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Pericles' Funeral Oration

Pericles and America

Pericles and Philadelphia

Aeschylus' Oresteia

Sophocles' Oedipus and the Sphinx

Plato's Apology

Plato's Crito

Yet to be illustrated:

Dr. J's Lecture on Socrates


The Oresteia: Bringing Structure and Unity to a Core Course"

by Janice Siegel, Temple University

originally presented at

The Association of Core Texts and Courses
Third Annual Conference

Tradition and Innovation: The Full and Open Discussion
DoubleTree Hotel
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
April 10-13, 1997

Today I will speak about using the Oresteia to bring structure and unity to a core course. The comments presented here are connections and ideas generated in discussion among my students, my colleagues and myself in honest and open interaction with texts and ideas, in class and out, this past year at Temple University. The particular texts these discussions involved this past term are: Aeschylus' Oresteia, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone, Pericles' Funeral Oration (from Thucydides' Peloponnesian War), Plato's Apology and Crito, selected poems by Sappho, Genesis and Exodus (Old Testament), Gospel of Matthew (New Testament), selected surahs of the Koran, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, Galileo's "Starry Messenger," Machiavelli's Prince, and Shakespeare's Othello. As with any investigation, since the original conception of these ideas, many themes and threads identified here have become apparent in other texts. In a course such as ours, which purports to be an intellectual history/history of ideas/survey course of various genres of literature from antiquity through the Renaissance - otherwise known as Intellectual Heritage 51 - I don't believe that anyone would question the need for a Greek drama on the syllabus. But I hope to prove its particular usefulness as a foundation-builder for the rest of the course. I invite the perspicacious reader to use this study only as a point of departure.

The Oresteia offers many great teaching opportunities, especially for those of us who have an extensive Greek slide collection and know how to use it! I like to take my students on the Orestes Trek, tracing his footsteps from the Lion Gate at Mycenae to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, to the Aeropagus at Athens, site of the culminating scene of the trilogy. Included in such a slide show, of course, is a tour of ancient theaters so they can view the orchestra of the theater from the vantage point of an audience member, see a Greek chorus in action, and stare at the breath-taking sight of the sylvan vistas which surround all Greek theaters, a primary structural requirement since they are all carved into mountainsides. But before our students can absorb the Oresteia as ancient theatergoers would have, they must become familiar with the story known to every person in the Theater of Dionysus that day in 458 BC when Aeschylus' trilogy won first prize: the story of Clytemnestra's murder of her husband Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the victorious Greek attack on Troy, father of Orestes. He is also the next recipient of the Curse of the House of Atreus. Because the Oresteia is based on a legend that would have been known to the Greek audience through Homer and others, we now have a reasonable excuse - and need - for introducing material from Homer's Odyssey, for which there is, alas, no room on our syllabus. Officially. Sophocles' Theban Plays offer no such opportunity. Providing information now about Homer's poem and the tradition of epic poetry helps not only in terms of filling in plot details, but will come in handy later when we present the Sundiata, another epic which springs from an oral tradition (in this case, the Mandingo tradition of Old Mali). The Oresteia is knit from thematic threads which run throughout the fabric of courses such as we all teach: we shall see similar themes and plot developments in texts from other cultures, as well as direct reflections/imitations of Aeschylus' art in diverse works in the Western tradition. Since the Oresteia is, in fact, about the founding of a new order and a new system of justice, there is no better place for us to start than with the subject of crime and punishment.

In the Oresteia, the Furies are presented as the goddesses of vengeance born of the intergenerational violence perpetrated by son upon father (we recall they are born from the drops of blood that hit the ground after the castration of Ouranos by Cronos):

And the blood that Mother Earth consumes clots hard, it won't seep through, it breeds revenge and frenzy goes through the guilty, seething like infection, swarming through the brain. (LB, 66-69)

The libation bearers of the second play attempt to convince Orestes that murdering his mother is the right course to take in order to avenge his own father's death at her hands. They remind Orestes that in the world of Mycenean justice, a brutal world ruled by Zeus' Law, the spilling of kindred blood demands a literally retributive response, the spilling of more blood:

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! (LB, 394-398)

The image of spilled blood crying out for vengeance is powerful...and familiar. We also recall that all the trouble for the House of Atreus began when Atreus punished his brother Thyestes for raping his wife by tricking his brother into eating his own children. Aegisthus, Thyestes' son, will help Clytemnestra plot the murder of her husband Agamemnon, Atreus' son. These two murderers will then be killed by Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who will then send the Furies after her son for the crime of spilling parental blood. But it all began the generation before with brother-on-brother violence... which also rings a bell. It is, of course, in Genesis where we read of two other brothers, the one spilling the blood of the other. That victim's blood, too, cries out for vengeance. After Cain murders Abel, God asks, "'What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!'" (Gen. 4:10)

