Tragedy in The Orestia
Length: 1737 words (5 double-spaced pages)
The human will desires transcendence. Instead of recognizing the physical and mental limits of our species, we labor to circumvent them. The desire for immanent achievement, transcendence and supremacy becomes especially apparent whenever man attempts to intervene against nature: in medicine, we attempt to secure immortality through antibiotics and surgery; in contemporary moral culture, we attempt to justify and defend sanguineous deeds of the past and present through constant objectification and qualification; and in psychology, we attempt to simultaneously separate and unite the brain and mind through psychoneurological principles. Mysteries of the natural universe are unhidden by the scientist; conventional societal customs no match for the renegade individual. The ideal of transcendence is further glorified in myth and bolstered in social culture: firefighters, who can control the uncontrollable, are deemed heroes and death camp survivors, who triumphed against the worst odds, are called heroic. The desire for transcendence is no longer different from the desire for progress or for whatever else a society might deem desirable. Transcendent ideals themselves—among them to be stronger and smarter, go higher and faster, live longer and happier—have become desired ends in social culture. As such, when we wish for progress and betterment we really wish for transcendence. Aeschylus’s Oresteia is a tragedy which reflects progress in its own right.
Early evidence of this transhumanist and thoroughly romantic modern human will, i.e., a will that is idealistic, intuitive and independently-critical, can be traced to ancient Greece. Cleisthenes’ establishment of a stable Athenian democracy in the early sixth century BCE marked a progressive revolution in political organization. Ancient Greeks from that point on recognized the novelty and significance of a political system which placed sovereignty in the hands of the collective individual. Athenian citizens grew comfortable in a democratic regime: with comfort came confidence, and with confidence came cockiness, insolence, and ebullient hope. Thus were sown the seeds of the western will.
Greek tragedy, which Aristotle claims evolved from hymn-like dithyrambs performed at festivals honoring the God Dionysus, negated the supremacy of the individual and denied man’s freedom from fate. The establishment of democracy was strong evidence that attested to the transcendental capabilities of the human will, but the tragic drama exposed several potential problems. Certain vague commonalities seemed to govern every man, and if man could not escape his own limits, especially those imposed by emotion, family, and duty, how could the individual will be truly supreme?
If man could not determine the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils, what allowed him to resolve any dilemma? Most importantly, if man could not pass the greatest litmus test of all—achieving immortality—what claim had he to perfect freedom? Tragic form, therefore, portrays the downfall of the heroic will, a downfall dramatized in the fall of a hero.
The Oresteia functions as a tragedy by following many conventions of the genre. Tragic protagonists have personalities of great stature and are frequently of high social status so as to magnify their tragic collapse and to inspire in weaker, common man little hope of resistance to the powers of fate. These protagonists suffer a fall logically necessary and unavoidable because of the excesses of their personality. In the Oresteia, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are notable tragic protagonists. Both are characters of high social status, both possess grand magnitudes of impressiveness and brazenness, and both suffer demises caused by the weight of their inescapable characters. Agamemnon is a warrior king, bold and honor-seeking. He achieves great notoriety for his sure and stolid composure in murdering Iphigenia, commands the Greek armies at Troy with great bravery solders siege of Troy, and returns home with a concubine to commit a sin of excessive pride by walking on purple robes. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, kills him. Agamemnon’s traits were his downfall: narcissistic confidence, a virtue for a successful king and commander, grew into hubris and a belief that he himself was untouchable. Agamemnon attempted to cross the boundary between man and God; moreover he would have succeeded, having been urged on by the spirit of his transcendent will, were it not for corporeal limitations escaped only through death.
Clytemnestra’s path as a tragic protagonist is no different. Her grand quality and logical source of collapse are passion. As Queen, Clytemnestra displays a strong ambitious bent that begins with her ruling in Agamemnon’s absence and continues after his murder. Strong passion is also apparent in Clytemnestra’s dealings with her children since her emotions are too easily aroused and too easily swung from extreme to extreme. When Orestes hesitates before killing her, Clytemnestra attempts to save herself through an impassioned appeal as a warm, caring mother who did everything for her children. Yet when Orestes remains resolute in his duty, Clytemnestra tries a new tactic. She becomes an intensely vindictive mother, and curses Orestes. Additionally, after the death of Iphigenia Clytemnestra is hit with feelings of extreme grief, feelings so powerful that she never achieves sound mental clarity. As a result, her burning desire for justice--vengeance--is equally powerful. Clytemnestra gladly kills her husband without premeditation or rationalization. The height of Clytemnestra’s passion is manifested as sexual lust, evident in the especially bloody spectacle that was Agamemnon’s death and again in the pleasure-driven relationship with Aigisthos. When Orestes kills his mother, he cites such indulgences and wanton passion as reasons for his act. The dominance of sexual, maternal, and political tyranny, all of which caused by unrestrained passionate urges, over acceptable motherhood and statecraft similarly assure Clytemnestra’s own destruction.
