The Theme of Justice in The Orestian Trilogy

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The Theme of Justice in The Orestian Trilogy

Revenge……….a dish served cold.


"Revenge is a kind of wild……" Francis Bacon

What is justice and how is it related to vengenance? Can justice be reconciled with the violence of human feeling and the forces of fate? These questions provided the theme for "Agamemnon, The Choephori and the Eumenides," the grim tragedies that makes up the Oresteian Trilogy. In these plays, Aeschyus takes on his subject the bloody chain of murder and revenge with the royal family of Atreus, a chain finally broken by the intervention of the goddess Athene. It is appropriate that the plays are a trilogy as they take on three various forms of justice.

Democracy, emerging in the city state of Athens, allowed the unprecedented power to her citizens. Among these new powers was the ability to legislate. The Greeks were attempting to establish a governmental system which would span the middle ground between anarchy and despotism. By the crimes played out in the trilogy, Aeschylus demonstrates the contrast between anarchy and despotism and judges them both guilty. He shows, by the end of the play, that the only way man ca be absolved of guilt is by joining leagues with the gods in a united effort to promote justice. The cure of continued injustice can only be ended by the cooperative effort of man and Gods.

Retributive justice is an effort established between equals. The history of the house of Atreus has been a history of retributive justice. In a moral sense, it does not re-establish order but instead states violent act upon act, each even serving to disrupt the equilibrium further. The Oresteia represents humanity's emergence from darkness to light, from aristocracy to the democratic state. It is a rite of passage from savagery to civilization.

The first book of the trilogy is "Agamemnon." Agamemnon, king of Argos, is the war hero of Troy who retuned home after 10 years. The king had left on a rather sour note, having murdered his daughter Iphigenia to appease the Gods in order for the fleet to sail to Troy. Clytemnestra, the queen of Argos, could not understand the sacrifice. Agamemnon's actions are typical of the classic Greek "male" point of view. He is concerned with issues of war, honor and welfare of the city. In contrast, Clytemnestra is more concerned with the "female" issues. When Agamemnon comes back from troy, Clytemnestra takes on the role of some backwards Penelope and murdered Agamemnon. We are shown Clytemnestra's interpretation of chthonian justice where revenge is required for various impious acts, and the Furies are sent to torment those who would go against this. Clytemnestra has taken her revenge on Agamemnon which is an example of vigilante justice. (" Ag. page 90").

In the second book of the trilogy, "The Choephri," vengeance is rarely a conclusion to a conflict, as the perpetrator would hope. It kicks off a cycle of violence which leads to even more hate, death and injustice. Orestes, their son, is now faced with a moral dilemma – to avenge the death of his father, he must kill his mother. The first act is demanded by the Gods, the second act is forbidden. Whatever he does, Orestes is right and wrong at the same time. The justice system, though, demanded that one avenge the death of a family member.

"The proud dead stir under the earth, they rage against the ones who took their lives." (- LB)

Unfortunately, the same fate awaits him if he commits matricide. Orestes chooses the latter and is besieged by the "avenging hounds incensed by a mother's blood." (LB, 142). Through this sequence of murderous events, Aeschylus demonstrates the complexity of justice. There are no winners and the cycle of violence does not end. Thus, this cycle of vengeance is not justice. The chorus gives voice to this with the words "the one who acts must suffer." Later on they state: "No man…..pg141." Thus the drama's audience is firmly aware of the need for a change. For now, orestes is relying on retributive justice, eye for an eye, as did his mother.

The brand of justice in book three, "The Eumenides," is based on the Greek concept of logos, or logic. Aeschylus shows us the rise of the court of Athens and the end of the reign of the furies that had fueled the thirst for revenge. Orestes, who gets plagues by the furies, turns to Apollo: "pg 150, ln 85." Apollo in return cleanses orestes of this crimes and sends him to Athena, who will determine the propriety of the furies dogged pursuits of him. Orestes reaches the temple of Athena with the frueis close behind him. Athena appears and asks for the facts from both the furies and orestes. Hearing both sides, Athena decides: "pg 163." She determined to appoint the judges of manslaughter and found a tribunal system. Athena also said that: "pick my best citizens."

So the trial begins, both sides, both sides of the case are heard and the jury members should (pg 770) "cast each man…." With trial being before a court of not gods, but citizens who are given the task of deciding his guilt of innocence in the matter and determining what punishment, if any, should be taken, we have a major shift from the dominant role of the gods in shaping man's life.

In the trial, the furies argue that the murder of the mother should take precedence over the murder of the rather because the father is not of the same blood. The outcome of the first trial is a tie showing the difficult pull of both sides. Because Athena prefers to see things from a "manly" point of view she broke the tie and acquitted orestes. She deemed Clytemnestra's crime, killing her husband, to be greater than that of orestes killing Clytemnestra. (pg 172, no mother gave me….). The furies are confsed and angry at the results, but Athena offers them a new position where they are no longer hate driven creatures demanding revenge but beautiful and peaceful protectors of the city.

Relative justice, in Greek society, is the supposition that an idea unjust if and only if it’s the popular opinion. The harm orestes did to his mother regardless of provocation, could not be justified because the action itself caused in justice. By killing his mother, he is making her unjust, and justice cannot arise out of injustice. Two wrongs do not make a right any more than a single wrong would.

By the end of the trilogy, it was demonstrated the power that democracy wielded. It was able to eliminate anarchy and despotism by the middle ground. Democracy allowed for the union between man and god. It was only though this union that justice could be served and the ancient laws and justice could be served and the ancient laws and ways could be overturned. A new human, justice based on argument and discussion, talk and evidence is the only possible way out, unless we want the furies back full time. The issue of justice is an immense one in the trilogy and one that carried as much importance all those years ago as it does today. The evolution of society is revealed when Athena says: "The stronger your fear, your reverence for the just, the stronger your country's wall and city's safety."

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