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Democracy and Discipline in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
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There are at least two reasons why Aeschylus’s Oresteia is particularly well suited to help us think through the contemporary tension between democracy and the discipline it potentially engenders. It is by now a commonplace to note that Greek tragedy emerged when the old myths were for the first time considered from the point of view of a citizen. As Jean-Pierre Vernant has pointed out, all tragedies shared this concern with the city by virtue of their ritual status within the context of a popular and democratic civic festival.[3] The Oresteia is unique, however, because it alone of all extant tragedies is preoccupied with the newly emerging democratic order itself.[4] In the context of a democratic celebration, the Oresteia celebrates democracy.

All tragedians also reworked and expanded the traditional myths that supplied their material, and Aeschylus was certainly no exception to this.[5] What I find especially significant about the Oresteia is the specific way in which Aeschylus revised the ancient, mythic materials so that Athenian democracy provided the trilogy’s content as well as its context. Athens’s own recent, ongoing democratic transformations are surely reflected in the fact that the playwright chose Argos over the traditional settings of Sparta or Mycenae, transferred the action to Athens, alluded to a recently concluded treaty with the Argives, and employed the Areopagus as his instrument for disrupting the ancient chain of vengeance and countervengeance.[6] Athena’s establishment of the law court, the acquittal of Orestes, the reconciliation of the Erinyes, their acceptance in Athens, and their transformation into the new cult of the Eumenides are also the inventions of the poet.[7] Finally, the pageant that concludes the play and trilogy recalls the democratic festival of the Great Panathenaia, which, as the name suggests, was a celebration that included all Athens and culminated in a procession to the Acropolis, where a sacrifice was offered to Athena. As Athena leads the procession of Eumenides and citizens from the theater to the Acropolis, the legendary aristocratic past fuses with the city’s contemporary democratic present.[8] The final play of the trilogy presents democratic Athens to itself.

The critics agree that the Oresteia, first performed in the spring of 458 b.c.—not more than three or four years after the momentous events that abolished the political power of the Areopagus in 462/461—is inextricably linked to contemporary Athenian politics. All cite the reforms, led by Ephialtes, that broke the traditional power of the Areopagus, the last aristocratic bulwark against a rising popular tide, the reorientation of foreign policy away from conservative Sparta and toward Argos, and the ostracism of Cimon, the respected leader of the conservative party, as influences on the trilogy. All power passed to the Assembly and the Council of 500—that is, to the demos of Athens—and the citizens effectively gained control over the constitution as a whole. To be sure, the great aristocratic families remained powers to be reckoned with, but birth alone no longer determined political position: every citizen was born a second time into an artificial order constituted and bounded by equality before the law (isonomia) embodied in a legal, constitutional order.[9] Although there is considerable controversy over the significance of allusions to contemporary political events, all are agreed that in the Oresteia, the playwright reflected on Athens’s newly emerging democracy.[10]

Viewed in retrospect, then, from the opening lines of Agamemnon to the final scenes of the Eumenides, the trilogy seems to lead in a significant sense toward a resolution in the democratic polis. The whole trilogy, but particularly the Eumenides, thus concerns itself primarily with “the city of Athens and its newly established civic order.”[11] When Athena establishes the law court and calls upon her “best citizens” to render judgment in the first homicide case, she alludes to that event when, for the first time in Greek history—in world history—the civic order as a whole was placed at the disposal of the demos. The events of 462/461 were so far-reaching that the Athenian civic order itself, its very constitution, had become a matter of popular controversy, hence a democratic political issue in its own right. In the Oresteia, we see that democratic civic order established: conflict between tribal custom and aristocratic privilege finds its resolution in the legally constituted order of the democratic polis embodied in court of law. Within the context of the Ephialtic reforms, the Oresteia for the first time articulated a series of reflections on the newly established democratic order at Athens.[12] I am concerned here to show how that order is thought out, embodied, reflected, and challenged in and by the drama.

The second reason I find the Oresteia particularly well suited for my purposes has to do with the way in which the trilogy represents the “other” in gendered terms and so introduces the marginalization of the feminine directly into a civic context.[13] In the Oresteia, for the first time, women struggle forcibly against the boundaries of the masculine public world,[14] and the outcome of that struggle, as we shall see, is by no means certain. In retelling the Homeric myth, Aeschylus did more than simply transfer the action from Argos to Athens and provide the contemporary city with a founding myth for its nascent democratic order. Aeschylus implicates gender in his retelling in such a way that one cannot avoid the questions the trilogy raises regarding the status and role of women in a democratic civic order.[15]

For his part, Homer virtually ignores Clytemnestra. Aegisthus seduces the queen, plans the trap, kills Agamemnon, takes control of the house, and is finally killed in turn by Orestes, who successfully reclaims his patrimony.[16] The Odyssey thus focuses on the male struggle for control of the household, and that struggle is settled within its narrow framework. The transgressions that set in motion the narrative of return and revenge find both their location and their resolution in the order of the oikos.[17] In the return and triumph of Orestes, as well as in that of Odysseus and Telemachus, the Odyssey unproblematically defines the proper and controlled order of the patriarchal household.[18]

