The Oresteia is a tragedy across three plays written by Aeschylus in 458 B.C. Despite being roughly 2500 years old it remains relevant today, especially around issues of justice, free will, and moral consequence.
Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides together move the reader from Agamemnon’s victory at Troy and his short-lived return to Argos, through filial vengeance, to an adjudication with the gods. And there’s murder. Lots of murder: kin-slaying, king-slaying, sacrificial child slaughter, matricide. And that’s just in Agamemnon’s family, never mind the scores of war-dead.
While we might today suggest the need for family therapy, that wasn’t the done thing in ancient Greece. Social mores directed actions, and pleasing the gods was fair justification for acts that can seem beyond the pale.
WARNING: Oresteia and Game of Thrones spoilers from here
Victory, but at what cost?
To ensure his victory at Troy, Agamemnon sacrifices his so-called “goat-kid” (Aga. 232) Iphigenia, so stripped of her humanity before being raised as an offering at the altar, to persuade the gods to provide wind that favours his sails. Having acted according to the rules of the day, Agamemnon betrays no sense of remorse over this action; it is purely rational, in a sense. But the outsourcing of conscience isn’t relegated to the ancients. Consider that we defer to modern gods even today: money, power, pride, and other forces influence and even facilitate behaviours that might otherwise seem reprehensible.
But back to Iphigenia, the sacrificial lamb. The Bible, in the book of Genesis, tells the story of Abraham, whom God instructs to sacrifice his son Isaac. Isaac is naïve to the plan, even as he is led to slaughter; luckily for him, the timely appearance of a ram made for a suitable substitute. It seems that God was only testing Abraham’s faith, albeit cruelly. More currently, Game of Thrones’ sweetly innocent princess Shereen Baratheon, who was burned at the stake by her father to appease the Lord of Light in advance of battle, appears as a modern Iphigenia. Rather than winning the war, however, Stannis Baratheon’s army largely defects in disgust and his wife hangs herself in despair before he meets his untimely end. Remorse, regret, consequence. Agamemnon seems to be completely free of these.
Incidentally, it is Agamemnon who claims that, “a mind to avoid wrong is god’s greatest gift,” (Aga. 926). Perhaps it is a kind of repression or compartmentalization that humans employ when “the gods told me to do it,” that allows characters to justify despicable actions.
Pride cometh before the fall
Agamemnon is away at war for 10 years, at the close of which we meet his wife Clytemnestra, who is angry over the scapegoating of Iphigenia. It’s debatable whether this lament is authentic: she would have accepted the same social mores as Agamemnon, and at the same time, doesn’t appear to express concern nor care for her other children – in fact, we don’t even know of their existence until the second play. The grief expressed by the siblings Electra and Orestes, who meet at their father’s grave in the Libation Bearers, suggests that Clytemnestra did not consider them when plotting to kill Agamemnon. Orestes laments, “What amends can there be once blood falls to the ground,” (Lib. 47) suggesting an unmendable schism between them and her that ought to have been foreseeable.
For Clytemnestra, however, Iphigenia may simply be an excuse, scapegoating the girl a second time in her own interests. Clytemnestra has effectively ruled in Agamemnon’s absence; perhaps she wishes to retain her hold on power, or perhaps she wishes to be rid of Agamemnon after having taken up with his uncle, Aegisthus.
Regardless of the specific motive, Clytemnestra shows no immediate remorse, despite having acted on her own volition: no gods instructed her actions. She first greets Agamemnon’s return with a specious display of devotion and flattery, instructing the slaves to drape rich purple fabric on his foot path. But when the door is closed, the snake strikes: Clytemnestra slays Agamemnon in his bath. The knock-on effect is that Orestes returns, instructed by the god Apollo, to “right the wrong,” by slaying Clytemnestra. The cycle continues.
