Monday, 27 January 2014

Aegisthus - Keystone Cop?

I have just finished reading the last of the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia and although there is a sort of ‘happy ending’ in the air with the newly named Gracious ones (aka the Furies) obediently entering their generously appointed subterranean domains, Orestes acquitted of murder, the crowds at the Areopagus cheering and Athena triumphant; all this merriment, I cannot help feeling that there are a couple of odd things about the whole trilogy and more specifically the solidity of the plot framework upon which it rests.

Firstly, Aegisthus, himself the bastard fruit of a violent incestuous rape. To say that this chap has ‘form’ in the ignoble profession of rape, murder and adultery is an understatement to be sure. But more than that his presence (or absence) in the Oresteia seem s more crucial than is at first apparent. In the Eumenides during the trial scenes where the arguments for and against Orestes are being aired, we hear Orestes during his examination freely admitting to the murder of his mother but qualifying it by explaining that he was obeying the will or the oracle of the gods (Zeus), moreover Athena as his advocate declares to the jury that it is ‘not wrong’ to avenge a family blood crime and that such action is sanctioned by the gods. The fact that depending on which God sanctions it, it may either be a noble duty or terrible crime seems immaterial to the poor human pawns caught within the snares of its demands.

But hang on a minute...didn’t Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon for killing Iphigenia...his daughter, itself a horrendous and egregious case of infanticide – a blood crime requiring vengeance by the unspoken rules of honour – and a crime which must have burned in Clytemnestra’s breast and turned her against her husband? Or did it? Perhaps she considered like Agamemnon that since the victim was female it was a lesser crime than the killing of a man. This implication is further borne out in later statements made by Athena during the trial scenes to the effect that...the killing of a noble man (specifically Agamemnon) was a much more serious issue than a mere girl/woman? We must remember that Athena was herself ‘born of no woman’ but sprang out from the head of Zeus himself and is thus uniquely placed to make such pronouncements. Or is the ritual slaying of a daughter not a crime because Poseidon willed Iphigenia’s sacrifice for the sea to be calmed? Oh, she was an adulterer...oh well that’s alright then…the thinking seems to run...and what pushes Clytemnestra out of the ‘just’ category of blood vengeance is the fact that she and her lover plotted to kill Agamemnon...not for her revenge but at Aegisthus’ instigation who wanted the throne. He set fire to her murderous passions and once in full flame could not be put out save by the wisdom of the shining goddess.

The plays are awash with undercurrents of the squameous passions and furies of women gone bad/mad/vengeful… to be feared and avoided and ultimately to be forcefully controlled – or even buried underground.  Misogyny perhaps or more like gynophobia? Clytemnestra seems to be an even more powerful foe in death than she was in life when wielding the axe against the male branches of the house of Atreus. Witness the compelling scenes of Orestes’ flight to sanctuary hounded by the blood curdling Erinyes. We feel at the height of the drama that he might not make it – that the unrelenting furies will get their man.

 With the evil influence of Aegisthus removed from plot line, we would merely have a series of murders which are all ‘rational or at least justifiable acts of blood revenge’.  Without him, the trilogy would have probably run along the same lines to a similar denouement, i.e. that vigilante style revenge tit-for-tat honour killings would follow on one from the other ad infinitum until they could be resolved in a democratic way by lawful public jury trial. But perhaps then, Aeschylus could not have been able to load Clytemnestra with so much dramatic charge and make her the archetype of unjustified murder for lust or gain; sacrilegious reasons rather than acts of piety or fear of the Gods.

 Athena is laying both of these latter sanctioned motives to rest in the form of democratic trial by jury in plain sight, amongst the people, where men not Gods (albeit under her stern advocacy and guidance-more of that later) decide where justice and right shall be found and society move from chaos to law and order, its most violent crimes judged in the proper fashion. Even today we view the settling of blood feuds or vendettas to echo a more primal brutal, even lawless past. It is this past that Athenian democracy is setting out to tame to control and focus outwards like a cone of bad energy pointed firmly at future enemies rather than dangerously at its own citizens. Still, Athena warns that it could break out at any time to attack those who would be the enemies of this fledgling democracy to try to bring the times of the tyrants back for one last roll of the dice.

 So Aegisthus is crucial to the trilogy, like a tiny keystone in the centre of an archway holding the whole thing up, without him there would be no evil passions, unleashed in the form of Furies and later tamed as Eumenides, pacified, cajoled, threatened and working for us underground but still potentially dangerous to humankind..Like subterranean weapons of mass destruction. Without him there is no blue touch paper to all of this chaotic and unsanctioned bloodletting. – this unauthorized female chthonic violence and lust for blood.

All of which brings me to my second ‘odd thing’. Athena is divine advocate of reason, the trial by jury and when the verdict comes out in Orestes favour and the Furies are understandably livid with...well...fury, the goddess goes from mollification, reasoning, almost bribing and finally to a flash of divine anger and a thinly veiled death threat to get them to accept an ‘offer they can’t refuse’.

So much then for the democratic process of law and the art of persuasion by word not violence of the better more just course of action.  In this sudden outburst the key message of the trilogy is briefly overturned …we have come from the chaos of endless blood feud to the law and order of the court and the jury…only for the chief advocate to threaten to ‘do you in’ if you don’t just shut up and take what you are being offered. 

With our over-obsession with the blood and gore of these plays (almost all modern renditions seem to ‘go to 11 on the volume control’ with the sex, gore and slashing aspects more than an original performance might have I suspect) we risk overlooking these hairline structural faultlines which may in turn afford us clues to some of the deeper and often contradictory currents at work in the masterful and innovative play triptych of the Oresteia.




