Oresteia contains plays Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides; Proteus (satyr-play)
COMPETITION: won first prize
ANALYSIS: The trilogy takes the form: action Æ reaction Æ resolution, and depends on a definition of dike (“Justice”), by which the “doer shall suffer, that is law.” We see in the first play Agamemnon come home from Troy to be murdered by his wife, but the chorus have presented the previous events in this moral universe in such a way that we recognize that Agamemnon was both the gods’ agent in bringing dike on the Trojans for their violation of the moral order and his own actor who willingly sacrificed his daughter and killed many on both sides in the war. At the end of Agamemnon, we realize the same about Klytaimestra, that she has punished her husband for her own motives and will be so in turn.
The second play keeps us in the same universe, as Orestes is directed by Apollo to bring justice (dike) for his father’s death by killing his mother. Orestes admits that he too has his personal motives to carry out this act. The chorus sing how he was aided in her murder by “Dike, daughter of Zeus we call her, breathing destruction on her enemies.” In both plays it seems that an end has been put to events, but almost immediately Orestes sees the Furies, “the bloodhounds of my mother’s hate.” But in the third play we run into problems, for the gods (at least the maledominated Olympians) try to stop the wheel from turning one more time. Apollo purifies Orestes from his guilt, but that does not stop the Furies, ancient goddesses of vengeance, from pursuing him. Family vendetta, which will never end, is to be replaced by civic justice, the court of law whose word will be final and bring matters to an end (telos, an important word in this trilogy).
Here another major theme of Oresteia emerges, the gender-conflict between males and females of power. We see this early in Agamemnon, where Klytaimestra (“a man-plotting woman”) dominates every character in the play and where women strike back for the violence done to them by men. This conflict seems to be resolved in the ambiguous figure of Athene, the goddess who dresses as a male, is a patron of violence, and “is always for the male.” The Furies are persuaded by her not to devastate Athens with their curses, but to find a home here, where they will become the Eumenides (“the Kindly Ones”), dispensing fertility and blessing on the people.
Not all would concur in an optimistic reading of the trilogy, for the Furies are persuaded (with the threat of violence in the background) to become part of a new order which is profoundly patriarchal. The gender conflict is resolved at the expense of the female by Athena, a female of power like Klytaimestra and played by the same actor. Gods actually come on stage in Eumenides, and Apollo comes off poorly – he has told a man to kill his mother, his purification of Orestes has not rid him of the Furies, and his arguments in the trial are not compelling. Dike (“Justice”) in the trilogy is rather more complicated than an opposition of blood-for-blood vendetta and trial by jury.
All would agree that this is one of the great works of Western literature. Cosmic in scope and brilliant in execution, Oresteia raises great issues, presents fascinating characters, and is resolved with great splendor, as the Furies don robes of purple and prepare to be escorted by men and women from Athens to their new home.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005