When the King Suffers What the Tyrant Fears: The Disruption of Political Order in Euripides's Electra and Orestes.
Surprising as it might seem that Herodotus may not have been interested in the psychological characterization of the tyrant, it is true that Attic tragedy did develop this aspect in an unprecedented way, providing a springboard for later philosophical reflections on this figure. I shall follow Lanzas suggestion and will compare the tragic tyrants with their philosophical treatment as offered not only by Plato (with special regard to book 9 of Republic) but also by Xenophon in his Hiero. Conceived as an imaginary dialogue between Hiero I, tyrant of Syracuse from 478 to 467 BCE, and the wise poet Simonides, Xenophon's text consists in a debate on "[phrase omitted]" [phrase omitted] (1.2; how the tyrannical and the private life differ in human joys and pains). (4) Interestingly, its description of the tyrannical condition equates the Platonic one in both richness of expression and political complexity.
First, focusing on the character of Aegisthus in Euripides's Electra, I will investigate the extent to which he aligns with the idea of the tyrant offered by Plato and Xenophon, at the same time pointing out his differences from the other tragic tyrants who more fully correspond to those philosophical definitions. Both Plato and Xenophon, although with different outcomes which are not of primary concern here, (5) unveil the tyrant's worried cognizance of the precariousness of his power. According to both, fear is a constant and pervasive aspect of the tyrant's psychology due to his awareness that both his power and his life are at risk, exposed as they are to the dangers of a palace coup or a riot. Unlike Plato's and Xenophon's tyrants, but also unlike other tragic tyrants, Euripides's Aegisthus does not experience this kind of fear. Indeed, the only threat he dreads comes from the legitimate heir to the throne, Orestes. It is him, not the usurper, strangely enough, who experiences a troubled relationship with his subjects, who give him neither help nor solidarity. Precisely this odd "reversal" of roles, whereby the fear typically experienced by the tyrant is instead felt by the legitimate king, constitutes my second focus. This inversion is worth investigating as it entails a subtle critique of the mythical paradigm on which the dramatic action is based, as well as a critique of the idea of communal agency. To this end, I will examine how in Electra and Orestes Euripides handles this paradoxical blurring of the distinction between Aegisthus, the usurper, and Orestes, the lawful heir. Orestes's right to the crown cannot be restored because of the matricide, which is his distinctive trait in the mythical tradition. Although required to commit the murder by Apollo, he is the one who suffers its consequences, being left unprotected by the god. On the other hand, the political community too is to blame, as it condemns Orestes for what he has done, even though, ultimately, he is not responsible for it. Killing one's mother is not like killing just anyone, and once over, the assassination will bring fear of the persecution of the Erinyes, a fate Orestes will have to undergo in tragic solitude.
A comparison between Aeschylus's and Euripides's Aegisthus will highlight Euripides's dialectic with the older dramatist in the handling of Orestes's revenge. The Aeschylean pattern contrasting the brave and legitimate prince, whose actions are guided by the divine oracle, with the two evil tyrants, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, who oppress their people, prompting their hatred, corresponds to the customary conflict between the king and the tyrant. In this scenario, it comes as no surprise that the final outcome of the struggle, and of the trilogy, is Orestess restoration to the throne of Argos. Conversely, Euripides blurs the boundaries of the traditional divide between the legitimate prince and the tyrants, and in so doing, he not only deconstructs Aeschylus's model but also deprives the myth of its meaning among the contemporary Athenian audience.
As far as Aegisthus is concerned, in the previous tragic versions of the Atreidae myth his characterization is not as refined as the one he receives at the hands of Euripides, where his tyrannical character is more fully explored. Unlike Lanza, I will not assume that in Aeschylus and Sophocles he is a seducer and adulterer but not a tyrant yet, (6) not only because, technically, he has seized the power by killing the legitimate king, (7) but also because he behaves like a tyrant toward the people in Argos. In the final scene of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, after killing the king and showing his corpse, Aegisthus starts arguing with the Elders of Argos, and it is only thanks to Clytemnestras diplomatic intervention (1649-73) that his aggressiveness does not degenerate into open fighting. (8) In Sophocless Electra, convinced that the body lying in front of him is Orestes's--while it is the just murdered Clytemnestra's--Aegisthus declares that it should serve as a warning to those who are still unwilling to accept his "[phrase omitted]" (bridle; see 1460-63). (9) However, his ruthless and muscular control is paired with rashness and gullibility, which in Choephori makes him fall in Orestess trap soon after boasting about his never-failing alertness: "[phrase omitted]" (854; [my mind] has eyes), he claims. Yet his most apparent characteristic in both Aeschylus and Sophocles is his being utterly dependent on Clytemnestra, which surely stands out as a rather anomalous behavior for a tyrant. Indeed, in their relationship, gender roles are totally reversed, and while in Agamemnon's Prologue Clytemnestra is praised by the Watchman for her "[phrase omitted]" (11; lit., heart with male's strength), the Elders of the Chorus address Aegisthus as "[phrase omitted]" (1625; lit., you, woman).
As partially anticipated above, in Euripides's Electra Aegisthus's characterization as a tyrant is made more complex by an unprecedented emphasis upon his fear. The prominence of this new trait in his personality is apparent from the outset, when in the Farmer's monologic prologue (1-53) narrating Aegisthuss actions after Agamemnon's death there crop up terms belonging to the semantic field of fear: "[phrase omitted]" (22; lit. fearing); "[phrase omitted]" (25; lit. fear); "[phrase omitted]" (39; lit. fear). (10) After the murder, the Farmer says, the usurper feared that the king's male offspring might take revenge upon him; therefore, not only did he try to kill the infant--who was providentially rescued by a servant (Agamemnon's old tutor) and brought to Strophius, king of Phocis (16-18)--but he also confined Electra to a room in the palace, far from her noble suitors (19-24). However, unsatisfied with this measure and worried about his own safety, he even planned to kill her in order to prevent the birth of a noble heir. Saved by her mother, the girl was later forced to marry a poor farmer--the one who is delivering the monologue--so that her children could be ineligible for the throne. In turn, the king, fearful of Orestes's return, put a price on his head (32-33).