In both stories we have a divine power responding to the spilling of kindred human blood. Even the metaphor of a ground that drinks in spilled human blood appears in both texts:

the mother's blood that wets the ground,
you can never bring it back, dear god,
the Earth drinks, and the running life is gone.
(Furies, Eum. 259-261)

(And the Lord said,) "And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand." (Gen. 4:11)

This brings us to the question of punishment. Cain is exiled for his crime,

(And the Lord said,) "When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.
(Gen. 4:12)

and the Furies argue that Orestes should be too:

Can a son spill his mother's blood on the ground, then settle into his father's halls in Argos? Where are the public altars he can use? Can the kinsmen's holy water touch his hand? (Furies, Eum. 661-664)

When one of my students wrote in an essay, "killing is a form of banishment," I almost slashed it through with a red pen, assuring myself that proofreading would have caught such an obvious blunder. But the line stayed with me, and it slowly dawned on me that, as misled as this student might have been in her articulation of the point, the basic idea was sound: both killing and banishment serve the same purpose, to remove the perpetrator of a crime from his community. Ostracism is an admittedly severe punishment for anyone with a sense of community identity, and we see the same suggestion of a choice between death and banishment as appropriately equivalent punishments in many of the texts on our syllabus, beginning with the Oresteia. Toward the end of the first play, Clytemnestra is justifiably outraged when the chorus, composed of old men of Argos, sentence her to banishment for murdering Agamemnon who received not even a word of chastisement for sacrificing their daughter, the crime she is avenging:

"And now you sentence me? - you banish me from the city, curses breathing down my neck? But he - name one charge you brought against him then. He thought no more of it than killing a beast, and his flocks were rich, teeming in their fleece, but he sacrificed his own child, our daughter, the agony I labored into love to charm away the savage winds of Thrace. Didn't the law demand you banish him? - hunt him from the land for all his guilt? But now you witness what I've done and you are ruthless judges." (Ag. 1437-1448)

She will, in fact, be murdered by her own son instead. But surprisingly, those punished thus generally consider banishment to be the more hurtful of the two options: when God banishes Cain instead of killing him, he cries out, "My punishment is greater than I can bear!" (4:13) Cain's lament will be echoed by Shakespeare's Romeo, also banished instead of sentenced to death, a reduction in sentence deemed clement by all but Romeo: "Ha, banishment! Be merciful, say 'death'; for exile hath more terror in his look, Much more than death. Do not say 'banishment'!" (Romeo and Juliet, III.iii.13-15) This, of course, is the opposite ploy of the innocent Desdemona, who negotiates unsuccessfully with her husband Othello: "O, banish me, my lord, but kill me not!" (Othello, V.ii.94). We note that only innocent victims plead for any chance at life over death (except, of course, Socrates!).

In the pseudo-mythological era of the Trojan War, Mycenean Greeks live violent yet poetically justified existences, as presented in the Oresteia: each perpetrator claims to have "right" on his side; each perpetrator is reacting to a past wrong; even those who are committed to end the cycle with "one last death" only perpetuate it (the closing words of the Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy, are Clytemnestra's immediately following her murder of Agamemnon: "We will set the house in order once and for all."). And each character believes his retributive act of justice is appropriate (we recall Clytemnestra's cry of "act for act, wound for wound" as she slays Agamemnon for the murder of their daughter, and Orestes' stony response to Clytemnestra's cry for mercy: "You killed and it was outrage - suffer outrage now.") Orestes' situation is an unresolvable paradox: the law states that the murder of a parent must be avenged, and that children may under no circumstances murder their own parents. What, then, can Orestes do, since his mother murdered his father? As a system of justice, these Mycenean laws - created and executed by a divinity - accomplish nothing positive at all in terms of the society, community or even family: crimes breed retaliation, intergenerational curses visit the sins of the father upon the son, families are decimated. The cycle of violence inexorably turns, with no end to the carnage in sight. Orestes' unresolvable conflict causes this system to collapse under its own weight, thus breaking its stranglehold on the people, allowing them to develop laws of their own, to learn and grow, to become the Greeks of the Golden Age, governed by the laws of the polis. Before the law-givers and law-enforcers can use their judgment to administer the law, however, there must be an agreement concerning what the law is, so it must be written down. Only then can interpretation be allowed, as opposed to the Furies' rigid and uncompromising attitude toward all rule-breakers, justified or not.

