"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

15 May 2016

Orestes, by Euripides

Chorus. For his horrible deed, done at a god’s command,
            And for his suffering, I pity him.
Electra. Apollo had no right to speak such words;
            The thing he commanded was a crime,
            When from the tripod of Themis
            He prescribed the unnatural murder of my mother.

Tyndareos. In this man’s case, to ask what’s wise or what’s unwise
            Is not the point. Since right and wrong are clear as day
            To us all, what man was ever born more void of sense,
            Conscience, or decency, than he? He never glanced
            At processes of justice; He made no appeal
            To the common standards of Hellenic law. Clearly,
            When Agamemnon gasped his life out, with his skull
            Split by my daughter’s weapon – An outrageous act
            Which I’ll never defend – his duty was to take
            Lawful proceedings, prosecute for murder, and
            Expel his mother from the palace. In that way
            From his misfortune he would have won a name for wise
            Behaviour, would have preserved both law and piety.
            But now, his life bears the same curse his mother bore.
            Rightly regarding her as criminal, he made
            Himself, by killing his mother, a worse criminal.

Menelaus. Gods hate extremists; so, in fact, do citizens.

Orestes. With unscrupulous leadership, the rabble is a dangerous thing.
Pylades. Yes, but under honest leaders they’ll make honest policies.

Orestes. My mother’s blood is curse enough; I won’t kill you.
            End your own life – and do it any way you please.
Electra. I will. My courage will not lag behind your sword.
            But oh, brother! Let me first take you in my arms!
Orestes. Embrace me, if it gives you pleasure. An Embrace
            Is little help to those within one step of death.
Electra. My dearest! Oh, my darling brother! How I love
            To call you my own brother! Our two hearts are one.
Orestes. Oh, you will melt my firmness. Yes, I must hold you
            In my most loving arms – come! Why should I feel shame?
            Body to body – thus, let us be close in love.
            Say ‘brother’, sister! These dear words can take the place
            Of children, marriage – to console our misery.

EuripidesOrestes is a surprisingly interesting play considering how many times Attic dramatists (even in the few extant plays) treated the Argive subject. The most famous treatment is AiskhulosOresteiatrilogy, but there are also Elektra plays by Sophokles and Euripides. In the overarching Argive storyline, Orestes falls between The Libation Bearers (which is roughly equivalent to the episode dramatized in the two Elektra plays) and TheEuminides. The Libation Bearers tells the story of Klytemnestra’s murder through the plot of Orestes and Elektra, and The Euminides depicts Orestes’ trial between Apollo and the Furies in Athens. Orestes is set shortly after Klytemnestra’s murder—six days afterward, in fact. The play depicts the set of events leading to Orestes’ temporary banishment from Argos and his pursuit by the Furies across Hellas.

One thing that makes Orestes a particularly interesting play is the sheer number of storylines in it. Unlike a play like Oedipusthe King, which focuses largely on one narrative line, Orestes moves through several problems and pulls together a number of dynamic threads. The overall plot focuses on Orestes’, Elektra’s, and Pylades’ attempts to get avoid being stoned to death in Argos. But within that framework there are broadly debated questions of justice, revenge, honor, duty, and so on. But in plot terms, the play opens with Elektra tending to an Orestes sick with fever and madness (caused by the Furies), then he recovers and receives visits from Menelaus (his uncle) and Tyndareos (his grandfather). Tyndareos condemns Orestes, and Menelaus refuses to speak on his behalf to the Argive council. Then Pylades—Orestes’ friend and accomplice in killing Klytemnestra—arrives and the two of them go to the trial before the Argive council, where Orestes and Elektra are condemned to die by suicide. Instead of killing themselves, they decide to trap Helen (as, in Helen of Troy) in the palace—because she’s staying with them post-Trojan War—and murder her on behalf of all the Greeks who died in the Trojan War, and to hold her daughter Hermoine hostage until Menelaus convinces the Argive to rescind the death sentence. As they’re in the process of doing this, Apollo snags up Helen and makes her a constellation, and then deus ex machinas a resolution which sets the stage for the events of The Euminides.

As busy as the plot is, there’s still room for some really interesting stuff to happen just in passing. For instance, the quote above where Orestes and Pylades discuss the pitfalls and benefits of democracy, which would certainly have played well in a democratic Athens where the value of democracy was definitely up for debate.
But more interesting to me is the brief section quoted above between Orestes and Elektra. Incest is a common theme throughout Greek tragedy, but this is one of the most blatantly incestuous conversations in any play I’ve read so far (even considering Oedipus and Jokasta’s relationship, though they didn’t know they were related). Here is a brother and sister talking to one another like lovers, embracing and talking about melting into one another. And what makes it a bit extra weird is that Pylades is there for this conversation, and Elektra is betrothed to him—so he’s basically watching his future wife and her brother, his best friend, make out right in front of him. I mean, it’s not inescapably sexual, but I feel like it takes a really generous reading to not see them all but knocking sandals in this scene.

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