In Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, we are first introduced to Orestes, the son of the late and betrayed Agamemnon. He appears, hidden, before the grave of his father as his sister Electra is making libations in her father’s honor. This second part of the trilogy takes place an unknown number of years after the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes has been exiled for most of his life in central Greece, in Phocis.
Like Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca, Orestes disguises himself as a wanderer, or a beggar with news of the death of Orestes. In doing so, he is welcomed into the home of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Why does he put them through this elaborate ruse if he is only going to kill them? In disguise, one is capable of acquiring greater knowledge -as in the case of Gyges the lydian (recall in Book I of Herodotus’s History), or Odysseus in The Odyssey, or even Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Orestes is looking for knowledge. He wants to hear from the words of Aegisthus, the usurper, and his own mother Clytemnestra about the state of the house and the death of his father. As was customary in Greek theatre, the acts of violence occur offstage -first Aegisthus is killed when Orestes reveals himself and then Clytemnestra rushes to the scene to discover that he is, indeed, her son. The Libation Bearers concludes with Orestes being haunted by the furies, or the “Eumenides”, as he is forced to flee his own family’s palace.
In the closing part of the trilogy, The Eumenides, a chorus of furies confronts Orestes as he stands before the temple of Athena in Athens (though the play curiously opens with a confrontation between Apollo and Clytemnestra). The Chorus argues that Orestes should be found guilty or else everyone who commits the crime of matricide in the future will be found innocent, Apollo comes to testify on behalf of Orestes, and Orestes leaves his fate up to Athena. In making her proclamation at the end of the trial, Athena states:
“No anarchy, no rule of a single master. Thus
I advise my citizens to govern and to grace,
and not to cast fear utterly from your city. What
man who fears nothing at all is ever righteous?”
“These words I have unreeled for my citizens,
advice into the future. All must stand upright
now, take each man his ballot in his hand, think on
his oath, and make his judgment. For my word is said” (The Eumenides 690-710).
In addition, upon reading the verdict that Orestes is found innocent, the Chorus of Furies responds by letting loose the tight hand of vengeance, though not gently:
“Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden down
the laws of the elder time, torn them out of my hands.
I disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger
shall let loose on the land
the vindictive poison
dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground…” (788-785).
Orestes was found innocent, by an evenly cast ballot which is deemed fair by Athena.
In Aeschylus, the chief characteristic of the tragedy is the action and the backdrop. The tragic component is a function of the war in Ilium, and the curse that has been brought upon the house of Atreus for it. The Oresteia is a play about the end of the cycle of vengeance -revenge and requital are replaced by a Republican form of judicial accounting -wherein a formal trial decides the fate of someone. However, Aeschylus reaffirms Greek mythos by installing the arbiter of justice as the god Athena, not a mortal man. Justice is still divine and super human, but it is also attainable to man on earth. In presenting it in this way, Aeschylus gives a hopeful, redemptive work of art that reinforces the Athenian way of justice and life.
In the place of self-destructive furies, Athena praises the future of the city of Athens, capable of self-governance, bound by reason rather than vindictiveness. In doing so, Aeschylus reaffirms a noble lie about the birth of the democratic sensibilities of Athens. Unlike Sophoclean, or even Euripidean tragedy, Aeschlyus’s tragedies engage the background and the plot as primary -in other words, the fate of Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Electra or any other one individual is not the ultimate subject of the play, instead it gives way before the story of the transformation of a people from vengeful to upright and judicial. It concludes with a cautionary hope for the future of democratic man.