Classic Lectures

Darkness, Light, and Drama in the Oresteia (continued)

By the end of the Agamemnon, there seems to be no clear reason for faith that the Chorus was right about Zeus’s intentions, or perhaps his capacity to achieve them. If Agamemnon suffered during the sacrifice of Iphigenia, there is no sign that he achieved insight or maturity through that. Rather, as Martha Nussbaum has observed, his apparent lack of “regret or painful memory” may be what most persuades us that he deserves his punishment. Cassandra indeed suffers into truth, though one may wonder whether what she gains was worth the cost—she does not believe it so. In any case, her visionary power extends throughout but not above or beyond the net in which she herself dies; her only satisfaction is in anticipation of another link in the chain of retaliation through the coming of Orestes. Aegisthus is exultantly complacent regarding both his righteousness and impunity. And if Clytemnestra finally oscillates between confidence and foreboding, it is because she intermittently apprehends that retaliation will come, not because she has learned to recognize that she deserves it.

There is yet another question about Zeus posed by the Agamemnon but unanswerable at its end. If the Chorus’s faith in Zeus’s purpose seems unsubstantiated, at least so far, is that because they have attributed to the god intentions that he does not have or because he is unable to carry them out, whether yet or ever? Zeus’s project for Troy is complicated by the opposition of Artemis, the first of the virgin daughters of Zeus, whose attitude toward his will affects its exercise. Her anger at Agamemnon and Menelaus is toward their role as Zeus’s agents and thus toward her father and his intentions. It is Artemis who, by demanding Iphigenia’s sacrifice, unleashes Clytemnestra; Clytemnestra is Artemis’s Fury. As far as we can see, the dynamic of retaliation in human society is being driven by—or reflected in—a discord among the Olympian family themselves rather than by a coherent, functioning plan. Is it a plan, or just the cosmic dimension of things as they are?

And does Zeus even care? Does he have any intentions for mankind except punitive ones, even toward the human agents he uses? The play gives no access to Zeus’s consciousness, but what we learn of his shining son Apollo is not reassuring. Apollo makes Cassandra his prophetess, as Zeus makes Agamemnon his executioner. But Apollo, from a contemptible motive of sexual resentment, confers upon her suffering and knowledge in inseparable reciprocity. Cassandra’s experience at Apollo’s hands is a bitter parody of the enlightenment the Chorus hopes will be conferred by Zeus. As the prophetess herself summarizes it, “no healer stands by while this word is uttered”­—or, as Richmond Lattimore translates the line, “there is no god of healing in this story.”

Anxiety and desire for release are carried forth into the second play, the Libation Bearers. Here these themes are intensified by a new factor, the character of the brother and sister avengers. Orestes and Electra appear as, in a sense, better people than their parents, if smaller in dramatic stature. The young ones have a kind of decency, and initially a kind of innocence, with perhaps an attendant vulnerability, which engages a different kind of concern from the audience than was accorded to the mother and father.

Orestes does have the explicit directive from Apollo that Agamemnon did not have from Zeus. And unlike the characters in the first play, who express hopes that after their crimes all will be well, Orestes expresses a desire to “perish,” having slain his mother. Similarly, Electra distinguishes herself from her predecessors. She prays that she and Orestes will accomplish their revenge, but also that she will be more temperate than her mother and that her own acts will be “more innocent.” One cannot imagine Clytemnestra offering such a prayer.

Moreover, Electra makes an unprecedented “distinction,” to which H.D.F. Kitto rightly calls attention. When the Chorus tells her to pray for the coming of a supporter, Electra hesitantly replies, “Do you mean a judge or one who does justice?” She discriminates between justice as retaliation and justice as trial and assessment. The young princess conceives of an agent of justice willing to consider and evaluate motive and circumstance. No one in the first play had such an idea. And no one else in the Libation Bearers has either. The chorus is peremptory and dismissive. They have the old mentality. Justice is retribution.

Thus for Electra and Orestes there are two dangers. One is that they will be caught in the chain of ongoing retaliation that is the vendetta system. At the beginning of the Libation Bearers, Orestes prays while he and Pylades are alone on stage. The men then hide behind Agamemnon’s grave mound as Electra and the Chorus approach. When the Chorus speaks, the audience, unlike them, is aware of Orestes’s presence and the potentially impending applicability to him of the women’s words regarding Clytemnestra:

For what payment can atone for blood spilt upon the ground?
Calamity, inflicting grievous pain, keeps the guilty man forever infected with an
all-destroying sickness.
and though all streams flow
in one channel to cleanse the blood
from a polluted hand, they speed their course in vain.


Oriented by this opening dramatic irony, the audience is sensitive to the possible double applicability of later choral pronouncements, such as

loud cries the voice of Justice;
“for murderous stroke let murderous stroke atone.” “Let the doer suffer.”

This particularly ominous instance occurs as the time for Orestes to proceed against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus approaches:

But it is the law that drops of blood
spilt on the ground demand further
bloodshed; for murder calls on the Erinys,
who from those who perished before
brings one ruin in another’s wake.

