The Cycle of Vengeance in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
The cyclic thread of vengeance runs like wild fire through the three plays in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. This thread, with its complexity of contemporary and universal implications lends itself quite well to – in fact, almost necessitates – deeply interested study. While a brief summary of the Oresteia will inevitably disregard some if not much of the trilogy’s essence and intent, on the positive side it will establish a platform of characters, events, and motives with which this paper is primarily concerned. As such, I begin with a short overview of the Oresteia and the relevant history that immediately precedes it.
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As John H. Finley, Jr. has rightly put it, “Both Agamemnon and Aegisthus perpetuate their father’s infections” – Agamemnon by the slaughter of innocents and Aegisthus by the adultery with Clytemnestra (Pindar 258). The Libation Bearers speaks of the remaining children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, who (with some urging from Apollo) avenge the death of their father by killing both Aegisthus and their own mother. The Furies, enraged by Orestes’ violation of the filial bond, pursue his punishment. The Eumenides covers the taming of the Furies, the reconciliation of the dominant opposing forces in the trilogy, the establishment of Athena’s court of law, and, as J. J. Pollitt argues, “brings us out of the earlier dark irrationality into what seems an enlightened world of order and reason” (30).
Each of these acts, excepting the first and the last, is both a consequence and a cause: every individual involved sought to avenge the horrid act of an offender – each seemingly sought justice by way of retribution. By identifying only a single reason or cause each for the vengeful acts outlined above, it is easy to generalize this chain of events into cyclic manifestation of the age-old law “an eye for an eye.” Much is lost in this simplification of the story; the story’s beauty lies in its complexity, in the fact that it is not a simple, linear chain, but rather, an intricate network whose nodes are persons and whose pathways are the major and not-so-obvious ulterior motives of the persons involved. The beauty lies, in short, in the dirty, multifaceted nature of human motivation and experience.
Take, for example, the situation of Agamemnon. In the Oresteia, Agamemnon is dually described by the Chorus as an agent of justice and a killer of his own men: he seeks justice for the wrong done his brother – for the seduction of Helen – but he does so by sending innocent men to war (Aeschylus 105-106). The Chorus wails on: “now in place of men ashes and urns come back … All for another’s woman” (Aeschylus 119). He follows the will of Zeus by seeking revenge upon Paris, but angers Artemis in doing so. Furthermore, Agamemnon brings back from Troy Cassandra, his war prize and concubine. Finley points out that Cassandra is to Agamemnon nearly what Helen is to Menelaus and Paris: “the flying bird that the child can never catch” (Four 40). This adds a component of sexual jealously to the situation of Clytemnestra, described below.
A better example may be that of Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra, unlike the Oresteia’s other characters, shares an intimate connection with all the other major players: she is wife to Agamemnon, lover to Aegisthus, and mother of Orestes and Electra. The indirect relationships between characters such as Orestes and Aegisthus or Agamemnon and Aegisthus must in some way involve her. As such, her situation is of special concern; she becomes the central node of the network of...