  1. Thought provoking post, S! Aegisthus does seem to have a key role to play. I looked the story up in Robert Graves Greek Myths and in other versions Aegisthus does seem to come over in a more positive way. In some versions it is him who avenges his father by killing Atreus, although other versions suggest he was only a baby at the time so in no position to take revenge. Thyestes, following Atreus' death had taken over Mycenae, however, King Tyndareus of Sparta forced him out and installed Agamemnon in his place. Graves says that Aegisthus 'fearing Agamemnon's revenge fled to King Cylarabes, son of King Sthenelus the Argive'. Later, as we know from the play, Aegisthus did not accompany Agamemnon to Troy but preferred 'to stay behind at Argos and seek revenge on the House of Atreus'. Having allied himself with Clytaemnestra on Agamemnon's return he participate with her in Agamemnon's killing. Once she has thrown the net over her husband Aegisthus strikes two blows with a two-edged sword before Clytaemnestra beheads Agamemnon with an axe. Aegisthus then, with his supporters, fights and defeats Agamemnon's bodyguard.

    In this version we might question Aegisthus' motives and actions, but he is represented as participating fully and displaying physical bravery. Aeschylus obviously presents him in a different way. He doesn't participate in Agamemnon's murder, he appears before the people of Mycenae with his bodyguard and it is they who draw their swords and almost come to blows the crowd. His self-justifications are presented as specious and he himself as a coward - he didn't go to fight at Troy and he let his lover murder Agamemnon.

    Why would Aeschylus portray him in this way? In the play he does add an element of corruption and decadence to Clytaemnestra's Mycenae. It seems to add to a sense in which she is negatively portrayed, perhaps an element as you suggest, of mysogyny, or that a woman taking on this role of revenge is more 'unnatural' than would be the case for a man. In the Libation-bearers this is given an extra edge by he report of Clytaemnestra's further mutilation of Agamemnon's body. The city Orestes returns to is not one of order but dark, oppressed, corrupt. This then points up the contrast with Orestes as the liberator, and also, although he follows through with his fate as avenger of his father, unlike Clytaemnestra, he has doubts and then is consumed and pursued by his guilt. He is presented in a positive light and we end up on this side, even though he kills his mother, an action that one might think is even worse than killing a husband. And if we see him in this more positive light it might help us overlook Athena's slightly undemocratic cutting off of any further action by the Furies that you point out.

    1. Thanks as always for your extensive and insightful comments – There is a lot of back story for Aegisthus (Robert Graves etc) with the House of Atreus cycle of stories which tend to present a series of what-ifs and variant endings/beginnings for a lot of the semi-mythic Homeric/Mycenaean King era characters and all kinds of details which must have provided Aeschylus with a rich palette in order to build up his own picture of the man.

      One implication of your observation of the presence of these back story elements for Aegisthus is that it could lend a bit of extra leverage to my own theory (and it is just a theory by the way!) of this character being a key if not the key character – or a black hole character…invisible (often off stage or referred to and with not a lot of centre stage presence or dialogue) but with quite a gravitational pull. Indeed the question is as you say, why does Aeschylus present his characters in such a way and what are we, the initial 5thBC audience and we the modern interpreters of the work to make of it? One explanation may be in that this damages the character of Clytemnestra and besmirches her – she becomes an adulterer, an intriguer to overthrow the rightful lord of the palace, Agamemnon. In short she is the wrong kind of transgressor...for ignoble ends. I think I mentioned this previously at our last meeting that without such ignoble aspects, Clytemnestra would have been a mere female transgressor. As an adulterer she is female sexuality in its wild unleashed and dangerous-to-male order mode. Paradoxically, Elektra is also a transgressor against the male-order but for good ends...for justice...male justice in the form of restoration of the male line of inheritance and by extension her reinstallation as a dutiful woman.

      Women are often transgressive in Greek plays in the sense that they are often taking on male roles to achieve their usually just or noble ends. I suspect that for the predominantly male audience this formed part of the ‘frisson’ of the tragedy, women transgressing their traditional societal boundaries in pursuit of justice. Whether or not they are successful in their cause (often not I suppose for the purposes of a satisfying tragedy and perhaps to reassure the audience that women transgressing either achieve male ends through the power of that role or end in failure when the patriarchal order is threatened).

      Another thing...who were the audience for such performances? If we assume that they were all male with full citizen rights, what kind of message over and above the aesthetic entertainment qualities were they getting from this kind of performance? Are the performances then for men only in order to re-enforce the kind of ordered society they wished reflected? I wonder what they said to their wives when they went home...’I’ve just seen this marvellous play at the Dionysia’, and the ensuing conversation – surely there must have been women that were curious about these performances and even those who may have witnessed them or parts of them. Sadly the record is silent but I feel there must have been some sort of dialogue there. Or could it be that Aeschylus was genuinely seeking to challenge this status quo by showing the double binds that women were cast in when they tried to become genuine agents of justice when the word was turned upside down by evil acts? Or are we imposing ideas from our more ‘enlightened’ era in order to make sense of these plays and reimagine the performances for our own times? I would like to think that some of the later dramatists may have started to become aware of this potential – but in fact with Aeschylus we are still at the stage of fledgling Athenian democracy/order (the polis) against the chaotic disorder of the bad old times of the tyrants (here read Mycenaean rulers) with women cast as the transgressor both for good and bad ends.