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Eumenides | Episode 3 | Summary

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Summary

The scene begins in Athens' high court, the Areopagus. Athena enters with Orestes, the jury of 10 Athenian men, and the citizens who have come to watch the trial. Athena calls the court to order.

Apollo, who has arrived as a witness for Orestes, announces himself. He confirms he goaded Orestes toward the murder and purified him in a cleansing ritual.

The Chorus Leader—the plaintiff—opens by questioning Orestes. Orestes admits he slit his mother's throat, at Apollo's urging, and has no regrets. Clytaemnestra was guilty of two crimes, Orestes says. He asks why the Furies didn't hound Clytaemnestra when she was alive. The Chorus Leader repeats Clytaemnestra "shared no common blood" with her victim. Orestes, stumped, asks Apollo to step in and speak.

Apollo reminds the jury of the power of Zeus, who commands all Apollo's prophecies. Orestes's vengeance was Zeus's will. He then describes Clytaemnestra's gruesome murder of Agamemnon, the returned war hero. The Chorus protests Zeus chained his own father, Chronos, so Zeus can hardly call for justice in a father's death. Apollo replies, angrily, Zeus can do anything but bring a dead man back to life.

The Chorus Leader asks how Orestes can return to live in Argos after killing his mother. Apollo argues the mother is only a "nurse" to a child, and the father is the real parent—"the one who plants the seed." Therefore a father's death is more significant than a mother's death. He points to Athena as an example. Athena has no mother; Zeus gave birth to her himself. Apollo sent Orestes to Athena so she would gain an ally in him.

Athena tells the jury to cast their ballots. She declares the court will be a permanent fixture in Athens to keep the city righteous and safe. As the members of the tribunal vote by dropping their ballots into urns, the Chorus Leader and Apollo trade insults.

Athena announces she's voting to acquit Orestes. Since she has no mother, as "a true child of my father Zeus," she doesn't consider a mother's death worse than a father's death—especially given Clytaemnestra's own crime.

The jury empties the ballots from the urns and counts them. Orestes and the Chorus wait anxiously, each hoping for a different verdict. The votes are equal for acquittal and conviction. Since Athena's is the tie-breaking vote, Orestes is acquitted.

Orestes proclaims his gratitude to Athena. He can return home again, and Zeus has honored his father's death. He vows the cities of Argos and Athens will always be at peace with one another. Orestes leaves with Apollo.

Analysis

The concept of dike, the Greek word for justice and moral order, is significant to the court proceedings and the response to the verdict. Each side has a different idea of how dike is achieved.

By using the setting of the Areopagus, Athens's actual high court, Aeschylus speaks to the political crisis of his time. Democracy was still a novel concept when Eumenides was written. The equality of free citizens was just as radical. Rather than the powerful few deciding the fates of the common people (a type of government known as an oligarchy), the people would judge themselves. Were working-class citizens up to the task of serving justice? Athena may have confidence in her hand-picked jury, but the Chorus does not.

The sparring between Orestes and the Chorus Leader, another example of stichomythia or rapid exchanges of dialogue between two characters, shows repeated antithesis or opposition. The characters make battle references—the Chorus Leader taunts "Three falls wins the match" and Orestes retorts "your opponent isn't pinned down yet."

It turns out Orestes trusts familial justice and blood retribution as much as the Furies do. He's certain "my father from his grave will send the help I need." Agamemnon's two roles within the family, husband and father (and the third role of city military commander), double the impact of his death. Orestes claims boldly to have no regrets, and the audience may wonder if he feels any guilt. His deferral to Apollo and Athena for judgment shows Orestes is at least conflicted.

The Chorus links the maternal role, again, to the role of creation. They feel a mother's bond with her child is the closest possible family bond. According to Apollo, this assertion is where their case begins to fall apart. The mother, he claims, is only a vessel, not a full family member.

