An Oresteia: Agamemnon, Elektra, Orestes


I intended to write about each of these plays individually, but the power of the famous stories and the language as rendered by Anne Carson's stunning translation job, meant that I devoured the whole volume in three sittings and never got the chance to sit down at my computer before the book was over. I've gushed about Carson's own work and her beautiful Sappho translation, and this alternate Oresteia lives up to all my high expectations of her offerings.

But first, a little background: the original Oresteia is a tri-play cycle—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides—by ancient Greek playwright Aiskhylos (often transliterated Aeschylus), which chronicles the murderous fall of the house of Atreus after the Trojan War. Carson's alternate play cycle tells the same basic story and begins with the same play, Aiskhylos's Agamemnon (c. 458 BCE), but then diverges, offering a progression through time: the second installment of the cycle is Sophokles's Electra (c. 401-9 BCE), and the third is Euripides's Orestes (c. 408 BCE). Thus the reader can sense the shifting attitudes toward the same myths over the course of fifty-odd to a hundred years, as Athenian society became less optimistic, darker, more corrupt. Carson writes that the idea for the alternative cycle was originally brought to her by Brian Kulick, artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in New York City, who wrote:

In Aiskhylos' hands the story of the house of Atreus is designed to end in a valedictory celebration of Athenian democracy and its newborn sense of justice; when Sophokles takes over the tale it becomes more complex and contradictory; with Euripides the design is completely turned on its head. We follow a trajectory from myth to mockery. What happened to effect this? History happened. Aiskhylos composed his Oresteia shortly after Athens' victory at the battle of Marathon, which marked the height of Athenian military and cultural supremacy; Euripides finished his Orestes almost a hundred years later as Athens headed for ruin, due to her protracted involvement in the Peloponnesian War...The house of Atreus, for these tragedians, was a way of talking about the fate of Athens.

Kulick makes a fascinating case, but I was concerned that, as a relative novice in ancient Greek literature, I wouldn't be able to pick up on the progression he outlines here. I needn't have worried. The stylistic differences among the three plays are so pronounced that, despite Agamemnon's messy end and Orestes's ostensible resolution, the reader is left feeling much surer of herself and the universe after finishing Aiskhylos's inferno of a play, than after making one's way through Euripides's altogether more ironic, darker offering.

For those not familiar with the famous story being told, it goes thusly: after Paris abducts Helen, her husband Menelaos and his brother Agamemnon, king of Argos, gather their forces to sail to Troy and get her back, beginning the Trojan War. But the goddess Artemis refuses to send the desired wind until Agamemnon sacrifices his own child, continuing a long history of child murder in his family. Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphigenia, earning the hatred of his wife (her mother) Klytaimestra, and the ships set sail. Fast forward ten years, and Klytaimestra receives word that Troy has fallen; she and her lover Aigisthos, both intent on revenge for their own reasons, murder the returned Agamemnon and his prophetess sex-slave Kassandra, planning to rule Argos themselves in Agamemnon's stead. These are the events of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

As I mentioned, despite the bloody murder that makes up the body of this play, Aiskylos's language as rendered into English by Carson is such a bonfire blast of virtuosity that I finished it feeling almost giddy. The sense of gut-clenching foreboding and inevitability is pitch-perfect. The malignant patrimony lurking in the House of Atreus is a force of nature, and all the stories anyone tries to tell—be they about the war, or an allegorical tale, or a supposedly happy homecoming—are infected by it. The Greek invaders at Troy "beached in blood"; the chorus claims of one man's pet lion "That thing was a priest of ruin Bred in the / house. Sent by god." When the Chorus tells the story of Paris and Helen, the image of a house cursed by a phantom resonates between Klytaimestra and Agamemnon:

Alas for the house! Alas for the house and the
men of the house!
Alas for the marriage bed and the way she loved
her husband once!

There is silence there: he sits alone,
dishonored, baffled, mute.
In his longing for what is gone across the
a phantom seems to rule his house.

The idea of infection, of seepage from one evil to another, is everywhere in Agamemnon. Klytaimestra, after she convinces Agamemnon to enter the house on a red carpet, against his wishes, gives this masterful speech suffused with rage and grief for the "roots and leaves" of her own family that will never return, a vision of a happy homecoming that is irrevocably perverted by Iphigenia's murder and the consequent murder Klytaimestra herself is planning; a vision of perfection that only infuriates by its distance from the truth.

