Barker, Elton (2016). Orestes. In: McClure, Laura K. ed. A Companion to Euripides. Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 270–283.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119257530.ch19


It is generally the case that tragedy thrives on this capacity to bring together the heroic and the contemporary in one place. In a similar way to epic before it, tragedy is able to accommodate on the same stage different kinds of civic discourses―the political, the personal and the poetic―in its interrogation of the issues of the day, all the while avoiding the kind of direct reference to current affairs that would have restricted its appeal and limited its value. This double vision or heroic vagueness thus allows tragedy to resist being pinned down to any one time or place and can help to explain its successful repackaging for and longevity in communities around the Hellenic world. But, if tragedy commonly adopts a double vision towards events enacted on stage, then Euripides draws attention to the disjunction between these two perspectives precisely in order to implicate the audience deeper in the unfolding catastrophe. The Orestes is a classic example of this strategy in the ways in which it so blatantly advertises its indebtedness to―or, better, its cannibalization of―its tradition. In what follows we shall see how Euripides exploits key formal elements of tragedy―the examples here focus on the prologue, the agon, the messenger speech, and the deus ex machina― to bring the heroic and the contemporary into direct confrontation, with frequently unsettling results for an audience who have grown up with the myths surrounding the house of Atreus. Indeed, each character to appear on Euripides’ stage enters against the backdrop of previous articulations of their tradition, carrying with them, as it were, their personal effects and baggage of those past performances. The upshot of Euripides drawing on the audience’s familiarity with tragedy is to draw them into it, using their knowledge to maximise their emotional and intellectual engagement in the events. Some of the characters themselves even seem acutely aware of their role and how they’ve acted in the past, none more so than Orestes, who attempts to live up to his Odyssean status as an untroubled, glorious (and resourceful) avenger, but who keeps finding himself slipping back into re-enacting his role as the Oresteian matricide.

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