as the hissing, violent chorus, in contrast to the human choruses of the first two plays and most other Athenian tragedies. Whereas the earlier plays were set in the distant city of Argos, The Eumenides is set where the play was performed: in Athens, on the hill of the Areopagus, a stone’s throw from the Theatre of Dionysos. The dominant characters are not humans but gods. Orestes has come to Athens for sanctuary, to beg Athena for absolution from matricide. Athena, like Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, is the hyper-intelligent, scheming ruler of her city. But unlike Clytemnestra, she is not mortal, angry, grieving or murderous: she has no personal interest in the case, but turns out to have a particular fondness for the democratic institutions of Athens in the fifth century. She organises a trial by jury.
The Furies accuse Orestes of the ultimate horror in shedding his mother’s blood; no matter his justification, they insist that he is polluted and cannot return to Argos or belong to any religious or family community. Apollo speaks in his defence, arguing that matricide does not count as the murder of a family member, because, according to one of several competing medical theories circulating in Aeschylus’ time, women’s bodies provide only a container for the embryo, which is formed solely of material from the father’s body. The jury is split, and Athena breaks the tie in favour of Orestes. Whatever may be true of human biology, she at least is entirely her father’s daughter, born from his head: ‘And so in every way I’m for the male.’ Clytemnestra was accused of having a heart like a man. Electra, in desperate grief, obsessed over her dead father and absent brother, and resented her mother. Athena takes the pattern of female male-sympathisers even further: she has the militaristic, dominant heart of her father Zeus, and insists that the sunlit, male-dominated world of politics will, from now on, prevail over the underground, ancestral blood-rights of the female Furies. The Furies are, understandably, furious. But Athena restrains their anger by promising them a permanent, if subordinate place in the ritual life of the city – something analogous to the political status that resident aliens (‘metics’) had in real-life Athens.