Aeschylus’ Oresteia begins with the story of a grieving, righteously angry woman seeking justice for her daughter. The child was killed by her father, the woman’s husband, in order to enable a vast war. Each of the three plays is radically different in style, mood and action. But each centres on female anger and female grief at violent loss of life and the willingness of family members to kill one another. The trilogy is about language and the mysterious will of the gods, about tyranny, freedom and political change, and about a slow path to maturity for one young man (Orestes) and an entire culture. That ‘maturity’ turns out to involve the subordination of women and of the family, which is conceived as feminine, to enable the creation of a political community like real-life historical Athens, in which male citizens use the law courts and the institutions of democracy to legislate for structures of power that can contain, marginalise and silence other members of the community – women, immigrants, enslaved people. All the plays’ intertwined elements are knotted into a central set of questions about how to suppress, silence or pacify female rage, and how to reconcile the close kinship of the household with responsibilities to the larger community or city-state.
In Agamemnon, the long first play, the mood is dark and the language is dense, metaphorical and hard to parse. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, has set up a relay of torch fires to bring her news of her husband’s victory at Troy, and the image of the relay signal also connects to the play’s larger story: the way events from far away and long ago still haunt the house of Argos. At Aulis, on the way to Troy, Agamemnon was forced to choose between sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia or abandoning the war to recover his brother’s wife, Helen. ‘Which of these is free from evil?’ he asks, in Oliver Taplin’s translation. Jeffrey Bernstein has the wordier ‘Which of these two ways is without evil?’ David Mulroy, the punchier ‘Can either choice be right?’ Agamemnon is in a position where there is no right answer, no guiltless way to act.
The terrible moment is figured as in part a choice, in part an act of compulsion: Agamemnon ‘placed his neck beneath the harness/of what had to be’.The ambiguity of his freedom, or lack of it, is compounded by further mysteries, such as when the cycle of violence began. Was it with the killing of Iphigenia? Or longer ago, when Menelaus married Helen, taking a ‘lion cub’ into his house? Or was it when Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, tricked his brother into eating his own children? Or further back still, in the dark plans of Apollo, god of light, and the will of Zeus, ‘whoever he may be’, the god who killed and usurped his own father? The play’s riddling language hints at the way one word, phrase, action or body can turn into another, often at a terrible price. The death of Iphigenia becomes the death of Agamemnon. More broadly, in one of the Chorus’s most powerful images, Ares, the war god, is presented as a money changer who ‘trades men into jars’ filled with ash. The living become the dead, who in turn haunt the living.
Despite the first play’s title, Agamemnon – a flustered, confused, fragile conqueror, who sees himself as a victim even before his wife axes him to death in the bath – plays a relatively small part in it. Two extraordinary female characters dominate its action. Clytemnestra, a wonderfully intelligent, articulate, determined strategist, is described as a woman whose heart ‘organises like a man’: she has spent the past ten years plotting her husband’s murder, which will allow her (along with her feeble lover, Aegisthus) to seize the throne. Greek tragedy almost never shows violent action; the killing is represented by screams from the wings. But Clytemnestra’s triumph over her husband is represented on stage verbally and dramaturgically, above all in the great central scene in which she persuades the reluctant victor to enter the house and trample on the rich red tapestries looted from Troy, providing a visual acknowledgment that his victory has involved an assumption of infinite privilege (‘and who could drain it dry?’) and the ‘crushing underfoot’ of precious things, starting with his own child – ‘the treasure of my labour pains’, as Clytemnestra puts it. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars in which Athens and other Greek cities fought off attempts at invasion by the Persian army; he is clear-sighted about the greed and egotism of this conquering hero. Clytemnestra hides her intentions in elaborate riddling before the murder, but once her husband is dead, she presents it as orgasmically thrilling: he ‘spouted out a jet of blood/that showered me with a drizzle of dark dew’, in Taplin’s lushly alliterative version; Mulroy has a rather less sexy interpretation of the verb (ἐκφυσιάω, which suggests ‘to snort out’ and is used elsewhere for snoring, and elephants squirting water from their trunks): ‘he vomited a shining clot of blood.’
The second great female character in the Agamemnon is Cassandra, who seems, on her first entrance, to have a non-speaking role. In 458 BC, tragedians had only recently begun to use three actors rather than two, and Aeschylus brilliantly exploits the audience’s expectations to create surprise and confusion when the third actor, playing the foreign woman enslaved by Agamemnon, speaks. Still more surprising, the outsider turns out to know far more than any native-born Greek about the house of Argos – where, as she well knows, she will die alongside her captor. Queen Clytemnestra’s aggression, deceit and violence are counterbalanced by the insight and courage of Cassandra, who is blessed and cursed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy; she sets aside grieving for herself and her ruined city to step towards a death that will, as she also knows, bring down her killers.