Thus, Aegisthuss repeated attempts to get rid of the two siblings exemplify one of the tyrant's typical traits, as discussed, among others, by Xenophon: his constant dread of being overthrown and killed. Such fear cannot be dispelled even when, as in Electra's case, a solution to avert the perceived threat has been found. On the contrary, the tyrant is bound incessantly to look for new solutions [phrase omitted] in order to soothe his own anxiety. This paranoiac condition is best exemplified in Xenophon's Hiero, whose homonymous protagonist is entrapped in a "psychological blackout," as Ennio Biondi aptly describes it. (11) Through a series of antithetical expressions, Hiero himself makes it clear that the tyrant is afraid of almost any circumstance or predicament, as well as of its opposite:
(6.4; To fear the crowd, yet to fear solitude; to fear being without a guard, and to fear the very men who are guarding; to be unwilling to have unarmed men about me, yet not gladly to see them armed--how could this fail to be a painful condition?)
The tyrant's fear mainly resides in his own lack of dynastic legitimacy, which pushes him to respond with violence to any possible threat to his power. In Electra's prologue, this is metonymically expressed by the Farmers image of Aegisthus's violent hand: the same hand that first slew Agamemnon (10) and then tried to kill both Orestes (17) and Electra (28).
Yet another significant episode characterizing Aegisthus, and his fear, recurs at lines 303ff., when Orestes, who has falsely introduced himself to Electra as her brother's messenger, asks her about how things stand at the court of Argos, so as to report it to the prince. At first Electra laments her miserable condition: she is now a farmer's wife, forced to live far from the kingly palace where the royal couple revels (304-22); then she deplores Aegisthus's violation of Agamemnon's tomb: (12)
(323-31; The tomb of Agamemnon, left unhonoured, has neveryet received libations nor a branch of myrtle; his altar is barren, devoid of offerings. And my mother's husband, sodden with drink--this glorious man, they say, leaps on the grave and pelts with stones our father's stone memorial, and dares to make this utter this insult against us: "Where is your son Orestes? Is he here and doing a fine job of defending your tomb for you?" That's how Orestes is abused in his absence.)
The image of drunken Aegisthus profaning Agamemnon's grave and his words of scornful defiance addressed to the prince suggest an attempt to free himself from the apprehension that relentlessly torments him. At the same time, the allusion to his drunkenness and to his several extramarital affairs, of which also Electra will speak at 945-46 in her exchange with Orestes reinforce his characterization as a tyrant with Platonic traits as described in book 8 of the Republic:
(573c; A man becomes a tyrant, my good man," I said, "precisely when through nature, or habit, or both, he becomes drunk and lustful and depressive.) (13)
In his analysis, Plato yoked together psychological and political aspects that appear reflected in the intrinsically depraved soul of the political man Aegisthus. Thus, when Electra asks Clytemnestra why he is so cruel toward her and her brother, the queen cannot but reply with a laconic "[phrase omitted]" (1117; that is his way). Cruelty, but also lack of restraint, are therefore the typically tyrannical qualities of his personality. Unlike Plato, however, for whom any soul, whatever its natural inclination, may become tyrannical, in Euripides we have the impression that Aegisthus has always been violent and intemperate.
A further element associating Aegisthus s conduct with the one usually ascribed to the tyrant's fear is his habit of surrounding himself with armed men in order to protect himself. He is constantly afraid of being killed by Orestes, the Old Man tells him after the prince has finally reunited with Electra, and this thought never abandons Aegisthus, even preventing him from sleeping at night (616-17); that is why it would be unwise to enter the city walls:
(Orestes: He's well equipped with lookouts and bodyguards? Old Man: You've got it; [it is clear that] he fears you and does not sleep.)
In spite of the several analogies between Aegisthus and the tyrants described by Plato and Xenophon, though, there is one element that crucially differentiates those models from him: the tyrant's troubled relationship with his subjects, which goes unmentioned in Electra. In Plato and Xenophon, the tyrant is constantly worrying about the outbreak of a riot that may jeopardize his position or the possibility of a conspiracy hatched to assassinate him. As Xenophons Hiero puts it, "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (2.8; the tyrants, all of them, proceed everywhere as through hostile territory), even in their own city or in the intimacy of their palaces. Likewise, Plato's Socrates claims that the tyrant must fear his subjects as a master should fear his slaves if he were left at their mercy in a place where no other free citizen could help or defend him against them (Resp. 578e).
Absent from Euripides's characterization of Aegisthus, the fear of losing one's power is, contrariwise, typical of Sophocles's Oedipus. When Tiresias discloses to him the terrible truth about his being Laius's murderer, Oedipus accuses him of colluding with Creon in order to seize Thebes's crown (OT 380-9). (14) Similarly, in both Aeschylus's and Sophocles's Atreidae plays, the Argive people show their hostility against Aegisthus, while they never fail to proclaim their solidarity with their legitimate, if exiled, king. As Patrick Finglass correctly remarked, in Aeschylus, the political quality of the people's engagement in the events is particularly emphasized: "Time and again in the Oresteia our attention is directed towards the wider Argive setting: the impact which the Trojan war, the murder of Agamemnon, and the revenge of Orestes have on the Argive people is prominent throughout the trilogy." (15) In Agamemnon, the Chorus threaten Aegisthus, saying that he will escape neither the Argives' curses, nor stoning (1616). At the beginning of Choephori, Orestes emphatically declares that he has come to deliver the Argives from the tyranny of "two women" (Ch. 301-4), disparagingly alluding to a feminized Aegisthus as the Chorus leader before him in Ag. 1625, and finally is acknowledged by the Chorus as having fulfilled his promise of freeing the whole city (1046; [phrase omitted]). If Aeschylus, as briefly pointed out, foregrounds the people's participation in the political mechanisms of revenge, in Sophocles's play these aspects receive comparatively less attention, as the "lack of emphasis on the polis is linked with its sustained emphasis on the figure of Electra," (16) or, better, on the private dimension of her desires, emotions, and response to the events. Nevertheless, the play does involve the people of Argos as a political community, for example, in the above-quoted passage in which Aegisthus summons them and angrily declares that, whether they want it or not, they must submit to his rule. The most significant example is perhaps the already mentioned passage in which Aegisthus summons the recalcitrant citizens to bend to his power. (17) The tyrants preoccupation with the citizens' potentially menacing action shows in fact that he may be harmed by some internal rather than external threat. This perspective is absent in Euripides's Electra. Differently from the other tragedies on the Atreidae saga, in this play Aegisthus never contemplates the possibility that danger may come from inside the city, but only from outside, from the return of the legitimate heir to the throne. He himself makes it clear when, talking to a man who alledges to be a Thessalian, he refers to Agamemnon's son as to the agent of "some alien treachery" without realizing that the "stranger" in front of him is Orestes, the very "foe to [his] house":
(831-33; Stranger, I dread some alien treachery. Agamemnon's son is my greatest enemy and a foe to my house.)
