Classic Lectures

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

Even at the moment of casting her ballot, Athena’s behavior involves more than her words indicate. On the one hand, she does vote to acquit Orestes. And in her rationale, she indeed aligns herself with male principles exclusively, denying any female affinities. But here Athena is doing something specific and at the same time something more general. She is voting on Orestes. And she is thus participating with her citizens in the first decision of the court she just established. The institution is one in whose processes considerations of motive and circumstance are taken into account. What Athena has done is to create an institution that gives weight to the kind of concerns she expressed upon first hearing the Furies’s version of Orestes’s crime; as she asked then, “Was there no other constraint that made him go in fear of wrath?” And as she observed to herself, “Two parties are present, and we have heard half the case.” And then to the Furies, “You wish to be thought to act justly rather than to do so.” Athena is expressing a conception of justice not as retaliation and victory but as trial and right assessment. And that is what she makes a place for in Athens (whether or not human beings will subsequently be adequate to its demands).

Whether this more general and ongoing establishment could be as easily rationalized in male Olympian terms as the single vote on Orestes is not clear. It is clear that Athena doesn’t attempt to; her male-oriented explanation applies only to the vote, not to the founding of the Court. Her broader objective is at least as much mercy as rational analysis. And Athena’s responses when she first heard the Furies’s accusation against Orestes are reminiscent of Electra’s query to her Chorus as to what kind of savior she should hope for: “a judge or one who does justice?” Electra’s Chorus had no patience with that question. Their concern was for retribution alone. And there is no evidence in either play that Electra’s emergent distinction is shared by anyone else in society or the cosmos except and until Athena. What the goddess ultimately does is to give institutional form to concerns and perceptions first articulated in the trilogy by an isolated mortal woman.

Neither the vote nor the creation of the Court are Athena’s last acts on stage. And in her subsequent behavior her more than male nature is most clearly manifested, however it may have earlier been blurred or denied.

Orestes has been saved. Nevertheless, two problems remain, one religious, one moral and social. Or rather, one problem with both religious and social dimensions. Athena’s vote has been a partisan, Olympian one, by her own account. The claims of the Furies have been denied. The conflict among the gods is yet unreconciled. Furthermore, in acquitting Orestes, Athena has refused to be influenced by the Furies’s contention that their power must be maintained because it operates as a deterrent to crime, in spite of the fact that she has earlier recognized the truth of their assertion. Paradoxically, in acquitting Orestes because in avenging his father king and ridding his house of a usurper he was acting on behalf of the social order, she has set a precedent—the denial of the rights of the Furies—which, if followed, will itself result in the disturbance of social stability.

Now Athena acts to resolve these conflicts also. She offers the Furies, and they accept, a new relationship with the Olympians, and a new significance in the hearts and minds of human beings. But in her final disposition, Athena does not try to alter the essential nature of the Furies or their inherent function. Rather, once again, as earlier in the play, she comprehends and acknowledges their nature and value with a sympathy that implies an affinity with them and distinguishes her more comprehensive consciousness from the exclusive rationality of Apollo. Moreover, in recognizing society’s need for the Furies, Athena displays a fuller understanding of human consciousness than does her brother. Indeed, she may be thought to recognize a characteristic of consciousness shared by Furies and humans. Athena’s forensic persuasion of the Furies includes a brief reference to the “lightning-bolt” in Zeus’s armory. In mentioning her access to that, is she not operating on the Furies’s own principle that no one can be expected to do right through reason alone, without an element of fear?

After the Furies have been won over, Athena gives thanks to “Zeus of the assembly,” who has “prevailed.” But in the same utterance she more fervently expresses thanks to a female power: “I rejoice; and I cherish Persuasion’s eye,/for having guided my tongue and lips.” This expression of affiliation with both male and female powers is in striking contrast to her self-definition while casting her vote for Orestes. Athena herself has been through much. Before the trial, she told Orestes “either course, that you should stay/or that I should send you away is disastrous, and perplexes me.” Has she suffered into truth? Has she learned not only how to support Orestes and not outrage the Furies, but also the truth of her own nature—that she embodies and serves both male and female principles? This is her last reference to Zeus. As for visible effects, one may wonder if she drops her spear when she assumes the role of the Fury Chorus’s Leader and joins them in their dance.

The Furies are not demeaned, as they gradually recognize. Entering the cave is not allowing themselves to be shut away. Earth has always been their home, from which their influence can still radiate. The lower position of the cave at the base of the hill relative to the Court at the top represents not a subordinate role but a foundational one.

The resolution of the trilogy requires both the establishment of the Court of the Areopagus and the migration of the Cthonic goddesses to a new home in the soil of Attica, with their conversion from blind and bloody persecutors into defenders, through the awe they inspire, of the new system in which discriminating justice is practiced—or attempted. When they consent to enter the civic structure, their earlier function of avenging bloodshed on family and clan terms is expanded to include avenging acts of violence on behalf of the polis. By accepting Athena’s proposal, these gods of the underworld gain great power in cooperation with the gods of Olympus, and mankind.