The Libation Bearers, the middle play of the trilogy, centres on the tomb of the dead Agamemnon and his surviving daughter, Electra. As in the first play, there are contrasting female characters: Electra, driven to murderous plots by long-standing grief and rage, and Clytemnestra, who becomes desperately aware that, like Cassandra before her, she is on the way to death. Electra’s brother, Orestes, returns from exile and, urged on by his sister, his friend Pylades and the oracles of Apollo, steels himself to kill his mother and Aegisthus.
These murders echo those of Agamemnon and Cassandra in the previous play, though they are represented very differently. Clytemnestra luxuriates in the bloody slaughter of her husband, but Orestes hesitates, especially when Clytemnestra bares her breast to remind him that the body he threatens to kill is the source of his life. At the play’s end, Orestes presents the murders as an act of political liberation, freeing Argos from a ‘pair of tyrants’; but he begins to see visions of the Furies, the doglike, snake-haired goddesses who pursue and torture those who shed the blood of their own family members.
In the final play, The Eumenides (‘Kindly Ones’, a traditional euphemism for the Furies), the goddesses are visible to the audience: they serve as the hissing, violent chorus, in contrast to the human choruses of the first two plays and most other Athenian tragedies. Whereas the earlier plays were set in the distant city of Argos, The Eumenides is set where the play was performed: in Athens, on the hill of the Areopagus, a stone’s throw from the Theatre of Dionysos. The dominant characters are not humans but gods. Orestes has come to Athens for sanctuary, to beg Athena for absolution from matricide. Athena, like Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, is the hyper-intelligent, scheming ruler of her city. But unlike Clytemnestra, she is not mortal, angry, grieving or murderous: she has no personal interest in the case, but turns out to have a particular fondness for the democratic institutions of Athens in the fifth century. She organises a trial by jury.
The Furies accuse Orestes of the ultimate horror in shedding his mother’s blood; no matter his justification, they insist that he is polluted and cannot return to Argos or belong to any religious or family community. Apollo speaks in his defence, arguing that matricide does not count as the murder of a family member, because, according to one of several competing medical theories circulating in Aeschylus’ time, women’s bodies provide only a container for the embryo, which is formed solely of material from the father’s body. The jury is split, and Athena breaks the tie in favour of Orestes. Whatever may be true of human biology, she at least is entirely her father’s daughter, born from his head: ‘And so in every way I’m for the male.’ Clytemnestra was accused of having a heart like a man. Electra, in desperate grief, obsessed over her dead father and absent brother, and resented her mother. Athena takes the pattern of female male-sympathisers even further: she has the militaristic, dominant heart of her father Zeus, and insists that the sunlit, male-dominated world of politics will, from now on, prevail over the underground, ancestral blood-rights of the female Furies. The Furies are, understandably, furious. But Athena restrains their anger by promising them a permanent, if subordinate place in the ritual life of the city – something analogous to the political status that resident aliens (‘metics’) had in real-life Athens.
These dense plays are concerned with a transition from a world of mystery to a world of history, from war to peace, from myth to reality, from aristocratic households to the democratic society of contemporary Athens. They describe the triumph of law over personal vendettas and revenge, and show the direct violence of the axe and the sword giving way to the buried structural violence of law and social institutions. They provide an implicit justification and celebration of recent Athenian history and the current political regime: in real life, the political and legal structures of democracy had replaced the old system of rule by tyrants, and there were still powerful aristocratic men in Athens who favoured oligarchy over democracy. But most fundamentally, the trilogy uses all these interwoven narratives to tell a story that justifies the triumph of men over women. The institution of the all-male democratic law court, presided over by its male-biased judge, is presented as the only possible solution to the endless violence of the earlier world, one in which the experiences and voices of angry, wronged, grieving women were allowed to matter as much as those of men. The first two plays show the terrible cost, to both men and women, of a society in which men favour their bonds with one another over those with their mothers, wives and children. When Agamemnon kills his daughter, his men ‘tie a fetter round her/lovely cheeks and face,/a gag to hold her tongue from words to put her/house beneath a curse’. The final play reframes the problem of female suffering by including no human female characters: the powerful Furies are far more menacing than pitiable, and their semi-violent subordination by Athena, who threatens them with her father’s thunderbolt, is presented as the only possible way for the play’s vulnerable male human, Orestes, to be saved.