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
        we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
        be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
        many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
        man's life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come
and shade the house against white dogstar
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
Perfect this.

There are so many amazing and exhilarating passages in Agamemnon that I could continue quoting them all day, but in brief: the predominant feelings are of white-hot fury and dread, and of conflicting, equally strong concepts of justice. Everyone in Agamemnon believes with absolute certainty that he or she knows what justice is, and the tragedy comes out of the clashes between these mutually exclusive justice concepts.

In Sophokles and especially Euripides, on the other hand, people struggle to decide what is just, or sometimes knowingly act in opposition to what is just. In a few cases, they even seem to stop caring about justice, or about the tragedy unfolding all around them. (In the second two plays of the cycle, Agamemnon and Klytaimestra's son Orestes returns from exile, and he and his sister Elektra murder their mother and her lover. The citizens of Argos then must decide what to do with the two siblings.) Elektra, for example, finds the title character arrested, unable to either marry out of her mother's household or avenge her father on her own, crippled by her never-ending grief, which she admits is excessive by any social definition. "There is no pity / but mine, / oh Father, / for the pity of your butchering rawblood death," she cries, and "Lament is a pattern cut and fitted around / my mind" Unlike her mother before her, she witnesses herself becoming the next tool of the curse of the house of Atreus, but cannot avert the coming disaster:

By dread things I am compelled. I know
I see the trap closing.
I know what I am.
But while life is in me
I will not stop this violence.

"Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself," Elektra says. At the end of Agamemnon Klytaimestra believes she has ended the cycle of violence; she attempts to call a truce with the lineage's curse. But Elektra has no such illusions; part of her grief trap is that she recognizes she has been shaped to evil by the evil around her. The fact that Klytaimestra may deserve to die for the deeds she has committed, doesn't absolve Elektra and Orestes from their own guilt; there seems no escape from the cycle. But because the house's cycle of violence has become part of Elektra herself, to break it would be to go against her own selfhood; "I need one food," she says: "I must not violate Elektra." And to Klytaimestra:

Shame I do feel.
And I know there is something all wrong
        about me—
believe me. Sometimes I shock myself.
But there is a reason: you.
You never let up
this one same pressure of hatred on my life:
I am the shape you made me.

Elektra's tragedy is that of someone who has been made into the wrong shape, but who cannot now act against her nature.

From Aiskhylos's cleansing fire and Sophokles's self-regenerating corruption, Euripedes's vision seems almost farcical in its irony. Instead of an Elektra wracked by grief, her opening monologue in Orestes seems almost bored:

It's a known fact,
when the gods asked him to dinner he shot
        off his mouth.
So Tantalos begot Pelops, Pelops begot
you know all this don't you? the strife, the

We've heard it all before, she seems to say, and here we go again. Whereas Sophokles's Elektra is often sickened or horrified by the ways in which her evil situation has shaped her to itself, Euripides's Elektra is either too broken or too cynical to continue surprised at her family's bloodbath. Elektra and Orestes's tragedy in this last play seems, not so much that they have been sentenced to death for their mother's murder, but that the world in which they live is devoid of any overarching meaning or justice. Even the deus ex machina that saves them in the end seems ridiculous and almost random, much like the further murders they're attempting when Apollo arrives to sort them out, or the messenger's report on the democratic meeting called by the citizens of Argos to decide the siblings' fate. It's a far cry from the savage yet conflicting visions of justice held by the cast of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

There's far more in these three plays than I can do justice in a single blog entry, but suffice to say I fell utterly in love with the entire cycle, and can't wait to look into Carson's other Euripides translations, published in Grief Lessons. A note on her translation: as you can tell from the many excerpts above, it has a very modern feel, yet (I think) also gives the impression of agelessness. I've heard a few criticisms of places where people feel the language gets too modern, but I found it absolutely galvanizing; I could read Anne Carson's Aiskhylos all month and never wish myself elsewhere. That said, I believe in the usefulness of having multiple translations, especially of works as influential as these plays. If you love the excerpts above, you will love the whole book. If you prefer a different, more Victorian or Modernist feel, you have many translations to choose from. Personally, I only regret that Carson has not yet translated the rest of Aiskhylos's original Oresteia, as I would love to compare and contrast with this alternate version.


