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Authors: Aeschylus

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

The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies (8 page)

BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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is possessed by a diabolic Fury. In style and theme the play represents a static, claustrophobic world, ‘a huddling together of fierce extremes’, in Hazlitt’s description of
Still, the ferocity of action may seem obscured. Memory takes its place and renders action inescapable but frozen. Aeschylus may evoke a lost, primordial ritual, the sacramental killing of the king, but here the king has small potential to release, and his death may generate a deadlock in the future. Yet there is a movement, too, a choking coil of image and event. It is the poetic justice of the play that every good must seek its opposite and be destroyed, the health that turns to sickness, the beauty that blinds, the theodicy that is a ministry of fear. And things more often go from bad to worse, the wound that breeds more wounds, the hunter who is hunted down and killed. There is a
lex talionis,
a law of retaliation working in the style as in the action - in the bond between Agamemnon’s cruelty and his fate, in the double blow they deal to Troy and Greece, and all to strike against the double-bladed law that the killer must be killed, the law of Zeus that incriminates himself, binding him over to the Furies as they weld the race to ruin. In fact there is a momentum in the Furies, ‘the terror raging back and back in the future/the stealth, the law of the hearth, the mother’. These menacing phrases, like monolithic, unmovable building-blocks, are actually set in motion by the Fury who will construct her edifice, the house of Atreus or all our houses, where the elements of Aeschylus are clashing for control. There is an auditory struggle that intensifies the prophecies of Calchas with his cries. A stylistic struggle in which images of oozing and dyeing yield to Agamemnon’s blood, spurting out to stain the ground and shower Clytaemnestra like the rain. And a dramatic struggle that, from the storm at Aulis lyrically remembered, releases the storm that sweeps the ships at Troy, breaking out of heroic narrative to overpower Argos in the person of the queen. As Agamemnon says, ‘The storms of ruin live!’
These are the dynamics of destruction. Nowhere do they work with greater force than in the symbol of the net and its companion, the symbol of the robes. Together they exemplify all the binding, recoiling, retaliating, revenging in the play, though they enter
In the opening chorus Agamemnon is associated both with the hunt that captures Troy and with its first extension, the bridal robes his attendants wind around his daughter as he kills her. The robes of ceremony and the nets of capture: the chorus stresses the second in its hymn of triumph; the nets of the Night have trapped the prize of Troy. But soon the nets of Clytaemnestra trap the king - ‘if he took one wound for each report/to penetrate these walls, he’s gashed like a dragnet.’ And, as ‘she winds about him coil after coil of her glittering rhetoric’ (Herbert Weir Smyth’s description), her words materialize in the gorgeous tapestries that lure him to his death.
Cassandra sees this clearly. She is caught in the nets of doom while she perceives the nets that trap the king. They are things of nightmare that, like objects in surreal pictures, are themselves and inextricably something else. First she sees unattached hands reaching out, ‘hand over hand’, to haul in things unseen, like nets perhaps, and so they are, she can see them clearly now, hellish nets - and no, not simply nets but a part of the one who casts them, a woman, in fact the woman is the net, ‘the snare, /the bedmate, deathmate, murder’s strong right arm!’ the queen who invests the king in robes, entangling him before she takes his life. But these are only flashes as Apollo sends them through his seer. Cassandra cannot see their pattern until she has trampled the vestments of the god and taken on, if only symbolically, the mantle of the Furies. Then she sees the tie between the violent nets of capture and the violated robes of ceremony, between Agamemnon’s bloodlust and the majestic vengeance that it looses. The Furies also bind Cassandra to her death while they release her prophecy of Orestes, rising from the painful implications she has seen.
Her vision is enacted by the queen. Clytaemnestra murders Agamemnon, and as she unfurls the robes around his body - ‘he had no way to flee or fight his destiny - /our never-ending, all-embracing net’ - the running weave of her words extends the nets into the murderous heirloom of the house, the curse itself. As the elders mourn the king they meditate: This queen with her net, is she not a spider, the ‘black widow’ with her fatal web? - the spirit of the Spider Mountain raining havoc down on Argos. Yet she is a Fury that can spin as well as kill. As her trial unfolds, she and the chorus expand the curse into an inescapable moral network of complicity, so large that it includes us all, so incriminating that it cries for justice, so dominated by the Furies they alone can give that justice power. The two forces will be bound together in Orestes, and when he is acquitted all the reticulations of evil decisions and evil destinies will be resolved at last by Athena’s master hand.
