Thursday, December 27, 2012

Orestes

Electra and Orestes
Orestes, by Euripides

I haven't managed to finish Herodotus, but I thought I'd round out the year with another Euripides play.  Somewhere, recently, I saw someone comment that Orestes is a very misogynistic play, and I thought I'd see for myself.

The play opens as Orestes is being tormented by the Furies for killing his mother, Clytemnestra.  His sister Electra is caring for him, Helen is present (and very selfish and shallow she is), and all of Argos has turned against their royal family--what's left of it.  Euripides has changed the whole tenor of the play by setting the story in his own day; instead of mythic standards of morality that pave the way for the law of man, Orestes lives in a society with an established system of law.  He could have accused his mother in court, but instead he killed her himself, and now his city is going to put him to death for murder.

Orestes is not going to put up with that, though.  As the play continues, we slowly discover that Orestes is just a murderous criminal.  He, Electra, and Pylades plan to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage in order to escape.

Everyone in this play is a horrible person , except for the innocent young Hermione.  None of them have any real decency, and it just gets worse.  I don't see how anyone could reasonably call the play misogynistic on the grounds that the women characters are awful, because they're all awful.  Yes, Orestes says "I can never have my fill of killing whores," but by then he's been revealed as the worst of the bunch.

The ending is completely bizarre.  In the midst of the killing frenzy, Apollo appears, and in a horrible parody of a deus ex machina he decrees what will happen: Orestes (the psychopath) will marry Hermione and become king of Argos, Pylades (the murderous schemer) will have a happy marriage with Electra (the embittered, who cares only for her brother), and Helen (the vain and shallow) has become a goddess, a star to guide sailors home.  It's a disaster.  Even a god can't fix this mess, and the resolution is no such thing.

This is one of Euripides' last plays, written not long before he exiled himself to Macedon.  He was disillusioned and bitter with Athens.  Perhaps this was his way of predicting disaster to the city, with its history of war with other Greek states.  Maybe he's saying that corruption and bloodlust has set Athens on a road to destruction, just like the house of Atreus.




Not a very cheerful end to my year of Greek literature, actually.  Maybe I can find time in the next few days to read something else?

1 comment:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This is definitely the "Orestes" I remember: almost an attack on the fundamental concept of Greek tragedy.

You have already read the "happy" Euripides "tragedies" like "Helen." How about "Cyclops" - that one is not a tragedy and is sort of cheerful. Sort of.