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Binna Han

Professor Peter Awn

Literature Humanities
Justice in the Oresteia
The establishment of an effective justice system is one of the most vital elements
to any society. Personal desire for justice is inevitably bound with emotions of the people
involved, and it is this truth that makes acceptable retribution the most difficult thing to
accomplish. In every conflict that requires amends, there is a doer and an avenger, the
latter seeking satisfaction through appropriate punishment to his opposition. The conflict
between both partiesand consequentially the need to resolve that conflictleads us to
one of lifes greatest questions: what is justice? If it can be agreed upon that true justice
in its greatest form is societal and unbiased, then the personal embodiment of it, the
manifestation of an emotional need the individual has for justice is, revenge.
In The Oresteia, Aeschylus underlines family as a dangerous and inescapable
institution, in which past wrongs influence individuals to act in retribution, creating an
unending cycle of bloodshed. The murderers continually try to justify their actions by
citing the misdeeds of their family members, and casting their own misdeeds as attempts
to rectify the past. This always culminates disastrously, bringing about either the
individuals death, or (in the case of Orestes) unrelenting torment from a powerful deity.
In the house of Atreus, family becomes inescapable, because its heavy history and long
lineage never fail to mold a predisposition to future strife. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus
makes an explicit effort to separate justice and revenge. He offers us a look into the
cultural influences on justice in that era. If nothing else, Aeschylus is trying to

communicate the importance and necessity for structure. As human beings, we are all
faced with difficult decisions, and without proper methods of coping with them, we
unavoidably fall into a never-ending circle of vengeance that benefits no one.
Throughout the Oresteia, justice seems to come in the form of revenge. Cassandra
foreshadows its presence in future events when she states, we two must die, yet die not
vengeless by the gods, for there shall come one to avenge us also, born to slay his mother,
and to wreak death for his fathers blood (Aeschylus, p. 76 1279 1281). The doer of a
certain crime should be punished appropriately based on the damage he initially caused.
This is the type of justice supported in the Oresteia. Clytemnestra offers an explanation to
the Chorus, describing how Agamemnon slaughtered like a victim his own child
(Aeschylus, p. 81 1417). She then challenges the Chorus, asking them, Were you not
bound to hunt him then clear of this soil for the guilt stained upon him? (Aeschylus, p.
81 1418 1420). A particularly interesting aspect of Clytaemestras murder is her need to
justify the reason for her crime, and a denial of responsibility for it. She states:
These being the facts, elders of Argos assembled here, be glad, if it be your pleasure; but
for me, I glory. Were it religion to pour wine above the slain, this man deserved, more
than deserved, such sacrament. He filled our cup with evil things unspeakable and now
himself has drunk it to the dregs. (Agamemnon, 1393-1398)
Clytaemestra believes that she is a heroine for having killed Agamemnon, and even
deserving of glory. She asserts that her actions were warranted because of
Agamemnons transgressions, fill(ing) our cup with evil things unspeakable, and that
she merely carried out the fate he deserved. After the Chorus reproaches her for being so
arrogant, she retorts, You can praise or blame me as you wish; it is all one to me. That
man is Agamemnon, my husband; he is dead; the work of this right hand that struck in

strength of righteousness. And that is that (Agamemnon, 1403-1406). Clytaemestra is

