Transformation of Ideas about Justice
The main theme of The Eumenides can best be approached by reminding ourselves of the themes of the first two plays in the trilogy. The theme of the Agamemnon is a dilemma rather than any positive message: Justice will be done, those who transgress will suffer, but woe be to those who carry out that justice by taking vengeance—they will, almost inevitably, transgress in their turn, and so they will have to suffer. Yet the taking of vengeance seems to be the only way that justice can be done. The theme of The Libation Bearers is subtly different, offering the possibility there may be some way that human beings as right-minded as Orestes can learn from all this suffering. The main theme of The Eumenides is that the only real way to resolve the dilemma of the first two plays is by a transformation in the whole way human beings pursue justice, a transformation that brings in courts of law accepted as authoritative institutions.
Here’s another way to put the theme: When enough individuals like Orestes have suffered enough from carrying out justice in the old way, society as a whole can learn; human beings and cosmic forces cooperating can establish a new order. Either way you put it, this is an incredibly challenging theme: so complex and huge are the forces at work that no drama that involves only human beings could be adequate to represent the transformation involved. Some modern dramatists who have wanted to tackle themes of comparable magnitude have looked to Aeschylus for help in learning how to do it—Antonin Artaud and his mythic theater would be a prime example.
Incorporating Old Values
The most important subsidiary theme is equally challenging; here are two ways of expressing it: So great a transformation has grave dangers; it threatens instability, unless a society can find the wisdom to hold onto old values, even as it creates new institutions. As a society finds ways to lessen human suffering, it cannot rely on rationality alone; it must stay in touch with what seems dark and irrational, and find meaningful ways to incorporate the non-rational in the life of the people. Aeschylus’ way is far more effective, leaving room for all kinds of interpretations: The Furies must not be allowed to rule, but they must also not be banished but welcomed and honored, if the society is to retain its full aliveness.
Greatness of Athens
Another subsidiary theme is the greatness of Athens. The Oresteia is often classed with the Parthenon as a celebration of the greatness of Athens at its height, in the middle of the fifth century, and certainly Athena prophesies the glory of Athens as it will be in golden terms—if the Furies don’t stay in Athens, they will regret it; it will have more to give them than any other city could. It is, however, well to remember that the prophecy of coming greatness is accompanied by many, many warnings, not least against greed for profit. Most importantly, though, Aeschylus warns against hubris, against the overweening pride that leads to violence, against forgetting the reverence due to the gods and the values the Furies defend. Perhaps a warning is even implied against the arrogance of the Greek Enlightenment, the movement among fifth-century philosophers to explain everything in rational and scientific terms. Aristophanes, in his last great comic drama at the end of the fifth century, The Frogs, imagined bringing back Aeschylus to save Athens, then on the verge of defeat by Sparta. But even in Aristophanes’ fantasy, Aeschylus doesn’t see how he can save a city behaving as Athens is behaving. The Athenians loved Aeschylus’ celebration of their city, but that does not mean that they deeply understood the warnings he embodied in his play and heeded them.
The Nature of Tragedy
The last question is this: how can the themes Aeschylus embodies in The Eumenides be considered tragic themes? Given that the trilogy ends with this play, how can it be considered a monument of tragic drama? The basic answer is that the Greeks did not define tragedy as we do. Aristotle thought the best tragedies ended in disaster, but such an ending was not required. The seriousness of the subject, the greatness of the characters, the dignity of the language, the sense of cosmic order at work—these were the essentials. And the trilogy has all these characteristics in ample measure. Yet if we look at the final play in the light of what happened to Athens by the end of the century it which it was produced, we may see even The Eumenides as tragic in something like the modern sense. The Athens it celebrates was doomed; the play meant to teach the city the wisdom it needed to survive is all that is left, and part of what the play says to a modern audience is, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
Transformation of Ideas about Justice