The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides

The Oresteia: Agamemnon / The Libation Bearers / The Eumenides - Aeschylus, Robert Fagles, William Bedell Stanford The Oresteia tells the story of the slaying of Agamemnon, Orestes avenging his father's murder, and his trial. From any online source or introduction to his plays you'll glean that Aeschylus is the earliest playwright whose plays we have. Only seven out of the dozens he wrote survive to the present day. The Oresteia is the only extant trilogy, a form he might have originated. It's listed fourth in Top 100 Plays and is on the Good Reading's "100 Significant Books" list. Critics trace Aeschylus' influence from classic French and Elizabethan drama to Wagner's Ring cycle. The title of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is taken from a quote from the first of the trilogy, Agamemnon. Robert Kennedy, who called Aeschylus his "favorite poet," quoted a line from Agamemnon in a speech dealing with Martin Luther King's assassination. Even JK Rowling prefaced the final Harry Potter book with a quote from the middle play, The Libation Bearers. The last of the trilogy, The Eumenides, was my introduction to Aeschylus in high school. I remember it, and the comments of my teacher, making quite an impression on me. That play includes a trial and deals with such issues, not only of justice and reason, but those of gender as well, as it deals with who has greater claim, a man's mother or his father? Or whether really the claims of a mother have any validity at all. The ending says a lot about how the Ancient Greeks saw women--and it isn't pretty. Thus the Eumenides is one of those plays that bears close study in the classroom, even if less moving than the first two dramas. In fact, the whole bit of a trial, with Apollo as defense council and Athene as one of the jurors seems a bit... bizarre to a modern reader compared to the realistic, yet mythic contents of the other two. I can't speak to the dramatic value of the plays, since I've never seen one performed, but in the various translations I've read, Aeschylus' works are striking and beautiful as poetry, though they feel more stylized than Sophocles or Euripides; they make me think of an ancient frieze. Of course, it depends on a good translation for its beauties to emerge. I'd recommend comparing sections side by side before choosing one. If Lattimore's translation comes across as stilted, Weir-Smith's is downright flowery with archaic language and Slavitt strikes me as far too slangy contemporary. Hughes, Meineck, and Fagles read better I think.