We see the same progression in the Old Testament: in the Five Books of Moses we can trace the progression from divine punishment to human-delivered punishment and in regard to human punishment, a movement away from violent reactionary justice toward compensatory retribution. God himself punishes the first murderer, Cain. But soon enough God delegates that responsibility to men: in Genesis 9:6 (the covenant with Noah), God says, "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed" (which presumably is why Moses does not get into trouble for killing that Egyptian in Exodus 2:12). Then we get the "thou shalt not murder" commandment (which still appears to be different from "kill" as God himself commands the community to kill a man who breaks the Sabbath (Numbers 15:35). It is in Exodus that the laws are written down and codified and it is in Exodus that we are presented with the "eye for an eye" proposal:

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Ex. 21:23-24)

The very next verse makes it clear that this code of behavior is presented as compensatory retribution, not literal retaliation:

When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth. (Ex. 21:26)

This is a big step in the development of a justice system, for what good is your attacker's tooth or eye to you, even if you have lost your own? The perpetrator is now responsible for paying appropriate compensation (the idea "eye for an eye" can also be read to mean "only an eye for an eye"), and the community and its citizens reap the rewards.

On to the New Testament. We note Jesus' rejection of any kind of violent response to violence: "You have heard it said , 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also..." (Matthew 5:38-39) Is this meant to be understood literally? No, for Jesus communicates in metaphor ("Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing." (Matthew 13:34) So too are we to understand this advice in a figurative sense: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." (Matthew 5:27)

In these parallel traditions, we see a similar development of law and justice, complete with a paralleled system of authority increasingly delegated to the people: Mycenean Law yields to a written law code and a human-staffed jury-system to enforce it. In Genesis, God's will is Law - he has just to utter his desire and it is so: "Let there be Light!" This power of God, by the way, explains Islam's rejection of Jesus as the son of God: "When He decrees a thing, he need only say: 'Be,' and it is. (Surah 19:36). God's law becomes the law of the polity in Exodus, and Moses writes down the rules so he and other just men can serve as judges of the people. Jesus comes "not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it" (Matthew 5:17), and he too delegates responsibility, charging his apostles with the mission of spreading the words and acts of God (Matthew 10:7-8). In the Book of John, we see the Biblical progression concerning the development of law most clearly articulated: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh." (John 1:1-14)

Then there is the Koran. Born of a different time and place, the ideas we so easily relegated to the realm of metaphor take on startlingly new significance: "We decreed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and a wound for a wound. But if a man charitably forbears from retaliation, his remission shall atone for him." (5:46) Are we to understand that retributive vengeance is acceptable, although not encouraged? The Koran outlines very specific, real punishments for particular crimes: "Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land." (5:34) And, "As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut off their hands to punish them for their crimes." (5:38) In the West African Mandingo tradition, which celebrates the thirteenth century AD Islamic foundations of the Empire of Old Mali, the epic hero Sundiata, who wears "the robes of a great Muslim king" (73) rules over a land in which "a thief would have his right hand chopped off and if he stole again he would be put to the sword." (82) Although appearing harsh, the asperity of these punishments is a good match for Old Testament punishments levied against certain sinners, among them death for adulterers (Lev. 20:10) and homosexuals (Lev. 20:13).

In the Oresteia, we realize that a system of justice which offers no viable options to an otherwise innocent man is a system that will eventually destroy its society. Orestes' attempt to satisfy Mycenean Law is a lose-lose proposition. Sophocles' Antigone courts death to break an unjust law, Pericles calls for unthinking loyalty to the state in his Funeral Oration, Socrates claims a tacit covenant with the Laws of the State as explanation why he can't break them now that they are inconvenient for him. Socrates also says that there are no unjust laws, just unjust men. Plato excludes written law from his Just City because just people don't need it and wicked people won't read it. In terms of the history of Greek law in the literature on our syllabus, we see the Mycenean Age of the Oresteia give way to the Archaic Age Law Codes of Draco and Solon and Cleisthenes, to be replaced by fifth century law courts, the abuse of which is documented in Plato's Apology. In Genesis, the people are told to live by God's Law, in Exodus the Law of God is imposed on the polity, and in the New Testament, the stress is on Jesus fulfilling and teaching the law. Galileo will learn the hard way that the Law of Nature and the Law of the Land are not necessarily compatible (at this point we look back at the Apology, in which Socrates recalls Anaxagoras' similar predicament - like many others he was expelled from Periclean Athens for suggesting natural explanations for the celestial bodies), and Machiavelli will suggest that laws are only as good as they allow princes to achieve their goals. By the way, many of my students have written very good papers on whether Machiavelli would have considered Clytemnestra a successful leader or not.