No domestic hazard or scourge ever preoccupies the tyrant, and even when Orestes and the Old Man say that Clytemnestra is publicly blamed for the treacherous murder of her husband (644-45), there is no evidence that the peoples hatred against her could result in a riot. On the contrary, it is Orestes who would run a fatal risk if he dared to enter the city, and in fact, he early declares that he will not (94). As already recalled, the Old Man too will later advise him against it: not only may Aegisthus count on many guards protecting him, but also Orestes has no friends left in Argos:
(605-11; Old Man: My son, no one is a friend to you in your misfortune. Such an asset is a rare find indeed, to share together in good and bad alike. But you--since to your friends you're wholly ruined from the ground up, and have left them no hope--take it from me: everything depends on your own action and on fortune, to capture your ancestral home and city.)
Orestes can count on no support or solidarity from the people of the city, which anticipates the final outcome of the play. Although victorious over Aegisthus and his mother, the prince will not ascend the Argive throne but will be perpetually banished from Argos, forced by Castor to move to another city in Arcadia, which will be named after him (1238-91). (18) In this respect, the dislocation of the opening setting of the play from the city to the borders of Argolis early signifies its remoteness from the political community of Argos as well as from the center of power. While both Aeschylus and Sophocles set the action in front of the royal palace, thus immediately pointing out that the palace itself, as the symbol of sovereignty, is the issue at stake in the struggle against the tyrants, in Euripides's Electra, the initial distance from it foreshadows Orestes's eventual exile from Argos. Indeed, as the Old Man tells him, the city walls cannot be penetrated, not even by Agamemnon's son: "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (615; not by going within the walls, even if you wanted to). As a visual symbol of Orestes's impossible conquest of the throne, they stand out as a barrier which paradoxically protects the tyrant and keeps out the legitimate king. Relegated to the outer edge of the city and of power, and at risk of being abandoned by his own people, Orestes experiences a condition which typically corresponds to the tyrant's most radical fear, that is, being rejected by his subjects. As we shall see, this psychological distress (as it may be more appropriately called) transforms into fear in Iphigenia Taurica--which dramatizes Orestes's voyage to the land of the Taurians in order to find relief from the Erinyes's torment--and, more explicitly and significantly, in Orestes.
Euripides's peculiar treatment of Orestes's story actually reflects a specific intellectual purpose as it entails a corrosive criticism of the myth by exposing its ethical inadequacy. Orestes is exiled from Argos because he has killed his mother, and although this stands at the core of his "mythical biography" as a divinely prescribed deed, the tragedy announces its inadmissibility from the point of view of human ethics. The dreadfulness of Orestes's crime causes the implosion of the myth itself as it cancels its expected ending: that is, the prince's recovery of the paternal throne. The causal link between the matricide and Orestes's loss of his royal status and rights is clearly established by Castor at the end of the play: "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (1250-51; and you, leave Argos--you cannot set foot in this city after killing your mother). The syntagm [phrase omitted] is highly significant here in that it recalls the Chorus's previous exhortation to Electra, immediately after the recognition scene:
(Or. 593-95; Raise your hands, raise your words, send prayers / to the gods, that with favouring fortune / your brother may set foot in the city; emphasis added.)
Electra's prayers, however, will go unanswered, since the matricide bars the culprits from being reintegrated into the community, even though their deed has been ordained by a god. Both will be forced to leave their homeland, and it is no surprise that, upon leaving, Electra emphasizes her political bond with the women of the Chorus by calling them "[phrase omitted]" (1355; lit., fellow-citizen women), (19) a very rarely used word in the Euripidean canon. As the central ethical issue of the play, the matricide shapes the characters' own behavior, with special regard to Orestes's; he is conditioned, demoralized, impaired, and eventually crushed by a burden that proves to be intolerable and whose ethical faultiness ultimately prevents him from fighting for his rights with due firmness.
This final frailty has been sometimes spotted in Orestes's opening speech in Electra, (20) in which, after declaring that he will not enter the walls (94), he says that he has come to the border of Argolid with a twofold purpose: finding his sister and winning her to his side as his "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (100; accomplice in bloodshed), and finally learning what is happening within the city (100-1); yet, should he be recognized by the Argive sentinels, he will flee to another land. Orestes expounds here his strategy, as he does in the Aeschylean (Ch. 551-84) and Sophoclean (El. 38-76) plays. In Euripides, however, the hero has no intention to steal into the palace as happens in both Aeschylus and Sophocles. In Aeschylus, Orestes and Pylades introduce themselves to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as travelers from Phocis and report to them the (fake) news of Orestes's accidental death during a chariot race, while in Sophocles, it is the Pedagogue, sent to the Mycenae palace by Orestes himself as a spy, who tells them of his death.
