Part of what makes the West odd, even unique, is our tendency to prize justice over the bonds of blood. Radical critics sometimes take this description farther than our literary and religious heritage really indicates. The Oresteia trilogies address this theme directly.
One of the reasons why I suspect that this play is taught and performed today less than it once was is because the entire point of the plot is to reinforce the artificial (if god-given) construction of the family, and its necessarily patriarchal nature. This justification comes out of the statements of both Athena and Apollo in The Furies in plain language.
For those of you who need a refresher (or if you’ve never read or seen the plays), this trilogy has much in common with the story of Hamlet. The plot is set in motion by a curse upon the house of Atreus (Agamemnon’s noble family). Atreus’ brother Thyestes cuckolded him, and then Atreus retaliated by feeding Thyestes’ children to him at a feast. This is also referred to as the ‘banquet of babes.’
Yes, like that one South Park episode, except with kids.
Agamemnon is the brother of Menelaus (husband of Helen), and their shared curse is partially why they both suffer so much during and after the war with Troy.
The first play concerns the return of victorious Agamemnon from the war. Before he arrives, there is much discussion among the chorus about the descent of his house into disarray.
His treacherous wife, Clytemnestra, does a superb job of pretending to absolute loyalty (p.32) :
All this I bore, and now, released from woe,
I hail my lord as watch-dog of a fold,
As saving stay-rope of a storm-tossed ship,
As column stout that holds the roof aloft,
As only child unto a sire bereaved,
As land beheld, past hope, by crews forlorn,
As sunshine fair when tempest’s wrath is past,
As gushing spring to thirsty wayfarer.
So sweet it is to ’scape the press of pain.
With such salute I bid my husband hail!
Nor heaven be wroth therewith! for long and hard I bore that ire of old.
Shortly afterwards, when Agamemnon’s guard is down, his wife murders him, along with his concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, who predicts the murder — and its avenging — before it happens.
Clytemnestra has a few motives: first, because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, like a “sheep or goat,” to ensure safe passage home. Second, because his absence for so many years caused her so much misery. And third, because he had taken concubines.
Although this does not play a large part in the play, she also murders the bastard children of Cassandra and Agamemnon.
So, in the play, we have a wife who can say incredibly sweet words, and then turn around to assassinate her kingly husband, delivering the throne to her lover, Aegisthus. Politically, this results in a long tyranny. After she kills him, she forbids that his subjects even be permitted to mourn him.
Aegisthus, rich both with treasure and the love of the queen, buys off most of his opposition and kills the few who resist openly.
When her son, Orestes, returns from Athens (where he was being fostered from his youth) to avenge the crime at the behest of his sister Electra and the ghost of their father, their mother speaks in her own defense, in a way that might be familiar to those of you who have known contemporary divorcing women justifying their actions (p. 104):
Nay, but recount thy father’s lewdness too.
Home-keeping, chide not him who toils without.
‘Tis hard for wives to live as widows, child.
Nay, ’tis thyself wilt slay thyself, not I.
Beware thy mother’s vengeful hounds from hell.
How shall I ‘scape my father’s, sparing thee?
Living, I cry as to a tomb, unheard.
My father’s fate ordains this doom for thee.
Ah, me! this snake it was I bore and nursed.
Ay, right prophetic was thy visioned fear.
Shameful thy deed was — die the death of shame!
And so, he slays his mother, the traitor, and the tyrant also.
In the third play the ghost of his mother and the goddesses of vengeance, the Furies, pursue Orestes, seeking their own justice. Orestes goes to the temple of Athena, and that goddess, the people, the Furies, and Apollo sit judgment upon him. Towards the end, Apollo affirms the patriarchal principle of the family in plain words (p. 136):
This too I answer; mark a soothfast word,
Not the true parent is the woman’s womb
That bears the child; she doth but nurse the seed
New-sown: the male is parent; she for him,
As stranger for a stranger, hoards the germ
Of life, unless the god its promise blight.
And proof hereof before you will I set.
Birth may from fathers, without mothers, be:
See at your side a witness of the same,
Athena, daughter of Olympian Zeus,
Never within the darkness of the womb
Fostered nor fashioned, but a bud more bright
Than any goddess in her breast might bear.
