Dear Academy Families,
This week in my section of 9th grade English, I have had the distinct pleasure of talking with my students about two Greek tragedies: Orestes by Euripides and The Eumenides by Aeschylus. Both plays are the third in a trilogy by each playwright called The Oresteia, which covers the story of Clytemnestra killing her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, followed by their son Orestes killing his mother to avenge his father’s death. But each playwright handles this basic plot line much differently.
Aeschylus treats the issue of Orestes murdering his mother as a case debated before the first trial court in western literature, a court convened by Athena to hear his suit, with Apollo (representing the new order) arguing on behalf of Orestes and The Furies (or The Eumenides, representing the ancient deities) arguing against him. Euripides, writing about 50 years after Aeschylus, takes the new order or values even further. His Orestes is hounded not by physical Furies who appear as characters to present their case, but by those ancient deities in his dreams and mind, driving him insane.
What amazes me this week as our class discussed these two versions of the same story, with their widely different approaches — to ethical issues about justice and mercy as well as to individual and social codes of conduct — is the level of sophistication our freshmen bring to this subtle and nuanced debate. They engage actively in intellectual exchanges, and raise telling points backed up by textual support. It might sound simple and straight-forward, but it’s like listening to a great symphony by Beethoven…smooth yet deeply complex.
I often say that a successful class is one in which I leave the room having learned more from the students than they might have learned from me; by this definition, classes this week were hugely successful!
James S. Berkman
Head of School