not intimidated by the viewpoint of the Chorus, and remains resolute in her belief that she
was in the right when she murdered Agamemnon. She further warrants her actions
through the concept of righteousness, meaning a higher standard of right and wrong,
most likely determined by the gods, which backed what she had done, and allowed her to
carry out the deed. Through these assertions, Clytaemestra attempts to defend the murder
of her husband, and remove herself from any guilt associated with the murder by
claiming herself as an instrument of fate. Clytemnestra sees the murder of Agamemnon as
a necessity to uphold the honor of her daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon brought guilt
upon himself by sacrificing Iphigenia, and it is only acceptable that he be punished
The eye-for-an-eye systemin other words, revengemay be seen as an
acceptable way to resolve an issue in the Oresteia, but its benefits are superficial. The
justice served as a result of this type of system really only satisfies the avenger.
Clytemnestra describes how she kills her husband, Thus he went down, and the life
struggled out of him; and as he died he spattered me with the dark red and violent driven
rain of bitter savored blood to make me glad (Aeschylus, p. 80 1388- 1391). The
detailed description of the murder displays Clytemnestras personal enjoyment in the act
of retribution. Sheas would anyone impassioned by revengefinds fulfillment that
satisfies the anger and hatred she had for Agamemnon. But the fact that she resolved a
murder by murdering is merely righting a wrong with another wrong. The death of
Agamemnon inevitably upsets Orestes, who now seeks to kill his mother in order to
avenge his father. The never-ending cycle of revenge dooms everyone involved.

Aeschylus seems to realize the failure of revenge as suitable justice. Orestes is

torn at the thought of committing matricide by killing his mother, however his motifs for
revenge are clear when he says, Shall I not trust such oracles as this? Or if I do not trust
them, here is work that must be done. Here numerous desires converge to drive me on:
the gods urgency and my fathers passion (Aeschylus, p. 103 297 300). There is an
internal contradiction present in these lines. Orestes is motivated to kill in order to regain
honor for his father in the name of justice, and the gods, namely Apollo, encourage
Orestes to do so. It seems that he finds comfort in reassurance from Apollo as he states,
The big strength of Apollos oracle will not forsake me. (Aeschylus, p. 103 269 270)
While seemingly confident in what must be done, Orestes shows hesitation when the time
comes. He is faced with an extremely difficult situation, as he must do something drastic
to regain honor. This brings up the question: are characters in the Oresteia seeking
revenge for justice because that is what was culturally enforced?
It seems that Orestes knows what he is doing is wrong, regardless of the divine or
personal motivation, and there exists a level of irony in his actions due to this internal
struggle. In the moments leading up to the murder of Clytemnestra, Orestes tells her,
You killed, and it was wrong. Now suffer wrong. (Aeschylus, p. 126 929 930). These
lines offer insight into the true personal views Orestes has of revenge. He knows what he
is doing is inherently wrong, it feels wrong, and yet he has to do it because it is seemingly
the only right way to achieve justice. The irony in this form of justice is best described
through the clich saying, Two wrongs dont make a right. In the Oresteia, blood
symbolizes the eye-for-an-eye system, as the Chorus states, The spirit of Right cries
aloud and extracts atonement: blood stroke for the stroke of blood shall be paid.

(Aeschylus, p. 104 312 313) Just as Clytaemestra rationalizes her murder of

Agamemnon using the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Orestes similarly justifies his murder of
Clytaemestra by claiming that he committed the act strictly to avenge his fathers death.
In addition, Orestes attempts to free himself from any blame by saying that he acts on
behalf of the gods; by murdering Clytaemestra, he is carrying out the fate that, as an
adulteress and a murderer, she deserves. In the scene that precedes Orestes murder of
Clytaemestra, she tries numerous ways to convince Orestes to let her live, while Orestes
rejects all of her pleas, stating why it is imperative that he carries out her murder. I
think, child, that you mean to kill your mother. No. It will be you who kill yourself. It
will not be I. Take care. Your mothers curse, like dogs, will drag you down. How
shall I escape my fathers curse, if I fail here? (The Libation Bearers, 922-925). Here,
Orestes, when confronted by Clytaemestra with the terrible fact that he wishes to kill the
very person who gave birth to him, adamantly rejects any desire to commit the crime. By
declaring, It will be you who kill yourself. It will not be I, Orestes emphasizes that it is
Clytaemestras own actions that sentence her to the fate of death, even though he must be
the one to physically carry out that sentence. When Clytaemestra retorts, reminding him
that there will be grave consequences for the crime he is about to commit- that your
mothers cursewill drag you down, Orestes responds by stating the obligation he has
to obtain vengeance for the wrongs she committed to Agamemnon. Because
Agamemnon is tied to Orestes by blood, Orestes believes that he must take action in
retribution for the sins against his father, even if it means that he will commit a crime
against his blood to do so. Because of his family ties, Orestes is trapped. He must make
a choice between avenging his fathers death by murdering his mother, or preserving his

