Orestes faces the Gods
'My heroes weren't like these market-place loafers, swindlers and rogues they write
about nowadays: they were real heroes breathing spears and lances heroes with
hearts of good solid leather, seven hides thick.'
In this quotation taken from Aristophanes' Frogs Aeschylus is defending his style of writing
against that of Euripides. In order to prove the argument that he used noble heroes whereas
Euripides' were simply 'riff-raff', plays written by both men about the same hero must be
considered, and the one story they both have in common concerns Clytemnestra's death at
her son's hands.
Aeschylus' character Orestes, found in the Choephori and Eumenides, is a truly noble and
reverent man who invokes Hermes as soon as the play opens. Here is a hero of epic
proportions who stands steadfast and resolute, proclaiming his intention aloud and loudly.
He listens quietly as Electra describes her woes to the Chorus and then strides manfully
forward to tell his sister that the one upon whom her hopes rest has returned. (The
Euripides in Frogs might suggest that this is because he wishes to remind her just who the
hero is.) As eloquent as Homer, Orestes first convinces his sister with emotional words and
then feels confident enough to address Zeus with an extended metaphor, being sufficiently
clever to realize that the image of himself and Electra as eagles will raise visions of beautiful,
full-fledged birds as opposed to the half-bald, rather moth-eaten little creatures about
which he is actually talking.
Like a true hero Orestes has complete faith in the gods, refusing to question even their most
bloodthirsty commands. Here Orestes' intentions are spurred on by Apollo's threats of
punishment if Clytemnestra's actions should go unchallenged. But Orestes himself says that
it is not only the summons of the god which makes him determine on this course of action
but also his sad grief for his father and the desire to free the people of Argos from the rule
of a woman.
Orestes' decision is partly due to his personal bitterness about being sent from his home
and his birth-right. When he says
Would you had died under the Trojan wall.
My father, pierced with Lycian sword or spear.
the superficial meaning is that this indeed would have been an honourable death. But
Orestes' subconscious feelings are revealed in subsequent lines where he states the result of
such an end would be to leave
Your house enriched, your fame her boast.
Your children honoured by the eyes of all
In Argive streets.
Agamemnon's ignoble death has caused his two surviving children to become outcasts while
their mother claims the deed was done for the sake of the third.
It would be wrong to suppose that the deep emotions Orestes portrays are so ungovernable
that he murders his mother in a frenzy of grief and bitterness. He is calm and sees that in
avenging his father there will be consequences which will have to be faced. However, he
does not seem to care, he is striving almost without thought to one end:
And when her life is ended
Let mine be cast away.
The knowledge of impending doom does not frighten the young man and he accepts Fate.
His one goal is to avenge his father and his plan is both cunning and workable. Yet as a true
hero he cannot murder his mother in cold blood, and in telling her of his supposed death he
hopes to see the misery which will save them both. By killing Aegisthus first he has time to
reconsider, there is time for mother to throw herself on the mercy of her son. Even as she
kneels in supplication Orestes is unsure and questions how he could do such a thing. The
fact that he has to ask advice and cannot make the choice alone shows his terrible
indecision. In answering his mother's questions Orestes finds the reason for her execution.
As a hero of great wisdom and sense, Orestes invokes different deities so that, although his
instructions come from Apollo, he calls on Hermes and Zeus in order to gain more divine
help and guidance. His faith in Apollo is unshakable, and while he awaits his judgement in
Athens he accepts without question Phoebus' assurances; even while under going vicious
cross-examination by the Chorus of Furies he looks, with respect and faith, to, his god for
Orestes in Euripides
Euripides' Orestes however has no respect for gods and from the moment the deed is done
continually blames the god for his misfortunes. Yet true respect must be earned, and while
in the Eumenides Apollo is a trustworthy friend and advocate of Orestes, promising
I will not fail you ....
I am your constant guardian
the Apollo of Orestes watches his servant endure torment upon torment before coming to
his aid. Both incarnations of Phoebus claim that the original command came from Zeus, and
both save the man through their testimony, but Aeschylus' Apollo is close to his servant and
his oracle is respected by all, whereas in Euripides Electro the commands of Loxias are
doubted by the Dioscuri who make clear their disapproval by stating that they will say
nothing against Apollo as he is their master. The implication of their coming to instruct
Orestes is that Apollo had something better to do at that particular time. Of the four gods
mentioned in Euripides' plays concerning Orestes only Athena has the true noble bearing of
an epic deity. The Dioscuri are arrogant and inclined to gossip, and Apollo is aloof from the
proceedings as if to say that it is not any of his concern. It is left to Athena in Iphigenia in
Tauris to bring the cycle to a natural and eternal close. She stands as a goddess to whom
respect and trust are given freely. She is one of two truly noble characters to be found in
this set of Euripides' plays.