At the conclusion, Athena becomes a stage director, like Artemis, Clytemnestra, and Orestes before her. And her directions include the last visual manifestations of the trilogy’s two unifying motifs. The Furies’s black robes disappear from view and torches are kindled—light out of darkness. Their new robes of red, the color designating quests of the state in the Panathenaic procession, supersede the red fabrics that had been involved in the crimes in the preceding plays—the net transformed.

Is this a fulfillment of our hopes or a mockery of them? Is the triumphant conclusion earned and potentially salutary, as critics such as Kitto affirm? Or is it ironically, skeptically, or obtusely imposed on double talk and false consciousness, as Lebeck’s, Goldhill’s, or Zeitlin’s analyses conclude? Or something in between?

At least one prominent pair of readers, Fagles and Stanford maintain the Kitto position in considering both the Oresteia and the Parthenon to be “expressions of optimism,” though they are fully aware of conflicting views of the trilogy. But the final lighting of the torches, in apparent triumph, may indeed convey an undertone of doubt. As the audience has observed since the Watchman’s experience at the beginning of the Agamemnon, characters’s hopes from lights out of darkness have repeatedly been thwarted before. The effect of this repetition might be compared by the modern reader to the rhythm of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the conclusion of that novel, Stephen is firmly optimistic about his future as a writer, believing that earlier obstacles and doubts have been resolved. But the reader is less certain, having followed Stephen through a series of moments of apparent crystallization that were followed by backsliding into futility or depression. Portrait thus enables the reader to perceive that Stephen may succeed or fail, and also to perceive something on which that will depend. Young Daedalus must learn that he does not and cannot create out of his own consciousness in isolation, as he supposes. He must learn, as Joyce has learned, the possibilities of intertextuality—there is a web to be entered, beyond those nets “to fly by.” Consciousness must be extended by interpenetration with other consciousnesses, even or especially those that have been disparaged as outmoded or threatening, rival or alien, including the feminine. Only out of this does the progress come. So hard it is to “forge . . . the uncreated conscience” of a race or of a city, be it Dublin or Athens.

There is a kind of chronological double vision in Portrait. Though often we have the illusion of unmediated access to young Stephen’s consciousness, there is an older, wiser writer—call him older Stephen, Joyce, or an anonymous narrator—who is fostering our understanding of what Stephen still needs to learn and do. The chronological double vision in the Oresteia may be thought to function in a similar way. If the audience supposes that the Eumenides is reverential in relation to the seventh century foundation of the Areopagus, then the triumphant procession must seem a mockery indeed. The Council’s Court, as originally constituted, did not succeed in bringing harmony to the city during the ensuing two hundred years. If the audience supposes, however, that the play is reverential in regard to the reform of the Court three years before the production, the implication is different. The play simultaneously confronts the audience with an earlier failure and a new chance.

The Eumenides has represented characters discovering hitherto unrecognized traits and capacities for enlargement in themselves and their supposed opponents, in religion, social values, and gender. It has dramatized antagonists discovering underlying common interests. And it has represented the indispensability of the ancient to the modern and the danger of disregarding that. Ironically, it is not the Furies but Apollo, that self-proclaimed champion of progress, who turns out be the “old one” and who must be bypassed to achieve the wedding of opposites: which points toward fertility at the end of this comedy in tragic form. Apollo’s sterility is in his inability to learn the abortiveness of stereotyping oneself or others, failing to recognize one’s own or their potential to expand beyond definitions that are complacent or pejorative. And the play has sought to inculcate in the audience the fuller consciousness necessary to critique Apollo’s view, whether they entered the theatre as partisans of the civic rationalism of the new Areopagus or the clan-oriented traditionalism of the old one.

It is most significant for judging the Oresteia’s implied claim for itself that the audience is invited to join in the procession to the hill. The double vision suddenly becomes triple. The time is not two hundred on three years ago, but now. The invitation—actually challenge—is not to celebration but to commitment and participation. Whether the procession will lead to a triumph or a mockery depends upon whether the audience can manifest in the city the consciousness that the trilogy has sought to manifest in the theatre.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1993.

Fagles, Robert, and W.B.Stanford. The Serpent and the Eagle: A Reading of the 'Oresteia.' The Oresteia. By Aeschylus. Trans. Robert Fagles. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. 13-97.

Goldhill, Simon. Reading Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Joint Association of Classical Teachers. The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Ed. Chester G. Annderson. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Kitto, H.D.F. Form and Meaning in Drama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of "Hamlet." 2nd ed. London: University Paperbacks–Methuen, 1964.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. Oresteia. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. The Complete Greek Tragedies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1953.

Lebeck, Anne. "The Oresteia": A Study in Language and Structure. Publications of the Center for Hellenic Studies. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1971.

Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Zeitlin, Froma I. Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Women in Culture and Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

—Author info: Thomas Gillcrist retired from Reed College in 2002 after 40 years in the English department. He received a Graves Award for excellence in teaching in the humanities and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Palo Alto, and Fulbright Senior Lecturer in Seoul. He also served on the executive committees of the Association of Departments of English and the Western Humanities Alliance. Since retiring, he has written on Victorian historian and statesman T.B. Macaulay’s essay on Warren Hastings and served as guest editor for a special Macaulay issue of Nineteenth–Century Prose.