Agamemnon may seem the most mysterious of the three plays; elements that had been only metaphors or dreams in it – hunting dogs, nets, snakes, fire – are summoned from the underworld in the chants of The Libation Bearers and become visible on stage in The Eumenides, where we see the Furies carrying nets and torches. But in some ways The Eumenides is even more abstruse and riddling. Justice – δίκη, a word that connotes a range of ideas from cosmic balance to moral right, from social custom or judgment to law or the court – shifts in its meanings. In the earlier plays, the rights of one person compete with the rights of another; in The Eumenides, Athena answers the Furies’ demands for justice (punishment for the male killer, vengeance for his dead female victim) with a judgment based on her own acknowledged bias, and an appeal to Persuasion, the goddess who presides over legislation, not morality. Orestes is acquitted not because it is ethically right, but because legislative and political institutions are thought to depend on the subordination of female to male, and of moral right and wrong to the making of expedient speeches and the passing of laws for what Plato would later call the ‘advantage of the stronger’, rather than justice in any ethical sense. The play carefully sidesteps the question of how daughters like Iphigenia will in future be protected from their fathers, or mothers like Clytemnestra from their sons.
It was with a sinking feeling that I learned that at least three new translations of the Oresteia had recently appeared. I plunged into an even deeper gloom when I realised that two of them are by elderly white men, both emeritus professors, and the other is by a younger white man, not an academic. These are the two demographic categories from which the vast majority of modern English translators of Greco-Roman texts emerge. About half of the translators of contemporary fiction are female, and when it comes to non-literary translation and interpretation, women are by a long way in the majority – unsurprisingly, given that the field in general is underpaid and under-recognised. The field of retranslation from ancient Greek and Roman literature – which tends to get far more cultural recognition, including essays in publications like the London Review of Books – does not fit this pattern at all. The figures are harder to come by, but a brief look at publishers’ catalogues suggests that the number of women is very low: I combed through the first hundred Greco-Roman hits in the Oxford World’s Classics translation series, and found 5.5 (including a husband-and-wife team): 5.5 per cent is not a passing grade on gender equality. The imbalance cannot be explained by a lack of qualified people. In recent years classical studies have become less male-dominated (although they are still much too white): analyses suggest that around 40 per cent of classics faculty members are now female, although fewer have tenure. In the US, there are slightly more women than men with PhDs in classics. If we are going to have endless retranslations of the same old texts – which is not self-evidently a good thing – we might hope that at least some of them would be done by classicists who are younger, or less white, or less male.
Of course, it is quite easy for anyone, from any social background or identity, to replicate the same tired old vision of the same old texts. More broadly, there is no particular reason to expect female classicists to be better writers, or more deeply attuned to the voices of their originals, or more insightful and creative in responding to the many challenges of translation. All contemporary classicists, including women, are well trained at creating stylistically thoughtless, badly written translations. Many published ancient Greek and Roman translations, by women as well as men, share a pedestrian, archaising, clunky style – regardless of the stylistic diversity of the original texts. Conversely, it is quite possible, in theory, for elderly white men to offer original ideas and fresh perspectives.
But in this particular case, the similarities between these three translations, especially in the paratextual material, suggest a partial correlation between the translators’ social positions and their readings of the Oresteia. All have inadequate introductions or afterwords, which make magniloquent statements about Aeschylean ‘greatness’ but treat the complex ethical and political questions entangled in his trilogy with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Bernstein, for instance, assures the reader that The Eumenides ‘ends with the triumph of democracy’, without providing any discussion of the characters in the play – the women and the Furies – who are excluded from the new politics, on the stage as in real-life Athens.
Where Bernstein is simply an innocent amateur, Mulroy seems to be deliberately opposed to any critical discussion of the ideology of literary texts, even when the omission makes it impossible for him to engage with their subjects. He has written a book inveighing against the neglect of grammar in contemporary Anglophone education (The War against Grammar, 2003) and is known at his university (Wisconsin-Madison) for unsuccessfully championing a ‘great books’ programme and, at the same time, mocking the gay and lesbian studies programme (calling it ‘gayology’). He reads the Oresteia as a defence of the supposed values of civilisation over barbarism. His introduction gives no hint of critical distance from the trilogy’s model of civilisation, which involves the exclusion or forced compliance of those who are not elite men.
