Aeschylus, 1: The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides)

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Overview

The Penn Greek Drama Series presents original literary translations of the entire corpus of classical Greek drama: tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays. It is the only contemporary series of all the surviving work of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Arist
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"What David Slavitt does, as the early Roman poets did, is to take a poem as his 'model' and make it his own by creating in late twentieth-century English an appropriate equivalent of the ancient poem. His Oresteia is the most lively and readable version known to me."—Gordon Williams

Praise for the series:

"A boon for classicists and general readers alike. For the reader who comes to tragedy for the first time, these translations are eminently 'accessible.'. . . For the classicist, these versions constitute an ambitious reinterpretation of traditional masterpieces."—Boston Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812216271
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/1997
  • Series: Penn Greek Drama Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 178
  • Sales rank: 787,319
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David R. Slavitt was educated at Andover and Yale and has published more than sixty books: original poetry (recently Eight Longer Poems), translations (recently Broken Columns, of Statius and Claudian), novels (recently Lives of the Saints), critical works (recently Virgil), and short stories. He worked for seven years as a journalist at Newsweek and continues to do freelance reporting and reviewing. With Palmer Bovie he coedited the series Complete Roman Drama in Translation.
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Table of Contents

Introduction by Palmer Bovie ix
The Oresteia 1
Translator's Preface 3
Agamemnon 9
The Libation Bearers 69
The Eumenides 113
Pronouncing Glossary of Names 153
About the Translator 161
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First Chapter


CHAPTER ONE

The Oresteia

Translated by

David R. Slavitt

Agamemnon

Cast
SENTRY
CHORUS of elders of Argos
CLYTEMNESTRA, wife of Agamemnon
HERALD
AGAMEMNON, king of Mycenae
CASSANDRA, daughter of Priam, king of Troy, and
Agamemnon's captive
AEGISTHUS, king of Argos, Clytemnestra's lover
NONSPEAKING
Attendants of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Aegisthus
(On a watchtower of the citadel of Agamemnon in Argos.)

SENTRY

A long watch. It has been years now of peering
into this blackness. High on the citadel tower,
my eyes fixed on the sky's blank slate, I wait
and pray for a sign, a discernible gleam. I stare
at nothing. A dog's life! Chained up, I can feel
that single sharp bark, a lump in my throat
I shall, in time, cough out.
Meanwhile the lofty
stars overhead spin in contempt or, worse,
in unconcern, as the seasons they signal come
and go and the wind blows hot or cold.
Either way,
I'm stuck here, black behind me, a deeper black
out there, until the spark of that signal fire
shows red as blood or the flames raging at Troy.
She commands it, whose strength of will is such
that, if she were not queen, she would be our tyrant.
At the thought of her narrowed eyes, my own grow wide
in fear that sleep would close. I stamp my feet
through the long night, or sometimes sing or recite--
anything to keep awake. Or weep
at the fate of our royal house with its dire troubles,
the price, sometimes, of grandeur.
Every moment
is an unendurable knife edge, but all together
they stretch out making a plane of time ... I pray
for that signal of my release from this hard duty
to flash out in the indifferent heavens.
Now?
(The signal fire flashes.)
Is it? Can prayers at last be answered? Yes!
The blaze of truth! The light at the end of the night
that breaks as we were about to despair. Rejoice,
and dance the dance of thanksgiving.
Ho, there! Ho!
Let the queen be summoned. Rouse her from bed
and bid her light the torches of joy that gleaming
light in the distance kindles. Sing and dance,
for Troy is taken. We are at peace!
A long
watch it was, but it's over. The master comes
bringing us the richest gift of his triumph,
the miracle of ordinary days.
(A slight pause, as his mood changes.)
Words fail. Like a dumb beast I will stare
at his face and kiss his hand.
What can we say,
any of us who have lived to see this day,
of the troubles of his house?
Not a single word!
(He descends. Below, the Chorus of Argive Elders files in.)