Fate versus free will
The Oresteia examines notions of predetermination and free will, and the role of responsibility for personal agency. (Some may argue that free will is an illusion, and all things are pre-destined, including the choices ostensibly made freely, but we will save philosophy for another post). The plays begin in predetermination; there is no choice in light of the will of the gods. Iphigenia is sacrificed to the according to the rules, and Agamemnon suffers no spiritual pain for it.
Then, Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon of her own accord. She is at first victorious but comes to suffer a haunting dream which manifest into reality and her downfall. It is as if a warning against willfulness.
Indeed, Electra insists to the libation-bearing women at her father’s tomb that, “what is destined waits for the free as / well as for those subjected to another’s hand” (Lib. 102-3), as though determinism and free will lead to the same end. Or perhaps free will is indeed an illusion.
And while Clytemnestra sent Orestes to be reared in exile, it seems he cannot escape his nature, as foreshadowed by the chorus’ verse about the orphaned lion cub. Though friendly to its human family in youth, it could not escape its nature to slaughter: “by god’s will a priest of Ruin / was reared in the house as well” (Aga. 717 – 736).
The tone shifts when Electra opens the palace door to Orestes, who has been ordered by Apollo to avenge Agamemnon’s murder. This is an act of her own free will, and she knew it would lead to a double murder. Unfortunately, this is Electra’s last appearance in the play, and it is unclear whether she suffers any fallout.
But aside from abetting homicide, Electra’s opening the door serves as a kind of Pandora’s box, where the opening of conscience allows hope for change. Before committing the deed, Orestes pauses before Clytemnestra and invokes his friend, “Pylades, what am I to do?” (Lib. 898). Pylades encourages him to be faithful to the gods, but when Orestes murders his mother (having already murdered his great-uncle and her lover Aegiesthus), he is immediately beset by her “rancourous fury-hounds” (Lib. 1054).
His conscience having been awakened, Orestes now grapples with the very real moral consequence of his action. The furies are no mere vision, though. They appear at Athena’s court, and through the trial ahead, Orestes becomes the catalyst a new form of justice.
The ghosts that haunt us
The idea of justice takes many forms throughout the text: sacrifice, revenge, vengeance, and finally, a jury of peers, evolving from base or earthly retribution to a divine, spiritual judgment. At the same time, free will and conscience move from blind obedience to the gods to a personal ownership of actions and agency.
The sacrifice of Iphigenia, and the murder of Agamemnon represent crude justice; the chorus warns Clytemnestra following the latter’s killing that, “a blow is to pay for a blow,” (Aga. 1430). Yet this begets a potentially endless chain of payback.
At Agamemnon’s tomb, the libation-bearing chorus implores Electra to, “…pray there comes upon them some god or man…” to which she replies, “A judge, you mean, or a just avenger?,” (Lib. 119-120) and questions whether such a prayer is acceptable. Yet, she foreshadows the imminent arrival of Orestes as the just avenger, and the judge Athena who provides ultimate justice.
Likewise, the stirrings of conscience seem to evoke a kind of natural justice. Clytemnestra “shrieked in terror in her sleep,” (Lib. 535) in a sort of Lady Macbeth’s “out damned spot” rousing of psychic pain; likewise with her furies who haunt Orestes following his murder of her. But perhaps shrieking one’s self awake is an apt metaphor for waking up to the shocking realization of one’s moral existence. Agamemnon does not have such an awakening, Clytemnestra is subsumed by it, but Orestes perseveres through the pain to deliver a new form of justice.
That said, Athena’s approach to justice is compassionate. Rather than a reactionary reading of black and white rules, she seeks the merits of the argument, and finds a positive outcome for both parties. Orestes is declared innocent of his charges, and the furies are absorbed into her home to become agents of goodness.
Perhaps Agamemnon would have been better to learn to read the wind than to try to change it, to work in concert with gods and nature than trying to bend their will. But is that harnessing trust in the will of “gods”? Is there free will or is the “yoke-strap of compulsion” (Aga. 218) which led Agamemnon to slaughter his daughter too heavy a burden for humans to shuffle off? Or, does it all lead to the same inevitable end as Electra says, and thus not matter?