According to Mulroy, the Oresteia’s central theme is that ‘ties of blood should play an important but subordinate role in the life of an enlightened community.’ He has nothing to say about gender, even in the appendix labelled ‘Politics’, which traces the relationship between the trial of Orestes and Athenian legislative reforms. His two-page bibliography contains no critical work by women. This is quite a feat, given how many brilliant female scholars have worked on Greek tragedy over the past generation. The biggest problem with Mulroy’s reading of Aeschylus is not that it is sexist, outdated in its language, politically regressive, and uninformed by current scholarship, but that he seems to have no interest in asking probing questions of the text he claims to champion. Monumentalising is offered instead of analysis. He rightly emphasises Aeschylus’ stylistic peculiarities, but only to comment that they ‘contribute significantly to the pleasure of reading or hearing his plays’.
Oliver Taplin is a far more prominent scholar than Mulroy (or Bernstein), and has devoted his career to the study of ancient Greek literature in performance. His introductory account of the Oresteia ought to have been good. While it is less obviously inadequate than the other two, it is peculiarly disappointing. Taplin seems to imagine that his task is to assert the ‘enduring appeal’ of Aeschylus – rather than, say, to analyse the relationship of the Oresteia to its own cultural moment, and its different resonances in our time. His account of the politics of Athenian tragedy in general, and the Oresteia in particular, is misleading. We are told that ‘the Athenian theatron is inherently democratic’ but are given few of the facts that should qualify this assertion, such as that Aeschylus and his fellow tragedians were also popular in non-democratic cultures, such as Sicily, which was ruled by tyrants. Taplin emphasises that the theatre was ‘open … to all citizens’, without mentioning that the vast majority of the population of the city and its surrounding countryside were not citizens, and many were enslaved. He acknowledges that women in Athens, even free elite women, had very limited political and social power, and may not have attended dramatic festivals. But he argues that the plays, created and performed by and for men, who wore costumes and masks, ‘give the female a seriousness and strength that cannot be dismissed or lightly patronised’.
He emphasises that Athenian tragedy presents ‘Clytemnestra and her tragic sisters’ as ‘far more interesting than society officially recognised’ (his italics), but does not explain why we should see elite Athenian men, or the social institutions they created, as ‘officially’ committed to the idea that women are boring. I would argue that the opposite is more plausible. In many ways, ancient Athens was far more oppressive of elite women than a number of other contemporary Greek cities. Privileged Athenian male citizens would not have bothered to pass so many laws or create so many customs limiting the freedoms of elite women – by depriving them of education, exercise and opportunities for public or military service, keeping them mostly confined to the house, marrying them as young as possible, and trying to ensure that they were almost always under the legal control of a male guardian – unless they also assumed that if they did not do so things might get far too interesting, in ways that might endanger the dominance of slave-owning citizen men.
It’s symptomatic that Taplin changes the title of The Eumenides to Orestes at Athens, although he claims to find female characters fascinating; he decentres the terrifying, enraged women and fails to recognise, let alone grapple with, the trilogy’s misogynistic ideology. Of course Clytemnestra and the Furies are ‘interesting’: it is their interestingness – their articulate, justified rage and grief – that makes them so dangerous to the patriarchal, slave-owning and militaristic institutions that enable the city-state of Athens to exist. It is absurd to imply that free elite Athenian men – whose myths about their own dominant social position included the defeat of the Amazons – generally assumed that women must be kept subordinate because they were dull. Misogynist tropes often involve presenting women as interesting in precisely the ways that Aeschylus’ female characters are interesting: charming, articulate, dangerous, deceitful, too clever by half, lustful, angry, violent, and consumed by excessive emotion.
Poetic translation is a critical, interpretative practice, similar in certain ways to the writing of introductions. But it is also a creative, imaginative activity, requiring a different voice from that of a teacher or critic. And once he moves from prose to verse, Taplin provides an insightful, elegant rendition of the play; his critical prose limps, but the Muse sings through his translation. The same can’t be said for Mulroy or Bernstein.
Aeschylus, like all classical Greek poets, does not rhyme; his plays, like those of Sophocles and Euripides, are composed in a mix of metres, with relatively simple iambics for much of the dialogue, and complex metrical patterns for the choral passages, which were sung. In English translation, rhyming or other markedly poetic features can help hint at the difference between the dialogue and the choral passages. Aeschylus’ language is much more difficult than that of Euripides, whose verse is often relatively conversational. Aeschylus’ characters tend to speak in elaborate metaphors and peculiar, unidiomatic turns of phrase, many of which must have been lost on audience members sitting up high in the back rows of the theatre. Translators can simply ignore this altogether and render Aeschylus in prose, or they can try to replicate his dense riddling effects and complex metres, but there is a serious risk of substituting crabbed obscurity for an enigmatic richness of expression. Robert Browning’s 1877 version of Agamemnon is arguably more difficult to understand than the Greek:
Not gently-grieving, not just doling out
The drops of expiation – no, nor tears distilled –
Shall he we know of bring the hard about
To soft – that intense ire
At those mock rites unsanctified by fire.
