Friday, December 30, 2011

The Price of Vengeance

Zeus, who guided men to think,
who has laid it down that wisdom
comes alone through suffering.
Still there drips in sleep against the heart
grief of memory; against
our pleasure we are temperate.
From the gods who sit in grandeur
grace comes somehow violent.

-from Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

This reading program got off to a very rewarding start with the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey. I enjoyed those two so much that I wondered if it would all be downhill from here. Next on my list came the tragedies of the Greek playwright Aeschylus. I admit that I struggled with his Oresteia trilogy. Richard Lattimore is a highly respected translator of the Greek classics, but I found his version of the play challenging, the language difficult.


Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon & Menelaus

As with any of these ancient works, various translators create versions that are more or less readable, and more or less true to the original. It is worth comparing passages side-by-side to find a translation that flows and reads well. I find Robert Fagles’ translations very readable, though I suppose some classics scholars quibble with certain liberties he takes. I do notice that on re-reading some passages of the Oresteia, Lattimore translation, the complex and awkwardly-constructed sentences are less obscure to me. Of course, I expected that some of the works on this list would be more challenging than others.

Aeschylus staged the Oresteia trilogy in 458 B.C. At this point, the Homeric epics had been told and retold for three hundred years, and this was what the playwright drew upon for these plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.

My first impression was that the Odyssey and Oresteia could not be more different. But on further reflection, I see that they share quite a few similarities. Each work involves a Greek king (Odysseus and Agamemnon, respectively) returning from the Trojan War to a home in turmoil. (Both works vividly depict the toll that war takes on families.) In each story, there is bloodshed in the palace after the king’s arrival. And in the end, in each work, Athena intervenes to break the traditional cycle of eye-for-an-eye vengeance. In both works, we see the struggle between human will and what is fated by the gods. The Odyssey makes fleeting references to Agamemnon, and Oresteia makes fleeting references to Odysseus.

Although I intend move quickly through the western canon, compared with the amount of time each of these works deserve, this is what I hoped for from the beginning: that reading the classics in order and context would reveal some synergies that I might otherwise overlook. To use the old cliché, the whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts.

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