Trying to face the strange changes
Finally, the furies’ lament to Athena evidences a fear of change, which can be read as an allegory for so many of today’s issues around social justice, and the tug-of-war between progressive and regressive notions of society. The shame and pain and fear are palpable:
I am groaning – what am I to do?
I am laughed at; what I suffer
from the citizens is hard to bear. (Eum. 788 – 790)
That I should suffer this, alas –
I the ancient in wisdom — [and] live on earth
[where] pollution goes without punishment!…
Oh no! The shame! The hurt!
What is the pain going deep in my side?…
I am taken from my age-old prerogatives
by the gods’ irresistible trickery, I am made into nothing! (Eum. 837 – 846)
Athena holds a space for this pain and anger and anguish. Rather than resisting or engaging, she honours the emotion and the wisdom of the furies’ years. She repeatedly assures them, and ultimately persuades them to a new path. With the old ways no longer suitable – “I disapprove a bird’s battling in its own home,” (Eum. 865), she provides them a renewed sense of place and purpose:
Such are the things you may choose from me – doing good,
receiving good, with honour that is good when you share in
this land which the gods love most.” (Eum. 868 – 870)
Athena gives the furies a home, literally and metaphorically, and they accept her prerogative.
Although change can be frightening and even painful at times, it is not necessarily to be avoided. Real fears of a loss of power, of control, of place, and of identity may all surface in resistance. But compassionate justice as demonstrated by Athena finds a place of honour and purpose for all its citizens, upholding each being’s essential dignity and contribution.
The furies lamented passionately, with palpable pain at losing the trial, and losing their old way. Yet, with their pride renewed through acceptance and purpose, they embrace their new role.
Or, as Agamemnon tells it, “the old are always young enough to learn readily” (Aga. 583-4).
Citations are taken from Oresteia, Oxford University Press, 2002. Translation by Christopher Collard. ISBN: 9780199537815.
It occurred to me after our discussion on Wednesday that in our time we may see Clytemnestra as the only one acting with agency, free will and authenticity because she wasn’t following a divine command.
Yet the greek audience may have taken the very same reasons to infer from the start that she was an unalloyed ‘baddie’ a la Lady Macbeth, who got what was coming to her for not seeking the counsel of the gods. And if they knew the story well as we discussed, then this may already have been ‘baked in’.
If this is the case, the first play could be read more simply in the sense that the audience already knows she is a wicked queen. Her cynical murder of Agamemnon (and she, a woman!), her scarcely expressed anger at the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and the opportunistic claim that she breastfed Orestes (she didn’t) merely serve to underline her casual wickedness. She also has the furies from the underworld at her beck and call which seems to play into the same theme.
By comparison, Aegisthus seems quite a two-dimensional baddie who immediately overplays his hand and is quickly deflated by the heretofore dithering chorus – and Clytemnestra! None of this devalues our later interpretations but it may be that the character of Clytemnestra was more clear cut to the ancient greeks than it is to us.
PS. In the spirit of full disclosure I have trademarked the name ‘Killer Queen’ for this year’s panto. We already have the plot and the songs write themselves…
Thank you, Richard, and sorry for a tardy response. This exercise is about building better writing habits, and responding is a part!
I agree that Clytemnestra had the cards stacked against her as a woman of agency in a time where it was not the done thing; theatre was the realm of men in those days, and to see any female so empowered must have appeared as a villainous act. (But have we really come that far: consider that perception of women as “bossy” where men are “leaders,” for instance).
That said, it is interesting that some readers perceive Clytemnestra as the hero of the story, precisely for her agency, apparent unfeeling, and the ability to command forces greater than her. She is certainly more compelling than Aegisthus, which raises for me a question of her attraction to him. Perhaps she found him to easy to manipulate and therefore a willing accomplice for her plans.
On another note, it was brought to my attention that Electra does not open the palace door to Orestes; a doorman does. Perhaps I wanted to give Electra agency, too?
“Killer Queen!” Are we allowed a panto in the time of covid?