Richard Jenkyns with some new thoughts on an ancient masterpiece.

When I read that a new book on Shakespeare has appeared, I wonder why: can there be anything more to say about him? So if I tell people that I am writing a book about the plays that make up Aeschylus’ Oresteia – AgamemnonChoephori (Libation Bearers) and Eumenides (The Kindly Ones) –  I think it is reasonable for them to put the same question to me. My answers are two: first, that there is indeed a lot more to say, and that large aspects of it have been neglected; second, that a lot of what is believed about it at present is wrong.

The first claim may seem a surprising one to make about a text that has been intensively studied for centuries, but it is not completely new. More than a hundred years ago the brilliant Cambridge scholar Walter Headlam said that no great poet had been as neglected as Aeschylus, and that the interpretation of his poetry was the most important task remaining for scholars of Greek. Since then, not a great deal has changed: we still lack the kind of sustained close reading that one would expect to find applied to verse of this quality. That quality is high: at least, Aeschylus gets on to my own list of the top six poets of Europe.

Print is not the best medium for the detailed criticism of texts. Better might be discussion among friends, or a class led by one or more teachers. A podcast lecture may now be the best means. But for the time being the written word remains the usual form. It is a famous saying that poetry is the part that gets lost in translation. In talking about the poetry I need to use much of the original language, but most people are not lucky enough to know ancient Greek, and so I have been wondering how much I can get across to them. I’m unsure of the answer; but consider, say, the dying speeches of Hamlet and Cleopatra. Those must be effective scenes in a competent translation in any language, but it is the exact words, the poetry of them, that makes them transcendent. How much of this could one explain to a French person without a single word of English? There is a fair amount that one could say about sound, rhythm, diction, tone, registers of language; and there are matters such as boldness and originality of metaphor that cross the linguistic divide. It may be a quixotic hope, but I shall be very pleased if lovers of poetry without Greek can get something out of what I have written. A few years back I wrote a general book about classical literature, essentially without any Greek or Latin in it at all, but partly as an experiment I did quote a few words of Pindar and tried to explain why they were so effective in the original language. I don’t know if that worked or not.

Public Domain image from the 2014 MacMillan Films Oresteia staging, image released to Public Domain by

The poetry of the Oresteia is not the only aspect of it to be neglected. When Clytemnestra follows Agamemnon into the house after treading the purple cloths, we expect the murder to follow straight away. Instead, that action is delayed for more than 250 lines by the scene in which Cassandra, Agamemnon’s captive, who had seemed to be a non-speaking character, sings and speaks in dialogue with the chorus of elders. This whole act could be lifted out of the play without leaving a sign that anything was missing. This fact and a little awkwardness in the way that the scene is set up suggest that it was not part of the author’s original conception and that he hit upon the idea in the course of composition. So what is it for? I have not found any analysis of its structure and what happens in it. The answer, I believe, is that it is a psychodrama in which Cassandra goes through many emotional stages, which I call misery, anguish, lamentation, confession, anger, disencumbrance, defiance, acceptance, and universalisation. There is nothing like this elsewhere in Greek or perhaps any drama. Scholars are good at dealing with influence, allusion and creative imitation; but we have to deal here with extreme originality. We simply have to accept that the scene is unique.

Two especially interesting stages are confession and universalisation. The chorus leader conducts a kind of psychotherapy in which he draws from Cassandra the admission that Apollo was ‘a wrestler mightily breathing grace on me’ and that she then deceived him. This is a puzzling passage (what was the nature of her deceit?), but what matters most is the fact of confession: it is a moment of pain and release, a step forward on her journey towards emotional healing. The universalisation comes at the act’s conclusion, when she recognises that there are those who have never known good fortune, unluckier even than herself, and she pities them the most. Achilles sees the same truth at the end of the Iliad, and I think it likely that Aeschylus had that earlier scene in his mind. If he did not, we can still recognise a shared tragic pattern. At the end, the well of grief is exhausted, and Cassandra finishes with a line that is almost entirely drab and flat: ‘And I pity this much more than that.’ I can think of no other line of verse anywhere that depends so entirely on its context. Out of place, it seems pointless; in its place it is sublime. The nearest thing I can think of is Schubert’s song Der Leiermann: meaninglessly monotonous on its own, but at the end of Winterreise one of the most tragic utterances in all music.

