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Justice in Aeschylus' The Oresteia Essay

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Justice in Aeschylus' The Oresteia


How can an endless and violently destructive cycle be just? The concept appears in places along the human timeline as diverse as the Bible and West Side Story. Why do people have a tendency to amplify and repeat violence through a cycle of murder and revenge, and how can this destructive process be called justice? In The Oresteia, the cycle is a familiar one, but is also interweaved with gender issues and a sense of justice that changes within the cycle itself. Instead of focusing on one book of the trilogy, I think it will be more worthwhile to see how these patterns flow through all three books.

         The first chapter of the trilogy is the story of Agamemnon, the war hero of Troy who returns home after 10 years. The King had left on a rather sour note, having murdered his daughter Iphigenia to appease the Gods in order for the fleet to sail for Troy. Clytomnestra, the Queen, cannot understand the sacrifice. This is the first occurrence of the so-called gender battle in the trilogy. Agamemnon’s actions are typical of the classic Greek ‘male’ point of view. He is mostly concerned with issues of war, honor and the welfare of the city. Clytomnestra, in contrast, is more concerned with ‘female’ issues, such as the welfare of the family. The Queen, during the King’s absence, becomes obsessed with her daughter’s death, and takes a new lover to the exclusion of her remaining children in an attempt to steal control over the city. When Agamemnon returns, instead of a faithful wife he finds a quick death at the hands of Aegithus. It is interesting to note that another person is also killed, an innocent. Clytomnestra kills Cassandra, a prophetic girl brought home from Troy, on a whim...


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...ause it would only allow him to act out more injustice. Still, the idea of making him a better person relative to the values of society is somewhat anti-Socratic. Socrates would rather there be an absolute ideal, without room for human opinion or emotion. Unfortunately, practical situation often preclude the actualization of his ideal. His logic still entails to the idea of relative justice. In modern terms, this would be akin to sentencing criminals to time in therapy or mental health institutes rather than incarceration. This is not so radical a departure from what proponents of capital punishment suggest. But is society ready for a justice system where the guilty are not punished? I don’t think so. As sad as it may seem, the human tendency for hate overrides true justice.

Works Cited:

Aeschylus. Oresteia. Trans. Peter Meineck. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998



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