1. What use has Aeschylus made of the story behind the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan war? Discuss how his concerns differ from those of Homer. 2. What do you think of the character of...

1. What use has Aeschylus made of the story behind the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan war? Discuss how his concerns differ from those of Homer.

2. What do you think of the character of Clytemnestra? Is she admirable, understandable, disturbing, hypocritical, evil?  How is this reflective of women in the position of authority?

3.  What is the primary message of the play? Is this play principally entertainment, education, or political propaganda? How  seriously does Aeschylus want us to take it?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most significant uses of the Agamemnon narrative that Aeschylus employs is to show how the cycle of human violence is a never- ending one. Homer emphasizes human violence from a political and military point of view. There is a sense of honor that governs the warriors on Homer's battlefield.  For example, Homer shows Priam to beg at the feet of Achilles and also displays the wrath- filled warrior showing humanity and compassion in his mourning. The violence and bloodshed that has been so intrinsic to war has been alleviated as human dignity is affirmed in the honor of warriors. The ending of the Iliad is one where there is a potential for redemption. Even sadness and death on the battlefield is understood in a proportional context. Hector recognizes that he cannot escape his fate and he faces death as a result. While we recoil at the sight of his body being desecrated, the audience does understand that this is a consequence of war. 

Aeschylus internalizes this and applies such savagery to the domestic realm. Whereas Homer focused on the battlefield and the political or military exploration of the human predicament, Aeschylus examines the domestic domain.  Within the private and subjective realm, Aeschylus focuses on the raging and seething anger that fuels acts of vengeance and knows no end.  This is different than the ethics that govern the battlefield.  In the Orestia, Aeschylus hones in on the intensity of emotions that exists in domestic relationships, a realm that potentially exceeds the blood lust of the battlefield.  

Homer depicts a world where violence has an end.  One side wins, the other loses.  Both go home to their respective ends and the conflict is resolved.  In the world of the domestic terror that Aeschylus illuminates, there is no real end to the conflict that exists.  The anger and resentment which exists in the human heart is a sting that must be externalized and can only be resolved through appeal to an external force.

The ability to find an external adjudicating force in terms of the jury system rooted in the divine is where Aeschylus places his focus.  In this regard, the primary message of the play is evident.  Aeschylus depicts a work of art that has political repercussions.  The human dynamic that seeks revenge is a ceaseless reality.  When Clytemnestra tells the newly- crowned but publicly disowned Aegisthus "You and I/ control the house. We’ll put things in order," it is laughable.  The reality is that Aeschylus shows a world where no human can "put things in order."  It is as illusory as the "false dawn" that opens the drama.  Human actions are shown to have little redemption within them. Clytemnestra does not put things in order, as Orestes kills her, who in turn is haunted by the Furies because of his transgressions.  Aeschylus clearly identifies that human consciousness is filled with intense emotions towards people we supposedly love and cherish.  Some external force is needed to balance these emotions, keeping them in their proper place so that society does not fall apart due to the intensity of such feelings.  The purpose of his work is political tract in its appeal to the divine and to the juridical system to resolve disputes.  It is educational in how it evokes a brutal emotional reality.  It is artistic in its depiction of tragedy.  Aeschylus's trilogy occupies importance because it exists in all three realms.

Intrinsic to the drama's power is its depiction of characters who believe they have control, but in actuality lack it.  Clytemnestra is one such example.  She sincerely believes in the authenticity of her actions towards Agamemnon, seeing murder as the only way out.  Her hurt and anger are insatiable, reflective of an emotional capacity too difficult to endure.  She believes herself to be in control, while being controlled by other emotional and subjective forces.  In a similar manner, Cassandra possesses the ability to see the future, but has little ability to do anything substantive about it.  Perhaps, a statement can be made regarding the power of these women.  Yet, I think that Aeschylus is striving for a larger statement.  He depicts both women has possessing legitimate and authentic belief about their nature of control.  The reality is that other forces control them.

Within the perceived strength of both women, Aeschylus reminds the audience that human control and autonomy might be more illusory than anything else. Power is something that cannot be fully ascertained.  It is for this reason that appeals to external forces such as the divine and the legal system is needed, for if nothing else, human beings need to be saved from their own destructive ends and devices.  The only way human bloodshed is avoided is through faith in the external system of justice mandated by the divine.  Women and men are shown as needing to acquiesce to such a configuration in order to find some semblance of happiness in this life.

Read the study guide:
The Oresteia

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