Review: The Oresteia

Posted 2 May, 2016 by Lianne in Books / 4 Comments

The Oresteia
By: Aeschylus
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase

In the Oresteia—the only trilogy in Greek drama which survives from antiquity—Aeschylus took as his subject the bloody chain of murder and revenge within the royal family of Argos.

Moving from darkness to light, from rage to self-governance, from primitive ritual to civilized institution, their spirit of struggle and regeneration becomes an everlasting song of celebration.

This Greek drama piqued my interest after it was mentioned in one of the Sebastian St. Cyr novels (see tag) I was reading at the time. To date the only Greek drama I’ve read has been from Sophocles (err…I never reviewed it? I’m surprised) but I’m always open to checking out more Greek drama and classical theatre, especially as I’m slowly dwindling down on the popular Renaissance/Jacobean titles (I know there’s plenty else out there to check out, not to mention those from other countries, but it’s nice to get through the famous ones first). Anyway, I was quite excited to start reading these plays after writing my board exam a few months ago (case in point) 🙂

Gosh, what to say about these plays? They’re intense–and definitely different from Sophocles’ plays, I think. At first I wasn’t quite sure where the book blurb was coming from, talking about the progression of the plays as a shift from darkness to light and from primitiveness to civilisation, but by “The Eumenides”, I finally understood the development. The trilogy starts off with “Agememnon” in which the titular character returns home after waging an intense war with Troy with a mistress in tow only to be cut down by his wife Clytaemnestra for his sacrifice of their daughter to ease passage through the seas and in part to seize power for herself and her lover. She justifies her actions and evades exile as her husband was not of her blood, allowing her to stay and govern the city. By “The Libation Bearers” though, revenge and justice is enacted against Clytaemnestra in the form of her exiled son, Orestes, thus commiting matricide. In “The Eumenides”, rather than be tormented by the Furies for killing his mother or any other vengeful act made against him, Orestes is brought before a court of sorts with Athena as judge. Thus the cycle of blood and revenge is ended, and old ways of blood sacrifices make way for order and dialogue.

Style-wise and lyrical-wise, it’s very poetic with a lot of beautiful passages and imagery and feeling; sometimes it’s so poetic that I felt it masked some of the deeper complexities of the play, the issues that the characters faced, the blurred lines between justice and vengeance. While a bit exposition heavy in “Agememnon”, I thought the discussion and contrast between the glory of the Greek soldiers in their victory over Troy and the stark realities of war with the people’s sons coming home in urns was fascinating and memorable. And of course “The Eumenides” really brings the overall themes into focus and making the statement of how far Greece has come in their civilisation and how there’s a place for everything in their new world order. I only wished that “The Libation Bearers”, the second play, was a little longer and that Electra had a larger role because she really drops out of the picture once mother and estranged son are reunited on the scene.

Overall I enjoyed reading The Oresteia and delving a bit further into Ancient Greek drama. It can be a bit dense at times despite of its beautiful poeticism but it all makes sense thematically and it is still a pretty accessible play. Definitely pleased to have read it! 🙂

Rating: ★★★★☆

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4 Responses to “Review: The Oresteia”

    • I hear you, Greek drama is quite different from the early modern & modern plays that we’re familiar with. Still awesome & worth checking out though! 😀

  1. Thanks for reviewing this one! My only experiences with classic Greek literature (The Iliad & The Odyssey) haven’t been at all positive so I hope that I’ll like the classic Greek tragedies a lot better when I eventually get around to them. For someone who’s completely new to the classic Greek dramas, would you say it would be better to start off with Sophocles or Aeschylus? Or would you say that it doesn’t really matter?

    • Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy The Iliad and The Odyssey! I only read the latter because it was required reading for a class I took in undergrad, and enjoyed it enough. I think it’s safe to say that classic Greek literature is a field of its own!

      For someone new to classic Greek drama, I would highly recommend starting off with Sophocles, particularly Antigone. Granted, its the tail end of the Theban plays and requires a tad bit of knowledge on what happened beforehand (but they do recount events at the start of the play so you wouldn’t be totally lost), but it’s definitely the most accessible as a story and with the themes involved. Plus, it’s beautifully written. I hope this helps! 🙂

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