Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands alone as the sole trilogy that we have in extant Greek tragedy. The trilogy is connected through several important themes. Throughout the whole of the Oresteia, two main themes that are relevant to the modern world consistently clash: the idea of woman’s struggle for independence and quest for justice, and the dominance of the patriarchy.
In the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, there is evident symbolism representative of woman’s struggle to the success of achieving power and justice. One of the most important characters throughout the majority of the trilogy is the wife of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra. It is important to note that Clytemnestra is not a traditional character; especially for a woman in the Ancient Greek Era. For example, compare Clytemnestra to the Aeneid’s Dido. When Aeneas leaves Dido in order to continue on his journey, we see an out of control, irrational and overly passionate woman. However, throughout the first play, Clytemnestra is calm and collected. Time and time again, Clytemnestra seems to break free of gender and societal norms and is not controlled by her heart or feelings. Nor, does she sit back and stay out of the way of men, as one may expect from a woman of the Ancient Greek Era. Rather, she strives to not only be respected by man, but be in power over man.
In Agamemnon, animal references are employed to refer to Clytemnestra and emphasize her struggle for, and gain of, power as a female. In several instances, Cassandra refers to what can be assumed to be Clytemnestra as a lioness. “I tell you, there is one who plots revenge, a slaking lion panting in the bed.” (Agamemnon, 1398-1399). Here, Cassandra is referring to a male lion, Aegisthus, who also wants revenge because Agamemnon’s father killed and ate two of Aegisthus’ brothers. Cassandra also refers to “how the bitch tongue fawns, licking his hand, her ears drawn back in welcome – yet she will strike and slaughter with a treacherous stroke.” (Agamemnon, 1404-1406). The lioness to whom Cassandra refers is Clytemnestra, who is the perpetrator that actually murders Agamemnon. Cassandra also refers to Clytemnestra as a lioness once again later on in the play, “The lioness on two feet, she who beds down with the wolf when the noble lion’s gone.” (Agamemnon, 1437-1438). These animal references are symbolic of Clytemnestra’s struggle for female freedom. In nature, lionesses are thought of as very powerful and a pride of lions is actually very matriarchal. In prides, lionesses take care of their cubs and do the hunting. This helps establish their independence from the rule of the male.
The first example of the clash between Clytemnestra’s quest for justice, along with her strong display of feminism, and the patriarchy occurs at the beginning of Agamemnon, when the Chorus Leader (in charge of a group of elderly and influential village men) questions her statement that “‘the Achaeans have taken control of Troy.” Clytemnestra responds, “Do you scorn my thinking as you would a girl’s?” (Agamemnon, 316). Based on this response, Clytemnestra is challenging the traditional world of men which underestimates her. Yet, Clytemnestra breaks free of this equality struggle quite quickly. As soon after she is compared to a little girl, the Chorus Leader replies with, “Well said, lady. Just Like a wise man would say.” (Agamemnon, 351) Here, the Chorus Leader (a wise old man himself) has quickly learned to treat Clytemnestra with respect based upon her assertiveness.
There is also a clash between patriarchy versus feminism when Agamemnon returns home from Troy. Then, we learn that he has brought a slave girl named Cassandra with him. Clytemnestra attempts to invite Cassandra into the palace, but Cassandra does not reply. Clytemnestra then says, “Well if Cassandra’s capable of doing any better than twittering like a swallow, barbarian style” (Agamemnon, 1192-1193). Clytemnestra does not respect Cassandra because, in Clytemnestra’s eyes, Cassandra does not initially appear to be capable of speaking her mind or getting what she want; rather, she has been literally controlled by Agamemnon, a patriarchal figure. In this way, Cassandra is the antithesis of Clytemnestra. By using the term “twittering,” Clytemnestra is scorning Cassandra for what Clytemnestra takes to be “low intelligence.”
Even though Cassandra is originally assumed to be of low intelligence, the idea of the female’s struggle for power presents itself once Cassandra speaks. The curse placed on her by Apollo illustrates that even though a woman may be thought of as “dim witted,” she may still be much more intelligent than a man. After Clytemnestra and Agamemnon go inside the palace, Cassandra tries to warn the council, made up of men, that bad things are coming. “I’ll say you look on Agamemnon butchered.” (Agamemnon, 1425). Cassandra tells the councilmen quite clearly that she and Agamemnon are about to be murdered by Clytemnestra; however, the councilmen do not believe her. This is quite interesting, in that this clash between patriarchy and women’s independence almost exactly mirrors the clash between Clytemnestra and the Chorus Leader earlier in the same play. This demonstrates the foolishness of the man who thinks he is more intelligent than any woman. It also shows that the patriarchy is unrelenting in its quest for dominance.
