Monday, January 13, 2014

Orestes Development

I don’t know why I originally put Andromache before Orestes in my plan for year 8. I didn’t know exactly what stories I’d find in these two dramas, but obviously any part of Orestes’ story goes with the travails of his sister Electra. So I switched the order when I got to them this month, and I’m glad I did. Euripides’ Orestes begins six days after his Electra ends. It isn’t exactly a sequel, though: the world of Orestes is slightly different, since its Helen actually went to Troy with Paris, where the Helen of Electra, as Euripides proposed in his play named for the woman whose face launched a thousand ships, was taken by the gods to Egypt while a doppelgänger went to Troy. But Euripides needs the more conventional Helen here, since he wants Orestes to wrestle with the question of blame.

Six days after the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (his mother and her second husband, both of whom conspired to kill Orestes’ father, Agamemnon), Orestes is wracked with guilt. Apollo may have told him to commit matricide, but that doesn’t make the act any the less hideous. As handy as it would be to blame Apollo (as Castor and Pollux do at the end of Electra), Orestes himself still made the decision to plunge the blade into his mother’s neck with his own hand. Menelaus shows up with Helen to drive home the point. He scolds Orestes and gets the town council to sentence him and Electra to death. But this act gets Orestes’ blood boiling, and decides that maybe Helen is to blame, since if she had stayed with her husband instead of going off with Paris, the Trojan War would never have happened, Agamemnon would never have been killed, etc. So Orestes, using the bad reasoning that desperation runs on, tries to kill Helen. Naturally this only enrages Menelaus, so Orestes grabs Menelaus' daughter, Hermione, and threatens to kill her if Menelaus doesn’t overturn the death sentence. At this point, Orestes has no philosophy left except self-preservation. The drama is over. Life is tale told by an idiot.

With no tension of ideas left, what does Euripides do? Suddenly Apollo shows up and tells everybody to calm down. He says he snatched Helen away and made her a goddess before Orestes had the chance to kill her. Then he admits that he made Orestes kill his mother and says that everyone should just accept it since he’s a god. Then he tells Orestes to take the knife away from Hermione’s throat and marry her instead. Somehow, this deus ex machina satisfies everyone. Nowhere to be found is the interesting and vital critique of Apollo’s terrible plan that Electra provides us. All the human characters here just accept Apollo’s word with a shrug. Orestes drops the knife and agrees readily to marry Hermione (ignoring the fact that she’s his first cousin), and Hermione agrees to marry Orestes (ignoring that fact that he has just dropped the knife he almost used to kill her). Menelaus’ anger toward the young man who killed his brother, tried to kill his wife, and threatened to kill his daughter disappear like a wisp of smoke in the wind. Ancient Greek drama has never disappointed me before now. But this ending doesn’t resolve anything and doesn’t make me think deeply about anything other than bad endings. Now there’s another reason I’m glad about the last-minute change of order in my reading: I still have Andromache to look forward to.

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