Against this backdrop, one may be perplexed at Orestes's lack of a plan to penetrate his mother's and Aegisthus's residence in Euripides, as well as at his peremptory statement that he will remain outside of Argos's walls. However, at a closer and more careful reading, his behavior appears justified. When, in Aeschylus, Orestes illustrates his strategy, he has already reunited with his sister and has secured both hers and the Chorus's help. On his part, Sophocles's hero does not possess this certainty yet, but he can rely on the Pedagogue to have information from inside the palace. Euripides's Orestes, on the contrary, voices his intentions as soon as he arrives in Argolid: no one has offered to support his action yet, hence he cannot risk venturing into the city and the palace on his own. His idea sounds reasonable, as is that of looking for his sister, who he knows is married and may possibly live not far from where he is (98-99, 105-6). As regards his resolution to flee the land in case he gets recognized--a very concrete possibility at this stage!--Orestes still acts sensibly, since it would be out of the question for him to fight off the entire garrison of Aegisthus's guards on his own. It appears, therefore, rather far-fetched to include this passage among those which should demonstrate that Euripides portrays Orestes as a "unheroic" hero or even as "a caricature," as Roisman and Luschnig have it. (21)
More telling about him is in fact Orestes's subsequent behavior, which is incoherent with his initial plan, as he delays his reunion with Electra by keeping his own identity concealed from 215 to 579 after they meet. In Aeschylus's Choephori and Sophocles's Electra, Orestes makes himself known to his sister as soon as he understands that she and the Chorus will support him in the struggle against the usurpers. In Euripides's play, Orestes overhears Electra's monody (112-66), in which she laments her appalling condition and curses the two tyrants, but surprisingly he does not disclose who he is, not even after she has reassured him that the women of the Chorus are supportive of Agamemnon's children (272-73). Since, as we have seen, Orestes has declared that his reunion with Electra should be the first step of his plan to regain his own kingdom, his silence is in fact hard to understand, but it is revealing of his character. Orestes hesitates to become what he is supposed to be: that is, his father's avenger. When the Old Man, who knew him as a boy and rescued him from Aegisthus's hand, walks around him looking for some familiar features, Orestes sounds annoyed (558-66); and when he finally confirms that he is the one they have been waiting for, we almost get the impression that he is forced to do so by their searching eyes.
Indeed, he does not seem to be sincerely interested in recovering his father's goods and properties, as both the Aeschylean and Sophoclean heroes keenly are. In Aeschylus, it was not only Apollo's order and Orestes's own grief for his father's cruel death that urged him to take revenge on the regicides, but also the "[phrase omitted]" (Ch. 301; the loss of my estates), which he carefully enumerates. Sophocles's Orestes addresses his motherland, the indigenous gods, and his own house, praying that they "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (El. 71-72; do not send me dishonoured from this land, but let me take control of my wealth and restore my house). (22) Euripides's Orestes never voices such entreaties; or at least we do not hear them from his lips. It is his servant who reports to Electra how his master, while taking part in the sacrificial ceremony organized by Aegisthus (and before killing him), silently prayed for his father's house. When Aegisthus asked for the ruin of Orestes, the servant says, Orestes himself "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted](a)" (809-10; prayed the opposite, not voicing the words--to regain his ancestral home). However, this is just the servant's conjecture about what he assumes the prince may have thought and cannot compensate for the general lack of emphasis on the recovery of Agamemnon's lands, goods, and royal possessions, in primis the royal palace. (23) In fact, such hesitation and disinterest contribute to Orestes's delegitimization as king vis a vis the tyrant Aegisthus and make us wonder how a king who does not step forward and firmly claim his rights may demand loyalty and support of his subjects.
Still, this weakness does not prevent him from murdering Aegisthus, a deed he carries out quickly and efficiently. (24) His attitude changes, though, when he sees his mother approaching the Farmer's hut on her chariot and he realizes that she has fallen into the trap his sister has devised. Anguish-stricken, Orestes wonders how he will dare kill his mother, who bore him and fed him, (25) and this qualm further highlights the centrality of the issue of matricide in the play. When it comes time for him to accomplish it, fulfilling the oracle, he perceives the act as atrocious, and once it is committed, he cannot help accusing Apollo with words which may be regarded as the very recapitulation of the tragedy itself:
(1190-93; Alas, Phoebus: obscure the justice you intoned, / but evident the pains you brought to pass. / You have bestowed on me / a murderers lot, exiled from the land of Hellas.)
As Cropp correctly remarks, Orestes is well aware that "the oracle pronounced by Apollo through his priestess at Delphi commanded an act whose justice is hard to judge but whose outcome is clearly grievous." (26) After the killing of Clytemnestra, he does not speak of vengeance, but anticipates his later exile from Argos and, in fact, from Greece itself, that is, from the civilized world. The harshness of this sentence will be mitigated by Apollo's intercession, and Orestes will be acquitted in Athens and will move to Arcadia. This partial relief, however, does not lessen Orestess and Electras dire sufferings, and in the amoibaion with the Chorus they relive the horror of the murder they have committed. In front of her revengeful children, the queen tried to move them to pity by baring her chest (1206-9), desperately pleading for her life (1214-17). Yet if Aeschylus dramatizes Clytemnestra's imploration (Ch. 896-98), here Clytemnestra's entreaty is reduced to a single cry that we hear from within "[phrase omitted]" (1165; do not kill your mother!). Besides, the pathetic detail of the mother uncovering her breasts in front of her son is not acted on stage but is instead contained in Orestess and Electras recollection of the matricide, which emphasizes both their remorse and their awareness that they have violated a primal taboo. And the solitude and suffering caused by this violation will bring them ruin.
Although their misery primarily derives from Apollo's iniquitous oracle, the Argive community too cannot be exempted from criticism. As proved by the Old Man's bitter meditation on Orestess tragic solitude, the recurrent topic of one's friends' disloyalty in times of need is here highlighted by the inconstancy of the Argives, (27) who had been quick in forgetting their old king (Agamemnon) and in promptly swearing their allegiance to a new ruler. Yet, this also alludes to the idea that men may find true solidarity only in the private dimension of their relationships. In the play the Argives' opportunistic disaffection is contrasted with the loyalty and devotion of Orestes's only friend, Pylades, whom the prince greatly praises (82-87). (28) In the end, though, Orestes will be separated not only from his sister but also from Pylades, and this will ultimately deprive him of the consolation of friendly affection. As a result, the triumphant hero of the mythical tradition is left entirely alone: the matricide has disintegrated even the most basic social aggregations of family and friendship. Castor's promise that Orestes will have a new political role as the founder of a new city, Oresteion in Arcadia, cannot compensate him for his loss of both civic and familial bonds; nor can Electra's marriage to Pylades, announced by the Diockouroi (1249), assuage her pain on being forced to leave her native land, too (1314-15). Interestingly, unlike all the other dramas dealing with the myth of Orestes, including Orestes (1078-79,1207-10), Electra's marriage with Pylades is seen negatively in Electra. Her exile from Argos, which is the precondition for becoming Pylades's wife, sheds a negative light on the marriage too. This enhances the tragedy's emphasis on the final expulsion of both Orestes and Electra from Argos and from their community, which is clearly presented as a direct consequence of the matricide. Despite its being divinely ordained, the deed is ruinous to those who have accomplished it. Chosen by the gods to fulfill their plans, Orestes and Electra get no reward for their compliance, but become the gods' victims.
