62. Orestes by Euripides (408 BC)

Plot : Back to the events of The Oresteia where Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War only to be murdered by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra (Helen’s sister), who in turn is put to death by their son Orestes. This play by Euripides takes up events 6 days after Clytemnestra’s death. Unlike Aeschylus’ trilogy, in this version Orestes has not immediately fled the city (although he is being mercilessly tortured by the Furies) but remains feverish and sickening in Argos with his sister Electra tending to him.

Helen and Menelaus return, and Orestes begs Menelaus to intercede with the furious Argive citizens who want to stone Orestes and Electra to death for matricide. Menelaus advises a gentle approach which Orestes interprets as further betrayal. His friend Pylades and he present themselves to the citizenry, but the verdict remains death. Electra then suggests that instead of taking their own lives, they get revenge on Menelaus by killing Helen and keeping Menelaus’ daughter Hermione hostage to aid their escape. They start their savage attack but there seems to be some uncertainty over Helen’s fate ….

Back to the Penguin classics edition Orestes and other plays translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts:

I found myself gradually won over by this version of the story, particularly compelling when the desperate Orestes and  Electra put their plot into action in the last third of the play. I could sympathize with all parties, and was anxious that divine intervention would arrive in the nick of time to save Helen and the innocent Hermione.

Electra comes across as quite a spiteful little hellcat who truly hates Helen and is only too willing to kill Hermione if needs be.

The by-now expected arrival of a God at the conclusion of the play (this time, Apollo –  which is only appropriate as it was his oracle that set Orestes on his path of revenge) sets the scene for reconciliation and happy endings all round : Orestes will marry Hermione and become King of Argos once his trial is over;  Pylades will marry Electra; and most interestingly, Helen has indeed been rescued from Orestes’ descending blade and is made a Goddess who saves seamen’s lives. Menelaus is given the throne of Sparta, but  must find another wife (hopefully untainted by adultery).

Perrsonal rating: 6

Next : Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

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