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.  (more…)