mothers life but failing to take action in response to the crime perpetrated against his
father. Regardless of which decision he makes, Orestes must ultimately face a drastic
consequence. The Chorus comforts the reader into believing that acts of revenge are not
barbaric, they are rightful occurrences in the justice system. This type of action maybe
seen as honorable or socially acceptable, but the truth is it accomplishes nothing. When
an avenger brings justice through murder, he places a target on his own back. The Furies
now hunt Orestes as they tell him, you must give back for her blood from the living man
red blood of your body to suck (Aeschylus, p. 144 264 265). The blood simply fuels
the never-ending cycle; it gives it strength.
Despite Clytaemestras and Orestes attempts to avoid guilt for the murder of their
family members by declaring themselves as instruments of fate and bringing up the
indiscretions of their victims, neither of them escape without feeling the consequences of
their crimes. For murdering her husband, Clytaemestra must suffer by being murdered
by the hand of her son, and Orestes pays for his mothers murder by being pursued
relentlessly by the Furies, until Apollo intervenes. Because of ties to murdered family
members, both Clytaemestra and Orestes are motivated to take action to vindicate their
fallen kin, but in doing so, are forced to commit egregious acts against other members of
their family. For the house of Atreus, the crimes of the past create an endless cycle of
violence driven by the relations each aggressor has to their murdered relatives.
Ultimately, it is the desire for vengeance that leads to every characters downfall.
The Oresteia is a perfect literary representation of what happens when you have a
justice system using irrational processes. There seems to be no end, and no lasting
satisfaction, since revenge is based on the premise that blood can only be washed away

by more blood. In this sense, justice is an illusion. Revenge serves as retribution for an
individual, not a society. In the final play, The Eumenides, Aeschylus makes the transition
to a more societal form of justice. The Furies hunt Orestes because he has killed his
mother. They represent the older, culturally accepted views, that a man who has killed
must be killed, however both Apollo and Athena will not let it happen. Athena feels that
more people must hear his case and so we finally see a shift in the perceptions of justice.
Athena states, Wrong must not win by technicalities, as she denies the Furies their
vengeance (Aeschylus, p. 150 432). In these lines, Athena finally realizes what justice
should strive to be. The wrongdoing of an individual should not be permitted simply
because he feels a right to commit it out of retribution. The trial that proceeds between
the Furies and Orestes offers us a visually represented switch from revenge as justice, to
suitable punishment as justice. An individual considered guilty has the right to be tried
and heard. Specifically in the Oresteia, the decision comes down to Athenas vote, and
while she gives a trivial reason for absolving Orestes, it is a step in the right direction for
justice. Problems can finally be settled without bloodshed. The trial system is a cork in
the bloody spout of revenge.
Oresteia comments on how justice comes to be in certain societies. Cultural
influence is hugely important to how a society views justice. If revenge is condoned as
proper retribution, then individuals within that society will act accordingly. When
revenge is sought out in the form of a court procedure, individuals will seek that type of
justice (as is evident in todays society). The eye-for-an-eye system shown initially in the
Oresteia benefits the immediate doer, but there is no end to the madness. Aeschylus is
trying to show us that the more human emotion involved in a decision, the more there is a

need for structure or a set of rules to govern the decisions made by that individual. We as
humans live together, we do not live alone, and so our actions when seeking the
punishment of another needs to benefit society as a whole.

Aeschylus, . Oresteia. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1953. Print.