Eumenides: Essay Q&A

Essay Q&A

1. Is Aeschylus a misogynist? Feel free to bring in the first two plays of the trilogy.

Misogyny, if defined as a tendency to feel that women are responsible for most of the troubles of the world, was common in ancient Greece, but Aeschylus was actually, if anything, trying to counter that misogyny, to promote reconciliation between the sexes.

That is not to say that he felt that there should be complete equality between the sexes. He lived in a world in which it was assumed that the man should be the dominant partner in marriage and that men should do the governing, and he did not challenge those assumptions. When Clytemnestra is the dominant partner and effectively rules the kingdom, things are clearly out of joint, simply for that reason. At the same time, Aeschylus seems to have been trying to open men’s eyes to the suffering women endure, often at the hands of men who do not understand or value them. He actually shows how much the Chorus of elders in the Agamemnon undervalue Clytemnestra, simply because she is a woman. He gives full weight to what she endured when her daughter was sacrificed. And he portrays women who suffer in men’s wars with great sympathy—think of Cassandra, or the Chorus of slave-women in The Libation Bearers.

It is in The Eumenides, however, that Aeschylus’ attempt to promote reconciliation between the sexes is clearest. The Furies that constitute the Chorus of this play rise from a mother’s curse. In Homer, Clytemnestra is described as the worst of women, and there is no hint of any problem with her death. Here, only the intervention of the goddess who is both male and female can bring peace to the rage and guilt that the Furies embody. Apollo’s attempt to argue that the mother is not truly the parent of the child is given no real recognition—Athena does not mention it, and at least half of the judges are utterly unmoved by it. And the triumphal procession that leads these awesome female powers down to the caverns where they will be held in honor forever is made up largely of girls and women of all ages.

2. Can the theme of the replacement of blood-for-blood vengeance with courts of law be seen as relevant to a modern audience?

In the first place, the theme is relevant in that it may help modern American readers see their own legal system with new eyes. We tend to see only its faults, but this play can make us realize how much suffering would be caused by its absence. And in fact, we do see that suffering wherever we see the vendetta still in action, whether in the Mafia or in gang warfare.

Perhaps most relevant, though, is a meaning Aeschylus had no conception of. He completely accepts the inevitability of war and even speaks of its glory; the most he hopes for is the avoidance of civil war. He hopes for love between the citizens of a city, but he also hopes they will share in hatred of external enemies. Yet he is aware of the danger that, in any war, anger and revenge will so take over that the victors will go beyond all limits and bring disaster on themselves. So strong is that aspect of the play that it can even be played as an antiwar play. We may find ourselves dreaming, as we read The Eumenides, of a time when people will look back on the use of war to bring about justice with the same horror that Aeschylus clearly wants us to feel at the use of personal revenge to bring justice. Certainly only a play like this could depict the replacement of war by the rule of law. It would have to bring huge forces on stage—no actions by individual human beings could adequately embody the depth of the transformation needed.

A director staging The Oresteia today might want to find a way to leave the audience with this question: how much more human suffering is needed before we learn from that suffering and replace war with true and effective international law?

3. How would you have Orestes played?

Orestes is no longer running away from the Furies—indeed, they sleep around him, according to the description given by the Pythia in the opening speech of the play. The Pythia describes him as sitting on the stone that was thought in ancient times to mark the center of the Earth, the navel stone, and his drawn sword and his hands are covered with blood. In a later speech he says that he was purified (in the traditional way) by pig’s blood while his mother’s blood was still fresh on his hands—perhaps we are meant to see the blood on his hands and sword as both the blood that stains him and the blood that at least has begun his purification. In any case, when he appears, with Apollo, after the Pythia’s long speech, the blood should be there. If the production is done without masks, as Greek drama generally is these days, it should be obvious that Orestes has aged since the previous play, simply because of the suffering he has been through. And though he is no longer obviously driven to insanity by the Furies, there should certainly be signs of the great strain he is under. After Apollo assures him that he will find means to release him, Orestes speaks for the only time in this part of the play, telling Apollo not to be neglectful of him, since certainly the god is strong enough to help. These words should be spoken with some fear. The Furies may be asleep now, but Apollo has just told him that they will continue to pursue him as he flies them over land and sea, until he finally comes to Athens.