Aeschylus, by contrast, focuses all his attention directly on Clytemnestra’s character, revenge, and plotting of reciprocal murder. His Clytemnestra moves to the center of the stage: she, not Aegisthus, sets the watchman, tricks Agamemnon, defeats him in combat, and takes control of house and city. Homer passes over Clytemnestra’s death in silence,[19] but she becomes the object of further revenge in the Choephoroi, her murder the central enacted confrontation in the central play of the trilogy. Moreover, the “feminine” Aegisthus contrasts sharply with the “masculine” Clytemnestra, thereby heightening our awareness of the dramatic reversal of sexual roles. The deaths of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra do not, however, return Orestes to his patrimony. Clytemnestra may be dead, but her Furies, the archaic goddesses of the underworld, prosecute her claim against Orestes, a claim that can only be redeemed in blood. Finally, in the trial of the Eumenides, the arguments proffered by both sides turn in a significant way on Clytemnestra’s biological relation to Orestes, while the paradoxical figure of Athena reopens the question of a woman’s civic role and status precisely at the moment of its intended resolution.

Throughout the trilogy, then, men and women are at odds: women aim directly at power and domination, while men aim to return them to their “normal” places. In the final confrontation, we are asked to choose between our obligation to blood ties and our obligation to the city. Homer’s heroes could hardly conceive of such a choice, much less confront it. The transgressions that motivate the archaic narrative of return and revenge find both their expression and their resolution in the patriarchal order of the household. Aeschylus clearly indicates, however, that the oikos of the noble genos is no longer adequate to contain and resolve the sexual conflict unleashed within the house of Atreus. This is in part because the household is not merely the site, but also the cause, of the conflict between men and women. Only the polis, with its more inclusive and more encompassing view, will prove adequate to the larger task of reconciliation Aeschylus sets himself. But can we say that Aeschylus finds even the expanded framework of the democratic polis sufficient to contain the conflicts generated in the trilogy? The conclusion of the Oresteia certainly leaves no doubt that the more impartial and inclusive legal and political institutions of Athens constitute an advance over the particularity of the household and clan, but as the persistent presence of the Furies, the unannounced departure of Apollo, and the displacement of the solution onto the divine agency of Athena all indicate, the conflict between genders is larger than the polis itself. That the citizen-jurors probably vote against Orestes (Athena breaks the tie in favor of the city) also suggests that perhaps the framework of the polis is itself neither adequate nor any too secure.

That Aeschylus departs in significant ways from the myth as it appears in Homer and the other traditional sources is agreed,[20] yet the nature and purpose of that departure remains contested. A lively controversy over this issue has sprung up recently among classical scholars,[21] a controversy that illuminates, if not anticipates, my own attempt to insert the ancient text into a contemporary theoretical debate. Not surprisingly, it turns on the way in which the Oresteia “integrates” women into the newly founded civic order.

The usual interpretation of the play celebrates the transition from chaos to order, darkness to light, perversion to “normalcy.”[22] This movement of progress occurs in the medium of a mythic structure that reconciles conflict with harmony, the chthonic with the Olympian divinities, female with male, old with new, clan-based blood vengeance with civic justice. John H. Finley, Jr., in an influential treatment as broad and inclusive as the Oresteia itself, argues that the trilogy traces the emergence of democracy, an order based on reason and consent, from its troubled beginnings in the archaic past to its triumph in the contemporary Athenian regime.[23] The rational and creative male principle of freely chosen compacts (represented by Apollo and the marriage bond) triumphs over what is female, inherited from the past, natural, and local. Aeschylus thus resolves the tension between place and creativity, scope and commitment, feminine and masculine values, earth-born and Olympian gods, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, through his faith in the moral cogency of reason, a reason that resolves conflicts, not through assertive will, but through a generous and inclusive understanding.[24] Finley concludes his reading of the Oresteia with the judgment that Aeschylus was a prophet of democracy and reason. His trilogy is more than merely a charter for the democratic polis: it is nothing less than a founding document of Western civilization.