CHORUS

Ten years ago, against the might of Priam
the sons of Atreus set forth
under one banner,
by the grace of Zeus,
with their thousand ships
Agamemnon and Menelaus,
joined in honor.
The scream of angry eagles tore the sky,
who wheeled and soared overhead
on powerful wings
above a plundered
nest. For a lost
chick, they grieved.
Such was the hurt and rage
of these two kings.
Could the gods ignore that child-avenging cry?
Apollo or Pan or even Zeus
Xenios who rules
in heaven, heard
and loosed our host
against the Trojans
to fetch her home,
at the cost of much clotted blood
in those tidal pools
beneath their fortress walls, that connoisseur
of husbands. Three times mated, she
was Sparta's queen,
then concubine
to Paris, then
to Deiphobus, his brother.
Truly obscene,
can the stain of it be washed away somehow
by the shedding of blood and tears?
At grievous price
the expedition
commenced, and now
is the ritual yet complete
of sacrifice?
We who were too old to go to war,
we who remained at home,
had nothing but canes
that we could brandish
in heaven's face before
these palace gates in protest.
Our fear remains
undiminished. Like children, we overheard
the frightening sounds of the grown-ups' quarrels.
They reconciled,
but we were afraid
of what we inferred
from Clytemnestra's demeanor
in grief for her child.
How can we celebrate now, and how can our hearts
soar as the flames leap up from the altars
of the city's gods?
We hope for the best
but fear the worst,
as we guess what the fates have in store
and figure the odds.

FIRST CHORISTER

But let us chant a victory ode together,
together having endured the trials of the years.
May our faith in the gods inspire us to sing
convincingly of this triumph. As sons of Hellas
rose up in vengeance for our dishonored king,
those two ominous birds
soared overhead to the right,
one with a black tail and one with a white.
We stared up and there,
in their talons, they held a pregnant hare.
With what, we asked, was that moment pregnant?

CHORUS

We sing a dirge but hope that good may prevail.

FIRST CHORISTER

The prophet spoke, interpreting for us the signs
of heaven's intent. Those birds were our two kings,
the sons of Atreus' house, and that hare, their prey,
was time, he said, "in the fullness of which Priam's city
shall surely fall, and none shall get away,
if only the gods permit,
for Artemis cannot approve
the death of one of her creatures, and her love
we must contrive to earn."
As we heard him speak those words, our concern
grew. With what was the moment pregnant?

CHORUS

We sing a dirge but hope that good may prevail.

FIRST CHORISTER

"Apollo," he prayed, "hear me and intercede
with your sister, Artemis, lovely and tender-hearted,
that she not take offense and resolve therefore to oppose
the Greeks in our purpose. Our strength in arms is great
as mortals reckon, but nothing at all to those
of the winds and the waves. We need,
no matter how great the cost,
the help of the gods, without which we are lost.
Our prayers we must try to make good
by the sacrifice of human, of royal, blood."
With what were the words of Calchas pregnant?

CHORUS

We sing a dirge but hope that good may prevail.

SECOND CHORISTER

Whoever, whatever he is, we will, if it please him,
address him as Zeus, a name we speak in awe,
knowing he takes the measure of each of our hearts
from greatest to least. Uranus, Cronus saw
his triumph end their glory, and wisdom starts
with prayer to Zeus, the master of heaven and earth,
whose difficult course of instruction to men is severe.
But, surely, whatever we know, we must admit
we learn from our pain. Through tears, then, let us praise
almighty Zeus, who has inflicted it
but given us solace, too, at the ends of our days,
when we may dream of grace, of peace and plenty.

FIRST CHORISTER

And Agamemnon, the fleet commander, heard
the soothsayer's declaration, but said not a word
of blame or reproach to Calchas, looking instead
to the skies and the seas to confirm what the priest had said.
The winds were strong
but all from the wrong
direction, onshore at Aulis where they lay
waiting, waiting, but the winds would not relent.
And the priest said again, more clearly, what he had meant,
at which time the king spoke up. He swallowed his grief
and said, "It is bitter, bitter, being the chief.
To slay my own little girl? With my hand to pour
her virgin's blood on an altar to go to war?
And yet, if I fail
we never shall sail
to Troy, as we have pledged to each other to do,
and I shall dishonor myself and each of you."

CHORUS

What is a man to do? This unspeakable thing
they spoke of, an offense, an outrage, unholy,
and wrong, wrong,
as every bone in his body knew, and nerve.
Necessity, Goddess Ananke, dictates to a king,
and he obeys, albeit reluctantly, slowly.
He makes his heart strong
and does what he must, having been called to serve.

FIRST CHORISTER

"Father," the princess cries, "Father,
save me!"
Would that he could.
At her keening, his heart breaks and his eyes
stream tears
that do them no good.
He bids the attendants dress her; he nods;
they raise her
high for the kill
like a lamb or a kid on the altar. Her screaming
is smothered:
they hold her mouth still.
Her eyes, nevertheless, are flashing
in terror,
outrage, and blame,
and strike into each man's pitying heart
a dagger
poisoned with shame.

