Welcome to the third and final part of this series on Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In this video, we will discuss the concluding play of the tragic trilogy – the Eumenides.
At the beginning of the play, Orestes is tormented by the guilt of having killed his mother. The Furies, who are the Greek goddesses of vengeance, chase him to the shrine of Apollo where Orestes seeks refuge. Apollo encouraged Orestes to murder Clytemnestra, so he feels compelled to help Orestes.
“I desert thee never: to the end,
Hard at thy side as now, or sundered far,
I am thy guard.”
Apollo, Orestes, and the Furies agree to go to trial before a jury of Athenians and the goddess Athena. The initial vote concerning Orestes’ guilt is a tie. Athena then casts the deciding vote, declaring that Orestes is innocent of murder.
“Mine is the right to add the final vote,
And I award it to Orestes’ cause.
Behold, this man is free from guilt of blood.”
Athena then remarks that the use of Reason is of the utmost importance to the development of laws and to the execution of Justice. She also promises the Furies that the Athenians will build them a sanctuary and offer sacrifices to them every year. The Furies are appeased, and they banish vengeance from Athens. They are renamed the Eumenides, which means the Kindly Ones.
The central focus of this play is Justice – specifically the old conception of Justice represented by the vengeful Furies and the new conception of Justice represented by Athena and the Athenian jury.
The old notion of Justice requires a strict adherence to the eye-for-an-eye principle without any regard for mitigating circumstances or undesirable consequences. This type of Justice results in a bloody cycle of revenge.
The new notion of Justice requires an accused person to be judged by an impartial jury sworn to act according to Justice. The jury should consider the circumstances and motivations of the crime, and the consequences of punishment for the crime before judging. This type of procedure seeks to banish the destructive nature of Revenge from society.
At the end of the play, the new social and moral disposition of Athens is one of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness rather than irrepressible desire for revenge. The guiding principle is that of calm, dispassionate reason. The closing pageant serves to arouse feelings of pride about the Athenian way of life, and persuade the Athenians in attendance that their way of life is best.