The Ancient Greek play Orestes by the playwright Euripides was written in 408 BC. The play follows the events of Orestes after he had murdered his mother.
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 – the mythological 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 patriarchal 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 herself 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 the 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.
Orestes is tormented by the Erinyes, or Furies, the chthonic deities that avenge patricide and matricide. He, at the instigation of his sister Electra and the god Apollo, has killed their mother Clytemnestra, who had killed their father, King Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter and their sister, Iphigenia. Orestes finds a refuge and a solace at the new temple of Apollo in Delphi, and the god, unable to deliver him from the Erinyes’ unappeasable wrath, sends him along to Athens under the protection of Hermes, while he casts a drowsy spell upon the pursuing Erinyes in order to delay them.
Clytemnestra’s ghost appears “exactly how or from where is uncertain . . . noteworthy is the poet’s bold inventiveness in presenting her as a dream to a collection rather than to a single individual”, to the sleeping Erinyes, urging them to continue hunting Orestes. “As the first of them begins to awake the ghost departs”. The Erinyes’ first appearance on stage is haunting: they hum in unison as they slowly wake up, and seek to find the scent of blood that will lead them to Orestes’ tracks. Ancient tradition says that on the play’s premiere this struck so much fear and anguish in the audience, that a pregnant woman named Neaira suffered a miscarriage and died on the spot.
Their execution certain, Orestes, Electra, and Pylades formulate a plan of revenge against Menelaus for turning his back on them. To inflict the greatest suffering, they plan to kill Helen and their 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.
The Erinyes track down Orestes in Athens is a haunting search: Orestes has clasped Athena’s small statue in supplication, and the Erinyes close in on him by smelling the blood of his slain mother in the air. Once they do see him, they can also see rivulets of blood soaking the earth beneath his footsteps.
As they surround him, Athena intervenes and brings in eleven Athenians to join her in forming a jury to judge her supplicant. Apollo acts as attorney for Orestes, while the Erinyes act as advocates for the dead Clytemnestra. During the trial, Apollo convinces Athena that, in a marriage, the man is more important than the woman, by pointing out that Athena was born only of Zeus and without a mother. Athena votes last and casts her vote for acquittal; after being counted, the votes on each side are equal, thus acquitting Orestes as Athena had earlier announced that this would be the result of a tie. She then persuades the Erinyes to accept the verdict, and they eventually submit. Athena then renames them Eumenides ‘The Kindly Ones’ and they will now be honoured by the citizens of Athens and ensure the city’s prosperity. Athena also declares that henceforth hung juries should result in the defendant being acquitted, as mercy should always take precedence over harshness.
Also, Orestes is to marry Hermione, while Pylades will marry Electra. Finally, Apollo tells the mortals to go and rejoice in Peace, most honoured and favoured of the gods.
So when we say: “Euripides, Euminides.” We must remember to have mercy.