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 (6 page)

BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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But there is a counterforce at work. At first the chorus is confused, as Aeschylus increases the pathos of Cassandra: Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy but added, ‘No one will believe you.’ The old men begin to, however, as the violence of her language forces them to live out the horror she foresees in broken flashes. They turn from terse disclaimers to a more coherent, lyric form of protest, and they do so when Apollo’s seer invokes another power. ‘Let the insatiate discord in the race/rear up and shriek “Avenge the victim - stone them dead!’” It is her first self-motivated utterance; it forces the old men to identify the Furies, the Furies shock them into song and new awareness, and Cassandra answers with a sudden, lucid pause: ‘There’s stealth and murder in that cauldron, do you hear?’ One mention of the Furies brings unusual clarity and more, Cassandra’s vision of the murder of the king. ‘Drag the great bull from the mate!/ . . . black horn glints, twists -
she gores him through
!’ Man is brutalized into beast, and the beast’s sex is perverted. A phrase from the
Agamemnon ‘cut down like an ox at the trough’, erupts into a kind of religious, mythological upheaval. At the core of Apollo’s vision may stand the shattering of the god himself and his original triumph over Mother Earth; she rises up again, in effect, to claim her sacramental bull. And Apollo’s perspective shatters into tragedy and deeper human feeling. The old men reach towards Cassandra, they cry out to her, silent and about to die, to live and sing a more prophetic song.
Now she repeats her declarations, with a difference. The old men ask for clarity, so she engages them in discourse, iambics and normal syntax, much as at Delphi the interpreters turned the outcries of the Pythia into conventional language. But Cassandra does not lose intensity; she gains. She has been like a bride who hides behind a veil, a song of innocence. Now she calls for a song of experience and the only force that can inspire it:
These roofs - look up - there is a dancing troupe
that never leaves. And they have their harmony
but it is harsh, their words are harsh, they drink
beyond the limit. Flushed on the blood of men
their spirit grows and none can turn away
their revel breeding in the veins - the Furies!
They cling to the house for life. They sing,
sing of the frenzy that began it all,
strain rising on strain, showering curses
on the man who tramples on his brother’s bed.
A brutal irony and a brutal truth. The Furies’ revel, passing through the house, becomes as permanent as the roaring in the blood. They offer a form of recreation, which re-creates our pain and makes it inescapable. ‘Evil is unspectacular and always human,’ they might say with Auden, and they reveal what lies behind the traditional, sensational version of Thyestes’ banquet and the curse - a simple breach of faith. That is the curse, so human it is a perennial menace and, as we shall see, a well-spring of compassion. It is mortality itself that can, at any time, consume one’s offspring and one’s future, but it may provide a kind of sustenance as well. Live with the curse and with the Furies, and we may live intensely, even perhaps invigorated by their force. Apollo is oblivious to our origins; the Furies are our origins. Through them we may articulate ourselves, if we can bear to sing their song and take Cassandra’s lead.
The old men are struck by her knowledge. She has passed the customary test of seers; she can report events she never witnessed. And she owes her vision to Apollo, but not its credibility. She committed a breach of faith herself, she explains; she deceived the god, and that is why he aborted his gift of prophecy. What added pathos to her lyrics, in other words, now gives her kinship with the story of fallibility she is telling, and increases her effect. Again she approaches Agamemnon’s murder, but now she begins at its source, Thyestes’ children,
holding out their entrails . . . now it’s clear,
I can see the armfuls of compassion, see the father
reach to taste and -
For so much suffering,
I tell you, someone plots revenge.
Here she assembles her own vision, basing it on insight, not the lightning of the god. In her eyes history becomes a living force, a continuum of movement and motivation. The suffering children, more than victims, have a new potential; it is less the macabre crime of Atreus than their grief and the grief of Thyestes, even of his insensitive son, that breeds the murder of Agamemnon. And Cassandra sees other human factors, too. There is the blindness of the king who, by obliterating Troy, destroys his own perception. Above all, there is the queen’s manipulation of appearances. Detest her as she may, Cassandra sees as Clytaemnestra sees, and brings to light her terrifying powers. There is a relationship between the murderess and the victim, as if Cassandra’s vision might inspire the queen’s revenge, the queen’s revenge fulfil Cassandra’s vision.
