The Theme of Family

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The Theme of Family in the Oresteia and the Medea
Understanding Greek tragedy depends upon tracing the growth of characters and themes within the plays and how they help to highlight the greater significance of the work. A prominent theme discussed by the tragedians is that of family and is dominant in both the Oresteia and the Medea. The Oresteia centers on concepts of what family is and how obligations within a family transcend personal desires and dictate the life of individuals. The Medea on the other hand focuses upon the sanctity of familial bonds that must be cherished and how the family can be used to extract revenge and inflict pain upon a person. Both works share the idea that the ties within the family bring certain responsibilities that must be fulfilled at all costs and transgression of values and beliefs that construct familial promises is unforgiveable.

The Oresteia begins upon the return of Agamemnon to Argos, a return that is short-lived. His death at the hands of his duplicitous wife follows short after. Agamemnon’s murder seems disturbing and out of place, at first. Yet when the chorus acquaints us with the history of his actions, the way that he criminally sacrificed his beloved daughter, the readers’ sympathy dissolves. What turns the sacrifice into Hubris is the way that he orders it to be done, the way that “you might lift a goat for sacrifice.” It is this insensitivity and detestable change in Agamemnon that changes the act from a following of the will of the God’s to one “reckless in fresh cruelty.” The sacrifice becomes an act of murder and his inability to uphold his responsibility of being an affectionate and caring father create the need for him to suffer for his actions. His almost bestial enjoyment of the death of his own daughter, and the fact he chooses the fruitfulness of his own life over hers is inconsistent with the principles that define family relationships. Thus, Agamemnon’s death serves as the first commentary on the sanctity of familial bonds and the duties that accompany relationships with in the family.

The second familial relationship that is severed is the marital bond of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. What becomes significant here is that although Agamemnon may have deserved to die for his treatment of Iphigenia, Clytemnestra puts him upon an unfair trial where the only outcome is death. Her actions, although driven by a motherly vengeance are tainted with deceit and infidelity. Her qualities are not far from those possessed by the serpent in Genesis 3. The pleasure that she derives from the power of the throne combined with the lust of her adultery turns her into the “mother snake” who is deserving of death. The concept of married love, which Apollo uses in his defense of Orestes, of “being bigger than oaths and guarded by the rights of nature” is vital as it serves as the source for all other relationships. Thus, the argument presented by the Eumenides that queen’s malice does not deserve punishment is seen as unacceptable. Thus, the tenets that penetrate Family, as upheld by the Greek society are not just based upon ‘kindred blood’ but have a deeper meaning of upholding promises since that it was protects the purity of relationships.

The final and most essential exploration of familial ethics in the Oresteia is brought about through the act of matricide and the opposing views that characters present regarding it. Orestes’ revengeful murder of his mother, fueled by loyalty for his father as well as divine Apollo’s oracle, if judged simply is a blasphemous defiance of a holy bond. Yet, when examined more closely we realize that this may not be the case. The first argument presented that “the mother is no parent of that which is called her child but only nurse of the new-planted seed that grows,” seems unconvincing at first. Yet, analyzing Orestes and Clytemnestra’s relationship, we realize that the ties of love and devotion that are essential in such relationships have...
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