Is Justice in The Oresteia Ever Achievable?

The Oresteia is a marvelous compilation of the three plays by the famous Greek playwright Aeschylus. The theme of justice is closely traced throughout the play. The earliest play in the trilogy, Agamemnon, portrays justice as revenge. According to the old law of antique times, when a blood family member is murdered the next of family must take vengeance for that murder. Accordingly, in the second play titled The Choephoroe, Orestes must revenge his father’s murder, but with the aim of doing so he must murder his own mother.

However, according to this logic, “the Erinyes will punish him for the murder of his mother, but if he should fail to avenge his father, they will punish him” (211). This creates an appealing dilemma for the young character. Aeschylus brings in a ray of hope into this bloodstained collection by creating a viable resolution. The third play, Eumenides, endeavors to convince the Erinyes and the humans by transforming justice as revenge into civic justice. The Oresteia’s illustration of justice simply as vengeance in the first play shifts to become a justice based upon ethics and forethought in the third play.

Aeschylus forces the reader to deliberate the thin line between right and wrong by presenting a dilemma, which the main character must surmount. Aeschylus introduces the theme that one crime breeds another and provides a history of irreverence for which must eventually be punished. The theme of revenge can be traced back two generations to the time of Agamemnon's father, Atreus, who had quarreled violently with his brother Thyestes. As a result of this quarrel, Atreus killed Thyestes's sons and fed them to him at a reconciliation banquet.

Thyestes, overcome with horror, produced a child with his surviving daughter. The offspring of that sexual union was Aegisthus, the future lover and coconspirator of Clytemnestra. The Curse on the House of Atreus prevails as the chorus alludes to the sacrifice by Agamemnon of his daughter, Iphigenia, “By gagging her lovely mouth to stifle a cry that would have brought a curse upon his house,” (41). Nonetheless, Clytemnestra hears Iphigenia’s cries and blames the chorus for “raising no opposition to Agamemnon, who sacrificed his own child” (105).

Clytemnestra cites the sacrifice of Iphigenia as justifiable means for murdering Agamemnon. Thus, it appears that the cycle of murder and revenge will go on forever unless an acceptable moral solution is found. The depraved cycle resumes in the first play of The Oresteia, when Clytemnestra deceptively murders her husband, Agamemnon, upon his return from the battle of Troy. She “swears by the justice accomplished for her child” (106), but it is all too evident that she revels in the murder.

The Chorus describes “the blood-fleck in her eyes as clear to see” (105). The audience learns of Agamemnon and Cassandra’s murder “from the king’s cries of pain from inside” (101), but upon her return she basks in the glory of the murder saying, "I rejoice, if you will rejoice, but I exult in it,” (104). The reality that she exults and rejoices in the murder is unmistakable from the words she utters afterwards. She has no doubts about what justice involves: it is based upon revenge.

She acts in accordance with the old ethic to destroy those in the name of vengeance. However, she fails to reflect that “blood once shed necessitates revenge” (126). Orestes must kill his mother to avenge wrongs done to his father. The diction in The Oresteia reveals the true character of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, through their usage of personal pronouns in their speeches. These two characters are considerably egomaniacal, never considering the warnings of other characters due to their vanity.

Agamemnon could have ended the cycle of revenge if he had listened to the Chorus when they told him, “In time shall you learn by inquiry which of the citizens has guarded the city justly and which has failed to keep the proper limit” (72). The Chorus was warning Agamemnon that while he was gone Clytemnestra did not act as a devoted wife should act, but he ignores their warning. Furthermore, he is easily coaxed into dishonoring the gods by walking on “embroidered splendors that you should only honor the gods with” (77).