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Authors: Aeschylus

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A chorus of elders enters as the watchman leaves. They have not heard of the victory, they are still the voice of the home front anguished by the war, and the war itself appears a dubious battle. It is a mission of Zeus, but its leaders resemble vultures whose stolen offspring, Helen, may not be worth recovering. ‘Many-manned’, she has brought the Greeks and Trojans to a costly stalemate. The old men are helpless as children to resist their fears or the conspiracy that surrounds them. Ironically they turn for reassurance to Clytaemnestra - who has entered silently, ominously to burn her grateful sacrifices; but while they told of the Fury sent to punish Troy, they seem to have summoned the queen whose sacrificial fires spread through Argos now. Dubious as the war itself, she kindles hope on one hand, terror on the other. The old men beg to know what her fires mean. She ignores them. So they turn to the security of a sacrifice conducted in the past.
They break into a rolling epic song - they are charged with the fighting strength of song,
Peitho
or Persuasion - and the
Iliad
begins again, in effect, with the omen sent to Aulis. When the Argives marshalled under Agamemnon and Menelaus, two eagles swooped down on a pregnant hare and devoured it with its unborn young. Calchas, the prophet of Apollo, gave the omen an Olympian interpretation : the Atreidae are avenging eagle-kings of Zeus who will triumph over Troy. But they are child-murderers too, and Artemis the goddess of childbirth, outraged at the sacrifice of innocents at Troy, may demand an innocent of Argos in advance. That is the double force of Calchas’ reading of the sign: the kings must ‘slaughter a suffering, trembling female creature together with its young before coming to the birth’
and
‘sacrifice a suffering, trembling female creature, their own offspring, in front of [or on behalf of] the armies’. The sacrifice of Troy and Iphigeneia, the justice of Zeus and the appeasement of Artemis clash. And Agamemnon is pinned between them, the man whose justice leads to further crime. Calchas prays that Artemis may work with Zeus, but she will fulfil the Father’s murderous will by making Agamemnon fulfil his murderous nature. The curse is where the war begins and ends, overshadowed by the internecine warfare that surrounds it. The precondition of victory, Iphigeneia, ‘another victim’ like the children of Thyestes, is the pretext for her mother’s vengeance ten years later - ‘Memory womb of Fury child-avenging Fury.’ Clytaemnestra will kill Agamemnon to avenge their daughter, then avenge herself upon her son. Calchas’ vision is the mainspring of the
Oresteia.
He not only sets the Aeschylean forces against each other, male against female, gods of the Sky against the powers of the Earth; here at the outset he consigns his people to the Furies.
‘Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.’ The ominous refrain beats drum-like through the opening stanzas. What glory can be wrung from so much grief? Nothing less than a cosmic union, a new and better world. But the old men strain to praise it here and now, celebrating the only god who can create it - Zeus. They appeal to his vast, incomprehensible power, and they are uplifted by recalling his victory in the
Theogony
which, through savage strife and atrocities like those at Troy and Argos, brought glory out of grief. Yet it also brought the iron age of man, and the old men’s hope is undermined by what they offer as its basis: Zeus’s law’ that we must suffer, suffer into truth’. His law may look ahead to the suffering that leads to wisdom, to the restorative power of staid, reasoned judgement; but suffering in
Agamemnon
leads to knowledge that is sorrow. ‘Pain comes from the darkness,’ in the words of Randall Jarrell, ‘and we call it wisdom. It is pain.’ Our only consolation is that we may suffer into
sôphrosunê
too, the knowledge of our mortal limits - readiness in the Shakespearean sense that ‘men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither;/Ripeness is all.’ In Aeschylus the truth is never neutral; it is a gift of the gods, and they have made it vivid. And for that kindness, certain thanks, the old men seem to say, as if they could foresee with Keats that ‘faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity’ because its basis is suffering itself.