A practical Orestes
Euripides' Orestes certainly does not have the unshakable resolution that he must avenge
his father, and waits for over three hundred lines before revealing his identity to Electra.
While waiting he is able to discover Electra's plight and the feelings held towards him in
When Electra cries 'Let him be as resolute as his father's murderers were' it is a heartfelt
prayer, and only later does her brother make the statement that he has come to avenge his
His practicality in asking about the friends upon whom he can rely, the money at his
disposal, and the people who could aid him reveals that Orestes fully understands the
There is none of the relentless acceptance of Fate which is found in the Choephori. His
continual references to Fate show that he is allowing himself to be led blindly that he might
never have to truly understand the wickedness which he is about to perform. Only moments
before the deed does Orestes allow himself to comprehend the true magnitude. In
desperation he cries.
Avenging him I am pure; but killing her condemned...
But is not avenging his father and killing his mother encapsulated in one act?
This Orestes continually seeks advice from his friends and the plans to kill Clytemnestra and
Aegisthus are formulated by Electra and his old tutor. It is Electra's insistence which pushes
him towards matricide because she is the one to have physically suffered for so long.
Orestes is the first to lament the murder of his mother verbally and the first to blame Apollo
although his sister follows him quickly. Even the punishment of Euripides' Orestes is more
ignoble than that of Aeschylus' for in the Choephori the Furies hound him as ghosts while
here he is punished with great sickness, in between bouts of which he shouts out, cursing
Tell Apollo the blame is on his oracle!
A coward and a snob
That Orestes is a coward can be seen plainly when his half-hysterical sister begs him to end
her life rather than allow her to be killed by a commoner. Her brother refuses saying.
My mother's blood is curse enough.
However Orestes is only a mortal and is subject to the terror brought on by the thought of
his own execution. He quickly breaks down, thus confessing his weakness. Yet Orestes has
never lied and said that he was willing to avenge his father without being afraid of what
might happen after. But in abducting Helen and Hermione Orestes is showing himself to be
a bully and a coward as well as a rather bitter man, seeking revenge against the uncle who
has refused to help his brother's children for purely selfish reasons. It is not a very heroic
course of action, reducing Orestes to the' rather questionable practice of bargaining with
Menelaus while holding a knife to his cousin's throat.
Orestes is also a snob, distrusting the peasant to whom Electra has been married, and then,
on being made to understand the depth of the man's honour, condescending to suggest
rewarding the man. He also has the conceit to say that perhaps the farmer's actions have
been the result of fear of his brother-in-law, when it is slowly becoming apparent that the
peasant would have enough time in which to flee while Orestes debated his course of
Yet Orestes truly cares for his friend Pylades and repeatedly he tries to send his companion
away so that he does not endure the same punishment as faces the heir of Atreus' line.
Taking your pick
In Aeschylus both men and gods show an honourable demeanour and willingly act out their
destinies. In Euripides they are just humans with normal weakness. Could anyone truly obey
Apollo's command without thinking about it for a long time beforehand? Orestes'
condescension to a man of a lower class would naturally be found in men of two different
social backgrounds in any time. So Aeschylus' claims are justified - Euripides' heroes are less
noble than his own, yet in Euripides honour can be found in lesser characters, such as
Athena or the peasant who respects the woman who has been forced to marry him and
treats her in a completely honourable fashion.
Aeschylus' gods and men are of epic proportions, bold and heroic, relentless and
unswerving in their duty. Euripides men are mere humans, subject to fear and cowardice;
his gods are lazy and might ignore their duty. Yet, despite the difference in styles these two
men both present highly enjoyable plays which stimulate the audience or the reader to
think about their own values and the values they themselves attribute to god or the gods.
Melanie Peart of Teesside High School won the the first prize of £200 in the second
competition for the Gladstone Prize for this essay. The second prize goes to Andrew Nicholls
of The King 's School, Canterbury for an essay on 'Odysseus' world'. There was a strong entry
this year and we also very much liked pieces by Neill Coleman, Tania MeGee, and