Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1256
Aeschylus created what is now called drama, conceiving of a second actor and, thus, the possibility of dialogue between individuals on stage. Oresteia, his last triumph at the festival of Dionysus in Athens (he wrote more than seventy plays and won the festival thirteen times during his lifetime), is the only extant trilogy, a unit of three related plays performed on one day.
Although interested in characterization and individual motivation, Aeschylus’s concerns are larger than individuals or even human character generally. He explores relationships between gods and humanity; the roles of power, hatred, and love in the creation of human values; the transformation of divinity from a rigid threat to a generous force for good; and the creation of justice out of a chaos of sexual aggression and brute rage. Oresteia explores all of these issues through a sequence of events taking place in the royal house of Atreus over successive generations.
Agamemnon, the current king, inherits a family line marked by murder, cannibalism, and other acts of extreme violence. Although the setting of the drama is in the time of the Trojan War, Aeschylus’s retelling of the myth is directed to an audience of Athenian citizens. The main details of the story would be well known to these viewers; it is the dramatist’s particular interpretation and how he relates the themes of the myth to contemporary concerns that would be of greatest interest.
Aeschylus writes in a highly metaphorical poetic style, making frequent use of images. Many of these draw upon agricultural activity, and he is particularly fond of connecting ideas of growth and fertility with sexual intercourse, bloodshed, and sacrifice. Criminal acts sow more bad deeds, and the cycle continues as inexorably as the seasons or the passage of years. Necessity is characterized as a “harness” or a “net” in which an individual is driven along like a horse or trapped like a captured animal. The songs of the chorus are rich in allusions to myths and religious rituals, frequently offering an impressionistic interpretation of events rather than a clear vision of what is happening and why. The language of the first play, Agamemnon, is particularly complex, a rich tapestry of sound and imagery with relatively little dialogue; by the time of the third play, Eumenides, the mode of expression has become notably clearer, reflecting perhaps the trilogy’s trajectory toward a resolution of the dire situation that has arisen in the royal household.
The presentation of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’s version of the tale is far from positive. His disregard for the life of his daughter, Iphigenia, as well as for the emotions of her mother, are indicative of a certain harshness of character. On the other hand, his single-minded pursuit of victory over the Trojans at all costs is what would be expected of a military leader in the heroic era. The actions of Clytemnestra, by contrast, take her far beyond what is deemed appropriate for a woman, even one of distinguished royal lineage. In luring Agamemnon onto the red tapestries, she exhibits all the cunning and deceitfulness that might be expected from a sister of Helen; in planning and carrying out the murder of her husband, she comes dangerously close to appropriating a masculine role for herself. The action of the trilogy is fraught with the clash between male and female, whose root lies in the unhappy marriage of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and, beyond that, in the adulterous relationship of Helen and Paris. The trilogy also examines the corruption of the parent-child relationship in a family scarred by abuse and mistrust.
What initially passes for justice in Agamemnon demands the abandonment of personal values and takes no account of the complexity of motivation. This is not suitable for life in a settled city-state like Athens. Outrage merits retribution through outrage, which just starts the cycle again. Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter to reach Troy had been wrong, but the Trojan Paris had been wrong, too, to violate laws of hospitality, stealing Helen from his host. Clytemnestra was right to kill her daughter’s murderer but wrong to kill her husband, who was himself the murderer. Although complicated by adultery and a lust for power, the slaughter of Agamemnon falls into the primitive pattern of one crime begetting another. The chain of guilt and retribution, begetting more guilt and retribution, goes all the way back to primordial humanity and even into the brutal histories of Titans and gods—Cronos castrating his father, Uranus, to escape imprisonment; Zeus’s conquest of his father, Cronos, who was consuming his own children in an effort to retain power.
Libation Bearers continues the pattern, but with a critical difference: Unlike self-motivated Clytemnestra, Orestes kills his father’s murderers because, knowingly or in ignorance, he is told to do so by Apollo, who tells him the murders would be for a reason greater than blood guilt (represented by the Furies who threaten to drive Orestes mad). The issue is larger than filial or political loyalty: Orestes’ history is the mythological instrumentality by which civilized justice is born. When the tragic double bind of individual motives becomes clear—he is both right and wrong; his mother was both right and wrong; so, too, his father—there can be no escape from slaughter unless governing principles change. As Aeschylus understands the problem, such fundamental changes cannot occur justly or unjustly. For him, means are not justified by ends; injustice will not lead to justice, but neither will old justice lead to change. Initially, there must be recourse to an intermediate justice, and an arbitrary severance of past practices, for change to occur.
Under the beneficent guidance of Athene, who represents wisdom and social order, the action of Eumenides accomplishes just that. Her capriciously determined vote of not guilty amounts to an admission that justice in the case of Orestes is impossible because both sides are right and wrong. Through her genius, the anguish of the house of Agamemnon has been ended. Blood vengeance is replaced by disinterested justice, in the form of trial by jury, in a state controlled by and devoted to the good of its citizens. The net in which Clytemnestra caught Agamemnon metaphorically invoked nets of serial injustice in which humanity and gods were caught. Oresteia traces a route by which humans can be set free from such nets. The system of justice established by Athene is closely connected with the Athenian legal system that was continuing to evolve in Aeschylus’s day, amid tensions between older, aristocratic power structures and newer, democratic forces.
Aeschylus generally favors the reconciliation of opposing principles, such as old and new or male and female, under the all-encompassing system of order and justice established by Olympian Zeus. Rehabilitation replaces retribution. Nonetheless, Aeschylus’s resolution remains tragic, and the ending has been viewed as less than fully convincing. Although some have questioned the reasoning behind Athene’s partiality toward the male and her denial of a mother (she did actually have one, Metis, whom Zeus swallowed and absorbed into himself), there is a definite movement in the trilogy toward a more harmonious existence. Oresteia documents the creation of a legal system and an organized system of justice, without which peaceful and productive life in a settled community would be impossible. Although Zeus remains a distant and somewhat enigmatic figure throughout the action, acting mainly through his surrogates Apollo and Athene, it is his order that is shown to triumph, however incomprehensible it may appear to human eyes.