But at this point in the
Oresteia
such salvation is a dream. The elders’ hymn is a leap of faith; it heightens the pain of men because it yokes them to the harshness of their gods. Before the hymn Agamemnon’s murder of Iphigeneia seemed ordained, but the hymn implicitly evokes his power of choice. He is torn for a moment - how to choose between child-murder and dereliction of duty? ‘Pain both ways and what is worse?’ It is the tragic choice of evils. And it may be predetermined supernaturally by the gods and genetically by Agamemnon’s nature - being his father’s son, he is bound to choose the worst. But more than a victim of his fate, he is its agent with a vengeance. The more piously he reacts against this outrage, the more he can perform it with impunity, with his own outspoken sense of justice. As Aeschylus says in a famous fragment, ‘god plants an
aitia
[responsibility] in a man when he wants to destroy a house entirely; nevertheless a man must not be reckless with his words.’ Agamemnon and his gods are
metaitioi,
co-responsible, yet there is something in this man that may rival his gods for murderous self-righteousness. It is his
Atê,
his frenzy and his ruin, his crime and punishment in one - ‘the madness of doom’ in Werner Jaeger’s phrase, and Agamemnon’s ruling spirit. He not only conspires with the storm that strikes the fleets, he excels it with the violence of the curse.
Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigeneia, now described in superb, swift strokes, is a brutal parody of the Olympian ritual of marriage. According to legend Iphigeneia was brought to Aulis on the pretence of marriage, and here she appears the bride in saffron robes; but the robes become her winding-sheet - her slaughter becomes the
proteleia,
sacrifices preliminary to the bloody wedding of the armies, a symbol of all our fruitful unions torn by war. She actually consecrates the lethal brides to come, Helen and Clytaemnestra, for her sacrifice is a genuine chthonic rite. It seems to soothe the winds, the spirits of the dead, but it will only bring the dead to life. The chorus cannot bear to describe the deathstroke - ‘What comes next? I cannot see it, cannot say.’ Iphigeneia remains a still life, the knife still poised at her throat, the fountainhead of
Agamemnon
still about to burst. The old men try to drown her cries with Zeus’s law, a moot reassurance now. They had turned away from Clytaemnestra, but the past is worse and they return to her. She is their only hope, yet she is the very fear they have unleashed -
Dikê
with her sword.
Clytaemnestra approaches. For a moment she seems lost in grateful prayer to the Night, the mother of this day and of the Furies, too. For when she reveals the Greeks have taken Troy, the old men challenge her for proof, and her passion overwhelms them. How could the news come overnight? By fire, she replies, and launches out with ‘tiger-leaps’ of imagination, her surging, fiery temper racing the fires like one tremendous torch relayed west along the peaks from Troy to Argos. As the torch announces her husband’s victory abroad, however, it predicts her own approaching victory at home. As her beacons leave behind the mountains ruled by the gods, they kindle up a symbolic geography of peril to Agamemnon, building a conflagration of his guilt and Clytaemnestra’s superhuman power to avenge it. She is binding him, as Knox suggests, with the burning chains of crime and punishment that bound his fathers. And as she seizes command from the warlord, she is seizing fire from heaven - not only do her beacons rival the relay race of torches run for Hephaistos and Athena; they mark the end of a heroic, Olympian age and the dawn of an age primordial, matriarchal, ever-present.
Zeus’s eagles began the war; Clytaemnestra’s flaming omen ends it and begins its repercussions, since she is a prophet too. She reads her sign with such immediacy that Troy and Argos seem to merge as cities struck by war. She is here and there, ranging through the streets like the winning general, but more sensitive than Agamemnon, she can see the victims are so pitiful, the victors so pitiless that their victory may recoil,
If only they are revering the city’s gods,
the shrines of the gods who love the conquered land,
no plunderer will be plundered in return . . .
And even if the men come back with no offence
to the gods, the avenging dead may never rest -
Oh let no new disaster strike!
Prophetic warnings that incriminate the king. He will desecrate the Trojan shrines and commandeer a priestess, adding the gods to Clytaemnestra’s stronger motive, ‘the avenging dead’ themselves. But now, conscious that she may have started suspicions, she breaks off with some conventional womanly phrases (not without their muffled warnings) and goes inside to prepare for Agamemnon.
