Justice and Gender in the Oresteia

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  • Topic: Agamemnon, Oresteia, Cassandra
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Justice and Gender in the Oresteia

Justice and gender are put into relation with each other in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In this trilogy, Greek society is characterized as a patriarch, where the oldest male assumes the highest role of the oikos (household). The household consists of a twofold where the father is the head, and the wife and children are the extended family. The head of the oikos is the only one who possesses the authority to seek justice. This is because the father acquires the authority through the inheritance law or male lineage. On the contrary, Greek society seems to transform to a matriarch when Clytemnestra solely murders Agamemnon because she, like primitive males, exercises destructive justice and enters the cycle of violence. Conversely, Athena implements a new and productive structure of justice known as litigation. This suggests that Clytemnestra functions as a catalyst in the transformation from oikos (aristocratic) to polis (democratic) which reflects upon society’s progress towards cleansing. However, Athena replaces Clytemnestra as the dominant female figure because she employs a new and more productive justice referred to as the rational Athenian judgment, and therefore establishes a just society that will produce and not destruct.

In order to completely grasp Clytemnestra and Athena’s role in Oresteia, one must first acknowledge that a change in government is characterized by the societal change in justice from old to new. Then, the chorus outlines two forms of justice: destructive and productive. It is important to acknowledge that destructive justice was the prevalent type utilized by men since the earliest epochs of Greek culture. Aeschylus writes, “And Justice tilts the scales to ensure suffering is the only teacher. As for the Future, you will only learn it when it comes” (Agamemnon 53:287-290). In this passage, the chorus assists in defining that destructive justice insofar as it expounds on the notion that honesty is restored only through entering the continuous cycle of violence. It also suggests that suffering is an unending cycle of blood for blood because “it is law: that each and every drop of blood spilled on the ground calls out for more blood spilled” (121: 456-8). Aeschylus suggests that blood for blood is a highly revered belief in Greek culture because it is part of the male’s inheritance law. One might argue that the inheritance law strictly pertains to productive and wealthy heritage. However, every head of the household is subjugated by “the first mayhem, that ancestral sin, as one by one each spits on a brother’s bed that brought destruction to its defiler” (85:1364). This excerpt concludes that the cycle of violence is inescapable because it is inherited through lineage. The concept that suffering is only justified through more suffering is socially accepted, and therefore individuals that are born into this destructive structure embody an instinct inclination towards justice through violence.

In knowing that males link their suffering to the sins of their ancestors, one might question that because Clytemnestra is a female, she cannot also link suffering to the sins of her lineage. Clytemnestra becomes a male in a sense that her nature is primitive and inclined to be destructive or violent. The suffering that Clytemnestra endures from death of her daughter Iphigenia is astronomical, and therefore she can link her suffering to Agamemnon. However, one might dispute that Agamemnon is considered ancestry, and therefore Clytemnestra should not have pursued a violent vengeance. Although, Agamemnon is not considered “through streams of kindered blood,” it is important to note that as Clytemnestra assumes the head of the oikos, she also becomes affected by the ancestral sins (97:1735). Like all primitive Greek males, Clytemnestra instinctively relieves her suffering she endures, from the death of Iphigenia, by entering the cycle of violence. This further...
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