Read The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies Online

Authors: Aeschylus

Tags: #General, #Drama, #Literary Criticism, #European, #Ancient & Classical

The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies (10 page)

BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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As they go through the doors, the women reassemble. Orestes needs their help - and here is his old nurse, already on her way to Aegisthus with word of Orestes’ death. But she hates her master and will take the women’s word as well: tell him to come without his bodyguard and be an easy kill. Cilissa gives Orestes equal odds, and her long harangue about his infancy, part humour and part heartbreak, gives him something more. The infant she nursed is gone, but as she mourns for him we glimpse a new tic between the innocent and the mature young man. Like her he comes from the shadows of the house, nursed by the bowl of pain that she has sipped, and nursed with her milk of kindness too, that lends a seasoned innocence, a decency to his later years. Cilissa is his second mother, perhaps as legitimate as Clytaemnestra, because the nurse enlarges the issue of their combat. Her monologue rambles from the time she took Orestes from his mother to the time she took him from his father, as the true successor born to liberate their people, the humanity Cilissa represents.
The sweetest, dearest plague of all our lives’ will offer further hardships first, but the captive women want their liberation now. They invoke the gods in all their benevolence, they rehearse a song of joy to sing when their hopes have reached their destination, and they speed Aegisthus towards his execution. Here he comes again, unchanged, the mask of a man who pretends concern for the house but revels in its pain, the swaggering activist who, like a crude version of Agamemnon, takes a cue from the women and blunders to his death behind the doors - a death as insignificant as his role in Agamemnon’s murder.
There is nothing, in other words, that can compete with the act of matricide that is approaching. Clytaemnestra emerges of her own free will, majestic in anger, and when a servant warns, ‘The dead are cutting down the quick,’ she reads the riddle staunchly:
By cunning we die, precisely as we killed.
Hand me the man axe, someone, hurry!
Now we will see. Win all or lose all,
we have come to this - the crisis of our lives.
Her suspicions are confirmed. ‘The dead’ are the generations of the curse embodied in her living son, her murderer, yet somehow the making of her, too, for not until she has engaged with him can she fulfil herself. The main doors open. Over her lover’s body stands Orestes. At first he is torn between extremes of hate and love, between a killer and a son who tears at his mother’s robes, bares her breast, and cannot take her life. As William Arrowsmith has made so clear, Orestes’ hesitation is the most momentous act in the Oresteia, for it will originate the justice of the gods, exacting and humane. But for the present the gods reject that hesitation as if they were not ready for the mercies of mankind, or so Apollo’s spokesman, Pylades would suggest. He has not said a word till now and, as he breaks his silence, it seems the god himself is urging on Orestes:
What of the future? What of the Prophet God Apollo,
the Delphic voice, the faith and oaths we swear?
Make all mankind your enemy, not the gods.
Apollo’s commandment is a mortal threat as well, and what it evokes within Orestes, as he hurls Clytaemnestra against the body of Aegisthus, is less a sense of principle than sexual envy of his mother and her lover.
Orestes’ hesitation is a saving grace that issues from his mother. Not only from the sight of her breast but what we noticed earlier, her grief for the dead Orestes, or was it for her living son and his ordeal? What may have been their recognition at the gates was vital. The mother breeds compassion in her child, and she alone can teach him how to use it. She is the impresario the young unseasoned actor needs. Between Pylades’ threats and Orestes’ act of murder she conducts another great temptation scene - again she is
but here she persuades her son to take her life, unintentionally at first and then more firmly. She begins, in fact, by pleading for her life, to save herself and save Orestes from the curse that waits for matricides. And when he places her on trial, she meets his charges softly, placing her maternal care against his pains of exile, her adultery against his father’s adultery throughout the war, until the trial comes to a standoff Too raw to combat her self-defence - a blend of regret and justification - he repeats himself, his meaning blurs (906-8), weakened by his adolescent love-in-hate. Self-pity on one hand, histrionics on the other, it saps his will to act.
But Clytaemnestra wants a crisis. Suddenly she ‘prosecutes’ the action - ‘I see murder in your eyes, my child - mother’s murder !’ - a horrified accusation
a challenge, and they break into a passionate interchange. It is not matricide, Orestes insists; her guilt will make it suicide. But her curse will hunt him down - no gentle warning now - but unless he murders her his father’s curse will do the same:
I must be spilling live tears on a tomb of stone.