The psychological distress caused by the matricide is also dealt with in another Euripidean tragedy that dramatizes a significant episode of Orestes's saga, Iphigenia Taurica (IT). Orestes has gone through a trial in Athens and has been acquitted, but the Erinyes--or at least some of them--still haunt him, and a new oracle from Apollo has therefore ordered him to steal a statue of Artemis from the Taurian temple in order to be relieved from their persecution. Orestes is full of resentment toward Apollo and fears he is laying a new trap, as he had done by inducing him to kill his own mother (77-79). Their relationship has clearly deteriorated; yet, Orestes says, Apollo has granted him that by fulfilling this last request and bringing the statue back to Attica "[phrase omitted]" (92-93; [he] could breathe again after [his] labours), meaning that the Erinyes would leave him for good. (29) This should also allow him to recover Agamemnon's lands and the throne of Argos; indeed, it seems likely that after the founding of a temple in the Attic village of Halai--as prescribed by Athena (1449-56)--he can go back to Argos.
Nevertheless, this possibility is left in the haze and the text bears no reference to Orestes's kingship. The issue of royal power is completely absent here, and rather than being characterized as a king who fights in order to restore his authority--a resolution in which he was already faltering in Electra--Orestes is simply a man who strives to get rid of his obsessions. The element of human suffering comes overwhelmingly to the fore, and Orestes is almost ready to give up his mission before it begins, as he exhorts Pylades to flee from the Taurian land (102-3; [phrase omitted] [phrase omitted] No, rather than die, let us flee on the ship on which we sailed here). The hesitation he showed in Electra here becomes inaction and flight; Pylades alone can call him back to his duty by appealing to the renown of their aristocratic bravery (104-5; [phrase omitted] to run away is intolerable, and we are not accustomed to behave in that manner) and to piety (105-6; [phrase omitted]; we must not hold the oracle of the god in dishonor). Right from the start of his mission, Agamemnon's son appears as a young man prostrated by a mixture of resentment, resignation, and fear, giving signs of an overall affliction of the mind that is bound to become prominent in the course of the play to the point of leading him to show mad behaviors, as the Taurian messenger reports to Iphigenia: while he was driving the cattle to the shore, he had seen a stranger suddenly jump out of a cleft in the rocks where he was hiding and, trembling with frenzy (283; [phrase omitted]), start raving about the Erinyes trying to kill him (281-94).
After Iphigenia taurica, fear irresistibly re-emerges in the last Euripidean tragedy devoted to the Atreidae saga, Orestes. Here, both the psychological and the political consequences of the matricide develop in new forms, and new connections with the protagonist's "lost" kingship are established and delved into. As regards the king's relationship with his potential subjects, the setting is particularly telling. Differently from what happened in Electra, the action of the play takes place in front of the royal palace, as in Aeschyluss and Sophocles's tragedies; yet far from entailing a different treatment of political issues, this coming closer to the seat of power does not bridge the gap between the matricides and their hometown, a gap which remains profound and eventually impossible to span.
The play opens six days after Clytemnestra's murder with the appalling scene of ailing Orestes resting on a bed just outside the palace at Argos, comforted and looked after by his sister, while the Argives are about to gather in assembly in order to decide the fate of the two siblings. The tormenting madness the Erinyes have inflicted upon Orestes has taken its toll on his health, and weak and emaciated, he is still battling--as already mentioned above--against recurrent fits of frenzy. Besides, after the city has decreed, in Electra's words, that "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (46-48; no one is to give us hospitality of roof or fire, or speak to us, matricides that we are), no one, not even Helen and Menelaus, is willing to help them. Predictably, it is Pylades who defies the civic edict and talks to them, suggesting that they flee Argos, to which Orestes replies that it would be impossible to escape the surveillance of the guards who have been sent to control them:
(759-62; Pylades: Then leave your house and flee with your sister. Orestes: Can't you see? There are guard-posts on the watch for us on every road. Pylades: I did see the city streets blocked with armour. Orestes: [We are besieged] like a town by its enemies) (30)
The same guards who in Electra protected Aegisthus and prevented them from entering the city are now preventing them from going out of it. The onstage area is significantly only briefly and occasionally visited by characters who, with the exception of Pylades, provide neither help nor solidarity, while the menacing crowd of the people of Argos is an anonymous, indistinct, and offstage majority surrounding the two matricides. Although in different forms, in both Orestes and Electra, therefore, painful solitude and isolation from the civil community and, in Orestes's case, madness and fear are pointed at as the inevitable consequences of matricide.
In her monologic prologue, Electra explains how the Erinyes have tortured Orestes with fear (Or. 37-38; [phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]; I am shy of naming the goddesses, the Benign Ones, who are putting him through ordeals of terror). (31) In a fit of madness, horror-struck Orestes sees the Erinyes chasing him and asks his sister to fetch him the bow that Apollo gave him in order to defend himself from their attacks (270;[phrase omitted]; if they [the Erinyes] terrified me with raving fits). The repetition of words related to the sphere of fear (261, 312, 532) shows how deeply Orestes's psychology is disturbed by it. (32) But fear is indeed a manifestation of his remorse for Clytemnestras murder, and when Menelaus asks him what kind of illness is afflicting him, Orestes replies that it is the awareness of the dreadful act ([phrase omitted]) he has committed:
(395-96; Menelaus: What's wrong with you? What sickness is killing you? Orestes: My intellect--I am conscious of having done awful things.)
