Orestes II

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Orestes puts his case to Menelaus.  His uncle owes Agamemnon for all he did in launching an expedition to regain Menelaus’ wife.  After all, he is not asking him to kill his own daughter to fulfill his duty—a look back at Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter and forward to Orestes’ plot to kidnap Hermione.

If Orestes and Electra die, so does the line of Agamemnon.  Menelaus (682 ff) agrees—up to a point—that kinsmen should endure each others’ misfortunes/evils, but only if the god gives the dynamis, the ability to do something.  But since Menelaus does not have an army and the task is difficult, he might just have to beg off, for when the people (demos) rush into rage, they cannot be stopped, though eventually they might be calmed down enough to listen to reason (not likely in this case!).  This is quite an indictment of democracy, which sounds a good deal more like mob rule, as, indeed Athenian democracy was by 408, when it was torn by the struggle between oligarchs and democrats and that party of one, Alcibiades.

Orestes retorts that Menelaus is worthless except to go on campaign for the sake of a woman.  Just at this point arrives his friend and cousin, Pylades of Phocis, who assisted brother and sister in their killings.  ”A sweet sight!  A faithful man amid troubles is a better to see than a calm sea is for sailors.”  (728).    This gives Euripides a chance to summarize events.  Pylades recommends flight, but Orestes points to the armed guards.  Pylades does not fear punishment, because, even though his enraged father has exiled him, he is a foreigner and outside the Argive legal system.  Orestes then coins another terrifying aphorism about democracy.  ”A terrible thing is the many when they have scoundrels as leaders.”  (772)  But being “the many,” they cannot help, after a generation or two of democracy, but choose scoundrels, though, as Pylades remarks, the many listen to honest counsel when good men rule.

Pylades advises Orestes–sick as he is–to go into town to confront the “mob,”  and Pylades will himself be his crutch.  Orestes quotes an old saying, whose sentiment goes back to Hesiod: “Acquire friends and not just kinsmen.”  (804)

Orestes and Pylades go off on their ill-advised political mission, and Electra is informed of the results by a classic messenger.  He begins by professing his loyalty to the family.  After creating pity for Orestes by describing his illness and the ruthless indifference of an onlooker, he portrays  the rowdy gathering of the demos.  The hereditary herald of Agamemnon is portrayed as a demagogue, always subservient to those in power with no firm loyalties.  Diomedes, perhaps the noblest hero of the Iliad, pleads for a merciful exile, but he is opposed by an alien!! (904 ff.): “No Argive but someone forced upon us,” he blusters and bullies with sly insinuations.  I don’t know how this alien got citizenship and thus the right to speak, but Euripides surely had someone in mind.  The outsider wants the prince stoned to death, but he is opposed by  a decent yeoman, “a manful man, in town and agora rarely found..a stainless man, who lived a blameless life.”  This good man proposes that Orestes be crowned, for slaying the wicked rulers who sapped Argos’ strength.  Who would go off to war, if he thought that his wife back home could be seduced with impunity.  Orestes continues in the same vein, so characteristic of Euripides.  Women have to be kept in their place, otherwise we shall all be slaves to our wives.  But the rascal prevailed and Orestes and Electra are sentenced to death.

This scene clarifies everything.  Orestes himself had moral qualms about what he was told to do, but he understands the social necessity of preserving chastity and punishing the wicked.  All the decent men of the town, represented by the noble Diomedes and by the decent yeoman, are on his side, but the mob is swayed and vote this poor man to death.  So much for the blessings of majority rule.  Two years later, the mob will condemn the victorious generals at Arginusae because, when a storm came up,  they could not pick up the survivors, but the same mob had in 416  before condemned the entire male population of Melos to death.    Much earlier in the century they had ostracized the two  of the greatest Athenian heroes of the Persian Wars, Themistocles and Cimon.  You like democracy:  This is what you get–irrationality, violence, greed, unjustifiable wars, and complete disloyalty to the great men of your country.

In a truly pathetic scene, Orestes and Electra lament each other’s fate.  They are all each other has left in the world and embrace each other, as Electra hopes they can die from one sword.  How scarce are their friends, Orestes says, that they cannot even share a tomb.  Orestes tells her how  Menelaus refused to oppose the lynch mob to save his friends, because he had hopes of  royal power.  Orestes will show his nobility (eugeneia) by killing himself, and his sister should do the same.

At this point, people familiar with Orestes will be expecting either suicide–the stoning of Orestes and Electra is an unlikely event, given the mythological background–or a miraculous rescue by Apollo.  But Pylades enters.  At first they misunderstand his intention, believing he means to die with them.  In fact, he proposes to murder Helen, the cause of all the trouble.

Orestes and the chorus are pleased with the idea, and Orestes breaks into a laudation of friendship (1155 ff.).  Electra is more prudent and proposes, for protection, that they take Helen’s daughter Hermione hostage.  Helen dies, vainly calling on her husband (not on the scene), whose powerlessness is revealed.  Hermione is taken.  The big surprise is the entrance of a Phrygian/Trojan slave of Helen’s who escaped from Troy into slavery, only know to be enveloped in violence.  He describes Helen’s death–arousing sympathy for her in any normal person.  She is, after all, only performing funeral rites for her dead sister.  Orestes and wants to kill the Phrygian for trying to raise the alarm, but the Phrygian cowers and grovels.

This is a familiar Euripidean theme, that even righteous vengeance can so poison the mind that the vengeance-taker becomes inhuman, as Orestes certainly is now.  Menelaus is weak and immoral, but what, exactly, have Helen or Hermione done to Orestes to deserve such treatment.  Helen is not shown, in this play, as either wanton or arrogant, nor is her daughter.  He is now more like a Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood character, bent on punishing all faithless wives.  He will even go so far as to torch his ancestral palace.

Apollo makes his appearance, to reveal that Helen has been taken up to the gods, where she belongs, and he tells Orestes that he must wander the earth, seeking absolution, until he receives it in Athens (as in Aeschylus).  His fate is to marry Hermione, while Pylades marries Electra.

This is not a conventional “they all got married and lived happily ever afterward” ending.   The duties of kin have been violated and ignored, so only  in kinship and in the renewal of kinship can these wounds be healed.

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