When he appears again, that long flight is over, and his arms are wrapped around the image of Athena. He should perhaps look older, as much because of his suffering as of the passing of time, but he should speak calmly and with confidence, as he explains why he is sure that he is no longer polluted by his mother’s blood. He has, as he says, been “schooled by misery” (276). Quietly holding on to Athena, he should be like the eye of the storm as the Furies dance wildly about him, trying to bind him with their spells and lead him to destruction.

Again when he speaks to Athena, telling her the story, he should speak calmly, especially in his willingness to have her decide the case. A couple of lines should reflect his uncertainty about the outcome, and then there should be an outburst of joy. The sympathy that his suffering has generated may make us ready to see this as the happy ending—all the more striking when those who have persecuted him must be transformed before the play can end in joy.

4. Discuss the effect Aeschylus may have hoped to have on the political situation in Athens. You may include the first two plays of the trilogy.

Athens had been through a time of great upheaval in the years before Aeschylus produced his Oresteia, and there had even been some bloodshed. Those who wanted major change in the direction of democracy had been successful, but it must have seemed unclear that the city could continue to grow and change peacefully. It seems likely that Aeschylus intended to deliver a message of hope and reconciliation.

The first step, taken in the first two plays, was to bring alive for his audience, which would have included a high percentage of the people of Athens, the full horror of a world in which justice was pursued through vengeance. If one of the opposing parties resorted to violence and then the other responded in kind, he must have wanted his audience to feel, that would represent a return to the nightmare of a world in which human beings became Furies in their pursuit of justice through revenge; he must have wanted Athens to reject that path.

Then he created the final play of the trilogy to carry the message of hope and reconciliation. He suggested to the conservatives that the court of the Areopagus had once been a new creation, and thus suggested powerfully that new human institutions could represent real progress, not just a threat to the established order. At the same time, he reassured them that the stripping away of the powers of the court had still left it its most important function, jurisdiction in cases of homicide, and that the court still deserved the utmost respect.

For the radical democrats, he had a message of the need for continued respect for traditional values, seen as embodied in the Furies. It may be necessary to change institutions, but such basic values as respect for parents must be protected by a horror of wrongdoing.

And for both sides he had a vision of the beauty of persuasion as the means to be used to end violence and win agreement, as well as a lesson in the need to respect decisions taken by duly constituted institutions, whether one agreed with them or not.

5. How can The Eumenides be interpreted in the light of depth psychology?

Depth psychology sees universal archetypes playing out in all the myths that embody the deepest insights of humanity, and the epic and drama that use the Greek myths have always been a rich field for those interested in depth psychology. The universal archetype that underlies the story of Orestes as Aeschylus tells it in this play is the Quest archetype, as Joseph Campbell has described it in Hero with a Thousand Faces. The basic pattern of this archetype involves an experience of difficulty of some kind, a journey that symbolizes a going to a deeper level of the psyche, and a return to the ordinary world transformed. How deep the meaning embodied in any example of the archetype depends on the storyteller and the culture.

In The Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the Furies—the guilt and rage that have been stirred up by his mother’s killing of his father and his own killing of his mother. He longs for freedom, but the Furies threaten to drive him mad and destroy him. Apollo seems to embody the rational, male approach to the problem, providing rational arguments that justify what Orestes has done and a ritual meant to cleanse him, but Apollo cannot free him from the Furies. Apollo knows this, and sends him to Athena. The deeper level of the psyche that Athena embodies is suggested by the fact that she is both male and female, as well as by her ability to welcome and respect the Furies instead of just despising them as Apollo does. It is also suggested by the fact that Orestes is able to stay calm and centered in the face of the frenzy of the Furies, once he has his arms wrapped around the statue of Athena.

Where the play differs dramatically from other embodiments of the Quest archetype is in the final scene. If the whole focus were on Orestes, on the transformation of the individual, the play would be much more like other Quest myths. But Orestes leaves, once the votes have been cast, and we do not see enough of him after his acquittal to really sense his transformation. And that seems right. Even though the trilogy of which this play is part is called The Oresteia, it is far more than the story of Orestes. It is the story of the horror of a world in which people tend to be taken over by the Furies, and the beauty of the transformation of the Furies when they are neither indulged nor repressed, but fully honored and welcomed, and the energy they embody is made available for growth and creativity—again, a central insight of depth psychology into what it takes to liberate the human psyche.

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