With special regard to fear, Euripides's Orestes doubly departs from Aeschylus's Oresteia. First, he "interiorizes" its cause. In the Eumenides, Apollo himself reassures Orestes of his support (88; [phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]; remember: let not the fear overcome your heart) and later engages into an open confrontation with the Erinyes, who are a visible and acting presence on stage. In Orestes--but also in IT--the Erinyes are inside Orestes's mind; they inhabit his consciousness, and by internalizing them, Euripides makes their presence constant and unopposed. Orestes cannot fight them in a court but must face an inner struggle he is bound to lose. The fear and remorse caused by the Erinyes cannot be defeated and thus become a permanent part of Orestes's interior life. (33)
Euripides's second departure from Aeschylus consists in disregarding the positive public role he attributes to fear at the end of the Oresteia. The fear provoked by the Erinyes in the Eumenides is incorporated in the political sphere, providing the foundation of communal life in Athens's newly established political system. If the crimes committed by the citizens against their fellows are assimilated to those carried out against the relatives, the Areopagus court will inspire the same awe the Erinyes aroused in the family. This will safeguard the maintenance of peace among the members of the Athenian community, since, as Athena makes clear in founding the court, "[phrase omitted]" (reverence) and "[phrase omitted]" (fear) will prevent the citizens from damaging each another (Eum. 690-2), (34) and, to this purpose, she further invites the Athenians not to oust "[phrase omitted]" (Eum. 698; the fearful) from their city.
Such a positive function of fear is not conceivable in Euripides's Orestes. Far from strengthening the socio-political bonds, fear causes isolation. With special regard to the first part of the play, Orestes, stricken by remorse--at the same time causing and being caused by fear--is both physically and psychologically impaired, and his contacts with the external world become more and more infrequent. In turn, the Argive community fails to seize the opportunity of Orestes's trial to reinforce itself. No godlike presence, such as Athena's, is introduced in order to guide and direct the trial, and the citizens gather autonomously. However, this lack of divine supervision makes the Argives soon fall prey to opportunism, demagogy, and hatred. As we know from the messenger's tale (866-956), the herald, Talthybius, praises the late king Agamemnon and yet duplicitously winks at the partisans of Aegisthus, while the demagogue's argument, which finally persuades the mob to condemn the matricides, is suggested to him by Clytemnestra's father, Tyndareus. Orestes and Electra are sentenced to death, and Orestes's peroration in front of the assembly cannot change the verdict, although he convinces the Argives to allow them to commit suicide instead of being stoned (the prospected punishment for their crime, as Electra anticipated at 50). Indeed, this was the penalty that in Aeschylus's Agamemnon the Elders had wished for Aegisthus (1616). According to the literary sources, it was rarely inflicted and only against particularly loathed individuals, such as the tyrants. (35) Once again, Orestes is treated as a tyrant, further confirming that social and political norms are collapsing.
It is perhaps no wonder that, in the second part of the play, the decision of the assembly produces a spiral of violence. Pylades, Orestes, and Electra decide to take revenge on Menelaus, who did not help them in their distress, by killing his wife Helen and kidnapping his daughter Hermione. This entails a radical change in Orestes's attitude. While in the first part of the play the only way of escape he had before him was to run away from Argos--a solution he soon discarded--he has now regained his confidence in the possibility of surviving and even recovering his father's throne. Justice, he claims, requires not only that he survives but also that he reigns (Or. 1600). The apparent inconsistency in Orestes's behavior is clearly meant to highlight two different motifs. If in the first part the central theme was Orestes's madness, in the second it is the Argive assembly's foul decision and its perverse consequences. In other words, we first see the dire effects of divine pronouncements and then the equally frightful outcomes of human verdicts.
In fact, the aporia in which the Argive citizens cast Orestes, Pylades, and Electra prompts a reaction that takes on a modus operandi reminiscent of the aristocratic conspiracies against the democratic regime in contemporary Athens. (36) In the second part of the play, the political paradigm does not reside in the struggle between the legitimate king and the tyrant but rather in the troubled times of late fifth-century Athenian democracy. By assimilating Argos's legitimate rulers to conspirators, Euripides goes one step further in the representation of degenerating political categories. Even though Orestes's action is directed primarily against Menelaus, who has betrayed his nephew, it is also an act of war against the Argive people, who have decreed the death of the two matricides. Thus, Orestes brings about in a different form a situation of perpetual conflict against his citizens that, as we have seen, is typically tyrannical.
This transformation is played also at the level of scenic space. As we have seen, both Orestes and his dear ones first strive to escape from where they are confined, but once the death sentence has been pronounced, the palace of the Atreidae becomes once again the objective of Orestes's action, as it was in Aeschylus and Sophocles. (37) However, in Euripides the conditions have radically changed. In order to reconquer the throne and regain control of the city, the Aeschylean and Sophoclean hero has just to eliminate the two usurpers who illegitimately occupy his house, and once this done, he can be sure that no man will oppose his accession to the throne of Argos. The new obstacle which thwarts Orestes's plan of recovering his kingdom in Aeschylus is not human, but supernatural: the Erinyes. If Aeschylus has them prevent Orestes from immediately attaining his aim, Euripides further complicates Orestes's task. In his tragedy, not only do the Argive citizens deny him his right but they also condemn him to death. As a result, Orestes cannot reappropriate the palace; he can only threaten to burn the palace itself, if Menelaus does not accept to intercede with the Argives on his behalf.
The possible destruction of the palace gestures toward the Argive royal dynasty's complete loss of power and also alludes to the extinction of their lineage, which appears as the inevitable consequence of Orestes's renewed violence after a long chain of crimes. The Chorus connect this new offense to the brutal history of the royal family of Argos and the palace's ruin to the downfall of the house of Atreus (1536-38;[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted] Io, Io, how it falls! Into another ordeal, another again, the houses plunges, a dread one, concerning Atreus' line). The destruction of the palace implies the obliteration of the myth itself which crumbles under its legacy of endless violence.
In the plays' finale, however, the catastrophe is seemingly averted, and the protagonists may set out for a more promising future than the one they had in Electra. Apollo appears above the walls of the palace and reveals that, after being acquitted by the Areopagus court in Athens, Orestes will eventually return to Argos and rule on it (1643-59), thus rejoining the political community from which, as matricide, he was expelled. However, the happy ending is only superficially achieved, since Apollo must acknowledge that Orestes's relationship with the Argive people has deteriorated to the point that he himself had to intervene in order to reconcile them (1664-5). This entails a pessimistic judgment on the ability of men to resolve their inner conflicts peacefully. In real life--Euripides seems to suggest--no divine intervention is to be expected; thus, society will always be prey to the same opportunism and self-interest that, in the play, dominated the Argive assembly, preventing a positive unfolding of Orestes's and Electra's predicament.
