Memory and the Past Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
(Clytemnestra): "Stop, my son! Hold back, from respect for this breast! You often drowsed at it while your gums drew out its rich milk." (896-898)
Here is another attempt to use the past as a way of changing the present. In this case, however, it is more like a manipulation of the past. Did Clytemnestra really breastfeed Orestes? Well, we just heard a long speech from Orestes's Nurse, which suggests that she was the one who did it. Whose word do you accept? We think that Clytemnestra is probably exploiting the fact that Orestes has no memory of his earliest days (he was a baby then, after all), in a last-ditch bid for sympathy.
(Chorus): "There came justice at last to Priam's children,
heavy and just in punishment;
there came to Agamemnon's house
a double lion, double warfare;
there drove absolutely forward
the exile, as Pythia
enjoined, well sped by warnings of the gods." (935-941)
Here, we see the Chorus using their experience of the past as a basis for predicting the future. Does Aeschylus's trilogy suggest that this is a reasonable basis for predicting the future? If so, does this really say anything about the nature of justice, or is it simply the case that revenge breeds revenge? Couldn't you almost say that the curse of cycles of revenge is that it makes people always either live in the past, or replicate the past in the present by repeating old acts of violence?
(Orestes): "Did she do it, or not do it? This robe is my witness that Aegisthus' sword dyed it; the ooze of blood contributes over time to spoiling the many dyes in the embroidery. I praise my father now, I lament him now, while I am here and addressing this woven thing which killed him. I grieve for the deeds and the suffering and the whole family; and there can be no envy for the pollution my victory here brings to me." (1010-1017)
Just after killing his mother, Orestes is confronted with a fundamental problem about the past: uncertainty. He wasn't around when Agamemnon was killed, so how does he know that Clytemnestra, his mother, really did it? Of course, he has already been given instructions by the oracle of Apollo (before the beginning of the play), and has heard reports from other characters like Electra and the Chorus. (But do Electra and the Chorus have direct knowledge of what happened?) Here, though, he is left to contemplate physical evidence – the bloody robe that was thrown over Agamemnon before he was stabbed to death. But this evidence requires interpretation. To paraphrase the poet W. H. Auden (who remarked that "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living" (source), you could say that the events of the past are modified in the minds in the present.