Revenge as a means of obtaining justice was more acceptable in Homer's society than in our modern society, which has a formidable criminal justice system.
-Define the nature of revenge in mythology. Under what conditions is it acceptable as a means of justice?
-When it is unacceptable?
Hamilton's depiction of Greek Mythology features a complex understanding of revenge as justice. Revenge in mythology comes out of a character having experienced an egregious wrongdoing. Individuals in the Greek tradition who demand revenge do so from the point of view of having been offended and the revenge is contingent on the will of the divine as giving consent to such retributive means.
Such analysis can be seen in the narrative of Jason and Medea. Medea feels wronged as Jason does not reciprocate her love once he has established himself as ruler. Medea's revenge is one in which she kills Jason's intended and then kills their sons as a way to inflict maximum pain upon Jason. Hamilton depicts Jason as not worthy of pure heroic status. At the same time, this does not blunt the fact that Greek society viewed Medea's claims of revenge as insubstantial. She is a woman and she is not from the Greek culture, coming from Colchis. Her claims to revenge are not something that the larger configuration would authenticate, and thus revenge is not seen as a means to justice for Medea. Hamilton's depiction of Medea is not one in which the divine echoes her claims at being wronged. Rather, she is shown to be almost a rogue agent of action. She acts inappropriately, using magic and sorcery to achieve her ends. Greek society and the larger divine element do not support Medea's actions. Through this, Hamilton makes it clear that such a path of revenge is not valid and is unacceptable as a means to achieve justice.
At the same time, revenge is seen as an acceptable path in the case of Menelaus. Menelaus feels slighted at Paris's insult. Menelaus offered his home and hospitality. In exchange, Paris steals his wife, Helen, and runs off with her to Troy. From that point on, Menelaus demands a sense of justice by seeking revenge. In this particular instance, a social norm in Greek society has been violated as Paris broke protocol and expectations. At the same time, the divine has weighed in on separate sides of the issue. Athena and other Olympians favor the Greeks, while Apollo and other Olympians favor the Trojans. Revenge is seen as appropriate in terms of the need for the war to start. In this instance, revenge is linked with honor.
While Medea might have experienced disrespect in the subjective, Greek society and the divine did not view it in the same light as the Trojan War. In this instance, revenge is understandable and a sense of justice through conflict is understood. Pride, philos, and a sense of arete all become intrinsic within such a pursuit of justice. The result of such vengeance is the death of many soldiers, including Patrocles, and the insulting death of Hector. While it might have been sanctioned, Hamiton articulates the pain intrinsic to revenge in the fate of the Trojan Women:
We stand at the same point of pain.
We too are slaves.
Our children are crying, calling to us with tears, “Mother, I am all alone.
To the dark ships now they drive me,
And I cannot see you, Mother.”
The path of justice through such revenge is sad and mournful. Yet, as it is sanctioned by society and the will of the divine, it is also necessary for restoration and unity to once again emerge.
Finally, a very interesting element of revenge as justice is seen in the narrative of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In this construction, justice as revenge is seen as a type of replication of evil. Agamemnon is shown as needing to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to secure victory against the Trojans. It is a decision that Hamilton shows is complex and brutally agonizing:
[I]f I must slay
The joy of my house, my daughter.
A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl
Slaughtered before the altar.
Hamilton displays Agamemnon's decision as being motivated by both his desire for victory and the need to act in the name of something larger. Agamemnon acts in the name of the divine and in the name of his position as leader of men. The "altar" is a direct reference to the end goal towards which Agamemnon acts. Clytemnestra is shown to pursue justice in the name of something larger. In her case, it is the duty she shows towards her daughter as well as her duty as a mother. Revenge is shown as complex, not entirely without merit, but also one that cannot be fully embraced. The revenge with which she kills Agamemnon is shown to offend the divine and larger social element, as evident her in her own death. Justice as revenge is understood, and its motivations are grasped, and sometimes, even shown empathy. Yet, Hamilton shows that when revenge violates established social and spiritual norms, the Greeks could not embrace it as something upon which individuals could base their lives. For Hamilton's understanding of mythology, revenge is a human experience, but one that must be seen in a larger configuration.