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Orestes (408 BC)
This ancient Greek drama is the sort of wild, funny and blood soaked extravaganza that puts Quentin Tarantino to shame. Orestes and his sister, Electra, are the children of Agamemnon, king of Argos, who led the Greeks against Troy in order to secure the return of Helen, who was his brother's wife. While Agamemnon was away, his wife Clytemnestra took up with his cousin, Aigisthos. So on the day Agamemnon returned from the war, Clytemnestra stabbed him to death in his bath (in her favor, it should be pointed out that before leaving for the war Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia to the god Artemis). The play picks up just days after Orestes and his loyal friend Pylades (who is also betrothed to Electra), at the behest of the god Apollo, have exacted revenge for Agamemnon by killing Clytemnestra and Aigisthos. Orestes is being driven insane by the Furies, who seek revenge for Clytemnestra, and the people of Argos are considering what to do with Orestes and Electra, the matricides.
Orestes has found himself torn between mother and father and the laws of mortals and the dictates of gods. He sums up the dilemma that he faced in a conversation with his maternal grandfather, Tynderaos:
I know I was wrong to kill my mother, but I was right
to avenge my father. There is another side
And your daughter - the name "mother" sticks in my
throat - searching for sexual satisfaction
You say I should be stoned to death for this - but
it could equally be said that I am doing the men of
What should I have done? Disobey the gods and betray my father?
Itës you fault my life is ruined. Youëre the one
who fathered my mother, and she made me fatherless
Apollo's the one you should be looking at. Apollo
has his temple at the centre of the world. He gives
When eventually the citizenry decides to stone Orestes and Electra to death, Orestes appeals to his uncle, Menelaos, to intervene. Menelaos, Helen's husband, refuses to help, despite his enormous debt to Agamemnon and the enraged Orestes decides to kill Helen and their daughter, Hermione, in retribution.
It all goes horribly amok and Apollo ends up intervening to straighten the whole mess out:
O Menelaus, check now the
passion welling in your breast!
Helen, whom you tried so
eagerly to kill,
So much for Helen. You, Orestes
The natives of the place
She at whose throat you aim
Menelaus, let Orestes rule
the Argive land:
Orestes, I'll fix things
with the people here:
The two passages I've quoted above are from Etexts of the play; the translation that I read, by John Peck and Frank Nisetich, is more modern and colloquial, making for very easy reading. The whole thing makes for a rollicking, over-the-top, slugfest, with few redeeming features or edifying messages. But boy, is it fun.
-ETEXT: (The Internet Classics Archive | Works by Euripides)
-The Euripides Home Page
-The Classics Pages: Euripides
-Tragedy and Other Genres: Working Group Pages: A section of the conference "Euripides and Tragic Theatre in the late 5th Century".
-Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 9th ed. : Euripides. 484-406 B. C.
-ESSAY: Plutarch's Pyrrhus and Euripides' Phoenician Women: Biography and Tragedy on Pleonectic Parenting (David Braund, University of Exeter)
-Study Guide: Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis
-REVIEW: Bernard Knox: Greek for the Greekless
The Oresteia by Aeschylus and translated by Robert Fagles
The Bacchae of Euripides, A Communion Rite by Wole Soyinka
-REVIEW: of Euripides: Iphigeneia at Aulis translated by W.S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr. (Bernard Knox, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of PENN GREEK DRAMA SERIES Edited by David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie. (Daniel Mendelsohn, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon by John Kerrigan (Frank Kermode, NY Review of Books)
-ESSAY: Hanging Out with Greeks (Garry Wills, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of Who Was Who in the Roman World & Who Was Who in the Greek World edited by Diana Bowder (Hugh Lloyd-Jones, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, translated by Robert Fagles (Hugh Lloyd-Jones, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater by Bernard Knox (Peter Green, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: Aeschylus Pinioned and Grabbed (Bernard M.W. Knox:, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of The Eating of the Gods: An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy by Jan Kott (D.S. Carne-Ross, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: It's a Tragedy (Francis Fergusson, NY Review of Books)
Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann
The Identity of Oedipus the King by Alastair Cameron
Reality and the Heroic Pattern by David Grene
-REVIEW: of Time in Greek Tragedy by Jacqueline de Romilly (Robert Craft, NY Review of Books)