The unidiomatic word order (‘he we know of bring’), the peculiar syntax, including the abstract use of odd participles (‘gently-grieving’) and adjectives turned into nouns, and the dense mixed metaphors result in a weird poetic discourse, neither Greek nor entirely English. Aeschylus’ sentence uses repeated negatives and emphatic half-rhymes to emphasise that nothing can remove the stain of child murder. But it doesn’t include an equivalent to the weird ‘he we know of’ or the abstract nouns (‘the hard’ and ‘the soft’), and it builds to a strong final main verb. Aeschylus is a difficult poet, and his work relies heavily on complex patterns of sound and imagery; but he is not quite as difficult as he sometimes seems in translation.
In the 20th century, the dominant approach in Anglophone translations of metrically regular classical verse, including drama, was to use stacked prose (or ‘free verse’). In this mode there is a widely read unmetrical version of the Oresteia by Richmond Lattimore (1953), lightly revised by Mark Griffith and Glenn Most a few years ago. Lattimore turns Aeschylus’ urgent, elaborately wrought Greek verse into peculiar English, which is not in any obvious sense poetic, and certainly does not scan. For instance, a not very complicated line in which Athena declares her love for Athens becomes: ‘So love I best of all/the unblighted generation of these upright men.’ There is also an unmetrical, looser, more melodramatic version by Robert Fagles (1975), which tends, characteristically, to substitute English idioms and clichés for the original phrases, resulting in an Aeschylus who is much easier – possibly too easy – to read: ‘Do we have to go on raking up old wounds?/Goodbye to all that.’ Other unmetrical versions include a translation for the stage by Peter Meineck (1998) and many more free verse or prose versions (by Christopher Collard, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Peter Burian, E.D.A. Morshead and others). Sarah Ruden’s Oresteia (2016) demonstrated that the careful use of English metre, without rhyme, could be used to render Aeschylus in a poetic style that is difficult where appropriate without becoming unintelligible. Her translation of the sentence I quoted from Browning’s version reads:
Whatever’s burned and poured and wept on altars
won’t coax away the anger tightly fastened
to gifts no fire should touch.
Ruden echoes the riddling strangeness of Aeschylus’ language but makes the puzzle more or less possible to solve.
Bernstein claims that his version is in ‘blank verse’, and invokes Shakespeare and Milton as metrical models, suggesting that he thinks he has written iambic pentameter. I wish an editor or friend had explained the problem before the volume went into print. Even beyond the lack of rhythm, Bernstein’s phrasing is reliably clumsy. Here is his Clytemnestra, emerging triumphant over the body of her murdered husband:
Much having been said to suit the time in former hours,
in contradicting myself now I feel no shame.
The original has only four words in each of the two lines. It packs an intense rhetorical, alliterative punch: the queen spits out ‘p’ sounds in her thrilling repudiation of her earlier, closeted self. Yet Bernstein has somehow managed to create a dull Clytemnestra.
Mulroy and Taplin, meanwhile, adopt, at first glance, fairly similar approaches to each other: both use not only metre but also, for the lyrical choral passages, rhyme, to re-create something like the formal poetic effects of Aeschylus’ elaborate verse style. I hope these translations are symptomatic of a trend in classical verse translations towards using more of the rich resources of Anglophone poetics. Mulroy’s handling of metre and rhyme is technically proficient: his lines scan, his rhymes rhyme, and he manages to combine these accomplishments with a rendering of the Greek that is reasonably accurate and fairly easy to understand. But his English is fussy, archaising and stiff. Here, again, is the triumphant Clytemnestra:
I uttered many useful words before,
which I won’t blush at contradicting now.
‘Blush at’ makes the queen sound weirdly prudish. Ruden’s rendering, also in iambic pentameter, is far more direct, and appropriately aggressive:
Though all I said before was right for then,
I’m not ashamed to state the opposite.
Taplin uses an iambic rhythm for the dialogue but in lines of uneven length. At first I found the variable line-lengths distracting, but the form grew on me; the admission of some longer lines allows him the flexibility to create vivid, plausible phrasing:
I offer no apology for saying things that contradict
what I have said before to suit the moment.
