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Essay on Eumenides - Importance of Gender in Aeschylus' Oresteia

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The Importance of Gender in Aeschylus' Oresteia

 
       Gender is made explicit as a theme throughout the Oresteia through a series of male-female conflicts and incorrectly gendered characters dominated by the figure of Clytemnestra, a woman out of place. This opposition of gender then engenders all the other oppositions of the trilogy; conflicts of oikos and polis, chthonic and Olympian, old and young can be assigned to female and male spheres respectively.  In this essay I will look at how the polis examines itself in terms of gender by focusing on the Eumenides' exploration of the myth of matriarchy, issues of the conflict between oikos and polis and the use of speech within the polis. I will then look at how these themes are brought together in the trial and the play provides an image of resolution. Many of these issues are set up in the opening speech of the priestess Pythia as already resolved and are then reconfirmed by the trial itself and closing images order.

 

The myth of matriarchy, despite the study of J. Bachofen is not a provable historical reality. It can be seen as the result of a combination of male anxiety and a myth being used to define society and justify male-female relations within it. The Oresteia includes and alludes to several myths of rule by women as a means of informing the main action within the trilogy and giving it wider significance.

 

The opening speech of the Eumenides is a prayer uttered by the priestess Pythia, which gives a history sanctuary at Delphi. The myth Aeschylus has chosen to use here is not the standard one of Apollo's battle with the serpent, or Poseidon or Herakles but seems to be motivated by issues of gender. The myth charts a transition from female to ma...


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...s 'Never pollute / our law with innovations' (Eum. 706-707) could be taken either way.

4. See Lardinois (1992).  The physical proximity of the theatre and this cult would also emphasise the link.

5. Although it is still slightly dubious and is clamped down on from the early sixth century onwards (See Bremmer 1994).

6. See Goldhill (1992).

7. See Winnington-Ingram (1983).

8. Although skill at public speaking would always have dubious Sophistic associations.

9. Athens and Argos had recently made a treaty (461/460) and this adds further political significance to the play and could explain a shift from the house of Atreus being situated in Mycenae to Argos.

10. And indeed Clytemnestra could be seen as a physical agent of the principle of revenge in her killing of Agamemnon.

11. See Parker (1996).

12. See Zeitlin (1996).  

 


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