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Aeschylus: Passions/Emotion V. Reason/Disinterestedness

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In “The Oresteia” trilogy, the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus advocates the importance of the male role in society over that of the female. The entire trilogy can be seen as a subtle proclamation of the superiority of men over women. Yet, the women create the real interest in the plays. Their characters are the impetus that makes everything occur.  The most complex and compelling character in the three plays is Clytaemnestra. Clytaemnestra is consumed with thoughts of revenge.  She seeks vengeance on Agamemnon for the loss of their daughter, Iphigeneia whose life was forfeited in order to appease the goddess Artemis so that Agamemnon's troops would be allowed passage to the Trojan shore.

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The play indicates that Athenians respected their older gods even after they have been overthrown by the younger gods. This is shown by the appearance of the Cronos in the Oresteia despite the fact that it was no longer worshiped. This play therefore insist that when there is change there is bound to be losers and winners but the losers are contented for the good of the greater society. The play shows that Athenians believed in existence and inheritance of curses. This is evident in the adage ‘sins of the father are visited upon the son’. Aegusthus’ father evokes a curse to Atreus his Son, when he was fed on the butchered children. Also Athenians had the thinking of ‘violence begets violence’ meaning that revenge was seen as the only normal and right way of avenging against once defaulter. An eye for an eye was the way to societal justice. Agamemnon avoids being perceived as unmanly due to the excessive obedience to womanly wishes. He therefore distrusts her because of her attempts to use womanly ways in convincing him. He tries to imply that women are typically manipulative creatures however Clytaemnestra shows her prevalence over this man when he willingly to walks on a red carpet. She holds really power over men, her husband also included. Towards the end of the story, there is role reversing between men and women, Clytaemnestra, remains as the only woman in charge; she bosses to Aegisthus and the Chorus as the only male characters around her, these two characters acts like women despite the fact that they represent men (Slayford-Wei, (2010). The chorus of men was initially disrespective to her; Clytaemnestra can now belittle all male characters. Therefore, the Greek society questions the reversal of roles and its effects to the men’s position. Clytaemnestra behavior is typically that of a man, this upsets the Chorus of Elders. By doing everything in a manly manner she believes that she has finally delivered justice to Argos, she manages to end the curse of bloodshed that had been in force for several years. In the chorus “I swept from these halls/the murder,” it is enough evidence for her belief, According to her, the murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra marks the erasure of previous generations’ bloodshed.

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However, imbedded within their narrative is their opinion on the matters they are discussing. In their description of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon and their tangled pasts and situations, the Chorus gives a subjective view on the story and presents a romanticized view of the monarchs that is resonant of Neitzsche’s later argument.Although the Chorus despises Clytemnestra and her power in the kingdom, they are equally as critical of Agamemnon and his escapades in Troy. They clearly disapprove of the war referring to it as a “quarrel over a woman of many men” (36). They see Helen as a common whore and pine for those who have lost their lives in such a futile and hollow struggle.This can be specifically seen in the use of animal imagery throughout the speech. The passage begins by referring to the brothers as eagles, screaming “in lonely agony of their nestlings, and all the watchful care they had spent guarding them” (36). This is referring to Menelaus’ loss of his wife, but the phrase is ironic when looked at from Agamemnon’s point of view. In his case, he has had to sacrifice his beloved daughter, his “nestling”, “like a young goat” (41), to retrieve Helen for his brother. The Chorus recognizes this, saying while describing Ifigenia’s sacrifice, “so [Agamemnon] dared to become his daughter’s sacrificer to aid the war waged for a woman–first rites of deliverance for the ships” (41).The eagle metaphor and the Chorus’ sympathy carries over to their description of the omen coordinated by the army’s prophet. Here they describe the sacrifice of a pregnant rabbit to a pair of raptors “one black eagle, one white-tail… near the palace where all could see them as they fed on the womb’d gravid load of leverets, mother and all, pulled down to the hare’s last course” (38). The unborn rabbits serve as a metaphor for the ill-fated Trojan people, massacred by the brutal eagles Agamemnon and Menelaus. This conflict then becomes a battle not only between the Greeks and Romans, but Zeus and Artemis. Since it was Zeus who prompted the brothers to take up arms against the Trojans, Artemis is embittered by “those winged hounds of her father who devour in sacrifice the unhappy cowering mother with her brood before they come to birth” (38). As Zeus is the “god of guest-friends” (36) who demands reparations for an ill-behaved house-guest, Artemis demands revenge as the goddess of baby animals and virgins for the rabbits and Ifigenia. Thus, Aeschylus creates a complex set of interweaving metaphors that eventually leads to a critique of the Hellenistic principals that hold Zeus as the God of gods.Although the text is constantly interrupted by prayers to Zeus, the summation of the speech actually reflects a critique of the king of the gods. If Zeus supports Agamemnon and his brother in their ill-conceived exploits and the destruction of all those they had to sacrifice along the way, and the Chorus deems the expedition immoral, they must be passing judgment on the god. They also seem to be criticizing the superstition that leads men to take the advise of the prophets. The last lines of the passage speak about the pain caused by the prophecy and Ifigenia’s sacrifice: “But Calcha’s divining art bore fruit; the scales of justice have come down and brought, with suffering, and understanding. You will learn the future when it happens. Till then, let it be. To otherwise is to have sorrow before you need. For it will come clear with the dawn’s light” (42).

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Definitely, Helen is the cause for the entire Trojan War and the brutal killing of Iphigenia is the ultimate cause of Agamemnon’s murder. Each crime that is committed causes another more extreme crime as a result, and all of these crimes revolve around the women in the play. Agamemnon is a typical Greek tragedy. Agamemnon was a tragic hero; he was the great King of Argos who went off to fight a war against the Trojans to return his brother Menelaus’s wife Helen before being murdered by the hands of his own wife. Everything that happens in this play is the effect of something a woman did; the entire play actually revolves around the choices of women. One might say a better name for this play may have been Clytemnestra.

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Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism2E Ed, Bernard F. Dukore. US: Heinle and Heinle, 1974. 351-358

Schiller, Friedrich. “On the Use of Chorus in Tragedy.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Ed, Bernard F. Dukore. US: Heinle and Heinle, 1974. 359-363

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. David Greene and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1989

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Aeschylus: Passions/Emotion V. Reason/Disinterestedness
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