in the Oresteia Term Paper:
Aeschylus’ Oresteia, first performed in Athens in 458 B.C.E., is the sole surviving Greek tragic trilogy, and one of those peaks (like Dante’s Comedy, Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) that loom above the other mountains of Western culture as defining expressions of their age. (Conacher 64)
Agamemnon and Libation Bearers show how the ineluctable and destructive power of retributive justice, operating over generations, leads to a profound crisis—familial and civic—that only the final extinction of the house of Atreus seems capable of ending. (Goldhill 50) Up to this point in the trilogy, the story appears to illustrate the workings of what we might call the natural history of justice, a cycle of destruction in which each act feeds off the one before and nourishes the next.
“To see the process of retributive dike at work in the Oresteia, let us ask why Agamemnon is killed in Agamemnon.” (Conacher 101) Even if the question only means, why does Clytemnestra kill him, the play already offers multiple answers. For Clytemnestra, Agamemnon is first of all the murderer of their daughter, Iphigenia, whom he sacrificed in order to allow his fleet to sail to Troy when Artemis’ wrath had stilled the winds.
But there is more: Clytemnestra has taken Aegisthus as her lover in Agamemnon’s absence and intends to rule with him after Agamemnon’s death; and, perhaps paradoxically in the circumstances, but predictably, she is offended by Agamemnon’s arrival with his own new concubine, Cassandra, prominently in tow.
Other and even broader perspectives on dike are given vivid voice in the course of the trilogy. The presentation of the Trojan War is perhaps the most perplexing and most illuminating example. Troy’s destruction is at once the trilogy’s paradigmatic instance of justice and the occasion of horrible injustices that condemn Agamemnon, its triumphant returning hero, even before he reaches home. The Chorus shows us Zeus xenios (“Zeus, lord of host and guest,” 417 /362) ordaining the destruction of the whole city as punishment for Paris’s violation of the laws of guest-friendship.
Yet everything about the war conspires to make it cry out for new punishment, new retribution. Consider, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia. He does not choose to kill his daughter; a great goddess, Artemis demands the sacrifice, and by stilling the winds so that the Greek fleet cannot sail to Troy, she makes it a necessary condition of waging war and winning the just victory that the gods have ordained. (Goldhill 81)
It is worth noting how this theme is developed. Although the death of her daughter gives Clytemnestra a powerful claim for vengeance against Agamemnon, the emotional burden of the tale is given not to her but to the old men of the Chorus. Their entrance song in Agamemnon, a lyric sequence of length and complexity unequaled in ancient drama, begins by invoking the cry for justice raised by the sons of Atreus against the Trojans, but when they compare that cry to the shrieking of vultures whose chicks have been stolen from the nest (56– 63 /47–54), they conjure up unbidden the slain child of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
There is necessity here—in the world of this drama, like that of the Homeric epics, nothing happens by mere chance—but there is also something about Agamemnon, who will not abandon his ships, his allies, his command even to spare his beloved daughter. Fate in tragedy is often like that, after all. (Goldhill 94) Oedipus has no way to avoid his fated crimes, but the brash, proud young man who kills his father at the crossroads, and who takes as his prize for destroying the Sphinx, a queen old enough to be his mother, is no puppet, but Oedipus to the life, acting entirely in character. Character, in Heraclitus’ famous phrase, is destiny. (Conacher 112)
In the case of the Erinyes, it is well to remember that blessing is the other side of the coin from cursing. They have a new role, but the powers they embody remain what it always were. Something similar may be said about Zeus, who presides over justice as a kind of master signifier throughout the trilogy. (Goldhill 109) He may or may not evolve during its course (a heated debate on this subject raged in earlier Aeschylean scholarship), but it is fair to say that his dominant aspect shifts in the course of the trilogy from a stern and angry enforcer—for example, Zeus xenios (“lord of host and guest,” Agamemnon, 417 /362), who exacts punishment for the transgressions of Paris by sending the Achaeans to raze the city of Troy—to the Zeus who works his will by means of words—Zeus agoraios (“Zeus who guides / men’s speech,” Eumenides , 1135–36 /973). The epithet agoraios makes Zeus patron of the agora , the place of public meetings, and implies that he presides over civic deliberation. For all the differences in these aspects of the deity, he does the work of dike equally in both guises.
Such transformations as these involve the relations of men and women, and even of the gods and mortals, aspects of the trilogy, and which have to do with a new understanding of human communities as political entities, and how they might survive and flourish. “At this level, Aeschylus ties the change in dike to a change in political structure.” (Conacher 133) The world of Agamemnon is that of a traditional Homeric aristocracy, with hereditary power belonging to the males of great houses—power here mired in equally hereditary crime and challenged by a wily woman and her subservient male partner.
Usurpation by the upstarts Clytemnestra and Aegisthus involves a form of persuasion that we can characterize as temptation or seduction, typified by the honeyed words with which Clytemnestra leads her husband along the crimson path to his death. The usurpers’ victory overturns the old hereditary pattern and transforms Argos, as we see it in Libation Bearers, into a tyranny, repressive because imposed against the will of the community. (Goldhill 125)
To contest this repression, the male heir returns and is joined by his sister, though she plays a distinctly subordinate role. The form of persuasion authorized by Apollo’s oracle and used to thrilling effect in Libation Bearers is intrigue and deceit, embodied chiefly in Orestes’ false report of his own death, which gains him entrance into the palace and (through a bit of strategic trickery by the Chorus) brings Aegisthus home unguarded and unarmed.
Eumenides frees Orestes after long wanderings to return to Argos and reclaim his birthright, but the chief focus is now entirely on the transformation wrought in Athens by his trial. In this way, the emergence of the institutions of the democratic polis can be symbolized (or more precisely represented in a kind of metonymy) by the establishment of a court of law. (Goldhill 134)
Significantly, the language that effects the transformations of Eumenides is no longer that of temptation or intrigue, but persuasive speech, the matrix of legal and political debate in a democratic state. The complex relation of gender and power in the Oresteia has been much discussed in recent years. 16 It is often said that from this point of view the story of the Oresteia is one of women’s political disenfranchisement, and it is certainly possible to see the political thrust of Eumenides as validating a change from the perverted female rule of Clytemnestra to the (real) patriarchy of Athens in Aeschylus’ own day, in which women were as far as possible excluded from participating in public life. (Conacher 150)
It must be understood, however, that what is at stake here is not a record of the loss of women’s power, but a myth of failed rebellion against a patriarchy that had always been in place. In weighing such views, much will depend on how one frames the issues. Take, for example, the version of the Delphic succession myth presumably invented by Aeschylus as a replacement for the usual story, in which Apollo won control of the most important sanctuary in Greece by the bloody conquest of Pytho, a vicious female monster. (Goldhill 173)
Eumenides brings the cycle to a different end by forging new institutions for the operation of a justice that can settle disputes within the framework of a legal system and that thereby fosters the survival of human communities rather than their destruction. (The kind of community in question will turn out, not surprisingly, to be the Greek polis, and the institutions to be a mythical version of those found in Aeschylus’ Athens.) The natural cycle of dike is not, and cannot be, overturned; rather, it will be transformed, in the end, by the work of gods and mortals who initiate a new, unnatural history of justice.