Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.71
Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Aeschylus: Eumenides. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. 157. ISBN 9780715636428. $24.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Kyriaki Konstantinidou, University of Nottingham, UK (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Recent times have seen the publication of two studies related to Aeschylus’ Oresteia that, although different in form, both aim in their own way to render the trilogy, or part of it, more accessible: the brand new Loeb edition and translation of the trilogy by Alan Sommerstein (with more extensive interpretative comments than is usually the case for this series) on the one hand;1 on the other, a short introduction of the last play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, by Robin Mitchell-Boyask. The latter study is a welcome addition to the expanding number of Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman tragedies and represents the second volume of the series dedicated to a play of the trilogy, following Barbara Goward’s earlier Agamemnon.2 As most readers of these handy volumes know by now, the series aims to provide introductions to ancient tragedies by setting out the main themes of a play, trends in modern criticism, the play’s historical context, and the history of its reception.3 Writing such an introduction to Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the third play of a multi-layered trilogy, and in itself one of the most well-studied and contentious tragedies, is certainly no easy task. That, for the most part, Mitchell-Boyask pulls it off owes much to his mastery of the subject and his willingness to give alternative interpretations a place in his summary. While the series largely targets the non-specialist and university students, a great deal of the material in the present volume will also be of interest to a more academic readership, since, on more than one occasion, Mitchell-Boyask breathes new life into familiar debates.
The book is divided into six chapters: 1. Aeschylus the Athenian, 2. Eumenides and Greek Myth and Religion, 3. The Theatre of Aeschylus, 4. The Play and its Staging, 5. Justice, Law, and the Athenian Politics in Eumenides, 6. The Reception of Eumenides: Ancient Tragedy, Gender, and the Modern World. The chapters are followed by the series’ standard set of notes, guide to further reading, bibliography, glossary, chronology―including a list of the modern performances of the Eumenides―and an index.
The first three chapters set the scene in terms of the play’s broader literary and historical background, before a closer reading of the drama ‘in performance’, as it were, follows in chapter four. The opening chapter, as Mitchell-Boyask notes, is ‘an overview of the career of Aeschylus, set against the birth of Athenian democracy during his teens and the two wars against Persia in which Aeschylus fought’ (p.1). The main objective of its first section is to show that the emergence of democracy, the early experience of war, and the fear of tyranny exercised a significant influence on Aeschylus, as is testified by the Oresteia’s intense interest in them (p.12-15); a reader who wants to assess the evolution of the democracy’s institutions and their depiction in the Eumenides, however, should wait until chapter five. Similarly, while in section two of the chapter Mitchell-Boyask offers a brief overview that acquaints the reader with significant turning-points in the poet’s theatrical career (p.15-18), it is not until chapters three and four that Mitchell-Boyask explores in detail Aeschylus’ substantial contribution to the development of Athenian theatre.
Chapter two introduces the mythic and religious material on which Aeschylus drew in order to compose his Eumenides. The chapter is divided into four parts. In the first two, Mitchell-Boyask produces a clear account of the two main groups of myth that furnish the backdrop to the play: first, the literature on the Orestes legend that pre-dates Aeschylus’ version, with particular emphasis on the matricide and Orestes’ pursuit by the Furies (19-21); and, second, the foundation myth for the Areopagus council in Athens (21-23). The lengthier, and more exploratory, third and fourth sections examine the identity of the divine choral body of the play, the Furies (23-27), and their relationship to the Olympian gods respectively (27-33). After assessing the four names associated with them, ‘Furies’, ‘Erinyes’, ‘Eumenides’ (actually absent in the play itself, as Mitchell-Boyask notes following other scholars) and ‘Semnai’, Mitchell-Boyask traces the multiple connections that link Aeschylus’ Furies to their archaic predecessors. A reader already familiar with Sommerstein’s commentary, which covers a good deal of this prior material, will benefit most from section four.4 Here Mitchell-Boyask successfully demonstrates that as much as the play represents the confrontation between Olympian and Chthonian deities, it also challenges that polarity, primarily through the role of the ‘Olympian’ Athena, who appears to share common ground with the Chthonian Furies and acts as a mediator between the two divine groups (32-33).
Chapter three outlines an essential introduction for the Athenian theatre before Mitchell-Boyask reflects on the play itself and its staging in chapter four. It is particularly instructive regarding the context of the theatrical performances, the spatial reconfigurations in the Athenian theatre which took place over Aeschylus’ life-time, and, more importantly, Aeschylus’ innovations and his contribution to the formation of tragedy as we know it (34-40). The second part of the chapter, ‘the theatre of Aeschylus’ Eumenides’, documents the specific formation of the theatrical space for the performance of the play, and introduces the performers within this space (chorus, actors, extra performers) and the costumes they wore, as one example of the theatrical armoury at Aeschylus’ disposal (40-43). The most appealing aspect of the chapter is the constant appearance of Aeschylus as a true innovator of Athenian theatrical practice, especially through his radical experimentations with the skênê and ekkyklêma. This image is borne out by the detailed analysis presented in the following chapter.
