Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers,
The Furies, & Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus
Oedipus the King & Antigone of Sophocles
Hippolytus & The Bacchae of Euripides
The Frogs of Aristophanes
Briefly: Before leading the Greeks against Troy, Agamemnon is forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to assure the favor of the gods in battle. Upon his triumphant (and unlikely) return, he is killed by his wife Clytemnestra as revenge for this sacrifice. Seems reasonable enough, except that she has been aided in the killing by her lover, Aegisthus, who has his own beef with Agamemnon (which involves fathers' being made to eat the meat of their sons). Eventually, Clytemnestra's son, Orestes, takes revenge on his mother for his father's death. Unlike Agamemnon's murder, this is a blood-kin killing, typically treated particularly harshly by the gods. But when it comes time for the Furies to take revenge on Orestes, Athena intercedes on his behalf, and the Athenian rule of law is born.
So much for plot summary. Though it doesn't have the same place in the popular imagination as the Oedipus cycle (I have no doubt that someone has defined the "Oresteian Complex," but it lacks that incestuous hook), Aeschylus' Oresteia -- comprised of Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers and The Furies -- represents the high point of Greek tragedy.
What makes it better? Greek tragedies are famous for their fatalism, but fate operates here differently than it does in Sophocles or Euripides. Oedipus goes to great lengths to avoid his fate, but the prophecy is nonetheless fulfilled by improbable means. Here, fate is almost indistinguishable from free will: Agamemnon wants something (the gods' support in battle) and he must knowingly make a sacrifice to get it. Though his tragic fall stems from a long-standing curse on the House of Atreus, his own actions bring it directly about. Orestes is told by gods and oracles that he must avenge his father; having been told, he must commit the act with open eyes.
Above all, Aeschylus is a moralist, and his treatment of fate is designed to allow for this morality:
Lo! sin by sin and sorrow dogg'd by sorrow--
And who the end can know?
The slayer of today shall die tomorrow--
The wage of wrong is woe.
While Time shall be, while Zeus in heaven is lord,
His law is fixed and stern;
On him that wrought shall vengeance be outpoured--
The tides of doom return.
The children of the curse abide within
These halls of high estate--
And none can wrench from off the home of sin
The clinging grasp of fate.
This morality still exists by the time we get to Sophocles, but it's been undermined considerably. Oedipus is rash in announcing the banishment of Laertes' murderer, and rash in seeking knowledge that others insist he would be happier without. But for the most part, he can't be blamed for actions (like marrying a widowed queen to whom he might have borne a slight resemblence) whose significance he can't have understood. There is the growing sense, in Sophocles, that life is rigged against us no matter how well we act:
From hence the lesson draw,
To reckon no man happy till ye see
The closing day; until he pass the bourn
Which severs life from death, unscathed by woe.
This progression is more or less completed by Euripides, the last of
the great writers of Greek tragedy. Euripides is the most modern of
three -- which is to say, the least Greek. His characters -- even the
gods -- are recognizably human; they act and talk more like real people
do. Often, the drama stems not from fate but from a Faulknerian
human heart in conflict with itself.
The characters are not types, and their suffering isn't meant to teach
us any greater lesson than that this is how life sometimes is. In
Euripides, as in neither of his predecessors, Grecian gods like
Dionysus and Aphrodite are themselves frivolous and misguided. Obeying
a god may lead to grave mistakes. When Hippolytus is punished for his
failure to worship Aphrodite, for example, this punishment reflects
more on her than on him.
This development from Aeschylus to Sophocles to Euripides happened in little more than a generation, and must have been startling for those who lived to see it. Depending on your view, it represents either a great advance or a degeneration. I came away from these plays uncertain of which. Thus, it was a deft editorial stroke to cap these tragedies with one comedy: Aristophanes' The Frogs. Aristophanes, conservative by nature, came down naturally on the side of Aeschylus. After Euripides' death, he wrote this play, about a trip to Hades to crown the best of these three tragedians.
Here Aeschylus and Euripides duke it out:
I showed them scenes of common life, the things we know and see,
Where any blunder would at once by all detected be.
I never blustered on, or took their breath and wits away.
For just consider what style of men he received from me, great six-foot-high
Heroical souls, who never would blench from a townsman's duties in peace or war;
Not idle loafers, or low buffoons, or rascally scamps such as now they are,
But men who were breathing spears and helms, and the snow-white plume in its crested pride,
The greave, and the dart, and the warrior's heart in its seven-fold casing of tough bull-hide.
We now tend to prefer the art that gives us life as it is to the art that tells us how life ought to be, particularly if that
involves men breathing spears. But suppose Aeschylus and Artistophanes
are right? What if we too are children of the curse, and the form our
curse takes is that there is no one left to tell us we are cursed?
A LESS PORTENTOUS CLOSING NOTE: My friend Ted asked that I note
along the way those volumes of the Classics that I would recommend to a
reader who will likely only have time for a handful of the fifty-one.
With that in mind, I'm naming Volume Eight: Nine Greek Dramas as the
Ted-Should-Read-This pick from The Whole Five Feet.
--CRB, February 28, 2007