The other danger for Electra and Orestes is that they will not be able to maintain their superior personal quality in action. Because they are temperate by nature, they must impel themselves to frenzy, which came easier to Agamemnon. But as they do, their language, once capable of fine distinctions, becomes more like the savage chants of the Chorus, as in Electra’s cry, “Zeus lay his hand upon them—/ah, ah, severing their heads?” The animal imagery associated with the siblings becomes debased. The woman member of “the orphan brood of the father eagle” comes to identify herself with “a savage dog.” Orestes ultimately acknowledges himself as the “snake” of his mother’s dream. And what is most disconcerting about this is the way it associates him with Clytemnestra’s vengeance upon Agamemnon, “the coils and meshes/of a dread viper.” Orestes must be saved not only from subsequent avengers but from becoming a “guilty man forever infected with an all-destroying sickness.” It remains to be seen whether there will be a god of healing in the next story.

Does the Eumenides resolve the conflicts it inherits from the two preceding plays, and if so how? From the mid-1950s until the early 1970s, the most widely accepted answer to these questions was provided by Kitto and others influenced by him. In the Eumenides, the Oresteia crystallizes as a civic pageant celebrating the establishment of an Athenian institution, the court of the Areopagus. Through Athena’s interaction with the citizens of her favored polis, the ancient tradition of the vendetta is superseded by the innovative court. The passions and conflicting motives and interests of the clan are replaced by the rationality of the objective citizen jurors. Through Athena’s persuasion of the pre-Olympian Furies to sustain the new system, the discord among the gods which paralleled the human chaos of the vendetta era is also healed. The emergence of the Athenian civic institution is hailed as a great step forward for mankind. The Oresteia is a celebration of progress.

More recently, however, there have been second thoughts about this interpretation. One reason is presumably that since the 1960s more people are more aware that courts of law are not always all they should be. If law is the great human, or western, or Athenian institution that the trilogy is celebrating without qualification, is this not politically naïve, or conducive to political naïveté? Anne Lebeck finds that when the trial is “assumed to be the great moment on which alone the trilogy’s resolution turns, it does seem a let-down, a sell-out, an awful disappointment.” Instead, according to Lebeck, “the trial is a parody which does not present the Athenian lawcourt in the most attractive light” and “the poet does not consider its legal forms above suspicion.” The trial is “only shadow play,” Lebeck continues, behind which “lies the will of Zeus, irrevocable, incomprehensible, and just.” This version of the Eumenides hardly celebrates citizen participation or the triumph of rationality. Regarding human communication, Simon Goldhill concludes that “tragedy’s challenge is precisely to the sense of the secure and controlled expression of the order of things that for so many critics in their different ways has constituted the end of the Oresteia.” Moreover, in the last 20 years there has been powerful elaboration of an older criticism of the trilogy, as in Froma Zeitlin’s argument that “the Oresteia stands squarely within the misogynistic tradition that pervades Greek thought, a bias that projects a combative dialogue in male-female relationships and also relates the mastery of the female to higher social goals.”

It may be possible, however (and only coincidentally like a good Greek striving for the mean), to offer yet another reading of the Eumenides—one in which the play is significantly less complacent than in interpretations of the Kitto school, but more than another chastening ordeal with the problematic of language; a reading, moreover, in which the Eumenides is shown to manifest a criticism regarding the status of the female in Greek culture that anticipates our own criticism thereof—a reading in which the concluding drama is seen as involving an attempt to redefine that status more affirmatively, even if not a completely successful one.

One key to the attitude that the Eumenides manifests toward its materials may be that the play involves a kind of chronological double vision. The Athenian institution celebrated—or, it may be safer to say, commemorated—is the court of the Areopagus, which existed as early as the seventh century. The manipulation of time that matters here is not the elimination of the five-hundred year gap between the era of Agamemnon and the seventh century, that brilliant stroke of dramatic license. Rather, it is the blurring of the distinction between the seventh century and the play’s own fifth. The original court was an arm of the Council of Areopagus, which had extensive legislative as well as judicial powers, and was open to “a group of aristocratic families” exclusively. The Areopagus remained a bastion of aristocratic “privileges and powers” until 462/461, when it was reformed by a democratic group including the young Pericles. The Council and Court were stripped of all powers except the conduct of homicide trials. And the jurors were no longer chosen from the privileged old families alone. The change was strenuously resisted by the conservatives and carried out with near-revolutionary force by the democrats. This crisis had occurred only three years before the Oresteia was produced.

The Eumenides, then, was presented to an audience of Athenians who had been bitterly divided by the recent reform of the Areopagus—on the one hand, those who deplored the loss of the Council as part of the city’s traditional way of life, in which the power of the great aristocratic families had been paramount, and on the other hand, those for whom abrupt curtailing of the traditional powers and their conventions seemed part of the creation of a better future.

This provides one frame for interpreting the nature of Apollo, his attitudes, and his actions in this final play. His behavior at its beginning may initially relieve an apprehension experienced during the Libation Bearers. At the end of the middle play, the only hope held open for the now desperate Orestes is that Apollo will somehow extricate him. But by that point what has been heard of Apollo in the trilogy has generated uncertainty whether his assurances can be relied upon. His behavior toward Cassandra has not been reassuring as to his integrity or dependability.