Yes, my father’s destiny - it decrees your death.
Ai - you are the snake I bore - I gave you life!
That was the great seer, that terror in your dreams.
You killed and it was outrage - suffer outrage now.
She creates her fate and she accepts it, and she rises to her tragic greatness. Her agony passes into affirmation - the mother’s death-cry is a birth-cry too, for she brings forth the destiny of her son; she turns his innocence into power. It is not purity of heart that impels Orestes; it is his mother’s heart. Apollo can reduce him to an instrument of vengeance. Only she can generate his action as a man. These are the poles of the tragic quandary: the yoke of necessity and the drive of human will, and Orestes must incorporate them both. He is his father’s and his mother’s son, but he and Clytaemnestra are better than Agamemnon and his gods. More than enact a brutal destiny blindly, they would counteract it with creative sorrow - with their painful, mutual awareness that outrage must be met by greater outrage.
As Orestes takes his mother through the doors, the women celebrate the gods and sing of justice, oblivious to all that lies ahead. The light of freedom is breaking through the dark, as they maintain, but when the doors swing open and the torches blaze, we behold a ‘dawn of the darkness’ once again, a stunning
déjà vu.
Sword in hand, Orestes rises over the bodies of Clytaemnestra and her lover, as she had risen over his father and Cassandra. Like his mother, he claims to end the curse, to play the role of justice. But history repeats itself, as Joyce advises, with a difference. Orestes is frenzied by the memory of his victim - then, summoned by his own incriminations, the fury of his mother maddens him with deeper and deeper states of moral insight. Her medium is her masterpiece, the robes that entangled Agamemnon’s body and now entangle hers. In fact the robes produce a family reunion; they unite the murdered parents with their son, the avenger and the matricide - the robes present the love knot of his mission and his guilt. For Orestes exhibits them, as Clytaemnestra did, to exonerate himself, but he finds the stains not only of his father’s blood, his rightful cue to passion, but of his mother’s, too. He embraces the robes as if they were the king, fulfilling his debt of mourning; embracing them as if they were the queen, he cries aloud his crime. He cannot assume his parents’ powers unless he accepts their dark pathologies as well. The public trial that concluded Agamemnon has narrowed into the young man’s troubled psyche, rendering him the judge and convict both. Standing in his mother’s steps, he is the latest victim of the curse.
Yet Orestes is also the consummation of the curse. His father embodies its negative aspect, its murderousness. Orestes adds the fierce humanity of his mother, and in their relationship the curse may begin to find its cure. For he, unlike his father, gives his mother what she always needed, worthy opposition. He is endowed with all her gifts, from verbal agility to moral stature - the mother and the son complete each other. Orestes has an Oedipus complex, with a difference. ‘Indeed he does,’ some will object, ‘he loves his father and murders his mother!’ But what we mean is that he rivals his father and replaces him because his authority is more valid, more humane. Perhaps because he hungers for his mother, and that hunger is channelled into the psychic richness and responsibility that flourishes between them. Even though he kills her, yes, for together they will project their bond into the most creative reaches of the
. They not only prefigure the union of Fury and justice that concludes the trilogy. They make that justice worth the suffering in the first place, stringent and compassionate in one.
For the present, however, Orestes must suffer for ‘the race of man’, and as his mission grows his trials grow as well. He appeals to Apollo, who commanded him to avenge his father and promised to purge him in return. At last a god can be held accountable for a murder in the house, and Apollo will participate in Orestes’ exoneration. But here, as he is invested with Apollo’s insignia and turns towards Delphi he may have his doubts. ‘Go through with [your revenge],’ Apollo urged, ‘and you go free of guilt.’ Perhaps, but Orestes no sooner murders his mother - lops her serpent head, as the women say - than the serpents of her Furies flash and tangle in his eyes. And they are stronger than the blood-guilt which Apollo’s arts can purge. They are the forces of conscience and would go their wild way, were it not for the nature of their source - his mother’s blood, his own life-blood that he has shed. Matricide is a kind of suicide for Orestes; at the same time matricide may expand him. The matriarchal Furies are both his punishment and, in a sense, his power. They are, above all, a terrifying reversal of the mourning women Orestes saw at first. Dressed in black, a ‘new wound to the house’, they drive him mad - they drive him into a new, more desperate flight - yet the Furies also galvanize his perceptions and, as we shall see, they force him on to Delphi, then to Athens where he is restored. As Orestes goes to meet his more climactic trials, he is equipped with all that he inherits from his mother: tragic heroism, the power to suffer into truth, and more. In the midst of terror an act of symbiosis has begun between the mother and the son. Cursed and murderous as they are, they have begun to regenerate the curse.
