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The Power of Zeus Teleios in the Oresteia

The Power of Zeus Teleios in the Oresteia

Is the action in the Oresteia preordained? Is the trilogy simply a working through of destiny and fate; the ultimate telos of the events being the downfall of the house of Atreus? Are the characters in the story destroyed by themselves or by the necessity of the deeds that are carried out? These are some of the questions I will discuss in this essay.

I wish to concentrate on the end of the story as we know it, the Eumenides, with reference to character portrayal in the previous parts of the trilogy. The characters I am really interested in discussing are Klytaemnestra, the Erinyes and Orestes in particular, but am also going to make brief reference to the characters of Elektra and Athena.

Klytaemnestra appears in all three plays in the trilogy: which through repetition, for me at least, makes her the most important character. More than anything, in the Oresteia, we watch Klytaemnestra become powerless. It is her transgression of limits1 that we see rectified.

Klytaemnestra in Agamemnon is a strong and wilful woman, who relishes her part in the downfall of Agamemnon himself. She is proud of her action, accepts full responsibility for his death at her hands; she takes her vengeance against him for the death of Iphigeneia2. This is shown in lines such as ‘I exult’ (A 1417) and after she kills him, ‘you think I’m some irresponsible woman?’ (A 1425). Aeschylus uses her to embody the powerful ‘heroic’ ethic of vengeance – blood for blood.

This is unusual firstly because she is a woman; it would seem more appropriate to use a hero in the traditional Homeric sense to embody a heroic ethic. Secondly, we have the dichotomy between the markedly female Erinyes, visualising the nature of ‘blood for blood’ in Eumenides and the act of vengeance itself – expressed in Homer as a male ‘heroic’ ethic.

We know this is the start of a trilogy because an audience cannot see a woman – especially one as anti-matriarchal as Klytaemnestra – triumph over a king as famous and respected as Agamemnon. Her downfall is intrinsically tied in with his; she catches herself in the ‘great net’ (A 1402) and it is her struggles that ‘merely tightened the tangle.’ (A 1403).

Oresteia – The Issue of Justice in Aeschylus’ Eumenides

Oresteia – The Issue of Justice in Aeschylus’ Eumenides

The concept of justice is manifested through the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The old tradition of justice, the private blood feud, caused an ungoverned succession of violent acts that spiralled uncontrollably. Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover, is introduced in Agamemnon; he desires vengeance for the plot contrived by Agamemnon’s father (Ag: 1605-1611).1 Neither Agamemnon nor Aegisthus took part in this “plot” and yet as the chorus explains (Ag: 755-6)

‘But ancient Violence longs to breed,

new violence comes

when its fatal hour comes,’

The justice system of this period demanded that one avenge the death of a family member, this can be seen in The Libation Bearers (Lib:45-60)

‘The proud dead stir under the earth,

they rage against the ones who took their lives.’

So Aegisthus must take the life of Agamemnon (because Agamemnon’s father is not available) in order to let his father’s spirit rest. Thus, one need not have an active part in a wrongdoing to be slain for it in the name of justice; one simply had to be members of the same family as the wrongdoer. This ability to substitute family members for vengeance purposes led to a back and forth phenomenon between two families, as soon as one family avenged its member by ‘kill(ing) the killers in return’ (Lib: 149) the other would pay them back in kind. As the chorus proclaims (Lib: 394-8)

‘It is the law: when the blood of slaughter

wets the ground it wants more blood.

Slaughter cries for the Fury

of those long dead to bring destruction

on destruction churning in its wake!’

Similarly, Clytemnestra wants retribution for the fact that Agamemnon brought misery (A…

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…stage a trial scene with a jury and an enacted vote, a genuine coup de theatre not apparently emulated by his successors.’ So Aeschylus was a pioneer and the originator of Ally McBeal and Perry Mason. I think he would be very happy about that.

Works Cited

Aeschylus ‘The Oresteia’ (translation: R. Fagles) Penguin (1977)

Cartledge, P. “Deep plays”: Theatre as process in Greek Civic Life’ in P.E. Easterling The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy Cambridge (1997)

Conacher, D.J. Aeschylus’ Oresteia: A Literary Commentary Toronto (1987)

Goldhill, S. ‘The Language of Tragedy: Rhetoric and Communication’ in P.E. Easterling The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy Cambridge (1997)


1. All references to the text are taken from Fagles, R. translation (1977).

2. For more on this subject read Conacher, D.J. (1987) pages 197-212

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