This is in certain ways further from the Greek than Ruden’s version; Aeschylus has Clytemnestra say she ‘won’t be ashamed’ (οὐκ ἐπαισχυνθήσομαι), not that she won’t apologise, and she presents her current words as not only contradictory but ‘opposite’ (τἀναντία) to what came before. But the swagger of Taplin’s Clytemnestra is beautifully observed.
His use of alliteration and half-rhyme is particularly effective, and the dense mixed metaphors are often wonderfully well done. In the great first ode of Agamemnon, for example, I loved the image of eagles as ‘terriers with wings’. Taplin tends to clarify and sometimes simplify Aeschylus’ phrasing: the passage I quoted earlier from both Browning and Ruden, for instance, is stripped of some of its strange imagery, and the result is perhaps a little too easy, too quick:
No amount of sacrificing
can placate relentless anger.
But even if Taplin loses some of the original’s linguistic complexity, he has created an English version full of sonic and metaphorical wealth, as when the Chorus sings of an obscure fate that should be spoken, but is not:
it lurks in dark instead,
and murmurs in its pain,
and can’t unwind the thread –
meanwhile, my heart’s aflame.
The rhyme and half-rhyme, here and elsewhere, create a sense of an ornately poetic and claustrophobic dramatic world.
The comparison of Mulroy’s and Bernstein’s versions with the infinitely stronger work of Ruden and Taplin is a useful demonstration of how hard it is to produce a good literary translation. This is certainly true of translations of ancient Greek and Roman texts, but it is also true of literary translation in general: it is very difficult. Most readers of foreign languages are not translators; most writers are not translators. Translators have to read and write at the same time, as if always playing multiple instruments in a one-person band. And most one-person bands do not sound very good. There are all too many moments when the choices in the weaker versions are reminiscent of A.E. Housman’s brilliant comic parody, ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’. ‘Ah, how miserable!’ Bernstein’s Clytemnestra laments. It is hard not to agree. Mulroy’s Agamemnon, preparing to get his shoes taken off, calls: ‘Undo/my shoes, the servile mats beneath my feet.’ Attempts at more colloquial language fall flat: ‘Bull’s eye! The latter’; ‘they’re a violent lot’ (Mulroy). The consistent thoughtlessness about linguistic register includes, predictably, an obliviousness to exclusive language and contemporary usage; Mulroy regularly uses ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ when the Greek refers to all, not half, of the human race. Cassandra (the enslaved woman who is twice labelled Agamemnon’s ‘mistress’ by Bernstein) makes a final heartbreaking expression of pity, not for her own imminent murder, but for all mortal circumstances: βρότεια πράγματα. Mulroy renders this ‘Alas for men’s affairs!’ Taplin, far more effectively, has ‘This is the way it is for humans.’
Taplin’s is probably the best contemporary English rendition of the Oresteia in its evocation of Aeschylus’ poetic range, dramatic power and moving awareness of pain, grief, confusion and rage. His rhythmical, alliterative, sometimes rhyming but often very direct language conveys real emotional power. I felt goosebumps at Cassandra’s exchange with the Chorus, as she faces her death open-eyed: ‘This is the day, today. To run away would gain me nothing.’ Taplin recreates the incantatory music of Cassandra’s prophecies, Electra’s laments and the Furies’ enraged prayers. His language is rich in Aeschylean imagery and sound patterning without becoming impenetrable: ‘We saw/the plain of the Aegean waters blossoming/with corpses of Greek men and debris of their ships.’ The metaphorical images – dead bodies in the water resembling water-flowers blooming, and these young men were also the ‘flower’ of Greece – are clear but not ponderous, conveying the horror of the large-scale loss of life.
In 2020, thinking about gender inequality, tyranny, grief, liberation, rage, action and reaction, generational change, and the proper function of norms and the rule of law has a new urgency. The #MeToo movement has helped us see how women can be silenced in our culture, and alerted us both to the causes and to the potential power of female anger. The Black Lives Matter movement has enabled a new global awareness of the terrible gap between systems of law enforcement and actual justice. In a time when we’re thinking about the voices marginalised in modern democracies, and about whose histories we want to tell, it is worth turning back, with curious and critical eyes, to Aeschylus’ great dramatic meditation on the politics of exclusion. Perhaps, after this huge gap of time, we can begin to hear what the gagged, murdered Iphigenia might have wanted to say.
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