But who is the law, and how is it manifested in these texts? In the Oresteia, Orestes seeks retribution for his father's murder at the hands of his mother, his true parents, but he must turn to Father Apollo for guidance and protection. The argument in the Eumenides allows Orestes to deny parenthood status to his mother, Clytemnestra, thus freeing him from the vindictiveness of the Furies, goddesses devoted to the avenging of the spilling of parental blood. Then the power of the Furies is transferred to the law courts of men. Thus the power of the law becomes parental itself, acting as the guide/protector Orestes originally sought in Apollo. This is the exact relationship identified by Socrates in the Crito when he argues that laws are guiding principles, and that we owe to the Laws an even more solid allegiance than we do to our own parents, based on the same respect and necessity. To Socrates, the sanctity of Law is inviolable, for Laws are the truest manifestations of Forms in our world.

In the Bible, too, God is presented as Father of All. But God must learn to be a parent, just as we need to learn to be good children. In his parental role, God begins by giving the gift of life. Then the teaching process begins. God sets down rules and demands unconditional adherence. God strikes out with anger when his children break their word, or fail to treat him according to his station. In the Old Testament, God is often portrayed as vindictive, temper-driven, only occasionally remorseful. His responses often call to mind a harried parent faced with crayon-covered walls and a recalcitrant three-year old. "Where are you?," God asked Adam (Gen. 3:9), knowing full well that Adam was hiding in the Garden. "What have you done?," God asked Cain (Gen. 4:10), knowing full well that he had killed his brother. The crayon-besmudged child has an opportunity to admit guilt, the parent metes out a punishment, and the learning process continues.

There is the idea, too, that law stands for more than order - it stands for humanity, a sense of community, a moral rightness. Pericles makes this point when he discusses laws which "although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without disgrace." (58) When certain inviolable laws are broken, there can be no going back. It is the law of xenia - guest/host relations - that is broken most frequently and most dramatically in the Oresteia. The violation of this law fills Greeks with such panic because the law stands for order, civilization, humanity, while violations and perversions of if threaten all things Greek. In Greek literature, cannibalism and child-feasting have always represented this threat most dramatically. The Curse of the House of Atreus actually begins with the Feast of Tantalus, four generations back, when he attempted to feed his own child to the gods. But closer to home is Agamemnon's father Atreus who invited his brother to dinner and served him his own children at banquet, the grossest perversion of guest/host relations, and related in all its gory detail by Aegisthus in the first play of the trilogy. It is no coincidence that there are breaches of this same hospitality rule in every one of the plays composing the Oresteia: Agamemnon is killed at his ritual welcome-home bath in the first play, Orestes can kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in The Libation Bearers only by abusing his privilege as a guest to gain access, and the Furies - charged with enforcing these very rules - are themselves turned away from Apollo's Temple in the Eumenides. Order can be re-established only because Orestes is absolved of his crime.

Understanding the metaphor of broken xenia as a threat to order and law, especially as reflected in such practices as cannibalism and guest treachery, comes in handy for students when we tackle the Sundiata later in the semester. Not far removed from the horrors of the cannibalism of Homer's Cyclops and Laestrygonians or the treacheries of the House of Atreus (Cassandra: "the babies wailing, skewered on the sword, their flesh charred, the father gorging oin their parts..." Ag. 1094-1097) lies Suamoro, the evil ruler in the Sundiata: he wears a robe and footwear made from human skin, reigns from a throne whose seat is human skin, and surrounds himself with the decapitated heads of his dead enemies. In each of these stories we see the same metaphor for threat to society, civilization, order and law. It is either escaped but not eradicated (Odyssey), breeds further injustices until the system breaks down and is replaced (Oresteia), or is triumphed over by the forces of Good (Sundiata).

