Aeschylus's The Oresteia

Aeschylus's The Oresteia

Aeschylus's The Oresteia

Aeschylus's The Oresteia

Excerpt

Agamemnon, Orestes, and Electra are all of them strong characters, but readers or playgoers confronting Agamemnon and the Libation-Bearers are likeliest to remember Clytemnestra. She has a savage inwardness that is different in kind, not just in degree, from the consciousness of the other survivors in her immediate family. Aeschylus is not much interested in psychology, according to many of his scholars, and Agamemnon has little in him that resembles the probing intensity of the Oedipus of Sophocles or even the Orestes of Euripides. Like his contemporary, Pindar, Aeschylus sometimes can seem closer to the archaic view of man than to the Sophoclean. His Agamemnon is a smaller figure necessarily than the warleader of the Iliad, but the deep similarities are undeniable. The largest difference is the background or context, which is so menacing in Aeschylus as to diminish his protagonists, except again for Clytemnestra. When I read the Oresteia, I receive the uncanny impression that Aeschylus somehow precedes Homer in time, if only because the cosmos and the gods seem more archaic, less rational even than they do in the Iliad.

In the cosmos with Aeschylus, there is always choice or will, but essentially it is a choice between catastrophes. Homer’s world is dangerous, but you can choose a right way, within the limits of the gods’ designs upon you. The Oresteia shows you great figures caught between wrong and wrong, or between the daemonic and the divine, where the two are ambiguously mixed. Some scholars attribute this to the curse upon the house of Atreus, but the ambiguity is present in Aeschylus elsewhere. E. R. Dodds, in his The Greeks and the Irrational, sees the movement from Homer to Aeschylus as being from shame-culture to guilt-culture. Yet guilt is so endemic in the Oresteia that it seems more than cultural, seems reality itself. Aeschylus is so difficult a poet for us because either we must assimilate his sense of guilt to paradigms we can comprehend— . . .

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