But we begin in the darkness-before-dawn. In our nightmares the terror often comes most strongly when it emerges slowly from the background, or worse still, when a harmless, familiar object slowly grows more sinister, the commonplace becoming the macabre. That is the atmosphere of
and nothing makes it bristle more than the metaphor that comes to life, then passes into metaphor and into life again, one/stage exceeded by the next in terror. ‘Present fears/Are less than horrible imaginings.’ But the forward thrust of Agamemnon brings us back to the beginnings, the first gods, the elements bursting from the night to bring the first barbaric dawn. The terror of
transcends the terror of most tragedy, the terror that is ‘unspectacular and always human’, or even that we may wake to find the roof come down upon our heads. It is all that and more It is what Eliot calls ‘the backward half-look/Over the shoulder towards the primitive terror’. It is chaos.
But, as in the chaos of mythology, there is a potential here that would be harnessed. Clearly the great weight of the play is destructive. It coils inwards towards the killing of the king, then outwards towards its most disastrous meanings. Yet it also turns the murder into justifiable homicide, as if the vengeance of the Furies might, on a later day, radiate towards the justice of the gods. An
converges into an even bloodier
Clearly the pain comes first -
pathei mathos
- but the pain will reverberate with meaning. For all the retaliation in the play, there are relations that may balance ‘great good blessings mixed with doom’. There is the
charis biaios
of the gods, their violent kindness that breaks us into pieces but may leave us open, sentient and prepared. There are the ageing voices of the chorus rising into ringing social conscience. Behind all there is the poet, like Cassandra, venturing into the very dark and danger of Clytaemnestra to evoke her deep maternal power. There is the original paradox of Fury, the memory that must avenge her children, and the matrix of her children who avenge themselves on her - Fury, the muse of vengeance that will generate the future.
There is Orestes. There is a dialectic just begun to work. We are simply at the first, negative extreme. ‘Where there is a reconciliation,’ as Stephen Dedalus says, ‘there must first have beer a sundering.’ Dionysus is dismembered, as prologue to the ace of his rebirth. Here is an antigenesis with all the elements intact, waiting to be built into a world. That is the challenge of
and Aeschylus suggests it should be met with the tragic spirit of Cassandra and the queen who know that ‘all things fall and are built again, /And those that build them again are gay’. Aeschylus is often swept off his feet by his own creative exultation, but he never loses grip on his faith that ‘good wins out in glory in the end’. His exultation and his faith combine with enormous impact. We must surrender to him, let him sweep us on like a storm at sea, often violating our intellectual bent for precision and lucidity, often baffling when his genius seems to burst upon the majestic flow of his dramatic theme. At the end his violence will have brought us to a time and place of brightness and resilient peace, ‘gaiety transfiguring all that dread’.
The Libation Bearers
is the crux of the
After the killing of the king we have a rite of spring, like the Anthesteria sacred to Dionysus and performed when the god is struggling for rebirth, when winter yields to March. Memory and desire, dread and expectation mix, and the Anthesteria celebrates them both. It was a festival of libations which summoned the spring by summoning the great ancestral dead as the source of all new life. It was a festival of reincarnation, and to dramatize it Aeschylus re-created Agamemnon’s son. In the
Orestes hungers for his patrimony, he travels home from exile, kills his father’s assassins - his mother and her lover - and without a qualm of conscience ‘proclaim[s] the funeral day’, as Robert Fitzgerald translates it, ‘a festal day for all the Argive people’. Orestes is completely successful and completely in the right. But in
The Libation Bearers
he is right and wrong, his father’s avenger and a guilty matricide and more, the vortex where the Furies and the gods converge with fresh intensity and effect.
