In accordance with the advice of the god Apollo, Orestes has killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father Agamemnon at her hands. Despite Apollo’s earlier prophecy, Orestes finds himself tormented by Erinyes or Furies to the blood guilt stemming from his matricide. The only person capable of calming Orestes down from his madness is his sister Electra. To complicate matters further, a leading political faction of Argos wants to put Orestes to death for the murder. Orestes’ only hope to save his life lies in his uncle Menelaus, who has returned with Helen after spending ten years in Troy and several more years amassing wealth in Egypt. In the chronology of events following Orestes, this play takes place after the events contained in plays such as Electra by Euripides or The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus, and before events contained in plays like The Eumenides by Aeschylus and Andromache by Euripides.
The play begins with a soliloquy that outlines the basic plot and events that have led up to this point from Electra, who stands next to a sleeping Orestes. Shortly after, Helen comes out of the palace under the pretext that she wishes to make an offering at her sister Clytemnestra’s grave. As in most of the plays of Classical Greece, Helen is played as a vacuous floozy. Some commentators criticize Euripides as being a misogynist; however his dialogue is often very ironic. Consequently, one reading of the play, especially from a patristic mindset, would have Euripides place blame for the Trojan War and the fall of the House of Atreus at Helen’s feet. In fact, Euripides may arguably use Helen as a device through which to discuss several larger themes such as freewill, fate, and the role of the gods in the cosmos. For example, Helen is unable to take personal responsibility for allowing her to be abducted to Troy, and blames Apollo for the problems in the House of Atreus. After Helen leaves a chorus of Argive women enters to help advance the plot. Then Orestes, still maddened by the Furies, awakes.
Menelaus arrives at the palace and he and Orestes discuss the murder and the resulting madness. Tyndareus, Orestes’ grandfather and Menelaus’ father-in-law comes onto the scene and roundly chastises Orestes leading to a conversation with the three men on the role of humans in dispensing divine justice and natural law. As Tyndareus leaves, he warns Menelaus that he will need the old man as an ally. Orestes, in supplication before Menelaus, hopes to gain compassion that Tyndareus would not grant in an attempt to get him to speak before the assembly of Argive men. However, Menelaus ultimately shuns his nephew, choosing not to compromise his tenuous power among the Greeks who blame him and his wife for the Trojan War.
Pylades, Orestes’ best friend and his accomplice in Clytemnestra’s murder, arrives after Menelaus has exited. He and Orestes begin to formulate a plan, in the process indicting partisan politics and leaders who manipulate the masses for results contrary to the best interest of the state, perhaps a veiled criticism of contemporary Athenian factions. Orestes and Pylades then exit so that they may state their case before the town assembly in an effort to save Orestes and Electra from execution, which proves unsuccessful.
Their execution certain, Orestes, Electra, and Pylades formulate a plan of revenge against Menelaus for turning his back on them. To make him suffer most, they plan to kill Helen and his daughter Hermione. However, when they go to kill Helen, she vanishes. In attempting to execute their plan, a Phrygian slave of Helen’s escapes the palace. Orestes asks the slave why he should spare his life and the slave supplicates himself before Orestes. Orestes is won over by the Phrygian’s argument that, like free men, slaves prefer the light of day to death, resulting in the first act of compassion in the play. Menelaus then enters leading to a standoff between him and Orestes, Electra, and Pylades, who have successfully captured Hermione.
Just as more bloodshed is to occur, Apollo arrives on stage Deus ex machina. He sets everything back in order, explaining that Helen has been placed among the stars and that Menelaus must go back to Sparta. He tells Orestes to go to Athens to the Areopagus, the Athenian court, in order to stand judgment, where he will later be acquitted. Also, Orestes is to marry Hermione, while Pylades will marry Electra. Finally, Apollo tells the mortals to go and rejoice in Peace, most honored and favored of the gods.
Like much of his work, Euripides uses the mythology of the Bronze Age to make a political point about the politics of Classical Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Orestes First played at the Dionysia during the waning years of the war, both Athens and Sparta and all of their allies had suffered tremendous losses.
Euripides challenges the role of the gods and perhaps more appropriately man’s interpretation of divine will. Orestes and others note the subordinate role of man to the gods, but the superiority of the gods does not make them particularly fair or rational. Even Apollo, the god synonymous with law and order, ultimately gives an unsatisfactory argument. For example, he cites the reason for the Trojan War as the method the gods chose to cleanse the earth of surplus population. This leads one to question why gods (or political leaders) would use war as an instrument for a greater good, and, this being the case, why these gods/leaders are worthy of our admiration and praise?
In addition to the will of the gods, the role of natural law and its tension with manmade law is noted. For example, when Tyndareus argues to Menelaus that the law is fundamental to man’s lives, to which Menelaus counters that blind obedience to anything, such as the law, is an attribute of a slave.
Perhaps most important to the play is Apollo’s closing statements that Peace is to be revered more than all other values. Orestes best embodies this value when by sparing the life of the Phrygian, driving home the point the beauty of life transcends cultural boundaries whether one be a slave or free man. This was also the only successful supplication in the play. This point is of particular value, since the Peloponnesian War had already lasted nearly a quarter of a century by the time of this play’s production.
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