everyone is in the grip of larger forces. The gates close; the ramparts loom. It is not a play of action. The poetry is the action, but the long casts back to Troy and forward to Argos only tighten the patterns of reprisal like a vice. Violence breeds violence, and all that can counteract it is an attitude, the will to suffer more. The
Libation Bearers
breaks the deadlock. Here is a new generation, a new attempt to penetrate the massive walls, a new accommodation with the gods. The tone of the play is deeply inward. The Furies, once an expedition sent to Troy, are assaults within the brain. Aeschylus probes his sources. Scenes that stir with an Odyssean quiet may even tell us more; here at the grave, the dead father hears what he never heard in Homer, the voices of his children. And within the atmosphere of the hearth, the baths, the old nurse and the traveller’s ingratiating talk, lies a re-creation of the
at least as psychological and expansive. The hostess welcomes a stranger - the son who returns for vengeance but must kill his mother together with her suitor. Homer’s story of revenge turns tragic, yet the family expands with humanity as well. Clytaemnestra rivals her suitor in treachery and Penelope in maternal strength. Orestes rivals Odysseus in savagery, Telemachus in maturity. In terms of Homer he is both the father and the son. He is his own father, one might say: more self-determined than predetermined, his character may improve upon his destiny. That is the purpose of Orestes’ play-within-a-play: to create his own identity so fully that, when he enacts his ruthless, destined part, he can recast it with dignity and insight. Orestes is a prophet, as the chorus sees him, because he has a vision of himself.
If people are demonized in
here they personalize their gods. The gods remain in Delphi or Olympus, but ‘the rough work of the world is still to do’, and men who go about it find divinity in themselves. The magnificence of the opening play is muted, less because the king is gone and the work at hand is ugly than because a fresh new spirit is required. The gorgeous arias yield to conversations. There is an intimacy breathing in the shadows, warm, confiding, alive. Something can be done.
The Libation Bearers
is a play of action.
The plays are as different as their choruses. The old men of Argos reach back to the heroic past; like Homer they invoke the muse and find that she is Fury. Still they strain to praise the gods, they seize on Olympian doctrines to shield them from the truth. But once it crashes through, they learn what they had never known before - how it feels to suffer - and they convert to the Furies in the end. The captive women have known the Furies all along but fail to use their powers to the full. Victims of the wars abroad and the strife in Argos, they yearn to support Orestes and the mission of Apollo. When they reach to the past, they show how the present exceeds all past example. They live to provide momentum here and now; cajoling, goading, bloody-minded, they are the midwives to the action. They cry to the gods for help, too rushed for doctrine. Their style is stripped, their morality is at last simplistic - too vindictive or too optimistic, they leap to the future when justice will prevail, and flee the arena where Orestes struggles on. They are finally extruded from the action. They leave a vacuum which the Furies fill.
The Furies will unify language and action, and Orestes leads the way. Even when his syntax and his conscience go insane, his shattering holds a kind of promise. His language at the outset, like his conscience, strains for commitment - now too sure, now insecure, too pious or despondent, feverish, overwrought. But after his painful recognitions he can articulate the conflicts of maturity itself. He is torn between his maddening insights and his desire for the rights; his cries clash out against his closing prayers. Orestes’ fury and his gods are clashing, but the language of the play predicts their union, especially in that symbol of complicity from
the nets of capture and the ceremonious robes. Here they reticulate in subtle ways. First in the strands of hair Orestes places on the grave, one for death and one for life. As Electra animates the strands, she brings her brother forth; and, as the children recall the lethal net, they lash their father back to life and invigorate themselves. ‘Corks to the net, they rescue the linen meshes/from the depths. This line will never drown!’ Their very existence is a weave of life and death, like Electra’s web that binds the wild beasts in its design, and unites her with her brother in vengefulness and love.
BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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