The Nation, 27 April 2009

nation-27-april-2009Classicist Emily Wilson reviews Anne Carson‘s An Oresteia.  Carson translates Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Orestes to make a trilogy that not only tells why the legendary prince Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra and what consequences that matricide had in their world, but a trilogy that also suggests how the moral ideas of the Athenians might have changed in response to the social and political crises of the fifth century BC.  

Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was produced in 458 BC, when Athens’ empire was at its zenith and its form of democracy seemed infinitely adaptable to whatever challenges the future might present.  In the Agamemnon, Aeschylus puts the motivations of the gods and of humans on display together, suggesting that while each may be temporarily obscure, nonetheless both can ultimately become transparent.   When Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon, her children inherit from their father the responsibility to avenge him by killing their mother.  Faced with this horrifying duty, Orestes and his sister Electra seem as though they may have been plunged into an incomprehensible moral universe.  Yet democracy, Athenian democracy, will settle the matter and allow the survivors of the cycle of violence to reason together once more.   Orestes will ultimately appear before Athens’ Areopagus Council, which will sit in judgment of his case and reach a verdict that even the Furies themselves must accept. 

Sophocles’ Electra dates from a time much later than that of Aeschylus’ play, probably the last decade of the fifth century.  By that time, Athens had been embroiled in the Peloponnesian Wars for a generation.  Isolated in mainland Greece, Athens had suffered heavy defeats in one theater after another.  To many Athenians, it seemed that the war had discredited democracy.  Not only had the war the people voted to enter brought Athens actual disaster and likely destruction, but the heaviest of all Athens’ losses were suffered in a war with another radical democracy, Syracuse.  In 411, Sophocles himself would figure prominently in a move to scrap democracy and institute a government by an oligarchic group known as “the Four Hundred.”  The Four Hundred didn’t last long, but the optimism of Aeschylus’ day would never be possible to the Athenians again.  Accordingly, Sophocles’ view is darker Aeschylus’.  Wilson says that for Sophocles, “the will of the gods is hard to interpret, and the focus of the play is on the turbulent feelings of human characters and the contradictory narratives they create to serve their advantage.”  For my part, I think it would be better to say that for Sophocles, the gods are not on display- we may be visible to them, but they are never truly visible to us.  We can understand only his human characters, and then only by discovering the ways in which they have deceived themselves.  Wilson writes that “The play is disturbing in both its emphasis on desperate grief and the suggestion that the only cure for such pain is retribution reaped with scams and lies. Unlike in Aeschylus, there is no hope of a political solution.” 

Orestes, produced in 408, is in some ways Euripides’ strangest play, and Wilson labels it the darkest of the three Carson has chosen.  Euripides is closer to Aeschylus than to Sophocles in his belief that the motivations of gods and humans are intelligible, but unlike them in his doubt that understanding those motivations will bring us any closer to a world that we can judge fairly.  Indeed, according to Wilson Euripides suspects that if we understand the will of the gods, we might find that will to be just as sordid as is the will of humans:

The Orestes offers a dizzying lack of centralized perspective from which to make appropriate moral judgments. Apollo’s arbitrary final decision is hardly a solution, but it is as good an ending as any. The play invites us to look back with new eyes at the trial of the Eumenides, which now seems equally rigged: Apollo comforts Orestes by saying, “Go to Athens and stand trial for matricide./Trust me, you’ll win.”  

Both Sophocles and Euripides respond to Aeschylus’ work.  Wilson astutely remarks that for each of them, the poetic style and moral assumptions of 458 BC represented a “foreign language.” 

This being The Nation, Wilson notes the antiwar dimension both of the plays and of Carson’s translation.  Why is the moral universe of Euripides so thoroughly deranged?

What had in Aeschylus been presented as a conflict of incommensurable values–loyalty to the fleet, or loyalty to family–becomes in Euripides merely the self-interested clash of different special-interest groups.

Nor can the city-state solve the problem of revenge: rather, the city at war is the root of the problem.


Carson gamely invites some contemporary resonances: for instance, Pylades asks of Helen, “Where is she, that weapon of mass destruction?” Helen is a WMD not only because she has been the cause of thousands of deaths but also because she is, by the end of the play, not there at all.

I’ve always suspected that Euripides was more conservative than either Wilson or Carson take him to have been.  Certainly he was a thoroughgoing traditionalist in his technique as a poet and as a dramatist, very much different from the bold innovators Aeschylus and Sophocles.  And though he devoted time to the radically relativistic arguments in politics, religion, and morals that were occupying the philosophical thinkers of his day, that does not imply that he endorsed those arguments.  The characters who present relativistic arguments in Euripides’ plays usually do so in order to talk themselves into committing appalling acts of violence.  If anything, a reading of the plays would suggest that Euripides is defending the old views by trying to show that relativism sanctions unacceptable behavior.  Our impression that he was himself an advocate of relativism stems almost entirely from Aristophanes’ deliberately unfair caricatures of Euripides and his work.   

There is no doubt that Orestes suggests a world where morality is a dark and confused affair, and that this darkness and confusion are what we might expect in view of the situation of Athens in the later phases of the Peloponnesian Wars.  At the same time, however, we should remember both that we do not have the complete tetralogies of which the plays were originally part and that the conditions of performance in the ancient world were entirely different from what we are accustomed to see.  Orestes by itself may suggest a hostile universe where the gods are self-absorbed and moral obligations are incomprehensible.  But it was not produced by itself.  Think of how different a terrifying play like the Bacchae seems when we consider the idea that it may have been followed in performance by the weirdly optimistic Iphigenia at Aulis.  We would then have a pair of plays, one showing the penalty for refusing an extraordinary gift from the gods, the other showing the reward for giving the ultimate gift to the gods.   

Moreover, when we remember that the plays were performed by actors wearing masks, we realize that the ancient Athenian audience would have taken an entirely different attitude toward the characters than we tend to take toward characters in plays produced today.  The Athenians would not have looked for psychological explorations of fine shades of emotion, which an actor who could not use facial expressions could hardly be expected to convey.   To the audience Euripides was addressing, the characters would have been in the first place symbols of attitudes toward life, only secondly figures with whom to identify on an emotional level.  In view of those differences, the lack of a central perspective within the play need not disable us from reaching moral conclusions about the issues the play raises.  The distance that the masks put between us and the characters ensures that we will retain a perspective independent of theirs, and the fact that the play was produced as part of a tetralogy allows Euripides to create a perspective that may not be apparent from reading one play in isolation from its original tetralogy.


  1. cymast

     /  April 11, 2009

    “the will of the gods is hard to interpret”

    Wilson may be onto something here . .

  2. acilius

     /  April 11, 2009

    It’s a bit tricky, writing a comment in reply to a comment on a note on a review of a translation of the dialogue from a play. It’s a conversation with many participants, most of whom aren’t in the room. Who said what? Was that Cymast, or Acilius, or Wilson, or Carson, or Sophocles, or a character in Sophocles, or a predecessor to whom Sophocles was responding, or an illusion created by the condition in which Sophocles’ texts have come down to us?

  3. cymast

     /  April 11, 2009

    Yeah, good luck with all that . .

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