Thinking Out Loud about The Oresteia, Part 2

Aeschylus seems to have a keen awareness that an admixture of good and evil exists in the action of exercising power, and that a person should be aware of this, especially in times of triumph. Agamemnon in his triumphal return home should not forget all the sorrow and calamity that came about in his winning: the sacrifice of his daughter, the destruction of Troy, the loss of his men, etc. It seems that the meaning of the word “suffering,” as in the phrase “suffering into truth” (109, 111, 243) and “the one who acts must suffer” (167, 171,192), involves the realization of evil and pain that one causes by acting. Orestes suffers when he is aware of this, when the Furies pursue him after the death of his mother. Clytaemnestra suffers when she is tormented by nightmares after killing Agamemnon, and then realizes that what she did might be wrong—before this she does not seem to see any problem with killing her husband and her king.

What is the function of Electra? She seems to be the one to rouse with words the courage of Orestes to kill his mother, as in The Iliad the soldiers needed to be roused for battle. Because she is not involved in the power schemes, she is innocent and removed from the heat of the actions. Antigone, conversely, steps away from her passive role into an active role that will cause her to suffer from her actions.

Orestes, in many ways, is parallel to Telemachus: Orestes seems to be what Telemachus would have been had his father not returned: both are fatherless, they are the same age, both return to avenge and restore order, though Telemachus has the advantage of his father guiding his steps and helping him in the fight. Of course, the biggest difference between Agamemnon and Odysseus is that their wives stand in stark opposite sides: the one is faithful, the other is a traitor.

Achilles seems to be like the Furies: killing with unbridled passion (anger) without stopping to think whether their actions are just. Orestes seems to be like Odysseus in that he measures violence, metes it out only as necessary, and takes full responsibility for it. The point of The Oresteia seems to be that the Furies were dispensing judgment without pausing to consider the complicated aspects of the situation, and Athena brings in logic and reason into the arena of justice, as well as controlled passions—and for this reason Athena does not banish the Furies, but rather channels their passions in a good direction.

Aeschylus seems to have written The Oresteia for the Greeks to respect and support the new institution of courts. Previous to the courts, a blood relation would demand justice upon spilling of the blood of a loved one. Now society—through a court system—would demand justice upon any spilling of blood. This development in the Greek world was very important and Aeschylus is providing an apology for it. He also is attempting to provide a theodicy of the gods, explaining how they developed and how they are reconciled to reason and justice.

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