An Oresteia was my fourth book for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.


  • I just read Aeschylus' Oresteia, and this sounds like an excellent follow up! You've written a fantastic review here!

  • Excellent review! I studied Classics at university so I'm very intrigued by the sound of this book. I have a copy of Carson's Sappho work which I thought was sheer brilliance. It looks like she has produced another wonderful translation here. Can't wait to order a copy!

  • Fabulous, though-provoking review. I'm very much looking forward to reading Carson's translation. Her work is pretty magical.

  • I am still sort of holding my breath from how compelling your thoughts on this book (and undoubtedly, the book itself) are. I will add this to the wish list - AT THE TOP - and cross my fingers for a lovely stocking stuffer. I haven't read the classics in ages (ha!), but I remember being fascinated by Iphigenia and Antigone in high school. Wow. Just wow.

  • Trisha: Oh, this would be PERFECT to read after the original Oresteia! I really hope you read it & post your thoughts, as that was one point of comparison I didn't have. Yay!

    Rebecca: Oh, if you love If Not, Winter and have a background in Classics I predict you will also love this volume. I agree that "sheer brilliance" pretty much describes that volume of Sappho translations.

  • LifetimeReader: YES, totally magical! I know you'll enjoy this trilogy.

    Sara: Aw, thank you so much! The female figures in these tragedies tend to be very compelling to me. This time around I was very sympathetic to Klytaimestra, and had a hard time condemning her actions too harshly. Although like I said, the overarching atmosphere of sinister dread was linked to those actions. Anyway, I hope Santa brings you this book!

  • What an invigorating review! I haven't really read much of the classics...and while I often have a vague desire to do so, this review has really psyched me up about it. I love the excerpts you used, so I'll definitely be keeping this translation of these plays in mind. Thanks Emily!

  • great review just what I m looking for for the reading the myth challenge next year ,all the best stu

  • Sarah: Yay, so glad you liked the excerpts and are excited about the book! I am seriously head over heels for it right now.

    Stu: YES, it would be perfect for that challenge. I hope you track it down and love it. :-)

  • Wow, this sounds so amazing! I admit I'm a bit wary of the modernization -- and even if the spellings are more accurate, it seems to through me off....But I've heard so much about Carson, i really need to give her a try.

  • I love Aeschylus's Orestia trilogy especially Agamemnon. That is one powerful play! I don't like the conclusion of Eumenidies though, I think Athena stepping in and pulling the rug from under the Furies isn't fair. Sophocles Elektra is good. I like the interplay in that one between Elektra and her sister who has given in and encourages Elektra to do the same. I've not gotten to Euripides yet as I am still working my way through Sophocles' plays, but I look forward to Orestes when the time comes!

  • Rebecca: Yes, I can understand how some people might prefer a less modern-feeling translation. I feel pretty neutral about the different spellings - I mean, it's all just transliteration from a different alphabet anyway. But the actual verse TOTALLY won me over. In any case, I'd be interested in your thoughts on Carson's work!

    Stefanie: I KNOW, Agamemnon - what a play! If you find the end of Eumenides unsatisfying you might actually really like Orestes, because Euripides took that dissatisfaction and RAN WITH IT. He basically made the whole deus ex machina ending into a bizarre parodic "fuck-you" to the conventions of Greek theater. I'll look forward to your thoughts when you get there.

  • Thanks, Emily. I have this on my shelves, time to promote it to my study and read it sometime soon. I've enjoyed Fagles' translation, also modern in style.

  • Anthony: I bet you will love it. Fagles's is the translation of The Odyssey I read, and I liked it fine...there wasn't the magic of Carson's translations, but it got the job done. But I also wonder if some of the difference in my reactions is that I reliably respond to inventive meter in poetry, and The Odyssey doesn't have much variation in that regard, but these plays do.

  • Carson's translation sounds great. I think making the language modern and vibrant is a good choice in order to show people how powerful the plays are. But that's what's great about multiple translations -- if modern language isn't what you want, you can choose another.

