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In the Oresteia, Aeschylus presents his three books (“Agamemnon”, “The Libation Bearers”, and “The Furies”) so that the narrative progresses from madness and lack of justice in “Agamemnon”, where Clytemnestra receives no penalty for her homicide, to Athena’s establishment of a justice system so that Orestes’ can be properly tried for matricide in “The Furies”.
The anarchy in the first book that leads to Agamemnon’s death represents an outdated way of exacting revenge, while the final book in the series breaks a potentially never-ending cycle of blameless murders when Orestes requests a trial to determine whether or not his deadly actions were justified. In essence, Orestes’ trial ends the domino effect that starts when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia. The overall themes that drive this three-book play are at and justice, the confluence of which affects the actions of Clytemenstra and Orestes and leads to the eventual development of a proper justice system.
Although Agamemnon starts the cycle of killing through his deadly sacrifice of Iphigenia, his wife Clytemnestra continues the trend through the calculated murder of her husband and his concubine, Cassandra. The chorus of Argive elders finds Clytemnestra standing over the bodies of her victims, covered in blood, potentially on the brink of insanity. In this post-slaughter scene, there is a marked conflict between the ideas of at? and justice in Clytemnestra’s motivation to kill. She believes the murders to be “justice exacted for her child” because her husband “wronged” her.
However, Clytemnestra also rejoices in the fact that she is drenched in Agamemnon’s blood, which leads the audience to ponder the level of insanity, or at?, that a person must possess to take so much pleasure in killing. Certainly, all cold-blooded murderers must must possess a degree of insanity to perform such violence, but Clytemnestra takes her detachment to a new level by expressing pure joy, which contributes to her depraved image.
Even though Clytemnestra believes that righteousness guides her actions, the death of Iphigenia has obviously “driven insane,” revealing the role of at? in her violent revenge. The presence of madness and justice in the first book of the Oresteia provides an example of how easily a character with an unstable mind can misconstrue the idea of justice. These themes also act as the underlying current, moving the plot forward to more deaths in the later books.
In the second book, “The Libation Bearers,” justice is a prominent theme again when Orestes murders his mother, Clytemnestra. He returns to Argos to mourn and avenge his father’s death, a decision supported by an array of characters like his sister Electra, the chorus of libation bearers and even the God Apollo. These secondary characters believe that Orestes must enforce justice, claiming that “it is the law, that spilled blood soaking the ground demands blood in return” (85.400-401). These characters’ views represent those of the entire city.
They believe that the only way for the community to heal from Clytemnestra’s crimes is for the son of Agamemnon, Orestes, to wipe his mother from the earth and claim his title as the head of the House of Atrius. This represents the old-world idea of an ‘eye for an eye’, which is justice led by at? rather than by a fair trial. It is this common belief that pushes Orestes to committing matricide in the first place. However, in doing so, he garners the wrath of the immortal Furies, who are the Gods responsible for avenging human wrongs. The Furies, which Clytemnestra invoked, afflict Orestes with a “depravity that drives him mad” as punishment for his crime.
When Orestes appeals to Athena for justice, he breaks the deadly cycle and presents the contemporary idea of an organized justice system. Orestes’ inner conflict between at? and justice represents the trajectory of civilizing the process of justice from an internal, self-judged blood feud to an external system where objective parties must agree on an appropriate punishment. In this way, madness and passionate revenge evolve into calm, reasonable justice over the course of the Oresteia.
In the end of the Oresteia, Aeschylus asserts that, “he peace for both citizen and settler will last forevermore” in Athens due to the breakdown of the old system of murder as retribution. The insanity and feeling of justice that drives the characters, notably Clytemnestra and Orestes, leads to a cycle of suffering and death. Instead, the establishment of a proper justice system leads to a peace that holds, bringing order to the chaos and instilling a level of civilization.
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