The Libation Bearers
The chorus calls Orestes the savior of Argos, and that he is, but in a different way than they imagine. Orestes returns home after years of exile at the prompting of Apollo, in order to exact vengeance for his father's murder. But, while he begins the play as a boy rebelling against his mother's power in order to affirm his own male identity, by the end of the play he will come of age and assume a far more complex form. For, in order to kill his mother, he must take on some of her strongest traits.
Despite Electra and Orestes' glowing praise for their father, the audience knows that Agamemnon is not the most appealing character. He has committed every crime for which Clytamnestra is charged, and without the developed sense of compassion and inner struggle that we see in Clytamnestra. He murdered his daughter, committed adultery with Cassandra, and overstepped his bounds by walking on the finest tapestries of the house when he returned home. Furthermore, he is not strong enough to resist Clytamnestra's wily words, and easily falls prey to her persuasions.
In contrast to both Agamemnon, and Aigisthos, Orestes is a worthy adversary for Clytamnestra. He is the only one who can equal her metal prowess and physical presence. The chorus is quite wrong when it says that Orestes is only his father's son. Orestes is the perfect combination of his mother and father; or rather, he becomes so over the course of the tragedy. He is, perhaps, the only man in the Oresteia whom Clytamnestra respects, evidenced by her plea that he let her grow old with him. Orestes cannot accept this solution, however, as his rigorous sense of morality and Justice demands that he complete his words with actions. If he did not kill Clytamnestra, Orestes would not be a son worthy of her respect.
Although Orestes inherits many of his mother's attributes, his sense of civic duty is very much in keeping with Agamemnon's. Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter so that the Greek fleet could sail to Troy, thus condemning himself to death in order to allow his society to prosper. Similarly, Orestes committed matricide, a heart wrenching and disgusting act, in order to preserve the order of society. Ultimately, his personal suffering brings the old and new orders to a head, and the modern law courts are the result. If Orestes had not sacrificed himself to a higher cause, this crucial step in the history of civilization could not have been taken. Aeschylus tells us that Orestes's act is meaningful and positive on many levels, thus ensuring that the suffering of the house of Atreus has not been in vain.
In discussing Clytamnestra, a highly complex character, we must separate what we learn from her story from what the Greeks would have learned. The Greeks did not hold women in high regard, and would have seen Clytamnestra's intelligence and resolve as a gross overstepping of the natural bounds of female existence. Or, at least, this is the impression that we get from the chorus, which is as close a representative of Greek ideals as we can obtain. Modern readers, on the other hand, are inclined to see Clytamnestra in a far more positive light, as a good mother and fierce fighter for what she believes is right. In actuality, she combines these two conceptions into a fascinating hybrid portrait.
From one point of view, Clytamnestra is the anti-ideal of a woman and mother. Electra prays towards the beginning of the play that she will never grow up to be like her mother, and Orestes says that he would never live with one such as her, and that he would rather die childless than do so. By killing Agamemnon when he is naked and vulnerable in his bath, Clytamnestra violates the sanctity of the home. She abuses her intimate access to Agamemnon, killing him when he least expects it. The chorus is horrified at the idea that after ten years of fighting on the battlefield for Greece, Agamemnon comes home not to a peaceful home and loving wife, but to a bloody death. According to them, this is tragically unfair. Clytamnestra must suffer for her perversion of the female role in society, and Orestes is elected as the agent of her just punishment.
However, Aeschylus's Clytamnestra is a far more complex and compelling character than the chorus can see. Clytamnestra in fact has been a very good mother, as she avenged her daughter's murder and sent Orestes away for his own protection. She has also passed on her traits of intelligence, moral fiber and fierce resolution on to her son. Sadly, these same traits necessarily lead to her own downfall, as Orestes will hold her accountable for her crimes. She is a cunning and powerful viper whose son has also grown up to be a viper, and who does not hesitate to bite the breast that fed him.
Electra seems to act more as a foil for Clytamnestra than as an independent character. As with Clytamnestra, how we analyze her role in the play is dependent upon our point of view. From the chorus's standpoint, Electra is a commendable girl who knows her place in society and who supports rather than threatens the proper male order. In doing so, she highlights her mother's socially dangerous tendencies, and shows us how far Clytamnestra has strayed from her proper position in society. Electra also differs from her mother in her emotional attachment to her brother, whom she cared for tenderly as a child and to whom she now confers all of her love. Clytamnestra is too fierce to be able to display such tenderness.
From a modern reader's standpoint, however, Electra is a weak character, one who is all talk and no action. She is unable to independently construct a prayer to her father's tomb and to the gods, and must as the chorus for assistance. She is slow to recognize the signs that so obviously indicate that Orestes has returned. While she wholeheartedly joins Orestes in praying to Agamemnon's spirit to help them punish his murderers, her only contribution towards this goal is her silence. The lesson we learn from her is that a good woman is a silent woman who stays out of sight whenever possible.
Electra is also weak in that she is so quick to unleash passionate hatred upon her own mother. While Orestes sees the necessity for punishing Clytamnestra for her crimes, he does not viscerally hate her in the same way that Electra does. At one point in the kommos, Electra becomes furiously out of control, calling on Zeus to "crush their skulls! Kill! kill!" Orestes never loses control in this manner, nor does Clytamnestra for that matter. Electra is the ideal Greek woman, and also a person to whom we would never entrust the power of judging someone else's fate. She is far too weak, ruled as she is by her emotions rather than her logic. Perhaps her anger ultimately stems from her realization that she will never achieve the same kind of bond with Orestes that her mother has, for she is not their equal. Perhaps this is also the reason behind her fierce defense of Agamemnon against her mother's crimes: she feels an affinity towards her dead father, who also could not match up to Clytamnestra.
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