(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only surviving complete tragic Greek trilogy, consists of Agamemnn (Agamemnon), Chophoroi (Libation Bearers), and Eumenides. First produced in 458 b.c.e., this trilogy was an initial and permanent dramatic success. The Oresteia was read and imitated throughout antiquity and served as the core for the seven plays surviving in the medieval Aeschylean manuscript tradition. Rediscovered in the West during the Greek revival of the Renaissance, the Oresteia has continued to be admired and read in the modern world, but predominately by readers of ancient Greek. In the twentieth century, however, the spread of education among the general population and a remarkable increase in the number of translations of ancient Greek literature have made these three ancient plays readily accessible to the general reader.

With his highly metaphoric and dense language, however, Aeschylus is notoriously difficult to understand, even for a reader fluent in ancient Greek. Readers of the plays in translation, often perplexed by the apparent obscurity of the text, search in frustration for an interpretive aid, literary study, or useful commentary. Conacher’s book offers such a commentary, making this trilogy more fully understandable to the general reader and clarifying the complicated, longstanding questions raised about these plays by classical scholars.

While the Oresteia has been the focus of heated scholarly attention for centuries, much of this debate, directed primarily toward readers of the Greek text and often written in scholarly French or German, has long been inaccessible to the general English reader. Furthermore, work on the Oresteia has tended to focus on the traditional concerns of classical philology: the establishment of the text and meticulous verification of the correct reading, often line by line, word by word, and even letter by letter. Whenever literary criticism in the modern sense has surfaced in such discussions, it has usually been tied to debates on textual readings, the assumption being that those judging the issues can read the Greek text for themselves.

The standard commentary on Agamemnn, the first play of the trilogy, is Eduard Fraenkel’s three-volume study (Agamemnon, 1950), an impressive product of German classical scholarship. While Fraenkel’s work is seminal to criticism of the play, few general readers would manage to undertake more than a cursory study of this commentary, laden heavily with untranslated references to the Greek text. For the other two plays in the trilogy, Libation Bearers and Eumenides, nothing comparable to Fraenkel’s study exists to assist even the reader of the Greek text, let alone the Greekless reader.

Conacher strives admirably to fill the gap. His study is intended to be not only a running commentary and plot summary for the Greekless reader but also an abstract and analysis of the most significant scholarly discussions of all three plays. The book is consciously arranged to satisfy the various needs of a diverse readership. Each play receives a single chapter devoted to commentary, plot summary, staging, and discussion of general issues of the tragedy and the trilogy. Inevitably, discussion of Agamemnn, the longest and best known of the three plays, consumes nearly half of the space devoted to commentary.

These three chapters of commentary account for only half of the total book. In the other half, the reader will find both extensive endnotes, where technical details concerning textual readings and scholarly debate are discussed, and several excellent appendices in which Conacher discusses more complicated issues of interpretation, such as the problem of Agamemnon’s guilt and issues of contemporary Athenian politics in Eumenides. Words and phrases from the Greek plays, as well as quotes from French and German scholarly works, are generally translated or paraphrased in endnotes. Readers who limit themselves to the main chapters and do not examine the endnotes and commentaries closely will miss much of what...

(The entire section is 1718 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, November, 1987, p. 466.