And I, O Pallas, howsoe’er I may,
Henceforth will glorify thy town, thy clan,
And for this end have sent my suppliant here
Unto thy shrine; that he from this time forth
Be loyal unto thee for evermore,
O goddess-queen, and thou unto thy side
Mayst win and hold him faithful, and his line,
And that for aye this pledge and troth remain
To children’s children of Athenian seed.
In other words, women have fewer legal rights to their children than the father does. To be fair, not everyone in the chorus agrees with what Apollo says, one of the Furies being upset that the ‘young god o’errides mine ancient right.’
The Furies are the old gods of nature. Apollo and Athena are the children of Zeus.
In case the audience doesn’t get the message, Athena agrees with Apollo here:
For me no mother bore within her womb
And, save for wedlock evermore eschewed,
I vouch myself the champion of the man,
Not of the woman, yea, with all my soul, —
In heart, as birth, a father’s child alone.
Thus will I not too heinously regard
A woman’s death who did her husband slay,
The guardian of her home; and if the votes
Equal do fall, Orestes shall prevail.
The jury acquits him with a tie, and the city of Athens with it earns a blessing.
When we contrast the outlook expressed by the gods in this play with the one held today, we can see some sharp differences. Namely, in law and by the state religion, the father has no rights, and the mother is seen as the only true parent of the child.
While a court of today might not let Clytemnestra get off scott-free for killing Agamemnon, she could probably get a lawyer to kick him out of his house without the need for getting her hands wet.
It is partly for this reason as to why this play is often subjected to feminist critiques, and framed to students in such a way that condemns the moral principles that it is supposed to explicate.
I had trouble finding good free editions of these plays (there are many editions of the fragmentary plays of Aeschylus, few of the Oresteia outside web versions), but this cheap-o Dover edition worked well for me. The Amazon reviews are nonsensical, but the formatting is clean and the front matter just summarizes the plays rather than sermonizing with progressivism.
You can also try this free edition.
The ‘correct’ progressive reading of this play is to identify with the Furies, and to consider the House of Atreus to be caught in some net of human iniquity which is universal rather than only condemning that cursed house.
Their tendency to identify with the primordial deities of vengeance also resonates with some other aspects of progressive ideology, such as the reverence for primitive socities by Rousseau and Engels.
This is a rather poor reading of the tale, and it makes little sense in the context of other plays and stories from the time period. If we compare Penelope from The Odyssey to Clytemnestra, we see an example of feminine virtue as compared to feminine wickedness.
Indeed, in the Odyssey, Orestes is portrayed as a model for Telemachus, Odysseus’ son — as Nestor encourages the prince to kill the suitors despoiling the royal estate of his father.
Plays are meant to be watched rather than read. Especially with choral plays, it’s hard to make sense of what’s going on from the text alone, especially when there are no stage directions.
This is the best version that I could find on Youtube that wasn’t a student production or otherwise bizarre. It’s from the BBC National Theater production:
The performed version of this play, in comparison to the Dover version that I read, tends to make it much clearer that Agamemnon’s absence has brought misfortune to his land. At the bottom of this post, I’ll link to each part of the play, because some of the internal links are broken.
I searched around for a version for purchase to recommend, but there is almost nothing. If you can correct this, leave a comment below.
This trilogy also brings to mind comparisons with the savage cultures who practiced human sacrifice up until recently. This play portrays a time when Western pagans, also, conducted human sacrifice — it is what provokes Clytemnestra’s grief: that her husband slaughtered her daughter like a sacrificial goat or sheep. The cannibalistic crime that brought the curse down upon Atreus’ house is portrayed as an offense against the gods, rather than a sacred rite.
The Greeks also emerged from savagery, and struggled with the dilemmas associated with setting themselves apart from the rest of the wild world. Considering human sacrifice and cannibalism to be offenses to the gods are far from human universals. They are some unique aspects to the higher civilized cultures, which sets them apart from the others.
Finally, because I can’t read Greek, I have to rely on English translations, and that means that there is some distortion in my interpretation.
National Theater Performance of the Oresteia, Filmed by the BBC
The videos are all on the Youtube channel of what seems to be an insane person, so it ought to be mirrored somewhere else. The audio is awful. So is the video quality. It is still a good production. The third play is taken from an especially poor quality video tape, although it corrects itself for the most part after the first two minutes. If you know of a better quality recording, or an alternate performance which is good, please tell me, and I’ll add links to it on this page.
Agamemnon, part 1 – 46m
Agamemnon, part 2 – 48m
Libation Bearers – 1h8m
The Furies – 1h5m