And so the trap begins to close at the first approach of Agamemnon in his triumph. The old men begin a hymn of thanks for the victory and its lesson: the Trojans repeat their fathers’ crimes and so are cursed with
Peitho
in its compulsive aspect, the beautiful, blinding lightning of Helen. She is the bride whose dowry is death for Troy, and death for Greece as well. She plunges both sides into grief, a demon of retaliation who, with Ares the ‘gold-broker of corpses’, leads the people of Argos against the ‘defenders’ who led them into war. Now those who died in victory demand vengeance as surely as those who died in defeat. ‘Poor exchange, poor return’ pervades this chorus; its six stanzas form six turns in a vicious circle of revenge, until the guilt that incriminated Paris also incriminates Agamemnon - Zeus and the Furies await the murderer of Greece. And the victory hymn becomes a moan of fear, as the old men fall back on a muted prayer for peace; they try to reject Clytaemnestra’s message (women are gullible, they murmur, over-sanguine) but it is too late. The leader sees a herald fresh from Troy. A victorious spray of olive ‘shades’ his face, and he tells a double story: though the Greeks have won the day, the king has desecrated Troy. There is little reason to rejoice. Argos and the armies longed for each other, but as the leader hints, the citizens needed the men to save them from repression. In his joy the herald fails to understand, yet as he recollects the miseries that the army has escaped abroad, he contributes them, like echoes from another country under siege, to the growing miseries of Argos. The more he revels in the spoils of Troy, the more he provokes the envy of the queen, absent but listening, or so her triumphant entrance would suggest.
She taunts the old men with their doubts. She meant what she said, and she gives the herald a message for the king that means the opposite of all it seems to say. She rushes to welcome him in ‘the best possible way’, to ‘open wide the gates’ - her husband has been saved by the Saving God, whom she will identify with Death. She has heard ‘no joy or blame from another man’ as surely as ‘dye will not stain bronze’ - a proverb for the impossible, but you can dye bronze with blood, as she intends to do. She all but tells the herald so. Her closing words would seem to mean ‘Such is my boast, filled with truth and not disgraceful for a noble woman to utter,’ but their more sinister meaning is ‘I am not just twisting the truth; I am proclaiming my determination to take revenge on Agamemnon.’ These ironies acquit her of telling blatant lies in public. Her scorn of dull conventionality forbids that, and so does her demonic nature. She is no loyal Penelope; she is a female Odysseus waiting at home to murder her husband and marry the suitor - a grim travesty of epic events, cloaked in all the warped familiarities of a nightmare. The loving wife’s words mask hideous infidelities; the pious prayer becomes a witches’ Sabbath; the palace gates become the Gates of Hell; ‘the best possible way’ to welcome a husband is to kill him in the name of Artemis and the Furies. Clytaemnestra’s ironies, more than strong deceptions, conjure up the supernatural - she becomes infernal, the terror that walks in darkness, and what speeds her husband home is the tempest she releases in effect.
A storm, the herald admits, has struck the returning fleets, ‘and not without the anger of the gods’. Not only does it carry off Menelaus, leaving his brother less protected; it makes Agamemnon seem the lone survivor of the victory. Worse, the north wind has come howling for another victim, ten years later; but now the storm is Clytaemnestra’s spirit, as lethal as the spirit of her sister. The old men sing of Helen who has ‘realized’ the meaning of her name, fatal to the Greeks
(Helena
from
hele,
implying ‘to destroy‘,
-na,
implying ships) but far more fatal to the Trojans. Her marriage is a
kêdos,
both a tie-by-marriage and a grief that ravages their city. For it leads to a birth as painful as that of the lion cub in the parable, ‘adopted by the house to lend it warmth’ until the savagery in its blood broke out and it massacred its hosts. So Helen was captivating at first and then a Fury to the Trojans in their pride. And the moral of the story is a fundamental of early Greek ethics. In all prosperity there is a seed of insolence that matures and leads to ruin, or so the common man believes, oppressed by a sense of guilt for every kind of gain. But the old men stress the importance of responsibility; it is not opulence alone but outrageous acts that breed disaster. And they foresee that righteous acts bring justice shining through the darkness - the paramount message of the
Oresteia.
The elders are prophetic but premature. They have overrated Zeus from the start, forgetting his alliance with the Furies in the Furies’ first, vindictive form. To rationalize the storm above their heads they have sublimated Helen into a principle of justice, but the grim revenge she takes on Priam reminds us that her sister waits to take even grimmer revenge on Agamemnon. In fact the cue for his entrance at this moment, laden with plunder, may be their warning against the riches got in excess. The first half of the play, an Iliad of the king’s triumph, is all an ominous prologue to his
Odyssey,
his reunion with the queen. He is driving towards his ‘destined end’ - his death at the hands of Fury.
BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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