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.