Little is known about Greece's primitive history, but ancient Greece was a patriarchal society, honoring male authority over the home. This patriarchy is what makes Aeschylus's Clytaemnestra such a radical character. She subverts her husband's authority and ends his life with no remorse. By contrast, even Apollo invokes the authority of his own father, Zeus. When Apollo recounts Agamemnon's murder, he's dramatic and emotionally manipulative. He emphasizes Agamemnon's war heroism, Clytaemnestra's deception, and the disgrace of dying "at a woman's hand" and not in battle. The jury is all male, and Apollo appeals to their senses of pride and shame. He repeats the argument the Furies made about the permanence of death and blood: "once a mortal's blood has drained into the dust, the man is dead."

Apollo's paternity argument hinges on the unique origin story of Athena, not the biological origins of human life or even the social roles of men and women. The argument may seem strange, since Athena, who emerged from the head of Zeus after Zeus killed her mother, Metis, is hardly a typical case. Apollo is trying to curry favor with the judge Athena, promising to "make your city and your people great" after a favorable verdict. He's also linking Athena to the ruling patriarchy.

Athena knows the Greek patriarchal traditions as well as anyone. She knows her power hinges on making political alliances. Because of her unusual birth, she's a woman who has the qualities associated with a man: intelligence, leadership savvy, and government influence. She wants the "everlasting bond" Apollo promises with Orestes, a member of a royal family in a neighboring city. Her verdict pays respect to Agamemnon's role as "guardian of their home," showing she still honors established roles within a family.

The Chorus Leader strengthens her argument by bringing up Apollo's own track record of crimes against natural law. When the Chorus Leader mocks Apollo with his "[triumph] in the house of Pheres, persuading Fate to free all men from death," she reminds the audience of Apollo's failed attempt to save Pheres's son Admetus. Admetus was a human king Apollo befriended. Hoping to spare Admetus and his wife, Alcestis, from death, Apollo got the Fates drunk so they'd suspend the laws of mortality, another detail the Chorus Leader recalls. The Chorus's character assassination reveals Apollo to be a trickster who oversteps his bounds. And again, he's meddling "in blood work that's not your proper business."

Apollo's family is hardly an example of filial devotion either. His father Zeus "chained up his own father, Chronos," a fact the Chorus only reveals after their gradual interrogation of Apollo, requesting the jury to take note. Apollo's outrage at the reminder of Zeus's crimes proves he too feels loyal to his family. He later references the justice Zeus delivered in the case of "man-killer Ixion." Ixion murdered his father-in-law and received a pardon from Zeus, similar to the pardon Apollo offered Orestes. Apollo uses this anecdote as an example of the young gods' compassion and mercy, qualities the Furies lack. (Later when Ixion seduced Zeus's wife, Zeus punished him swiftly.)

Neither side comes out looking innocent in the trial. But it's still up to the jury to deliver justice. Athena's speech about the founding of the court answers the Furies' question in Stasimon 3: Without divine retribution, who will regulate the evils of men? The court is on a hill, physically visible at all times, and simultaneously able to watch over the citizens. Athena speaks gently but with veiled threats. The people are responsible for their own order and well-being. If they make good decisions, they will be the safest, strongest city yet. If they "pollute the laws with evil innovations" they have no one but themselves to blame for misfortune. As the jury casts their ballots, Athena urges them to vote according to their consciences and "make sure your hearts/respect that oath you made." She has faith in the demos or common people, but she'll keep an eye on them.

Aeschylus ramps up the tension by giving both sides a valid argument and splitting the jury down the middle. Orestes's vindication is the beginning of catharsis for the audience. Catharsis in Greek drama refers to the "cleansing" or emotional release the audience feels once the play reaches its climax and resolves its conflicts. Feelings of fear and pity lead to redemption and restoration. The House of Atreus is free of its curse.

But the drama's conflicts aren't fully resolved yet. Orestes does promise peace between Argos and Athens, forming a civic alliance. Politically aware Athena may have seen this offer coming and cast her vote to save her city. Nonetheless, she still has to handle the Furies, who are about to pledge the destruction of Athens.

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