Oresteia Essay, Research Paper
Humanity’s Bloody Feud
(On Aeschylus’s Oresteia)
From the beginning of time vengeance or retribution has been part of the human condition. This is especially true in Aeschylus’s trilogy the Oresteia. One of the underlying themes in these works is Oculo pro oculo or an eye for an eye. According to the plays introduction by Richmond Lattimore, the history behind this blood feud of vengeance begins with Atreus and Thyestes. Atreus tricks his brother Thyestes into partaking of his own children (another possible Hannibal sequel). It is then that Agamemnon, next generation to Atreus and Aegisthus, only surviving son of Thyestes opens up this series of misfortunate events as seen in the trilogy. The series of events takes on a heightened role as Agamemnon is brutally killed by his wife, Clytaemestra and in turn her son Orestes kills her. This series of events would continue if not for the goddess Athenes’ intervention and it is through the gods that humanity displays its utter dependence for divine assistance. Aeschylus’s Oresteia portrays mankind’s frailty through characters such as Clytaemestra, Aegisthus, Orestes and Agamemnon; such is the greatness of these characters vengeful natures that only through the divine is there an end to this violent circle of vengeful retribution.
It is through the chorus of the Argive Elders that one begins to see the significance of the increasing role of vengeance as an underlying theme in the trilogy. In volume one the chorus speaks of “Atreus’ sons and their quarrels” (18) and the discontent of the citizens because “their voice is dull with hatred” (18). Already the outsider begins to understand the setting of events for which this trilogy will exemplify. King Agamemnon in volume one departs for Troy because his brother’s wife Helen fled there with Paris. Even though Helen is unimportant in Aeschylus’s trilogy, already one sees a vengeful nature in the play. Of course, Agamemnon himself has no reason to seek retribution, however the eye for an eye theme is seen. Helen is “taken” by the enemy, so it is the responsibility of King Agamemnon’s position in the hierarchy of nature to strike back, a common theme found in the works of humanity. To insure the success of the expedition, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to the gods. Thus, his wife is not pleased with this outcome because she says, “he slaughtered like a victim his own child, my pain grown into love” (51). Strikingly, when Agamemnon returns from his mission he returns with a barbarian by the name of Cassandra and the wife says to the chorus “unless she uses speech incomprehensible, barbarian, wild as the swallow’s song, I speak within her understanding, and she must obey” (37). At this point Clytaemestra’s blood is boiling for she is already enraged that Agamemnon killed their daughter and to top it off she is not going to let some barbarian hussy rain on her parade. The web only thickens when after Clytaemestra submits to her vengeful nature killing Agamemnon and Cassandra, her lover Aegisthus enters the scene. Even though Aegisthus admits he had no part in the killing of Agamemnon and says the killing is “clearly the deception [of] the woman’s part” (58) he does admit to Atreus being a “godless sire” (57), referring to the events in which Atreus fed Thyestes his children. Basically Aegisthus is not going to lose any sleep of the death of Agamemnon and though Aeschylus does not directly say, Aegisthus does display some form of rageful resentment against Agamemnon.
Out of the dark, Agamemnon’s son Orestes comes into the play in the Liberation Bearers (volume II of the Oresteia) vowing to Zeus “grant me vengeance for my father’s murder” (5). It seems as if the house of Athens is tainted with a thirst for vengeance for Electra, Oreste’s sister declares that there is “a common hatred in this house” (8). She is referring to the dishonorable death of her father and she like her brother wishes retribution. Nonetheless, it is human fate that Orestes must eventually kill his mother because Orestes himself questions how he can “escape [his] father’s curse” (38) and his mother admits to the same by saying “your mother’s curse, like dogs, will drag you down” (38). After killing his mother Orestes admits in the last of the trilogy in The Eumenides that Apollo shares in the blame for he “counterspurred my heart and told me of pains to come if I should fail to act” (21). It is quite a paradox that humanity as seen in the Oresteia, seeks the assistance of the gods to act out their violent inclinations, yet it is a god who saves them from those same inclinations. The answer may lie in Oreste’s statement to Apollo concerning how he understands “what it means to do no wrong” (7). Even though Aeschylus gives the gods a human personification, even Apollo admits to Orestes that no man cannot escape the chorus of the Eumenides or the furies, thus saying “they will track you down” (7). So even though Apollo aids Orestes in his endeavor, he is flawless and perfect because he admits that man can’t escape his condition, a condition of vengeance and retribution. Apollo then is simply assisting Orestes to fulfill his already ill-fated nature. The basic idea of a god is perfection and in Aeschylus the god is seen as not so perfect, as seen in Apollo for Apollo says to Orestes it was “I who made you strike your mother down” (7). However, Aeschylus strongly points to the human condition because Orestes himself pleads guilty for his “father was dear and this was vengeance for his blood” (21). Orestes is eventually found innocent after being helped through Athene’s divine intervention. Athene addresses the chorus toward the end of the trilogy and warns how fury can be a problem for not only gods but also humans. Athene says that “for humankind their work is accomplished, absolute, clear: for some, singing, for some, life dimmed in tears, theirs the disposition” (38). However, even though fury or synonyms such as wrath or vengeance can be a problem for the gods, it is the disposition of mankind. Without some sort of divine intervention from the gods there would be no conclusion to this trilogy, just another rage of vengeance. Athene herself says “my ambition for good wins out in the whole issue” (39) and it is through this ambition that everything is resolved.
It is only through divine intervention that the problem of vengeance is resolved. This curse of vengeance is heightened in each play and the resolution is given through the god’s assistance. Though it is the pre-disposition of man or woman to submit to the violent tendency of vengeance, it is only through the divine that they can overcome this tendency. The Oresteia contains many themes; perhaps one of the most important is man’s reliance on the divine. Thus, the bloody feuds of vengeance are ended through Athene’s intercession and even the intervention of Apollo. Without the mediation of these two gods there would have been no conclusion. Apollo implies that man cannot escape his own nature. On the other hand, Athene says the same but it is only through her power, her ambition that man finds hope. Therefore mankind finds peace through the divine and the all-seeing Zeus “met with Destiny to confirm it” (41).