Thinking Out Loud about The Oresteia, Part 1

The Oresteia has several parallels with The Odyssey. On one hand are the obvious correspondences between Odysseus and Agamemnon traveling home after the war. They both struggle to get home, suffer much loss along the way, find disarray that needs to be addressed in their homes and kingdoms, and have loyal loved ones waiting for them. Agamemnon finds out too late that his own wife is part of the chaos and is disloyal. On the other hand, the two books contain dissimilarities: Orestes restores order in his father’s kingdom by killing his own mother, the focus on the story is upon a woman (Clytaemnestra), and gods and men are at odds about what is just (Zeus, Athena, and Apollo against the Furies; and the Chorus Orestes, and Electra against Aegistus and Clytaemnestra).

The theme that violence breeds more violence (“the one who acts must suffer”) is also found both in Homer and Aeschylus. While in The Odyssey peace is decreed by the gods upon the compliance of men, in The Iliad the full result of violence is shown with impending doom in the air. The Oresteia seems to show that violence can end, provided that justice is satisfied, and justice seems to be based on reason—rather than passions—and the will of the gods. Athena shows that Orestes had acted justly by the tribunal’s vote, her deciding ballot, and Apollo’s defense of Orestes stating that Zeus decreed and Apollo intervened to make Orestes kill his mother. Then Athena uses words and reason to pacify the Furies and give them a new respectable role before the gods and men. What is this new role of the Eumenides? Why were they hated by the gods, as Apollo tells them? Was it because they were ugly and loathsome or were those qualities merely external reflections of their inner characters? Does Aeschylus attempt to show the reader the development of the gods—from simple, passionate, and non-reasoning (the Furies), to sophisticated, logical, and insightful (Athena, Apollo, Zeus)?

The Oresteia also negatively focuses on two women who caused suffering and death, particularly in Agamemnon’s life: Clytaemnestra and Helen (164). Helen seems to be a foil for Clytaemnestra, showing how Helen was the cause of so much destruction (129, 131-132, 164). Clytaemnestra is presented as a monster (152): as a deformed woman who acts unnaturally, killing her king, her husband, the father of her children, and her lover. Perhaps she is said to act like a man (103, 136, 171) to heighten her distortion and to strip her of motherly and wifely affection.


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