Family Curse and Feud
Agamemnon’s family is a branch of the House of Atreus that sprang from Tantalus, the first ancestor to bring down the wrath of the gods. Tantalus began the curse by serving human flesh to the gods. This sin of cannibalism is prevalent in Greek myths, with the serving of human flesh to one’s enemies as a form of revenge. In every generation of this noble house, brother has been against brother, children against parents. The gods punished Tantalus and cursed his family line. Atreus and his brother Thyestes continued the curse and killing of family members. Their children, Agamemnon and Aegisthus, vie for the throne of Mycenae and the hand of Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra gives as her excuse for switching her allegiance to Aegisthus that her husband Agamemnon killed their daughter, Iphigenia, for a sacrifice to get wind for their ships, just as Queen Aerope had switched her allegiance from Atreus to his brother Thyestes in the previous generation. Treachery is part of family politics, contrasted by Euripides, however, to the steadfast loyalty between Orestes and Electra, brother and sister.
The family feud is a powerful force in providing the main motivation of the characters for their actions. Even when Orestes is brought up in another country, he is not allowed to forget. The god Apollo’s oracle at Delphi forces Orestes to get involved again. The bloodthirsty attitude of the family towards one another seems foreign to an audience today, but vengeance was part of the warrior code of the Greeks. Electra, a generally admirable character, says, “Once I have shed my mother’s blood for Father’s, I will welcome death” (l. 283). She will have performed a child’s duty to a parent, for the murdered were not quiet in the underworld until they had been avenged. That this vengeance seems doomed to play out generation after generation is observed by the Chorus: “There is no family, nor ever has been,/ more full of griefs than the line of Tantalus” (ll. 65-66).
The theme of exile is pervasive in the play. The family curse not only plays out in treachery, betrayal, and murder, but also in exile from the homeland and heritage. Electra calls herself an “outcast” “exiled to misery” by being sent outside the city to be the wife of a farmer (ll. 210-11). Meanwhile, her mother lives in luxury in the palace while she is in rags and living the life of a peasant. Similarly, Orestes tells Electra her brother is “a citizen of nowhere. An outcast” (l.236). He is not starving, but “an exile is helpless” (l. 238). In a structured society, every person had a specific place, and to be an outcast is to have no identity or place. Orestes has no power or authority because Aegisthus has robbed him of his inheritance. His sister Electra is not honored as a member of the royal house, for her mother has consented to her low-caste marriage, supposedly to save her daughter’s life. In effect, as Electra points out, it is a living death. The farmer does not treat her as a wife, so she has no real place.
The old tutor of Agamemnon who saved the life of Orestes is also spoken of as an outcast, living outside the city, tending sheep. Electra, Orestes, and the tutor have been displaced by the rule of Aegisthus, and they form a group with Orestes’s friend, Pylades, to kill the usurper. When Clytemnestra arrives in her chariot, she is attended by other outcasts, the Trojan women captured in the war and taken to Greece as slaves.
When Electra and Orestes kill Aegisthus and their mother, they are not returned to power in Mycenae because of their crime. Once again they are exiled from their homeland and from each other. Electra will marry Pylades and go to his country, while Orestes will go to Athens for his trial. They will never see one another again nor Mycenae in Argos.
Nobility of Character
The play speaks of the terrible deeds of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the villains, but against those are contrasted the noble deeds of the hero, Orestes, and his friend Pylades, of the loyalty of the tutor, and even the honorable behavior of the farmer. Pylades and the tutor are loyal to the House of Agamemnon and his heirs. The tutor saved Orestes as a boy and is the one to recognize him as an adult. He brings brother and sister together and helps them carry out their plans.
What is unusual is the behavior of the farmer. He does not take advantage of Electra’s helpless position. He does not even ask her to work on the farm. Without knowing who Orestes is, he offers him hospitality because he is a stranger who brings news of Orestes. At first Orestes believes the farmer fears punishment, but Electra says no, “he is simply good” (l. 263). Orestes decides that the farmer is “a noble soul” (l. 264). He says one cannot tell a noble person by his rank, only by his character and actions. The farmer is rewarded by Pylades.
When the gods, the Dioscuri, descend at the end to explain the fortune of the brother and sister, they warn that the gods only come to help the pure. They pronounce Electra and Orestes free of sin. On the other hand, it is made clear that the evil characters live constantly in fear. Aegisthus is surrounded by guards at all times and is immediately worried about his enemy, Orestes, when he sees the omens at the feast. Electra says to his dead body: “Your life/ was miserable, though it appeared to be blessed. / You knew your marriage was a sacrilege;/ She knew that she had wed a villain” (917-19).
Orestes is the virtuous young man who obeys the oracle of the god Apollo but only reluctantly, more in the spirit of duty than in anger. He goes through great doubt about killing his mother. Electra, however, is more aggressive because she pushes Orestes into it and even guides his sword arm. As the wronged virgin, she appears heroic, like the daughter of a king. She recognizes the merit of the tutor and the farmer and is willing to die to do her duty. Euripides makes her role pivotal in carrying out the action that lifts the curse of the House of Atreus.
Euripides makes the play into a philosophical discussion about justice. When Electra hears of the death of Aegisthus, she cries out “Justice, seeing all, has come at last” (l. 766). She proves her statement by a list of wrongs spoken to the corpse of Aegisthus. He is guilty of hubris (pride) and so deserves the end he gets: “you were so deluded, / blind with pride,/ you thought that wealth alone had made you great” (ll. 931-32). The moral is that crime does not pay, because no one can outrun Justice. The death of Aegisthus seems clearly deserved.
When Clytemnestra explains her motives to her daughter, however, the Chorus recognizes “There’s some justice in your words—shameful justice” (l. 1046). Clytemnestra may have had a little more just cause to kill Agamemnon since he sacrificed their daughter, but it is not pure justice. They call Clytemnestra and Helen “immoral women” (l. 1059). When Electra and Orestes are in the act of killing their mother, the Chorus sides with them: “The tide of justice surges back/ to judge the faithless wife” (ll. 1146-47).
After the killing, however, begins the remorse, and Orestes admits: “Apollo, the justice you directed/ was not clear to me” (ll. 1181-82). He is now an outcast for killing his mother. The Chorus blames Electra for her part: “It was unholy when/ you pushed your brother to perform/ a dreadful wrong against his will” (ll. 1194-96).
Euripides’s theme comes to a conclusion with the speech of Castor, a god who descends to explain a divine justice beyond human conception. Although Orestes did what the gods told him to do, it was morally wrong, so he will have to pay a price. At the same time, the action will end the blood feud, and Orestes will be forgiven. Justice will be served in a formal manner, however, where there will be a jury of twelve in a “court of justice” (l. 1252). Athena will cast the final vote to acquit him. No longer will the Furies be needed to punish the wrongdoer, since a “revered” court system (l. 1252) will do a more refined and civilized job of pronouncing a justice that will satisfy both human and divine law. Euripides thus glorifies the legal system of fifth century Athens as integrating human and divine duty.