Students who have read Homer's Odyssey may notice that Aeschylus' description of Agamemnon being killed at bath is not the story of murder at banquet Agamemnon himself tells Odysseus as a warning when they meet in the Underworld. Essentially Aeschylus and Homer make the same point: in both instances, the king is cut down while receiving the traditional displays of xenia - the laws of hospitality - in a time and place of supposed safety. So why the discrepancy? Because Aeschylus the dramatist, by painting a picture of Agamemnon having his arms pinned helplessly to his side by his entangling robe, seizes this opportunity to introduce the metaphor of the entangling web of deceit, pervasive throughout the trilogy. Fagles' translation perfectly captures its figurative meaning, rendering Clytemnestra's reference to it during her victory speech as "black-widow's web," with all appropriate ramifications. Instead of the weaving a proper Greek wife must attend to as head of the oikos - and we cannot help but think of Penelope here - Clytemnestra spins a web designed to catch her own husband. Thankfully, we also read Shakespeare's Othello, where we see another great dramatist play with the same imagery, but this time in the untranslated original. Although Othello is not the only place Shakespeare dabbles with web imagery to capture the complexities of human involvement ("Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive"), it is in Othello that he pursues the web metaphor with a vengeance. In Othello Iago weaves an intricate plot, and then lies in wait for his victims to become his prey, hopelessly entangled, completely at his mercy. After arranging for Roderigo to provoke Cassio into a fight, he announces "With as little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio" (II.i.190). Web imagery becomes net imagery as Iago sets the snare by planting seeds of suspicion in Othello that cause him to see Desdemona's innocent comments as proof of an illicit love:

"So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all." (Iago, Othello, II.iii.364)

The fact that the two tragedies that bracket this syllabus (Agamemnon and Othello) are both vengeance plays allows a basis for comparing classical and Renaissance theater, too, with a nod to Aristotle's Poetics. A closer look also reveals that both Iago and Clytemnestra have multi-layered motives: each claims as his primary motivation the desire to right a wrong (Iago wants his promotion; Clytemnestra, vengeance for Iphigenia's death), but each also has significant jealousy issues: Clytemnestra kills Cassandra, too, and Iago suspects that the "lusty Moor hath leap'd into my seat" (II.i.295) and "twixt my sheets has done my office" (I.i.387-388). Clytemnestra's speech in the Agamemnon concerning men's behavior regarding their wives makes a wonderful introduction to Emilia's famous speech in Othello Act IV. Although my last point is not directly concerned with Othello, I cannot resist the opportunity to prove an Oresteian model for one of Shakespeare's other great metaphors. Both Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's tortured admissions of bloodguilt draw on the image originally used to illustrate Orestes' innocence::

"Will all great Neptune's oceans wash this blood clean from my hand? No this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red."
(Macbeth, Macbeth II.ii.60-62)

"Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!"
(Lady Macbeth, Macbeth V.i.35)

"What, will these hands ne'er be clean?"
(Lady Macbeth, Macbeth V.i.43)

"The blood sleeps, it is fading on my hands,
the stain of a mother's murder washing clean." (Orestes, Eumenides 278-279)

In conclusion, tracing the threads of the Oresteia through the fabric of Intellectual Heritage 051 helps bring structure and unity to a course whose syllabus includes authors as far-ranging as Sappho and Shakespeare. As the sole surviving trilogy of antiquity, the Oresteia supremely represents the genre of classical tragedy, and its plot provides us with an opportunity to introduce our generally uninitiated students to Homer (one benefit not offered by Sophocles' Theban plays). This brief introduction to the epic genre both offers a foil to the lyric (in Sappho here, and in the next course in the sequence - IH52 - in Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman and Dickinson) and will facilitate students' later understanding of the Sundiata. In the Eumenides students see the shift from Mycenean justice to the Athenian democracy known to us through two other texts, Thucydides' Funeral Oration and Plato's Apology. Religion (gods or God, concept of afterlife, code of morality), politics (laws written and unwritten, codes of justice, social system) and sex (gender issues concerning culturally determined roles and interaction of men and women) are fundamental themes of the Bible and Koran as well. The gender of Clytemnestra, the main and aggressive character of the first play of this trilogy, interests our students and provokes discussion of women's roles in antiquity and modern society. In terms of the Humanist portion of our syllabus, the thematic similarity between the Oresteia and Othello makes it easy to contrast production techniques, literary conventions and rhetorical nuances in the two dramatic traditions (classical and Renaissance). The Oresteia, then, addresses the need for both tradition and innovation in a core curriculum course, and a study of the trilogy itself as well as its resonances in later literature serves both practical and creative purposes.

comments to: jfsiege@ilstu.edu

Editions Cited:

Student Guide to IH, Marra and Zelnick, edd. (new edition)
Aeschylus, Oresteia, tr. Fagles (Penguin)
Plato, Last Days of Socrates, tr. Treddenick (Penguin)
Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version)
Koran, tr. Dawood (Penguin)
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, tr. Niane (Longman)
Galileo, Discoveries and Opinions, tr. Drake (Doubleday)
Machiavelli, The Prince, tr. Wootton (Hackett)
Shakespeare, Othello (Folger Library)

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 08/02/2005
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