No one could claim that the persons of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have not been studied, but my belief is that the prevailing modern view of them is a misunderstanding. On this view Agamemnon is a play almost wholly about unattractive people. Agamemnon himself is at best commonplace, weak and foolish, at worst ruthless and brutal. Clytemnestra, though strong, bold and resourceful, is another nasty bit of work, and the audience is invited to regard her with hatred and revulsion. I believe that, on the contrary, this is a heroic tragedy. The opening chorus tells how ten years ago Agamemnon faced an appalling dilemma: he must either sacrifice his daughter, staining his own hands with her blood, or allow the expedition sent to Troy by Zeus to fail. Some critics try to soften or wish away the dilemma, although the whole point is that it is inescapable and intolerable. Most critics look for ways to find fault with Agamemnon, as though our job as spectators were to tell ourselves how much better we would have done in his circumstances. The right response (as the philosopher Bernard Williams saw nearly thirty years ago) is not to judge Agamemnon but to enter into the frenzied agony of his ghastly ordeal. Aeschylus wrote the death of a king, not the death of a salesman, and Agamemnon is a figure of tragic grandeur.

John Collier: Clytemnestra after the Murder of Agamemnon

It is natural to compare Clytemnestra to that other royal murderess, Lady Macbeth, her ‘sister in infamy’ as an eminent scholar has recently called her. But I suggest that the more telling comparison would be with Falstaff. Falstaff is a bad man (not a lovable rogue), but he has courage and the life force. The stage lights up the moment he steps on to it, and so it is with Clytemnestra. Her first entry comes with a blaze of metaphor and happiness, and almost at once she launches into her ‘beacon speech’. No speech in Greek tragedy is more fun (admittedly a competition with not too many entrants). Clytemnestra is perceptive, inventive, humorous (in one place she treats her husband’s travails at Troy as a subject for open comedy), theatrical in the best sense, and with a lust for the scale and abundance of the world. She is the person in Greek drama with whom I would most like to spend an evening (though I would decline the invitation to join her in the bathroom). It is no accident that Aeschylus gives her the most magnificent poetry in Greek drama outside choral lyric: she has an imaginative range that goes beyond anyone else in the trilogy. Her wicked speech of triumph over Agamemnon’s corpse exults in his blood raining down on her, yet it also shows her appetite for life and even a delicate sense of nature’s tenderness in the metaphor which likens the shower of her victim’s blood to the god-given rain which swells the ear of corn in the birthpangs of the sheath. There is something admirable about this, even virtuous – and that is the truly shocking thing. With the largest role both in Agamemnon and in the trilogy as a whole, we should expect Clytemnestra to be a tragic figure. And so she is: the tragedy is that a woman of such extraordinary capacity should have chosen to become a ruthless murderess. In the past half century a number of scholars have described the Oresteia as an anti-woman work, which presents a threat to the patriarchy and celebrates its defeat. This is badly wrong: there is no other classical work with so expansive a view of female possibility. As it happens, no male speaks at all in the last 250 lines of the final play, something without parallel in ancient drama (and rare, I would guess, in any drama anywhere). That would be an odd way of representing the suppression of women.

Almost everything in the Oresteia has been the subject of controversy for centuries, and not only because there are so many uncertainties about the corruptions of the text. But here are two propositions that should be uncontroversial: some very powerful intellects have devoted themselves to the study and interpretation of this work; and every one of them has got at least some things wrong. These are daunting truths, yet in a way encouraging. That old metaphor about standing on the shoulders of giants has something in it. Classical scholarship does make progress, through the efforts of many individuals; some misconceptions are removed, some difficulties are cleared, and a better understanding is still possible. My hope is to contribute a little to that. At all events, the debate itself is worth while. The Oresteia is among the greatest works of the human imagination. I do not fully understand why literature matters, but I believe that it does, and if literature matters, the Oresteia matters very much.

Richard Jenkyns is Emeritus Professor of the Classical Tradition and Emeritus Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. His most recent book is Classical Literature (2013), published by Penguin in the Pelican series.