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Thoughtful not Thrilling
on 27 July 2010
Of the seventy plays written by Aeschylus only seven survive and parts of these have been pieced together from references in other works. The Oresteia is even more of a rarity since it is the only trilogy that survives from Ancient Greek drama and those in the know regard it as a masterpiece. I doubt very much if the casual reader would agree with such an analysis, and a considerable amount of learning and knowledge about Ancient Greek mythology, rituals, customs and poetry is needed to really appreciate this work. There is however an interesting discussion about justice at the core of the book that shows how Athens develops a system of law to replace the ancient justice of the Furies.
The plot is fairly straightforward and pretty easy to follow. Agamemnon, having led the Greeks to victory over the Trojans, returns home where his wife Clytaemnestra murders him in revenge for the death of her daughter Iphigeneia. Clytaemnestra now marries Agamemnon's cousin, Aegisthus but in the second act they are both murdered by her son, Orestes, who has returned from exile. Finally in the third act Orsetes is put on trial for killing his own mother. Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, oversees the trial and through this evolves a new system of trial by jury rather than the revenge of the Furies previously invoked for such crimes.
For the most part the language is kept simple and the actions and motivations of the parties are clear to a modern reader but a lot of the texture is lost, and some enjoyment of the piece, if the reader doesn't have a reasonable knowledge of mythology and ancient customs and a very good understanding of poetic rhyme is needed to appreciate the beat and syntax of the poetic form of the play.
The notes at the back are not bad but it's frustrating to have to keep flicking back and forth and these would have been better alongside the text. There is a very academic essay about the play at the front that I found very hard going and is best skipped until after reading the text itself.