CHORUS

What happened then, we did not see.
The eyes, the brain,
turn away at such events.
For wisdom that the gods dole out
we pay in pain
that we hope, at last, relents
as the dawn comes with its wan light
to offer relief
from dreams we could scarcely bear,
sordid, horrid, shameful, woeful,
and so full of grief
that even the brave despair.
(Clytemnestra enters.)

SECOND CHORISTER

That light now breaks, and we await the day's
outcome in hope that, somehow, all will be well.
Our fears may be great, but she whom we all praise
as close to our lord has preserved the citadel.

FIRST CHORISTER

You have summoned us here, Clytemnestra, and we obey
gladly and pay you reverence, consort to our king.
Is it good news or bad? We wait for you to say,
who will show us the way to accept what fate may bring.

CLYTEMNESTRA

As the proverb has it, the dawn is born
of Mother Night, and I bring the happy news
that the Argives have taken Troy.

FIRST CHORISTER

Can we trust our ears and believe in such longed-for words?

CLYTEMNESTRA

Believe me. I say that Troy is destroyed. It's true.

FIRST CHORISTER

Tears of joy well up in my eyes.

CLYTEMNESTRA

Those tears proclaim your heart's allegiance.

FIRST CHORISTER

How comes this report? Are you sure of your source, my lady?

CLYTEMNESTRA

If anything is real, then this is real.

SECOND CHORISTER

Dreams sometimes seem real. We all have dreamt....

CLYTEMNESTRA

It is no dream. We are awake. Believe it!

FIRST CHORISTER

But rumors are sometimes attractive. We wish to believe!

CLYTEMNESTRA

Do not presume. I am neither a child nor a fool.

SECOND CHORISTER

What time of day was it when Troy was destroyed?

CLYTEMNESTRA

Not day, but at night. Last night, in fact.

FIRST CHORISTER

And the news has arrived already? How could that happen?

CLYTEMNESTRA

At the speed of light. Hephaestus' sacred fire
blazed from beacon tower to beacon tower,
from Ida's top to Lemnos, and from there to Athos,
that island sacred to Zeus, where they set the blaze
they had kept prepared so long, and the tongues of flame
leaped up in the dark night in a kind of chorus
singing the victory hymn in splendid crescendo.
From point to point in the sky, as if the sun
had prematurely risen, the rays of light
dazzled the eyes of the sentries, who in their joy
touched torch to waiting tinder. At Euripus' shore
they signaled from Euboea across the strait
to their cohorts alert on the Boeotian headland
who repeated the exercise, and the flames took hold
of the heaped-up heather to flare as their gladness flared,
and those on station across the plain on Cithaeron
saw it redden the sky. Relieved, overjoyed
after all those years of waiting, they lit their fire
to pass the message onward. Across the water
on Aigiplanctus' slopes they saw and forthwith
bearded the heavens with flames, and so on down
to the bluffs on the Saronic narrows at the gulf
they call Engia, and here on the Peloponnese
they lit yet another blaze the watchman on post
on the peak of Arachneus saw. He set
the last of the signal fires, the one our man
on the citadel roof could see, in direct descent
from its forebear on distant Ida that even now
has not yet burned away. Its heat and light
have, by such leaps and bounds along the race-course
we laid out long ago, arrived in an instant,
as quick as thinking. And do you doubt me now?

FIRST CHORISTER

Lady, I cannot. Almost mute with amazement,
it is all I can do to offer my prayers of thanks
to the gods, as I shall do forthwith. But tell me,
in more detail, whatever else you may know.

CLYTEMNESTRA

Troy, as I say, is today in Achaean hands
and within those walls are ill-assorted noises
that dislike coming together, as the vinegar does
with oil in the mixing bowl: the sobs of the vanquished
and shouts of joy of the victors, the keening of women
and guffaws of happy men. The scene is bleak
with corpses of Trojan soldiers piling up in the streets
and wives and mothers and daughters, still alive,
wailing the griefs of slaves over their loved ones'
careless bodies. The Greeks, meanwhile, make merry,
the world their buffet, with riches and dainties on offer
everywhere to consume or waste, like gods
as free for the time with the city as they, the immortals,
are with the world. Each man has drawn by lot
a billet, no longer a tent or the frosty sky,
but a roof overhead, and perhaps a couch with pillows
on which to sprawl at his ease, the master now
of whatever his eye may light on, to drowse and dream
of phantom horrors from which he can free himself
at will any time, blinking and rubbing his eyes.
This liberty, I trust, may not extend
to a license to desecrate the city's shrines
or offend its gods from whose dread reach no man
can think himself secure. The voyage home
they know involves some risk. I pray the thrill
of this moment of their triumph may not make them
mad--to rape and plunder and carry on,
not as men but as beasts in rut and frenzy.
Let them be wary, and let the good prevail,
that our husbands and sons may be repaid with good
whose need for the gods' favor can never end.
What I know as a woman, I fear men may forget.

