Skip to main content

Full text of "Omnibus Issue 26"

See other formats

Orestes faces the Gods 

Melanie Peart 

'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' Orestes 

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