Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.06


Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia Landmarks of World Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 102. $27.95 (hb). $10.95 (pb). ISBN 0-521-40293-X (hb). ISBN 0-521-40853-9 (pb).


Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, University of Washington.

"There is the sea; who will drain it?" Clytemnestra's enigmatic words, delivered as the duped Agamemnon enters the palace, often suggest to me the inexhaustible richness of the trilogy itself. This set of plays has engaged some of the most thoughtful and imaginative Hellenic scholars of each generation, with the result that we have some understanding of the trilogy's extraordinary wealth of language, thought, and interconnections. It is remarkable, then, that anyone could write a 100-page survey of this trilogy and do any justice to its richness. Simon Goldhill has achieved just that, and this book will provide a lively and enticing introduction for many readers. G. is well known for his work on Greek poetry, especially tragedy. His first book, Language, Sexuality, Narrative: The Oresteia (1984), highlighted some of the fundamental themes of the trilogy and offered many provocative readings of individual passages. It was not the most user-friendly book, but G. showed that he was capable of consistent clarity, as well as suggestive insights, in his later Reading Greek Tragedy (1986). In a sense, the book under review represents a compression of the good traits of the two earlier books. His methodological approaches to tragedy and his views on the trilogy will be familiar to readers of those works.

G. divides his treatment into three chapters ("Drama and the City of Athens," "The Oresteia," and "The Influence of the Oresteia"), the first two of which are sub-divided into fifteen smaller sections, and those in chapter two, in turn, are grouped under three different headers. The treatment then is by plan neatly arranged and concise. It is also thematic: one will not find a scene-by-scene analysis. In the first section, G. describes four "contexts", those of the polis, democracy, the festival, and the theater. (This section is also preceded by a helpful two-page "Chronology," covering key events in Aeschylus' life and in the Greek world during that period.) He explains the nature of the polis and the strains experienced by the Athenians in the fifth century, strains caused by the (relatively) new institution of democracy, the Persian threat, and the rise of imperialism. He emphasizes the military nature of the Athenian polis and the important institution of the funeral oration. G. reiterates his views, laid out originally in JHS (1987), on the significance of the ceremonies in the theater before the plays' performance, and briefly discusses the physical theater and the conventions of the chorus. Greek tragedy, in G.'s view, "places the tensions and ambiguities of a rapidly developing political and cultural system in the public domain to be contested" (p.21). Throughout the book, G. seeks to locate the trilogy within these contexts.

The heart of the book is the treatment of the trilogy itself. In the first of the three larger sections which comprise this treatment ("A Charter for the City?"), G. describes the matrix of revenge and reversal, and the transgressive actions taken by the characters in the dramas, laying special emphasis, as does Aeschylus, on Clytemnestra. Since, as the trilogy repeatedly asserts, "the doer suffers," each character becomes enmeshed in a "double bind," constrained to act, but in taking action ensures his/her own suffering. G. objects to the once standard view that the trilogy presents a progression from insoluble tragic conflicts to civically-sponsored, harmonious resolutions. In addition to pointing to several ways in which Orestes' victory in the trial is undercut, he explores the various uses and competing claims of the marvelously versatile word dike, uses and claims which undermine the seemingly harmonious resolutions at the end of the trilogy. He also pays attention to the conflicts of gender with in the plays and describes Clytemnestra's transgressions in terms of her language and sexual behavior. The third part of this section is devoted to Aeschylus' rewriting of the story as found in Homer's Odyssey, where the narrative of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Orestes serves a different purpose. Among the differences G. singles out is Aeschylus' localizing the action and its "resolutions" within the broader community of the polis, not the more limited world of the oikos.

G. begins "The Mortal Coil," the second section on the trilogy proper, by looking at the role of rhetoric in the trilogy, especially the baneful role of persuasion, the destructive potential of language. He then turns to prophecy and omens and their function in determining (at times over-determining) events, leaving mortals with greater ignorance about, and less control over, their lives. The discussion of prophecy and omens, involving the lion cub "parable," leads to an exploration of some of the prominent repeated images in the trilogy, especially those of sacrifice, hunting and endings (telos). In the concluding chapter of this section, G. touches on the general issue of mortals' relation to the divine, and the divine's relation to causality. Here, too, G. observes a shifting and unstable relationship. While the trilogy praises and celebrates the divine, it also calls into question the reliability and predictability of the divine in human affairs. The gods (Zeus vs. Artemis, Apollo vs. the Furies) are at odds, just like the mortals. It is indeed a "violent grace" that Zeus provides.

In the third section ("The Poetic Texture"), G. looks in greater detail at Aeschylean language, focusing on three passages, one from each play, one example each of lyric (Ag. 154-5), dialogue (Cho. 885-95) and (part of a) rhesis (Eum. 690-9), and each based on three different and well-known translations. It is difficult to discuss the delicate texture of Aeschylean ambiguity and multivalence for the Greekless, but G. does a fine job exploring the possibilities and the nuances of Aeschylus' text. The book concludes with a brief survey of the influence of the trilogy, focusing on three periods -- the immediate reception (Sophocles and Euripides), the nineteenth-century German Romantic interpretation (Nietzsche and Wagner), and responses of the women's movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (including Kate Millett and Hélène Cixous). This is followed by three pages of helpful suggestions for further reading.

A book this size cannot cover all that one might wish -- even superficially. At the risk of seeming churlish, I will nevertheless mention some things that I wish G. had either brought up or examined more closely, even within the tight confines of a book in this series. While the importance of the Odyssey is duly covered, the Iliadic background is given scant notice. The Agamemnon, especially, has the Trojan War very much entwined in its web of causality. Along these lines, in the discussion of peitho in the trilogy, I was surprised to see no reference to Ag. 385ff. (from the first stasimon, which does so much to establish the connections between Troy and Argos), where the chorus sing of Peitho, child of Ate, who dooms Paris and his city. While I would agree in general with the assessment of Clytemnestra's transgressions against the cultural norms of her gender, I would also point to the support she receives from the male Aegisthus. G. is certainly correct in pointing to the relatively small role he i s given, but G.'s dismissal of him (esp. p. 40) seems to ignore the value Clytemnestra places on him (see, esp., 1434ff.). In general, I would like to have seen more on the religious dimensions of the trilogy (the significance of the libations, the chthonic gods, purification, etc.). The Proteus, the satyr-play put on with the Oresteia in 458, survives only in pitifully few fragments, but we have some idea of its plot, and it is always worth reminding students (and scholars) that the Aeschylean productions of 458 ended not with the Eumenides but with the Proteus.

In summary, this is a very good little book. It should be recommended to students coming to the trilogy for the first time, especially to those with no Greek, but also for those who know Greek. Prior to the publication of G.'s book, the most helpful introductory book on the trilogy for the Greekless was Conacher's Aeschylus' Oresteia: A Literary Commentary (1987). This is, as G. observes in his "Guide to Further Reading," a more traditional, scene-by-scene analysis, and it is fuller (with greater room) in its discussion of many of the plays' interpretative cruxes. G.'s more thematic treatment and greater engagement with current methodologies will make it a useful companion to Conacher's study, and a very fine introduction in its own right.