SECOND CHORISTER

Any man of prudence would surely agree and endorse
what you have here pronounced. For our part, we
offer prayers of thanks to heaven's gods
that we have at last, and at great expense, succeeded.
(Clytemnestra exits.)

FIRST CHORISTER

Lord Zeus, we address you with reverence, and you, sweet Night,
who have brought us these great tidings of grace and glory.
Yours was the wide-spread net that ensnared the Trojans,
trapping them all, the old and the young, in its doom.
Zeus Xenios, the lord of host and guest,
we worship you in your justice and power blessed.
Yours was the bow. You stretched it long ago,
and your deadly arrow has found its target at last--
Paris and all the house of Priam. Troy
was wrong to ignore and to flout your just precepts.
The arrowhead flew neither long nor short nor wide
of the mark, and this is the death of Trojan pride.

SECOND CHORISTER

Lord Zeus it was whose blow destroyed the Trojans.
We can see it, plain as a lightning bolt from the sky
that flashes divine displeasure. Whosoever offends
in the world below, those who ignore or defy
the sanctities of the gods, will assuredly die.
Men should aspire to virtue for its own sake.
But a sinner's fear of the gods can also make
for a life that is not without worth
for mortals who tread the earth.
The fall of the mighty who violate the laws
the gods have imposed is awesome. If, in their pride,
they transgress against the gods and invite the reproof
of mighty woes, then which of us can hide
his wicked thoughts and deeds? Let us decide
that in modesty, prudence, and circumspection we
may avoid such retribution as we can see
destroying those men who do
whatever they're tempted to.

FIRST CHORISTER

Lord Zeus, we think we are free
to do as we please, but we find
that wickedness can cost
the earth, and they are lost
who run after pleasure as children
on the grass chase winged birds.
The gods are deaf to the prayers
such people may frame: they bring
ruin to all their kin
and townsfolk by their sin
with the gods' relentless correction,
awesome beyond all words.

SECOND CHORISTER

Such a man was Paris,
who came as a guest
to the house of the sons of Atreus.
The gods detest
a man who steals the wife
of his host and ruins his life.
Helen's beauty could dazzle
men who would see
quickly enough the carnage
of warfare, for she
brought dishonor to men. Her name
is a synonym now for shame.

FIRST CHORISTER

"Woe," the seers cried out,
woe for the house and its master!
Woe for the marriage bed on which he lies alone,
yearning." In this disaster,
beauty itself turns hateful
and ugly to him. Oh, shout
the pity of it, the woe!
In his dreams, he sees her face
teasing him, beckoning,
taunting ... He reaches out but she is gone.
His grief is past reckoning.
The princes of other cities
imagine themselves in his place
and share his deep chagrin.

SECOND CHORISTER

The god of war keeps a shop
where he deals out portions of glory
for measures of blood and tears.
The weights in his scales are corpses
and urns of ashes, the crop
of the battlefields of the earth.
The heroes of Argos, brave
in battle, are stricken. They fall,
and comrades mourn their deaths ...
For another man's wife? Who goes
for a reason like that to his grave?
What's a king's honor worth?

FIRST CHORISTER

Such subversive talk, once it gets going,
is dangerous, as kings know all too well,
as if the Furies were eager to teach the lesson
of modesty to men, whose heads can swell
and bring them down. The trees on the mountaintop
are the ones that bolts of lightning are likely to lop.

SECOND CHORISTER

Such worries are not for the likes of us. I am glad
not to be great, or rich, or powerful, and not
to be envied by anyone. Perhaps this news is true,
and the war is won they went to Troy and fought
for honor and wealth. I pray that it may prove true,
or else who knows what we shall suffer through?

THIRD CHORISTER

If it's only a rumor, we're no worse off than before.

SECOND CHORISTER

But how can the women endure more months of the war?

THIRD CHORISTER

I fear, therefore, the rumors women retail,
even this woman ...

FIRST CHORISTER

We shall soon enough know if this story
of flashing beacon fires on mountaintops
be true or merely a dream. But look, a herald
approaches, bearing the olive branch of his office.
His clothes are covered with thirsty dust, the mud's drier
sister ...
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