Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Furies in Oxford

The students who are taking the Athena the Trickster module I'm currently teaching at Roehampton might remember how, last year, while they were taking a 2nd-year module on mythology, two plays were put on in Kingston that had a very interesting fit with two of our sessions - on Medea, and on Oedipus. This year's module coincides with a production of a play - in Oxford later this month - which formed a focal point of last week's class - where we considered two differing ways to explore the depiction of Athena in Aeschylus's Eumendies. I was hoping to glean from the various bits of publicity material I've found to date (this, this and this) how Athena is represented in the production - but to date I've not found anything, although I do like the image to the left, which I found on the production website, for how it juxtaposes a fury, i.e. representative of 'older' gods, and a temple suggesting the more organised system that Athena represents. 
In class we considered how the Eumenides - along with the first two plays in the Oresteia - does two contradictory things, sometimes at once. One the one hand, it depicts the origins of Athenian justice and patriarchy and turns the furies, erstwhile powers of vengeance into deities that form part of the organised religious system of Athens. These figures are integrated into the law-based, patriachal order that Athena creates, watches over and symbolises. On the other hand, the play undermines this foundation myth by undercutting the very process of creating justice, patriarchy etc and defeating or suppressing or harnessing the powers that are inimical to progress. The basis of Athenian justice is undermined by the very deity who is establishing the first lawcourt.
I stressed that this reading is one that is not followed by most scholarship, including Rebecca Kennedy in her recent book looking at justice in Athenian tragedy through the vehicle of plays in which Athena appears as a character. The closest is the work by Simon Goldhill - and I stressed that I would take his arguments further still and show how just as Athena explains the rationale of her decision to cast her vote for the acquittal of Orestes, the goddess expresses her connection with the forces she is suppressing.  I'm interested in how the publicity for the production in Oxford deals with the depiction of justice in the play by stating that the play "challenges the core of our own legal system", and poses questions including  "Can guilt be judged? Can justice be wrong?"  Whereas scholarly interpretations of the play tend to focus on how it creates institutionalised justice and an ordered framework to contain previous inimcal forces, this production looks set to consider how the various issues are, also, held in tension. 

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