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Orestes ()


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
    to the argument. What ought I to have done? Your daughter gave me birth, but my father gave me
    life. She was the field he ploughed which nursed the seed he planted. I reasoned I was more the son
    of the one who started me off, than of the one who fed me later on.

    And your daughter - the name "mother" sticks in my throat - searching for sexual satisfaction
    seduced a man. I'm embarrassing myself with these revelations; her "secret husband" was
    Aegisthus. I executed him - as Greek law says we should - and then I finished the cleansing by
    taking her life.

    You say I should be stoned to death for this - but it could equally be said that I am doing the men of
    Greece a favour. If the female sex is not controlled, it could become trendy for wives to murder
    husbands, take refuge with their children and fish for sympathy by flashing their breasts. What
    would there be to stop them husband-murdering on any pretext? My so-called "heinous crime" has
    saved us from such conduct becoming common. I took a stand and punished my mother for
    betraying her husband's bed, while he was away leading his country's army in defence of Greece.
    Although she knew she'd done wrong, she did not face the consequences. To escape due
    punishment at her husband's hands, she did the punishing, and killed my father.

    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
    and a mother murderer.

    Apollo's the one you should be looking at. Apollo has his temple at the centre of the world. He gives
    men very clear advice, and we accept that whatever he tells us as the truth. When I killed my
    mother, I was obeying Apollo. He's the criminal, stone him to death! He was wrong, not me! What
    should I have done? Is the god powerless to absolve my guilt? Who can a man turn to, if the god
    whose orders he obeyed can't get him a reprieve from death? What was was done was for the best
    - though not the best for those who did it.

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!
        'Tis I, Apollo, Leto's son, stand here and call your name!
        And you, with sword, who terrorise that maid,
        Orestes, I am come so all may learn their fate.

        Helen, whom you tried so eagerly to kill,
        To rouse Menelaus' wrath, has gone.
        I saved her and I spirited her away,
        On Zeus' orders, from your sword.
        As Zeus'Ýdaughter she'll immortal be
        And live in heaven with her brothers twain,
        Pollux and Castor, the heavenly twins,
        An extra star for ships to steer their courses by.
        Menelaus, choose another wife:
        Helen's beauty was exploited by us gods
        To force the Greeks and Trojans into war -
        A needed cleansing of the earth,
        When populations grow too large.

        So much for Helen. You, Orestes there,
        Must cross the frontiers of this land
        And live an exile 'til a year has passed.

        The natives of the place you stay
        Will not forget you, you'll be pleased to know.
        In memory they'll call the town Oresteion.
        Thence unto Athens must you make your way,
        To court; charged by the Furies with your mother's death.
        Don't fret: we gods will rig the votes.
        You'll win your case and then walk free.

        She at whose throat you aim that sword,
        shall then (surprise!) become your wife.
        You promised Pylades your sister once;
        Give him Electra, let them both find bliss.

        Menelaus, let Orestes rule the  Argive land:
        You go and reign on  Sparta's throne,
        A compensation for the wife you lost,
        And all the grief she heaped on you.

        Orestes, I'll fix things with the  people here:
        I made you kill your mother, so it's only fair.

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.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

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See also:

Classics
Plays
Book-related and General Links:
    -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)

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