Literary analysis: Oresteia, by Aeschylus

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The analysis of Oresteia, written by Aeschylus and performed at the Dionysian festival in 458 BCE, reveals the idea of justice of the ancient Greeks, as well as the line that separated humans from beasts, politics and power. In this article, I will examine each theme carefully.

Let us first look at the idea of justice. The interplay of justice and action in the Oresteia plays a part of the role Greek tragedy played in democratizing and collectivizing the heroic ethic which emerges first in Homer’s Iliad.

Tragedy played a great role in the day to day politics of the ancient Greeks. Under the tyrant Pisistratus, Athens began to reclaim her earlier standing in Greece, promoting dramatic readings of Homer, and initiating a dramatic festival in which citizen-playwrights entered to win honours and prizes (Euben, p.23). These developments meant that the structure and content of Aeschylean drama was fashioned by a new spirit of dramatic enterprise and intellectual energy which revitalized the ascetic, visionary, and architectonic impulses of Solonic poetry. It was Aeschylus who helped mould these developments and made them the animating ideology of classical notion and action.

As we have seen, drama enlarges the significance of certain political issues by simultaneously discerning a general pattern in particulars and embedding that pattern in the particular tradition of a people, and this we can clearly see in the Oresteia.

The Oresteia develops as a series of confrontations between characters and forces on both divine and human plane.Throughout the trilogy, men and women are in conflict. Apollo wishes to banish the Furies, Artemis demands perverse sacrifice when her father’s eagles devour the innocent unborn young of a pregnant hare, Zeus is at odds with Moira, Agamemnon murders his daughter, Clytemnestra her husband, and Orestes his mother (Euben, p.24).

Avenging the death of her daughter in the household’s name, Clytemnestra goes on to commit adultery, banish her son, and treat her other daughter like a slave. She becomes, not a mother or wife (which were the only appropriate roles for respectable women in ancient Greece), but a tyrant. She assumes her husband’s political power whilst he is away, and wants to rule even when Agamemnon returns. This is why Clytemnestra and her speech of insincerity, hatred, and sickening adulation obstruct Agamemnon’s way when he tries to enter the house and recommence his rightful reign. Claiming too much power for herself and recognizing too little in her adversary both dishonours justice and destroys the balance of nature.

The analysis of this clearly shows the idea of justice in two locations; firstly, in the home where men and women must limit and complement each other as the house is a space in which the continuity of generations is maintained. Secondly, in political settings, justice must also settle the difference between what is old, traditional, and hereditary and what is young, recent, innovative, and chosen. Injustice is a part masquerading as the whole, like some tyrant asserting absolute autonomy preventing the contribution of others. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the divine adversaries are the Furies (the older gods championing the ancient religion of the hearth and female) and Apollo (who was the spokesman for the younger gods, the new religion of the polis and the male). 

Let us now turn to the analysis of beasts within the Oresteia. The ancient Greeks, working alongside animals every day, believed that there was a thin line that separated man and beast. It is man who has access to justice, whereas beasts do not; they are fated to live violent lives, turning on one another, according to Hesiod. Justice can only be acted upon if spoken aloud (Heath, p.17). It is this connection with justice, speech and humanity that can be found with the Oresteia.

Animals in the pre-polis arena erected by Aeschylus are sinister creatures, refusing to accept simple figurative, that is, stylistically decorative roles. When Agamemnon transforms into an eagle, it is not a simple rhetorical expression – the bird and king merge into one. By the end of the trilogy, the bestial, human, and divine elements have been separated and guided back into their appropriate places in the polis, an institution which not only represents this correct arrangement, but also makes such an essential differentiation possible (Heath, p.17).

At the end of the trilogy, we have moved away from the family tragedy in kingly Argos to the rise of the polis in Athens. Here the correct model for dealing with the beast residing in us all has been played out before our eyes-the polis simply cannot tolerate this kind of conflation. The beast must be given its own place-in the fields and as victims to maintain harmony between man and god, community and cosmos (Heath, p.41). For Aeschylus the emphasis is on the religious and political nature of the problem and its solution, unlike Plato and Sophocles later on, where they use animal symbolism for other purposes.

The Oresteia both shows and does in its insistence that political and linguistic order must simultaneously sustain and constrain the conflicting passions that are the substance of public life.By expressing the deepest instincts and passions within the boundaries of his drama, Aeschylus as poet and political educator, articulates their powerful and essential presence in public, yet at a distance from the assembly and agora.

Insisting that men and women recognize their inevitable subjection to the contradictions of existence, his reflections on politics and justice allow them to understand their predicament and, in that understanding, find strength of character mind and action to sustain a distinctively human life.

<u>Bibliography</u>:

Euben, J. Peter (1982) Justice and the Oresteia, The American Political Science Review, American Political Science Association.

Griffith, Mark (1995) Brilliant Dynasts: Power and Politics in the “Oresteia”, Classical Antiquity, University of California Press.

Heath, John (1999) Disentangling the Beast: Humans and Other Animals in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.