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Orestes by Eurpides - an excerpt

Orestes by Euripides

Dramatis Personae


Electra: daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, sister of Orestes.
Helen: wife of Menelaus, sister of Clytaemnestra.
Hermione: daughter of Menelaus and Helen.
Chorus: young women of Argos.
Orestes: son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, brother of Electra.
Menelaus: brother of Agamemnon, uncle of Orestes and Electra.
Tyndareus: father of Helen and Clytaemnestra, an old man.
Pylades: prince of Phocis, a friend of Orestes.
Messenger: an old man.
Phrygian: one of Helen’s Trojan slaves, a eunuch.
Apollo: divine son of Zeus and Leto, god of prophecy.

[Scene: The action of the play takes place in Argos just outside the royal palace a few days after Orestes has avenged the murder of his father by killing his mother, Clytaemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Orestes is lying ill on a bed near the doors. Electra is sitting close to him]

      There’s nothing terrible one can describe,
      no suffering or event brought on by gods,
      whose weight humans may not have to bear.
      The blessed Tantalus
and I don’t mock him
      for his misfortunes
—who was, so they say,
      born from Zeus, flutters in the air, terrified
      of a rock hanging right above his head.
      People claim he’s paying the penalty,
      because, although he was a mortal man
      who was considered equal to the gods                                            
      in the feasts they shared together, he had
      a shameful illness—he could not control                                                   
      his tongue.[1] Well, Tantalus fathered Pelops,
      and then from that man Atreus was born,
      the one for whom the goddess combing yarn
      spun out strife, making him the enemy
      of his own brother, Thyestes.[2] But why
      should I describe these horrors once again?
      Then Atreus killed Thyestes’ children
      and fed them to him. Then, there’s Atreus—                                
      I won’t mention what happened in between.
      With Aerope, who came from Crete, as mother,
      Atreus fathered glorious Agamemnon,
      if, indeed, he was a glorious man,
      and Menelaus, too. Menelaus
      then wed Helen, a woman gods despise,                                         
      while lord Agamemnon, in a wedding
      notorious in Greece, took Clytaemnestra
      as his wife. To him from that one woman
      were born three daughters—Chrysothemis,                                 
      Iphigeneia, and me, Electra,
      and a son, as well, Orestes, all of us
      from an abominable mother who snared 
      her husband in a robe he could not escape
      and slaughtered him. It’s not appropriate
      for a young girl to talk of why she did it,
      and so I leave the matter indistinct
      for people to consider. Why should one
      accuse Phoebus of injustice, even though
      he did persuade Orestes to strike down                                          
      the mother who had given birth to him,
      an act which did not earn him a good name                                       
      in all men’s eyes?[3]  Still, he obeyed the god
      and killed her. I helped with the murder, too,
      doing as much as any woman could,
      and Pylades assisted us as well.
      After that poor Orestes grew so ill.
      Infected with a savage wasting sickness,
      he’s collapsed in bed and lies there, driven
      into fits of madness by his mother’s blood.                                    
      I am ashamed to name those goddesses,   
      the Eumenides, who keep driving him
      through terrible ordeals.[4] It’s the sixth day
      since our mother perished in that slaughter
      and her body was purified in fire—                                                               
      in that time he’s not swallowed any food
      or washed his skin. He stays wrapped in a cloak.
      And when his body does find some relief
      and his mind clears from the disease, he weeps.
      At other times he leaps up out of bed                                              
      and bolts like a colt released from harness.
      Argos has proclaimed no one should shelter us,
      receive us by their hearths, or speak to us,
      since we killed our mother. This very day
      will be decisive—the Argive city
      will cast its vote whether the two of us
      must be stoned to death or have our throats cut                                       
      with a sharpened sword. We do have one hope
      we won’t die—the fact that Menelaus
      has reached this land from Troy—his flotilla                                
      now fills up the harbour at Nauplia, 
      where he rides at anchor by the headlands,
      after wandering for so long at random.
      But as for Helen, who caused such grieving,
      he sent her on ahead to our own house,                                                      
      waiting until night, in case anyone
      whose children were killed at Troy might see her,
      if she went strolling there during the day,
      and injured her by starting to throw stones.
      She’s inside now, weeping for her sister                                         
      and the troubles which have struck her family.
      Though she grieves, she has some consolation—
      Hermione, the daughter she left at home
      when she sailed off to Troy, who Menelaus
      brought from Sparta and gave to my mother
      to bring up, brings her great joy and helps her
      forget her troubles. I keep on watching
      all the roads for the moment I can see
      Menelaus coming. Unless he saves us,
      we don’t have strength enough to ride this out.                          
      A house plagued with bad luck has no defence.

[Helen enters from the place.]

      Child of Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon,
      poor Electra, you’ve remained unmarried
      such a long time now. How are things with you
      and your unlucky brother Orestes,
      who killed his mother? That was a mistake.
      But since I ascribe it to Apollo,
      I don’t risk pollution talking to you.
      And yet I do lament my sister’s death,
      Clytaemnestra, whom I never saw                                                    
      after I sailed off to Troy, driven there 
      by that fated madness sent from the gods.
      Now I’ve lost her, I weep for our misfortune.                                             

      Helen, why should I now describe for you
      what your eyes can see—Agamemnon’s home
      facing disaster? I sit here sleepless
      beside this wretched corpse—his faint breathing
      makes the man a corpse. Not that I blame him
      for his suffering. You’re the one who’s lucky.
      Your husband’s fortunate as well. You’ve come                            
      when what’s going on with us is miserable.

      How long has he lying like this in bed?

      Ever since he shed his mother’s blood.

                                                                Poor wretch!
      And his mother, too, given how she died.

      That’s how it is. He’s broken by his troubles.



[1]Tantalus, a son of Zeus, offended the gods, who punished him by placing him in Hades where he is constantly tempted by food and drink which he cannot reach. His offense varies, depending on the story. In some accounts, he stole food from the gods and revealed their secrets to human beings. In others, he cut up his son Pelops and served him up as food for the gods. The gods quickly discovered the crime and put Pelops back together.

[2]The Fates set a man's destiny at birth by spinning yarn and cutting it. Traditionally there were three female Fates.

[3]Phoebus is the name of the god Apollo, whose oracle Orestes consulted before returning to murder his mother and Aegisthus in revenge for his father's death.

[4]The Eumenides (literally the "Kindly Ones") are the Furies, goddesses of blood revenge within the family, who are tormenting Orestes because he killed his mother. Electra does not call them by their official name but uses a common euphemism, presumably because she does not wish to risk offending them. The Furies are also called the Erinyes.

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