The old men cannot accept the murder of the king. Hoping against hope, they look for a man to do the work and cannot see the woman, but this is a matter for the matriarchal hearth, as Cassandra’s third, climactic speech implies. Indignant at Apollo’s cruel indifference, she revolts against the god. She rips off his regalia, stamps it into the ground - an act of trampling that is the opposite of Agamemnon’s. She is not surrendering to her destiny, she is struggling to create it; not committing an outrage but decrying the abuses of the god. As she tramples on his robes she re-enacts his trampling out her credibility at Troy and now her life in Argos. And, by implicating Apollo so severely, she may strip him of his power in this play. Not until she has revolted against the Prophet can she prophesy what is to come. Not until she bares herself to the Furies can she foresee the coming of Orestes - the promise of the future rising from the torment of the present:
We will die,
but not without some honour from the gods.
There will come another to avenge us,
born to kill his mother, born
his father’s champion. A wanderer, a fugitive
driven off his native land, he will come home
to cope the stones of hate that menace all he loves.
The gods have sworn a monumental oath: as his father lies
upon the ground he draws him home with power like a prayer.
This is Cassandra’s first constructive prophecy, her first to be believed, and through it she herself becomes empowered. Now her death fulfils her with a strength she offers to the elders. She approaches the doors, she smells the reek of blood and cries, but she turns her cry into evidence that can convict her murderers in a later court of law, like the Areopagus towards which the
turns. Cassandra has a genius for conversions. She converts destructive images into their opposites: she is a bride of death like Iphigeneia. but she bears a prophecy that lives. In her closing lines she turns her personal misery into a vision of the human condition. She has suffered into truth. Under Apollo she is the
that is
pathos ;
under the Furies she acquires
too, the
of compassion. She has turned the Furies’ harsh incriminations into kindness - a prophetic turning-point indeed. Through Cassandra we turn from the eagles killing the mother hare, the father killing the daughter, and the warlord razing Aphrodite’s Troy, to the queen who kills the king, and the mother’s vengeance that pursues the son until this clash between male and female is resolved in the union of Athena and the Eumenides, Zeus and Fate. It is a turn, in short, that is creative as well as destructive, like Cassandra’s growing kinship with the queen. Both are destined to be murdered, yet as they die they may predict a crucial balance. Cassandra sees that Orestes must be ‘born to kill his mother’ - her Fury must impel him in his mission. That will be the crux of the trilogy, yet even at this point, while summoning Clytaemnestra’s vengeance, Cassandra surrounds it with the aura of its offspring, justice. She is both the victim of the queen and her vitality, the Eumenides in Clytaemnestra’s Fury. Cassandra is the redemptive heart of the Oresteia. She is the agony of vision. She is the tragic muse.
Throughout the trilogy Aeschylus will dramatize her power. As she goes to her death, the chorus can finally accept Agamemnon’s murder and its cause: his excess, and his place in a great triad of murders, his father’s, his own, and soon his wife’s, ‘a threefold hammer blow’ like the three blows about to be dealt by Clytaemnestra. When the death-cries of the king ring out, the old men are terrified ; they scatter into individual voices - daring, cautious or disengaged - but a majority favours what Cassandra would have urged. They storm the doors to ‘see how it stands with Agamemnon’, and what they see unites them once and for all.
Rising over the bodies of the king and the seer, Clytaemnestra speaks the truth at last, magnificent in her defiance as she reveals what lay behind her ironies: a murder as climactic as any in the
a welcome more perverse than any in the
As she re-enacts the trapping and the killing of the king, she impersonates Artemis the Huntress in effect, but she rebels against her fellow Olympians, she devotes her victim to Zeus, whom she demotes to the God of Death, and triumphs over Agamemnon:
So he goes down, and the life is bursting out of him -
great sprays of blood, and the murderous shower
wounds me, dyes me black and I, I revel
like the Earth when the spring rains come down,
the blessed gifts of god, and the new green spear
splits the sheath and rips to birth in glory!