To a lesser extent, Orestes is also a tragic protagonist. Unlike the others, Orestes is a noble and prosperous man whose decency is neither excessive nor inadequate. Orestes is the only individual whose virtue and flaw is an attempt to do good. The onset of Orestes’ demise, trial before an Athenian court, emerges as a result of trying to follow divine imperative and honor the tradition of his oikos.
Tragic justice is purely retaliatory and driven by fate: whoever commits the crime does the time, time that is often served for eternity. Tragic justice exists in several instances in the Orestia. All of Greece wars against Troy because Paris has violated the sacred guest-host relationship demanding hospitality and respect by stealing Helen from Menelaus. Clytemnestra slays her husband, Agamemnon, after he murders their daughter to secure from the Gods safe passage across the sea to Troy. Orestes murders his mother, Clytemnestra, at the command of Apollo to avenge her murder of his father. Finally, the Furies seek out Orestes to pay for his act. There is a corresponding punishment for every crime regardless of the circumstances surrounding the crime; this attitude of justice is fair to the Tragic mind.
In response to egregious wrongs committed against him by his brother, Thyestes, Atreus kills his brother’s child, and commits the first of many murders by his household. As Thyestes fled, he placed a curse on the Atreus household, the oikos and source from which subsequent generations derived identity, and thereby ensured that every subsequent act of patricide, matricide, filicide, etc. committed by the Atreus family reflected the inescapable power of fate. The continuously regressive cycle of murder and punishment repeats because the murderous family kills not out of choice, but because uncontrollable familial law demands the continuation of the Atreus clan’s chain of death.
Tragedies exist in universes hostile to man and present dilemmas of conflicting values. Men cannot escape their powerlessness in such worlds, and wind up presented with equally legitimate choices that converge on the same negative result. Agamemnon is presented with a choice before sailing to Troy: he must either conduct Zeus’ bidding by warring against Troy—and in the process sacrifice his daughter and incur punishment from Artemis and angered Furies—or appease Artemis and spare his daughter, and suffer punishment from Zeus—the shame and condemnation from men. Since no god is spared from anger by either choice, Agamnenon’s fate is sealed before he chooses. Similarly, Orestes faces irreconcilable demands from the gods in avenging his father’s death. Apollo demands that he kill Clytemnestra, yet this act would bring the full malevolence of the Furies upon him. The tragic hero is faced with a dilemma in which neither outcome is comfortable because no real choice exists.
Though Aeschylus’ Oresteia may not meet every criterion of a tragedy, it remains as one. Perfection is a mark of the romanticized human will and conformity to a precise set of standards is a manifestation of the struggle for perfection. Tragedy denies that the western will exists, and any tragic work should not operate outside the parameters established by the work. Any work that does attempt to conform fully to convention is a work that attempts to be perfect and is a work that is unrealistic and anti-tragic. The Oresteia follows many, but not all, conventions of tragedy; because it approaches, but never reaches structural perfection, it is truly a tragic drama. It appears that a new social order based on rationality has emerged from one based on primal mandates and that Orestes’ escape from death implies an end to cycles of violence in a hostile world. However, the final act of that the Athenian court manages to avert is not indicative of a final conclusion of the cycle of violence. The court would have readily given Orestes to death it were not for procedural intervention. God-willed Fate becomes civil judgment and the duty of executioner is relegated from the family to the state. Familial fate continues to affect the family because the polis has become the new oikos and extremes of rationality exist in lieu of extremes of passion (viz. Clytemnestra’s emotional call for vengeance against Orestes versus Apollo’s absurd arguments in his defense—the court is still able to be swayed by an extreme argument). Further, by using images of the now-concluded Trojan War, presenting Cassandra’s prophesies of the immediate future (which are fulfilled, having been concluded in the present), and quickly implicating the vague, indeterminate future of Athens as the eternal home to the Furies, Aeschylus’ triptych hinges the past to the present and the present to the future. The conclusion of the Oresteia is thereby marked not as a final end to tragedy, but as the momentary break between stages of its progression.