As in Electra, in Orestes both the gods and the community turn out to be ethically condemnable. On the one hand, Apollo's intervention comes too late for Orestes to be spared from the humiliation of being convicted, and, on the other hand, the citizens' assembly is also to blame for pronouncing such a sentence against Agamemnon's son. The two "institutional" dimensions of the mythical religion and of the polis prove similarly unable to meet the needs of the individuals who may find solace only in the private dimension of the family and, especially, of friendship.
In Orestes's case, as we have seen, the typically tyrannical fear of being dethroned--be it concrete or not--finds a parallel in Orestes's actual troubled relationship with his potential subjects. In this respect, we have noticed an increasing division between the royal family and the Argive citizens, testified to by their cowardly indifference to the royal siblings in Electra and their open hostility against them in Orestes. This entails the destruction of the political bonds between the legitimate king and his subjects, which becomes part of a larger and more general disorder in society. This is a consequence of matricide, but social disruption is not its only one, and its dreadfulness brings about psychological damages too, which, in Orestes, consist primarily in an excruciating feeling of remorse. With special regard to Orestes, remorse turns into a new form of fear: no longer a "relational" fear (that is, a preoccupation about one's relationship with one's subjects), it is an inner fright from which the individual cannot be freed. In fact, no absolution in a judiciary court can cancel the sorrow and moral anguish for murdering one's mother, nor can it remove the terror of punishment or retaliation. And even when, in the second part of Orestes, fear seems to have been forgotten, its absence from Orestes's thoughts and actions merely responds to dramaturgical purposes and does not correspond to an authentic overcoming of remorse. What Orestes fears, what makes him suffer and hinders him from fully claiming and regaining his own, does not lie in the events that surround him, but in himself. And in this, he is even more miserable than Plato's and Xenophon's "unhappy" tyrants.
(1) Diego Lanza, // tiranno e il suo pubblico (Torino: Einaudi, 1977).
(2) "This Herodotean passage...provides the first outline of a figure fated to be repeatedly recasted." Ibid., 40, translation mine.
(3) Ibid., 41, translation mine.
(4) All quotations from Xenophon's Hiero are from Leo Strauss, On Tyranny: Revised and Expanded Edition including the Strauss-Kojeve Correspondence, ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth, trans. Marvin Kendrick and Seth Bernardete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). The Greek text is based on Edgar C. Marchant, ed., Xenophontis opera omnia, recognovit brevique adnotatione critica instruxit, vol. 5, Opuscula (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).
(5) As Lanza also remarked (ibid., 199), while the Platonic tyrant is originally prone to violence and vice, even before his rise to power, Xenophon's Hiero is consciously miserable and unhappy and, if he could, would indeed resign. Since--as he says to Simonides--he cannot make amends to or compensate all the people he has robbed, imprisoned, or killed, he will be subject to retaliation (7.12-13).
(6) Marchant, Xenophontis opera omnia, 119.
(7) In Aeschylus's Agamemnon, the Chorus are aware of the causal link between regicide and tyranny. Hearing the cries of Agamemnon from inside the palace, they readily comment: "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (1354-55; anyone can see it, by these first steps they have taken, / they purpose to be tyrants here upon our city). References to the Greek text of Aeschylus's Oresteia are to Denys Page, ed., Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); translations are from Richmond Lattimore, trans., Greek Tragedies, ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, 3 vols., 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
(8) See Toni Bierl's article in this special issue (51.4 Winter 2017) of Comparative Drama: "Klytaimestra Tyrannos. Fear and Tyranny in Aeschylus's Oresteia (with a Brief Comparison with Macbeth)".
(9) Sophocles's Electra is quoted according to Hugh Lloyd-Jones, trans. and ed., Sophocles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
(10) The term "[phrase omitted]" (30; she feared) refers instead to Clytemnestra's own fear and alludes to the fact that, should she allow Aegisthus to kill Electra (30), the Argive would blame her. For a comparison with the language of phobos in Aeschylus's Agamemnon see Guido AvezzU, "Reticence and phobos in Agamemnon" in part 2 of this special issue of Comparative Drama (52.1 Spring 2018).
(11) Ennio Biondi, "La Peur du Tyran dans le Hieron de Xenophon: un cas de psychanalyse qui ne dit pas son nom," in Peurs antiques, ed. Sandrine Coin-Longeray and Daniel Vallat (Saint-Etienne: Publications de l'Universite de Saint-Etienne, 2015), 168, translation mine.
(12) Quotations of Euripides's Electra are from Martin J. Cropp, ed. and trans., Euripides: Electra, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxbow, 2013). My own translations are within square brackets.
(13) Quotations are from Plato, Republic, ed. and trans. Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy, bks. 6-10 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
(14) Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus is quoted according to Hugh Lloyd-Jones, trans, and ed., Sophocles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
(15) Patrick J. Finglass, "Is There a Polis in Sophocles' ElectraV Phoenix 59 (2005): 199-209 (201).
(16) Ibid., 202.
(17) The other relevant passages are listed by Finglass, "Is There a Polis," 202-3.
(18 )Probably Oresteion which stands at about ten kilometers south of Megalopolis (Cropp, Euripides, 236-7).
(19) As Cynthia Patterson explains, "[phrase omitted]" expresses "a political and individual relationship with the polis." "Hai attikai: The Other Athenians," Helios, n.s., 13 (1986): 49-67 (55).
(20) See, for instance, Hanna M. Roisman and Cecelia Eaton Luschnig, Euripides' Electra: A Commentary (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011), 257-58.
(22) Sophocles's Electra is quoted and translated according to Jenny March, trans. and ed, Sophocles: Electra (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 2001).