If the
is a rite of passage from savagery to civilization, Orestes’ step from youth to maturity is the rite of transition in the trilogy. Because of its inwardness, its privacy, this ritual often excludes the anthropologist in the field, but it may inspire the dramatist, especially if he wants to probe the relationship between suffering and regeneration. For what happens in the secret chamber or the wilderness, or the grave to which Orestes is exposed, may be some sort of creative agony, some radical humanization of the ruder past, as preparation for the more communal life that awaits the young initiate. Somewhere within him, we may say, his innocence dies and his experience is born, and he must be deeply wounded in the process.
The Libation Bearers
allows us to feel that wounding as only drama can - as an ordeal of recognition. And Orestes’ ordeal will carry us through torment towards awareness and renewal and the light.
After years of his mother’s usurpation he has broken out of exile and returned to avenge his father. That is Apollo’s command, as we shall learn, though here at the outset, as Orestes takes his stand at Agamemnon’s grave, what stirs him seems more personal, a deep tie between the living and the dead, reflected in his words that weave between the shadows and a sense of exhilaration. He prays to Hermes, the Escort of the Dead, to be his living comrade, then he drifts to thoughts of mourning. He combines two separate rites; he lays two locks of hair on the grave, one for his father’s death and one for a local stream that gave him manhood. There may be ties between mourning and maturity, the debts he owes his father and his mother. No sooner does he place the locks than a procession of her women appears, and they are dressed in black, and bear libations. Like the watchman he prays for help and sees a sign, but Orestes’ sign is human, and either way he interprets the women - as mourning a new wound to the house or appeasing his father’s spirit - he is right and he is strengthened. He sees his sister Electra, and her sorrow makes him cry to Zeus for revenge, intensifying his first appeal to Hermes. There may be ties among the living, among men and women, vengeance and affection. Orestes’ prologue ends with the watchword for his play: ‘We must see clearly what these women and their supplications mean.’ He must look beyond the libations to their source and, as he steps behind the tomb, the women introduce him to their mission.
Clytaemnestra has had a nightmare. The interpreters say the dead are crying for revenge, so she sends the women to appease them with libations. They consider this hypocrisy and instead they mourn her reign of terror as relentless as the curse. Not only must Orestes avenge his father, he must avenge his father’s world, and that will involve his mother. For her dream will coincide with the orders of Apollo, in fact her dream will prove as prophetic as the eagles in
but there is no prophet here, and people must unravel this omen slowly, painfully. Only its surface can be seen, yet it has brought the women, and they may help Orestes. Their mourning is a form of resistance ; they beat the linen on their breasts like weavers, they set a work-beat throbbing, a pulsing of the blood in early spring, and in their knowledge of Clytaemnestra’s dream they hold a cure. As they mourn the father, they will stimulate the son. All is latent for the moment. Behind their suffering lies their past; they are slaves from the wars, but they can match their hatred for their masters with loyalty to their mistress. Behind their veils they weep for her. ‘Sorrow turns the secret heart to ice.’ And now the thaw begins.
Electra asks what she should say as she pours her mother’s libations on her father’s grave. Like Orestes she must reconcile her parents’ claims, yet everything she says will bring their claims into clearer opposition. She rejects the common formulae for mourning, one that tells of a woman’s love for husband (that would be grotesque), another that answers gifts with further gifts - give her mother grief for grief instead. Nor can she adopt the silence that accompanies rites of purging. Freed from Clytaemnestra, she and the women can express their grief at last, renew the shock of Agamemnon’s death until it seems a recent crime that calls for action now. Only his avenger can overhear, and what the women say must warm his heart, for in their hands the cups become a tonic for Electra and poison for the queen. Bless the ones who love you, they advise, and curse the ones you hate. Remember Orestes, then summon an avenger. This is a formula that indoctrinates Electra into the cruelty and the fondness of the world, and she is more than ready. Her questions seem designed to cue the leader in, even to cue her waiting brother in. Like him she prays to Hermes, now to take her prayers to Mother Earth where they can bloom in twin emotions - longing for her brother, longing for her father’s avenger still unknown. So in the midst of prayers for good I place/this curse for them.’ For once a curse in the house is warmed by a hope for human improvement, and Electra prays to be purer than Clytaemnestra. She is an altered version of her mother, at the same time she anticipates her mother’s new maternal power in this play.
BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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