Some feminist accounts of the Oresteia protest that while Aeschylus may depart from the traditional narrative, he does so only to install a new myth in place of the old, and one that is, from the point of view of women, not an appreciable advance over the original. Froma Zeitlin argues, for example, that a cosmogonic myth indeed structures the Oresteia’s narrative, that it creates a world, traces the evolution of civilization, and culminates in the triumph of the democratic polis, an institution endowed with “the creative power to coordinate human, natural and divine forces.”[25] The trial scene in the Eumenides certainly brings to an end the conflict between opposing interests and forces that has driven the action of the trilogy from the start. The solution, as we have seen, reconciles Olympian with chthonic deities on the divine level, Greek and barbarian on the cultural level, male and female on the social level. But Zeitlin does not see this solution as a true reconciliation in which opposing forces come to abide in a “just” state of respectful mutuality and reciprocity.[26] Rather, the “solution” of the Eumenides is achieved through the hierarchization of values: the subordination of the Erinyes to the Olympians, of barbarian to Greek, of female to male. Through the democratic rhetoric of equality, reason and consent legitimate the institutionalization of exclusionary polarities into systematized hierarchies, rather than creating a truly democratic order.[27] The Oresteia may well be a founding document of Western civilization, but what it founds is a tradition of misogynistic exclusion: “By integrating the issue into a coherent system of new values, by formulating it in new abstact terms, and by shifting to a new form of argumentation, it provides the decisive model for the future legitimation of this attitude in Western thought.”[28] In these terms, the Athenian culture and practice of democratic citizenship prove to be one more strategy for disciplining the “feminine other” and constructing a normal and normalizing order.

The Oresteia, on this reading, replaces a dynastic myth with a myth of wide-ranging origins in which the democratic city is founded on the defeat and subordination of women. For these critics, the Oresteia as origin myth creates a center, establishes a hierarchy of values based on difference, and legitimates an effective system of gender domination. While I find this criticism persuasive, and especially helpful for the argument I am going to develop, it shares one crucial element with the “progressivist” reading it rejects. Both uncritically accept a linear development in the narrative that culminates in a final resolution of the conflicts and oppositions that mark the trilogy. Both impute a well-defined telos to the structure of the Oresteia’s narrative: where the progressivist sees harmony and reconciliation, the feminist critic sees hierarchy and subordination. In these terms, the Oresteia either contributes to our understanding of the rational and consensual preconditions of democratic politics or else participates in the hierarchical and exclusionary order democracy purportedly rejects.

To break this interpretive impasse, I suggest adopting a reading of the Oresteia informed by the recent structuralist interpretations of Charles Segal.[29] Such an analysis suspects the too-easy identification of tragic “message” with mythologized narrative structure, whether that narrative culminates in reconciliation and inclusion or in hierarchy and subordination. This is so for two reasons. First, where a structural analysis treats the coded patterns of a myth as a microcosm of the social order and reads that order off the myth it analyzes, the “literary work imposes a secondary structure of language and meanings upon the given structures of the society.”[30] A structuralist interpretation applied to a literary work thus proceeds differently than when applied to a myth. By necessity, the playwright uses the accepted, normative codes that constitute the mental patterns of society, and one could analyze a tragedy solely in terms of those codes. At the same time, however, tragedy deliberately manipulates, distorts, or transforms the given linguistic, intellectual and political codes in the self-conscious structure created by its own internal, aesthetic coherence.[31] In tragedy, unlike in myth, the codes of narrative and society do not cohere. The Oresteia is particularly notable for such a deliberate destructuring of the familiar coded patterns of social order: the perversion of ritual sacrifice, the inversion of sexual roles, and the strained diction of failed communication all express the violence done to the ritual, familial, and linguistic codes.

Second, a structural analysis of tragedy places as much emphasis on a work’s synchronic structure of polarities as it does on its “syntagmatic” progression of a linearly developing plot. It is precisely this neglect of tragedy’s synchronic structure that allows the critics to overlook the radical destructuring and distortion of the familiar codes that mark tragedy. If Segal is right in observing a preoccupation with the “linear progression of the plot” to the neglect of the “synchronic structure of polarities which underlies the cultural values” that operate in the text, then a shift of focus toward the latter will disentangle tragic “message” from mythologized narrative structure and illuminate those decentering, distorting, and transformative moments in the text as present simultaneously with, and perhaps arresting, the forward progress of the narrative.

I appropriate this interpretive strategy to examine two related themes in the trilogy in a way that will undermine the secure sense of final narrative closure assumed by most readers of the Oresteia. In what follows, I am concerned broadly with the themes of language and sexuality, but specifically with the ways in which the Oresteia dramatizes the difficulty of establishing a secure civic discourse and a stable sexual order for a democratic Athens. Even though the linguistic and sexual transgressions that mark the trilogy find their resolutions in the trial scene and its aftermath in the Eumenides, I have reason to believe that the solution Aeschylus proposes (imposes?) is neither as stable nor as permanent as it appears. My argument turns on the crucial figure of Athena, that architect of the “solution” to the violence and chaos unleashed, at least in part, by Clytemnestra. For surely it is a mistake to interpret Athena’s decisive role without reference to Clytemnestra, not least because the disturbing transgressions of the linguistic, ritual, and sexual order that characterize the Agamemnon run right through the entire trilogy to its very end. If this is indeed the case, then even the tragic performance itself will not prove immune to the disturbing transgressions it purportedly ends.

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Democracy and Discipline in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
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