Clytaemnestra represents the Earth, and behind her words we may hear a famous Aeschylean fragment:
The clear pure Heaven yearns to wound the Earth
and yearning seizes the Earth to wed the Heaven -
rain comes down from the throbbing skies
and pierces the Earth, she teems with flocks
and Demeter’s full rich life that strengthens men,
and from that drenching marriage-rite the woods,
the spring bursts forth in bloom. And I, I cause it all.
Aphrodite is defending Hypermnestra, the one daughter of Danaos who refused to murder her husband, acting in the name of love that weds the Heaven and the Earth each spring. Without the echo of Aphrodite, Clytaemnestra is a grim perversion of nature - the joy of the cornfields in the gift of rain, so precious in parched Argos, is twisted into the euphoria of a wife drenched with her husband’s blood. The echo makes her all the more terrifying and universal, but it has a further resonance, however distant, that may lend the queen a measure of the goddess’ fruitfulness as well.
By the end of the
we may see Clytaemnestra yield to the spirit of Hypermnestra, vengeance yield to justice, Earth and Heaven join in bonds of marriage. The legends say that from the bloody wounds of Ouranos, god of the Sky, came both the Furies and Aphrodite, vengefulness and love. And the more demonic Clytaemnestra grows, the more she will become a mother, human, vulnerable. Even now she labours with the spear at spring, the son who will destroy her. Even before the end of
we may sense her creativity, the Great Mother within the Terrible Mother - love-in-hate personified - but for the present, of course, the Terrible Mother that Calchas first invoked and Cassandra just envisioned has come rushing to the fore - ‘the womb of Fury child-avenging Fury’.
She appals the chorus. The old men rise in outrage - poison has made her criminally insane - and sentence her to exile. For a moment she makes a rational self-defence; she indicts the king for murder and the old men for criminal neglect in failing to pursue him. But she revels in the carnage of her husband and his lover - she is sadistic, as oblivious as Agamemnon to the meaning of her actions. And so far we have a mistrial; she is lost in self-indulgence, the jury is reduced to threats. We need a change of venue, and the interchange that follows takes us to a higher court. It is not an easy form to grasp by reading; performed, it has increasing impact. Gradually the chorus realizes that the queen’s act is another manifestation of the curse, but like Agamemnon’s decision to kill Iphigeneia, her act involves both free will and predestination. At the end, the chorus and Clytaemnestra seem to reach a deadlock: how can curses be reconciled with prayers, blood feuds with communal justice, the Olympian theology with the Furies? How can a family that ‘has been welded to its ruin’ be redeemed? Certain answers come to light in the course of the trial, but it is not a cold debate; its music builds operatically, in a series of emotional crises, shocks of recognition.
We begin in the depths. The old men pray for a painless death, lamenting, almost appealing to Helen, the spirit of destruction. Seeing a chance to deflect blame from herself, Clytaemnestra rises to her sister’s defence in sudden lyric power, as if they were in league. Their kinship, in fact, forces the chorus to recognize the kindred spirit working here - the curse that has impelled the sisters from the start, and counteracts the initial omen sent by Zeus. Now the old men see the spirit in command and not the gods, twin Furies and not twin kings, a raven, not an eagle, with its victim. Clytaemnestra seizes on their vision, since it exonerates herself and Helen too. They can be nothing more than carriers of the spirit raging through the generations of the house. Yet the spirit seems amoral, and the next stage of the trial changes that. The old men return,
de profundis
, to their faith in Zeus: ‘What comes to birth that is not Zeus?/Our lives are pain, what part not come from god?’ Full circle from the opening hymn, Zeus is the anguish in their hearts; and as they mourn their king they may even mourn the death of faith itself, but Clytaemnestra gives them something to believe in. She declares the spirit lives within her body; more, he is the spirit of revenge and he is right - he has murdered Agamemnon for the murder of their daughter, indeed for an enormous legacy of murders. The conspiracy between the queen and her spirit, her freedom and her fate, is just as total as that between the king and the winds at Aulis, but her conspiracy is more deeply, more lastingly self-aware. And the chorus finds it so retributive that its moral impact cannot be denied: ‘revenge will stride, /clots will mass for the young who were devoured.’ Clytaemnestra glories in her work. All can see it now for what it is: homicide justified by the law of retaliation.
BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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