(23) With regard to this aspect of the servant speech Guido Avezzu justly foregrounded how "these lines [808-10]... narratize Orestes' silent vow, which the Messenger at most could only infer from the context, thus speaking like an omniscient narrator while being a testimony to the scene.... This remark is part of his strategy to reassure Electra about Orestes' intent to carry out the action of moral redress through seizure of power (which, incidentally, will not take place;" Guido Avezzu, "Tt is Not a Small Thing to Defeat a King': The Servant/Messenger's Tale in Euripides' Electra" Skene 2, no. 2 (2016): 63-86 (79).
(24) Orestes kills Aegisthus during a sacrificial ceremony, which makes his vengeance appear crude and unheroic. See Cropp, Euripides, 196-97 for an effective confutation of this view.
(25) "[phrase omitted]" (969; how can I kill her, who nurtured me and bore me?). This cue anticipates the one pronounced by Aeschylus's Clytemnestra moments before being killed by her son: "[phrase omitted]" (Ch. 928; You are the snake I gave birth to, and gave the breast).
(26) Cropp, Euripides, 229.
(27) On the topic of friends' disloyalty, see ibid., 185.
(28) This appreciation of the private sphere of existence is typical of the mature phase of Euripides's dramaturgy and has been aptly described by Vincenzo Di Benedetto in his Euripide: teatro e societa (Torino: Einaudi, 1971), 311-19.
(29) The English quotations are from James Morwood, trans., Euripides, Bacchae and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). This translation is based on James Diggle, ed., Euripidis Fabulae, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
(30) The passage is quoted and translated according to Martin L. West, trans. and ed., Euripides' Orestes (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1987). At line 762, West adopts Wecklein's emendation "[phrase omitted]" (palace) instead of the manuscripts' unanimous reading [phrase omitted]; however, there is no compelling reason for the emendation, and I have therefore chosen [phrase omitted] and modified West's translation accordingly (see changes within brackets).
(31) Line 38 has been deleted by Nauck, as in the previous line Electra has declared that she is too shy to name the goddesses. However, as Willink notices, "[phrase omitted] is a vox Euripidea" C. W Willink, ed., Euripides: Orestes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 87-88n38. His further argument that "the point about 'terror' is indispensable as the only explicit reference in the prologue to that thematically important aspect of Or.'s [phrase omitted]" is less compelling; although fear is a primary aspect of Orestes's madness--as I also contend in this article--at line 37 Electra has already mentioned the "[phrase omitted]" (frenzy-fits) that torment Orestes, and this piece of information could suffice in a prologue. Nevertheless, as Enrico Mecida remarks, the sentence flows regularly with line 38: "After describing the situation with 'TO [phrase omitted] [trans. West; his mother's blood bowls him along in frenzy-fits], in lines 37-8 Electra makes clear by [phrase omitted] that she has used that expression out of restraint, whereas she should have said more clearly that it is the Erinyes who torment Orestes: and in so doing, Electra implicitly overcomes her reluctance and mentions the goddesses." Euripide, Oreste, ed. Enrico Medda (Milano: Rizzoli, 2001), 149n7, translation mine.
(32) In line 261, Orestes calls the Erinyes "[phrase omitted]" (dread goddesses). Later, Electra exhorts her brother "[phrase omitted]" (312-13; be none too receptive to that panic that startles you from the couch). Tyndareus then reproaches to Orestes "[phrase omitted]" (531-2 ; [you] are paying your mother's price by rushing about in fits of frenzy and panic).
(33) An important precedent, though, can be found in the final scene of Aeschylus's Choephori, when the Erinyes appear to Orestes alone, whereas the Chorus dismiss them as "[phrase omitted]" (visions). Aeschylus already explored some effects of the Erinyes' influence on Orestes's psychology; however, in the Eumenides he preferred concentrating on an open "battle" between them and Orestes's protector Apollo. On the Choephori scene, see Enrico Medda, La saggezza dell'illusione: Studi sul teatro greco (Pisa: ETS, 2013), 181-3.
(34) The text makes it unclear whether Athena means that reverence and fear will act as a deterrent for the members of the Areopagus or for the Athenian citizens: in "[phrase omitted]" (Eum. 690-1), "[phrase omitted]" may be either subjective (fear by the citizens) or objective (fear that the judges feel towards the citizens) genitive. According to Alan Sommerstein, the second interpretation "perhaps better suits [phrase omitted] [Eum. 690; "here"], which is most naturally understood as meaning that Respect and Fear prevent the commission of crime on the Areopagus itself rather than that respect and fear '<of those who sit> on the Areopagus' prevent crime being committed elsewhere in the city" (c), 215n690-2. However, Vincenzo di Benedetto has persuasively argued that the Areopagus will inspire, in the context of the polis, the same fear which the Erinyes inspire within the family: this is the means of the extension of Erinyes' power to the political sphere. Vincenzo di Benedetto, L'ideologia del potere e la tragedia greca: ricerche su Eschilo (Torino: Einaudi, 1978), 228. See also, Enrico Corti's recent article "Dalla paura tragica alla concordia politica nel teatro di Eschilo," Dioniso 4, n.s. (2014): 19-39.
(35) As tradition has it, at least one of them, Phalaris, the cruel Sicilian tyrant, was lapidated. On lapidation, see Rudolf Hirzel, Die Strafe der Steinigung (Leipzig: Teubner, 1909) (on Phalaris, see 241). Oddone Longo regards lapidation as part of that "ferinita" (ferity) that characterizes the world of Euripides's Orestes. Oddone Longo, "Proposte di lettura per l'Oreste di Euripide," Maia 27 (1975): 265-87 (282-3).
(36) Verrall already suggested a connection between the action of Orestes and Pylades and the Athenian etairiai. A. W. Verrall, Euripides the Rationalist: A Study in the History of Art and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 223. See also Elizabeth Rawson, "Aspects of Euripides' Orestes" Arethusa 5 (1972): 155-67; Longo, "Proposte di lettura," 271-80; Edith Hall, "Political and Cosmic Turbulence in Euripides' Orestes" in Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis, ed. Alan H. Sommerstein et al. (Bari: Levante, 1993), 269-70).
(37) Medda aptly illustrates this change of perspective as the shift from a "tendenza centrifuga" (centrifugal tendency) to a "movimento centripeto" (centripetal movement). Medda, La saggezza dell'illusione, 144-50.
University of Verona
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2017|
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