Book by Book: ‘The Oresteia’

A walk through your favourite classics, one book at a time.

A picture with two panels. Left-hand panel: a stack of old books. Right-hand panel: a woman with an open mouth, pensive look on her face. Her face is covered by a veil. Text at the bottom reads Aeschylus The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. Translated by Robert Fagles.

Michael A. Arnold

What is your favourite kind of story? I really like horror, especially when it has a philosophical underpinning. Especially when they are talking about issues that never seem to go away – themes like justice, morality and war. When a story has something interesting to say it is something really special. What if, instead of just having these themes, a story offered solutions? To my mind there is no better example of this than a trilogy of plays called The Oresteia, by the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus.

Greek plays are always good for that sort of thing, because they were often centred on some philosophical question, seemingly with the expectation that the viewers would then go away and talk about and debate what the plays meant like in parties and Symposiums. There was no TV or internet in Ancient Greece, that was about the best they had.

The story of The Oresteia, to give a summary, is that the king of Argos, Agamemnon, returns from the Trojan war after ten years but his wife, Clytemnestra, has spent that time planning to kill him. I want to keep this plot synopsis short, but Agamemnon is a pretty reprehensible character. He sacrificed his own daughter to encourage the gods to bless the war. Clytemnestra’s actions might be drastic, but they could be understandable. Shortly after Agamemnon settles back into his own home, Clytemnestra and her lover spring their trap, the first play ends with them taking over the country as a queen. In this first play, named Agamemnon, there are already a number of issues to be debated: feminism and patriarchy, and whether murder can ever be justified.

The second play, The Libation Bearers, focuses on Orestes, returning home and taking his revenge on behalf of his father by murdering Clytemnestra and her lover. You might have thought that the play would end quite happily, with Orestes taking the throne for himself, but it doesn’t. Instead something very odd happens: demons appear out of nowhere and chases Orestes off stage and out of town.

In the third play, The Eumenidies the demons chase Orestes all the way to Athens. Orestes is getting tired of running for his life, and begs the gods for help. Instead of banishing the demons and saving Orestes, like you might expect, the gods instead set up a courtroom, with a jury of people from the nearby Athens, putting Orestes on trial for murder.

This might sound strange, and it is, but there are a number of interesting things going on here that relate to the three themes mentioned in the first paragraph: war, justice, and morality.

Obviously, with this trilogy ending in a trial, the plays are concerned with justice. Who was in the right? That is literally up for debate.

It is worth noticing instead of the old-style way the gods would have sorted out issues (settling the matter themselves through overwhelming strength) is not being done here. Instead the gods are trusting us humans to decide what justice is for ourselves – not just if there was a crime, but who was guilty and how they should be punished. Yes, at this time, Athens was a democracy, and as such it is important that both sides of the trial are heard. In this way, some kind of an agreement or compromise can be reached at by a jury – an impartial third party.

The jury and by extension the audience are encouraged to think through the story and find the most moral outcome for the trial – it was apparently assumed that people in a group can more easily see the truth, and say who was ultimately at fault, far better than any one person. That might not always be true, especially since we humans do not have the gift of omniscience, but that is the idea here. If found guilty Orestes could be punished by humans, and not be killed by the demons who have been chasing him, hopefully stopping just  another example of violence.  

This theme of violence is always present in The Oresteia. Not just because of all the violence in the story, but also because it starts with the end of a war. This is important, because of the way in which murder leads to more murder – there is a suggestion that war often leads to more war. One side attacks, so the other attacks back, so there is a bigger attack that leads to a bigger retaliation. Essentially the cycle of violence spirals on, until everyone is either affected or dead, but nothing is really resolved. Perhaps there is a way to solve our issues that is not just violence and aggression?

There is an important background to all this: the Greece of Aeschylus’ day had just seen the biggest invasion it had ever known, and from a global superpower of the time – the Persian empire. It must have felt like Greece was fighting the whole world at the time. Aeschylus himself fought in the war. He fought in the famous Battle of Marathon, and it looked like Greece was going to be invaded again soon, which it was soon after – this second invasion of Greece would see the famous stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. War was the ever-present theme in Aeschylus’ day, just as it is the ever-present theme in the background to his trilogy.

Because of the story ends with a trial, where there is a chance that the issues at the heart of the play can be settled without resorting to violence, Aeschylus suggests that the same can be true of us. Human beings are, at our best, rational, and we can settle our differences and conflicts together, with words rather than swords and guns and bombs. Even that we can eventually put an end to war itself, if everyone values the same basic things: diplomacy and justice, instead of power and ‘might is right’. It is a beautiful idea, worth keeping in mind in this troubled, violent world.

About the Contributor

Michael A. Arnold is a graduate of the University of Sunderland and Northumbria University. He is based in North East England, and has previously published essays and short fiction. His influences include George Orwell and Robert Frost.

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