Finally, Clytemnestra uses Agamemnon’s hubris to her advantage, fooling him into stepping on purple tapestry when he first arrives home from Troy. By doing this, Agamemnon disrespects the gods, therefore preventing the gods from helping Agamemnon when he is murdered by Clytemnestra. It is the murder of Agamemnon that represents the closest a woman will come to receiving true justice, and overthrowing the traditional patriarchy in the trilogy. Even though Clytemnestra received justice for Agamemnon sacrificing their daughter, she is not completely free of the power of man. She seems to understand this, when after murdering Agamemnon, in telling the councilmen to return to their homes, she says, “such is a woman’s saying, if any thinks it fit to listen.” (Agamemnon, 1920-1921) Also, during the last line of the first play, she says to her new lover, Aegisthus, “Ignore these harmless barkings; you and I will rule this house and set it all in order.” (Agamemnon, 1933-1934) Although one can make the argument that Clytemnestra has achieved justice in terms of exacting revenge, she has not quite achieved justice when it comes to breaking free from the influence of man. She is not able to rule by herself. Even if Aegisthus is simply a figurehead, he still holds power over her. Thus, in the first play of the trilogy, patriarchy wins the clash. And, as the play continues to unfold, the dominance of the patriarchy only grows stronger.
In the second play of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers, there is a continued clash between feminism and patriarchy, and how the both are tied to the idea of justice. However, the downfall of feminism, and the rise of the strength of patriarchy continues. In this play, Orestes and Electra, two more of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s children, look to seek revenge on their mother because of what she has done. It is in this play that the idea of woman escaping the control of man begins to diminish. “The plan is simple: Electra, you go inside, and keep what we’ve arranged to do a secret, so that the ones who killed an honored lord by treachery, will by treachery be killed.” (The Libation Bearers, 632-635) The beginning of the death of feminine freedom comes in these lines. Here, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and Electra, the daughter, hatch a plan to murder Clytemnestra. Once the plan is formed, Orestes tells Electra to stay hidden while he kills Clytemnestra himself. While the theme of justice is once again prevalent, as Electra states: “I demand justice from the unjust!” (The Libation Bearers, 453-454) the woman has no role in exacting it, nor does she have much freedom otherwise, as she is controlled by the power of man. It is also important to see that Orestes is the one directing Electra (she does not speak up for herself). Orestes’ patriarchal dominance is not only present when directing Electra. “And all you women, watch what you say: say nothing when nothing be said, and only speak what words suit our plans.” (The Libation Bearers, 663-665) Not only does Orestes weaken the idea of female independence by telling all of the women present how to act, he also seems to insult them by implying that women tend to gossip and talk unnecessarily.
When Orestes goes to the palace to confront Clytemnestra, he says to her, “Yes, my father’s fate is bringing you your death.” (The Libation Bearers, 1056). This is another crucial moment, as Clytemnestra, who for the majority of the first play had managed to slip free of the grasp of man, is now constrained; not only by fate, but by the fate of man, and of all men, her husband. However, Clytemnestra is able to exact one last act of revenge, and slip free from the grasps of the patriarchy for the time being. She curses Orestes so that “The Kindly Ones,” three otherworldly beings (“the bloodhounds of his mother’s anger” (The Libation Bearers, 1055)),who resemble old hags, now follow around Orestes everywhere he goes. For the third part of the trilogy, these beings are representative of not only Clytemnestra, but also the justice that she tries to exact on Orestes, and the struggle for the female to achieve power.
In the final play of the trilogy, Eumenides, otherwise known as “The Kindly Ones,” the theme of justice is front and center, as Orestes is tried in a court style setting in order to determine if he should be found guilty or acquitted for the crime of killing his mother. Clytemnestra would certainly like to see him found guilty, but “she wanders in disgrace… none of the gods is angry on her behalf.” (Eumenides, 113-116) Just as in the second play of the trilogy, the idea of a powerful and independent woman continues to perish. Clytemnestra is not only shown to be reliant on others (the gods), but she also gets no help from the gods and is, therefore, powerless. Meanwhile, Orestes has the full support of Apollo behind him. Finally, when Orestes is found to be not guilty, the Kindly Ones reply as having been “wronged, stripped of their honor.” (Eumenides, 823) The Kindly Ones are representative of Clytemnestra’s spirit, as she called upon them to exact justice on her behalf and, now, because they have been stripped of their honor, she has as well. Here lies the final death of the idea of female freedom in the play. Not only has Clytemnestra been killed and lost all the power and freedom that she had previously gained, but her son has been allowed to walk as a free man and, hence, his patriarchal ways will remain. Clytemnestra has been humiliated and failed to end the play on a note of triumph. Through this, Aeschylus ultimately shows the reader that patriarchy has won the clash.
All in all, the Oresteia ties the themes of feminism and patriarchy together, and then shows an ultimate winner of the clash; the patriarchy of the male world. Not only were these themes important in Aeschylus’ time, but are also significant today. As long as there are two genders, the struggle will continue.