Chapter 4, then, unpacks the play in some detail, with a scene-by-scene examination of its action through the entrances and exits of the actors, all the while taking into consideration alternative readings of particular stage effects and their dramatic import. The virtue of this approach is the way in which it makes the Eumenides, as Mitchell-Boyask states in his preface to the volume, ‘feel like a piece of living theatre’ (9). One shortcoming for the student, however, might be how certain issues lose focus when so much information is given about the evolving action: though ideas such as ‘compulsion’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘persuasion’ are allowed to emerge, a comparison to Goldhill’s succinct articulation of the trilogy’s major themes shows that a scene-by-scene analysis may offer only fragmentary glimpses of the bigger picture.5 Nevertheless, as mentioned above, it should be recognised that Mitchell-Boyask’s principal objective is different, and his extensive running commentary does serve the Greek-less reader well, for whom the text is made to come alive as a drama. A good example is the trial of Orestes. Even if the detail provided is so rich that at times it threatens to overwhelm a student approaching the play for a first time, Mitchell-Boyask uses the stage action to argue convincingly that Athena’s vote is the one that produces the tie which will see Orestes leave a free man (71-87). Equally importantly, Mitchell-Boyask is at pains to point out that the play does not end there: in doing so he does full justice to the final scene of the play which depicts the incorporation of the Furies into Athens (87-96).
Chapter five has the major task of assessing the play’s famous representation and exploration of justice, which Mitchell-Boyask does by reading it in relation to what we know about the Athenian legal system. The reader is first invited to consider the multiple meanings of the word dikê across the trilogy as a whole and during the trial scene in particular, and especially the play’s general concern with dikê as social order (98-100). In addition, Mitchell-Boyask reconstructs the evolution of the Athenian legal mechanisms for murder trials and draws a comparison between the features of a typical homicide trial in Athens and ‘the extent to which Orestes’ trial typifies it’ (97). Mitchell-Boyask then moves on to discuss in more detail the institution of the Areopagus and the play’s engagement with Athenian politics (102-107). Though Mitchell-Boyask raises little that is new here (on what is an enormous and controversial subject), he effectively sums up the latest thinking on the influence that the reforms of Ephialtes, the Argive alliance, and the re-establishment of the court of the Areopagus may exercise on interpreting the Eumenides. Mitchell-Boyask is far more impressive when he moves away from this discussion to show the importance of religion in the representation of the Areopagus and, in particular, how the Furies’ involvement underlines the significance of the divine within the judicial and political institutions of Athens. As he puts it, ‘To achieve a world order by justice, humans must work out relations not only among each other but also between humans and gods’ (106).
The book’s last chapter concerns three valuable investigations on what one may roughly term the ‘reception of the Eumenides’. Focusing exclusively on the last play of the trilogy, the first survey (108-113) supplies good comparative material for the student of Greek tragedy, as Mitchell-Boyask considers how three elements of the Eumenides, ‘the Furies’, ‘the courtroom drama that involves a member of the house of Atreus’, and ‘the moral dimensions of the character of Orestes’ (108), were exploited and questioned by Euripides (and less directly by Sophocles, in Oedipus at Colonus). The section ends with a very brief mention of its limited reception in Latin literature. The main thrust of this final chapter, however, is on the gender issues that the play raises (114-120), which could have formed a chapter on its own. Mitchell-Boyask gives a highly informative mini history of the debate on the battle of the sexes, based around Apollo’s controversial argument that mothers are mere incubators to the male seed, and offers the reader a suitably profound and balanced reading of Apollo’s point of view. Unfortunately, while this focus allows Mitchell-Boyask to bring us up-to-date with the gender criticism of the play, what looks like being a very interesting last section on the play’s adaptation in modern art, performance and literature is squeezed for space (121-124) and could have been developed considerably.
The book reads well throughout, with a clear presentation of its goals, main themes and issues, almost free from typos. Mitchell-Boyask offers an eminently thoughtful and stimulating approach to the play, citing a rich set of materials and engaging constructively with previous scholarship. Above all, this book excels in refocusing due attention on the importance of religion and the innovative ways in which Aeschylus deploys theatrical devices to surprise, entertain and challenge his audience. Mitchell-Boyask has provided a very concise and lucid introduction to this most debated of tragedies, which will engage, and greatly inform, the wide readership that the play deserves.
1. Alan H. Sommerstein (ed.), Aeschylus II, Oresteia: Agamemnon. Libation- Bearers. Eumenides (Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, 2009). Reviewed by Vittorio Citti in BMCR 2009.08.50.
2. Barbara Goward, Aeschylus: Agamemnon. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy (London: Duckworth 2005). Reviewed by Fiona McHardy in BMCR 2006.02.48.
3. These are the aims of the series explicitly stated on the back cover of the book.
4. Alan H. Sommerstein (ed.), Aeschylus: Eumenides (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 1-12.
5. Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia. Landmarks of World Literature Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992; 2 nd edition, 2004). Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran in BMCR 04.03.06.