  • Have not visited this territory since college but would very much like to read Carson's translation now. Interested by the stylistic switches between plays that you mention as I have zero recollection of that from my original readings.

  • What an excellent review. I do love the excerpts you posted, and yes, I think I'd love the whole book. I haven't read Carson before, but you're making me want to amend that asap.

  • Dorothy: I agree - different translations for different tastes is a great thing. No need for one "definitive" translation in my mind. And I also agree that Carson's unadorned modern language lets the plays' power really shine through. Loved it!

    Frances: I bet you would love them as rendered by Carson! And reading this made me wonder if, had I read these three plays in unrelated volumes, whether the stylistic changes would have struck me as much. Having them presented as a curated whole definitely invites comparison/contrast.

    Nymeth: I bet you would really like a lot of Carson's work - NOX as well as these. I'm excited to keep exploring her backlist!

  • After the beginning of this post, I popped over to my library and put this volume on hold. So I'll be back to read the rest of the post once I've read the book!

  • Eva: I'll be excited to hear your thoughts when you get to it!

  • This is beyond intriguing. Apparently my backlog of your posts is just going to hit all the areas I've been thinking of hitting next year. Would love to read this after the Oresteia.

  • Nicole: I would love to read your thoughts on the differences between the two tellings of the story. I am motivated to get myself a copy of the original Oresteia now, although I'm a little bummed that there's no full Carson translation available.

  • I finally picked this up and finished it: it's sooo good! I agree with what you said at the end; I really wish Carson had translated the rest of Aiskhylos' cycle, since her "Agamemnon" has got to be one of the most incredible things I've ever read. I loved "Elektra" as well: she felt so real in her conflicts. I was already planning on reading Carson's NYRB Euripides for the Ancient Greeks tour next month; now I'm even more excited. I had mixed feelings about the Sophocles, though. I appreciated his ironic tone, and there were quite a few points when I giggled out loud (including everything Apollo said), but I think any farce would suffer compared to the majesty of Aiskhylos and the vividness of Euripides. I felt like I'd suddenly fallen into a Monty Python skit! I am curious to see what his other plays are like, to see my reaction in a different context.

    Anyway, thanks so much for bringing this to my attention! I hadn't read any of the Greek dramas before *blushes* (philosophy was more my thing), and now I can't way to explore more of them.

    • YAY, I'm glad you loved this Eva! I know you don't have a lot of confidence with poetry but how could you not love these?

      I know what you mean about Euripides when compared with the other two - especially Agamemnon; I just felt there was so much energy in that play; Carson was right to compare it to an erupting volcano. Once I thought about it, though, I have to admit that the Euripides is the most deeply tragic, in a way, because there is no real justice or humanity in the world he presents. An Aiskhylos, the house of Atreus in particular is cursed but the wider world is just(er); in Euripides the universe is cruel and nonsensical, which is at first funny but actually so dark. Anyway, I have Grief Lessons as well so will be very curious about your thoughts on it!

      (And no worries re: mistaking one playwright for the other!)

      • I actually didn't think of these as poetry! Hehe I thought of them as drama...even more silly, I don't think of Iliad/Odyssey/Aeneid as poetry either. I guess I'm happy with anything that tells a story, then? At least the epic stuff (I love Paradise Lost too).

        I agree that Euripides' world is more tragic, in the depressing sense. I think I was a bit alienated (as often happens for me when I'm reading satire), because I'm an idealist; despite everything sad I learn about, I still believe in justice and love and the potential for good in humanity (no matter how corny it sounds). So the mockery in "Orestes" was a bit difficult for me to stomach. Reading the introduction and its historical context helped me appreciate it more, but it didn't make my soul sing like the first two. I know that's all about my personal reaction, but I figure when I'm reading for fun, that's ok. :)

  • Argh! I'm such a dolt sometimes. I managed to flip Sophocles and Euripides! So it looks like when reading Carson's translations of Euripides, I *will* be getting another view of him. Which is good, since for me his "Orestes" definitely suffered from comparison to the Aiskhylos and Sophocles that preceded it.

    And since I loved "Elektra," obviously I need more Sophocles in my life. Sorry about the confusion there; obviously, I'm a neophyte to Greek drama. ;)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography