In keeping with the other plays in the Oresteia trilogy, The Eumenides maintains a pretty capital-S Serious tone throughout. This is in keeping with the fact that these plays are intended as tragedies, as well as with the weightiness of the themes involved—your standard-order hodge-podge of murder, revenge, justice, fate, and so on.
But in this play, things actually go beyond "serious." Things get so over-the-top and ridiculous, that we have decided only an over-the-top and ridiculous word can capture it; we've picked "cataclysmic."
Why so over-the-top? Well, this mainly represents the perspective of the Furies, who think the world is absolutely coming to an end when the matter (a) gets put to trial, and (b) when Orestes gets acquitted. In fact, they think this represents nothing less than a cosmic struggle between the old gods (including themselves) and the order they established, and the younger generation of gods (like Apollo and Athena), whom they view as crazy teenage troublemakers:
(Chorus of Furies): "You younger gods! The ancient laws—
you have ridden them down! You have taken them out of my hands for yourselves!
I am dishonoured, wretch that I am; my heavy rancour releases on this land—woe to it!—
a poison, a poison from my heart to requite my grief,
dripping from below the earth, intolerable. From this
a canker destroying leaves, destroying offspring—O Justice [Justice]!—
will sweep over and strike the land
with a blight killing men." (779-787)
Jeepers, right? These Furies are, well, furious.
Now, you tell us, does the world end in this play or not? It doesn't, right? (In these generational conflicts, it never does.) After such a potential tragedy is passed, anything would seem pretty hopeful, right? Actually, though, the hopefulness at the end of the play isn't just in contrast to the fear of disaster in the middle. There is actually a genuine sense of forward-looking social progress, as the Furies adapt themselves into the "Kindly Ones" ("Eumenides") in charge of rewarding the good as well as punishing the wicked:
(Chorus of Furies): "I pray too that faction, insatiable for harm,
never clamours for this city,
nor the dust drinks its people's black blood
from counter-killings in rage,
the city's ruin its eager pursuit;
may they reciprocate joys,
resolved on sharing friendship,
and show hate with a single mind:
for this remedies much among men." (976-987)
Yeah, these Furies go from talking about destroying offspring and killing men to… friendship. This is a surprising end to the absolute darkness of the trilogy, which makes it seem all the more amazing.
If you look at our discussions of genre for the first two plays of the Oresteia trilogy (Agamemnon and Libation Bearers), you won't find the word "comedy" anywhere. As we've been saying throughout this module, however, The Eumenides is really the play that sets the rest of the trilogy on its head.
The Eumenides shows how revenge doesn't always have to lead on to revenge, but instead can be brought to an end through legal justice and proper forgiveness. This makes it possible to have a happy ending—one of the most basic elements of comedy. Because the play still deals with serious, weighty themes, it still merits that "tragi-" part of "tragicomedy."
Because much of these themes involve conflicts between family members, or even discussions of what counts as a family member, it's also a "Family Drama." Finally, last but not least, the play is a "Drama" because it is a play. (You didn't think we'd let that one past, did you?)
The title of Aeschylus's The Eumenides is Greek for the "Kindly Ones." Who are the "Kindly Ones" in this play?
Maybe Athena and Apollo, because they help Orestes? Dead wrong. Don't worry, if you haven't read to the end of the play yet, we won't blame you for not knowing—because you'll never guess. The "Kindly Ones" named in the title of The Eumenides are actually the horrible Furies who pursue Orestes… after they undergo a magical transformation thanks to the goddess Athena. Huh? Well, the basic thing you have to remember is that The Eumenides is Part III of a trilogy of tragedies called The Oresteia.
Most interpreters of the trilogy as a whole think that its main theme is the development of society from resolving conflicts through revenge (i.e. more bloodshed) to resolving them through courts of law (i.e. peacefully). The Furies, who are essentially spirits of vengeance, have no place in this new order—at least not in their original form.
So, the transformation of the Furies into the Kindly Ones completes the thematic arc begun in Agamemnon and carried on in Libation Bearers. If you are approaching The Eumenides without having read those first two plays, we'd recommend that you give them a go to get the full experience.
When reading the ending of The Eumenides, it's important to bear in mind that this isn't just the end of a single play: it's the end of an entire trilogy of plays, stretching back to Agamemnon, and continued in Libation Bearers.
Without thinking about the back-story of these two plays, it's easy to look at the end of The Eumenides and say, "Okay, dude murders his mom, the judge lets him off the hook, and his accusers become productive members of society. Big whoop." Of course, you won't find the card-carrying Lit nerds at Shmoop saying anything like that (the Furies are some impressively nasty ladies; it's a big deal when they come around at the end of the play), but we can understand why somebody might.
Clearly, we need to take a look at the back-story. The previous two plays have one basic message: revenge may be fun at first, but it will come back to bite you. With no courts of law in sight, there doesn't seem to be any way for the characters in these plays to come to a peaceful end—except for the peace of the grave. What makes the ending of The Eumenides so important is that it breaks this cycle.
Remember: the Furies aren't just any old villains—they are, themselves, personifications of revenge. When they become guardians of justice, it is a major triumph for civilization over barbarity. Without this happening, Aeschylus seems to be telling us, the Athens (and, by extension, the ancient Greek culture) we all know and love simply… wouldn't exist.
The setting of The Eumenides is not only interesting in itself, but it also provides you with a counter-example to throw at any literature teacher who paints a narrow-minded and inflexible portrait of ancient drama.
Why would this even come up? We have Aristotle to thank for that—or, really, not Aristotle, but the way his work was misinterpreted starting in the Middle Ages, and (unfortunately) continuing to the present day. The idea that comes out of this misinterpretation is that of the "unities," sometimes called the "classical unities." These are (1) "unity of action," (2) "unity of time," and (3) "unity of place."
The first of these, which actually does come from Aristotle, states that a play should concern itself with one significant action. The second two, which are more of a later invention, state that a play should take place in one location and should not depict an action that last longer than one day.
Now, if you look at Agamemnon and Libation Bearers, (Parts I and II of the Oresteia trilogy), you'll see that they actually match up with this plan pretty well. Agamemnon centers around one action (the murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra by Clytemnestra), takes place in one location (outside of the palace in Argos), and lasts basically one day (beginning before dawn, with the messenger's speech). Then, Libation Bearers centers around one action (the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by Orestes), takes place in more or less one location (it shifts a bit from the tomb of Agamemnon to outside the palace in Argos), and takes place in one day.
Unlike the previous two plays in the trilogy, The Eumenides majorly mixes things up. You could sort of say it centers on one action—the trial of Orestes—but what about unity of place? In fact, the scene shifts, starting in Delphi and ending up in Athens. Also, because Delphi and Athens are more than a day's walking distance from each other, the time clearly lasts longer than one day as well. So yes, if anyone starts lecturing you about the "classical unities," you can definitely point to The Eumenides as the play that breaks the rules. It's the James Dean of Ancient Greek drama.
How does all this rule breaking relate to what The Eumenides is all about? Well, we talk about this play's main theme as breaking the cycle of violent revenge depicted in the previous two plays; changing up the setting could be one way of symbolizing that. Also, because we've been hearing so much about the oracle of Delphi throughout the story, it kind of makes sense to actually take us there and show us what it's all about.
As for things ending up in Athens, which not-so coincidentally acts as the enlightened city that clears up all that nasty blood-feud business, well, Aeschylus and his audience sure liked giving themselves pats on the back. This was a little hometown pride coming out—it's the Ancient Greek equivalent of Chicagoan Veronica Roth setting the Divergent trilogy in Chicago.
Even though the language of The Eumenides still might occasionally be challenging—especially in the Chorus's songs—the stakes and the plot is super recognizable. Sure, you've got a goddess as judge and other divinities as attorneys for the defense and prosecution, but, overall, the action of the play isn't all that different from what you'd see on Law & Order or Boston Legal.
What may trip you up is are all the references to various characters and deities, many of whom you may have never heard of. This is for two reasons 1) the play is super old; it's ancient and 2) The Eumenides is the third part in a trilogy—reading it solo is like just reading The Return of the King or just seeing The Return of the Jedi. You don't get introduced to characters like Orestes; they just fall in your lap.
Our advice is threefold (like the plays in the Oresteia). 1) Read the other plays—they're awesome. 2) Do a little independent research into Greek Mythology. That stuff is fascinating, and anything but dry. 3) Rely on your good buddy Shmoop. We're like the Apollo to your Orestes—we got your back. Unlike Apollo, though, we're not going to spin any nonsense lines about moms not actually being technically related to their children.
Poetic, Metaphorical, Subtle
Okay, first things first. What makes the writing style of The Eumenides poetic? Here at Shmoop, we use the translation by Christopher Collard in the Oxford World Classics series. We really like this translation a lot, but it actually covers some things up from the poetic standpoint.
As you'll see if you use this translation, the dialogue between the different characters is in prose, whereas the songs sung by the Chorus (plus some of the set-piece songs involving, say, the Chorus, Electra, and Orestes) are in verse, which he makes into a kind of free verse. This is halfway right, except that in the original, absolutely everything is in verse, including the dialogue between characters.
Collard can get away with putting the ordinary dialogue into prose, though, because the poetic meter during the dialogue is a pretty basic one, so called "iambic trimeter," which Aristotle called the one closest to ordinary speech.
What about the songs by the Chorus? There's no question that these are the play's poetic showstoppers. You can also see this in the fact that they use much more high-octane metaphorical language than the rest of the play. Sometimes, these images can be really weird, like when the Chorus of Furies says:
"Such things as these are done by younger gods
with power wholly beyond justice
at the throne dripping with murder
all round its foot, all round its head." (162-168)
Images like these are very cool (and disturbing nightmare food) but hard to put together, and require a lot of imagination. The more imagination and thinking that the language demands from the reader, the more subtle it is.
Okay, so we know it sounds a little weird to have a play where its characters are symbols. But really, this happens all over the place. If you've ever read, say, Lord of the Flies in your English class, you've probably had your teacher drum into you that the character Simon is a "Christ-figure," which is just a fancy way of saying that he "symbolizes Christ."
Or, you've probably seen in a cartoon or on TV, where a character will be debating between two courses of action, and a devil and an angel appear on each shoulder. In this case, the writer of the cartoon has decided to symbolize two ideas (the good and bad courses of action) by creating two characters (the angel and the devil) that represent them. So, actually, this sort of thing is common.
What about the Furies? Well, they are goddesses of revenge. The way they are described makes them sound totally freaky and disgusting:
(Prophetess): "In front of this man an amazing band is asleep, of women, sitting on the chairs—no, I do not mean women, but Gorgons […] these however have no wings to be seen; and they are black, utterly revolting in their manner, snoring out a breath which is unapproachable […] (46-59)
This nasty bit of description—the Furies clearly have to up their oral hygiene game—is Aeschylus's way of saying (symbolically) that revenge itself is freaky and disgusting. They are "black," a color which had the same symbolic resonance in Ancient Greece as it does in much of the Western world today—you wear black at funerals, a bad guy is said to be "black-hearted" and nasty or violent thoughts are described as "dark" or "black."
Also, it's worth noting that they have no wings. This underlines the fact that they're immobile (and, as we see with the binding enchantment, capable of immobilizing their enemies). Don't think for an instant that this is unintentional—the spirit of revenge, much like The Furies, renders people immobile with single-minded obsession.
When the Furies turn nice at the end of the play, that's Aeschylus's way of symbolically saying that the rule of law, as expressed through law-courts, takes away the nastiness associated with the old customs of revenge.
So: The Eumenides isn't going to make it into a list of Top 100 Most Feminist Texts ever written any time soon. In fact, if it did make its way onto a Women's' Studies syllabus, it would probably be there as an example of how bad misogyny can get.
No matter how bad you think "bad" can be, The Eumenides is worse. In this world, you're justified in killing your mother out of revenge for your mother killing your father (family life in The Eumenides is messed up to say the least), but you're not justified in killing your husband out of revenge for your husband killing your daughter. Paper trumps rock, and justifiable matricide trumps justifiable mariticide.
Yeah, that's bad—but it gets worse. Apollo gives a passionate, Atticus-Finch-if-Atticus-Finch-was-evil-instead-of-awesome speech in the defense of his client's killing of his mother:
(Apollo): "[…]. The so-called mother is no parent of a child, but nurturer of a newly seeded embryo; the parent is the one who mounts her, while she conserves the child like a stranger for a stranger, for those fathers not thwarted by god. […]" (657-666)
There you have it, folks: the mom is not related to her kid. We repeat: the mom is not related to her kid. Wow. Just: wow.
But before you start throwing your copy of the Oresteia trilogy across the room, we want to move things into the realm of the symbolic. Apollo wasn't anti-mama. He was just conforming to every stereotype of the scheming lawyer and making a clever argument… which was actually in the name of a greater good. Was it sexist? Oh, yeah. But it served a point.
Because, see, Apollo and Athena's whole end game in this trial is to move social order away from revenge and towards a judicial system. In abstract terms, he was trying to move justice away from the realm of the heart (need revenge now) and towards the realm of the mind (hmm, let's weigh the pros and cons). And the idea of fatherhood, at least back in the day, was much more associated with the realm of the head than the heart.
If you're a new dad in ancient Greece, a few things are going through your head. The first, obviously, is "Squee! Time to buy all the baby-sized togas!" But the second is "Okay, let's think rationally. Is this kid really mine? Okay, he has my eyes—check. He has my weird toes—check. Okay, cool. Time to break out the wine-skins in celebration!"
Mothers—not so much. They're basically tethered to the child (no actual argument can be made for the fact that it isn't theirs) and are probably having all the feels as a result of a) happiness b) hormones and c) giving birth in the era before epidurals.
So this "moms aren't related to their babies" argument is an elaborate metaphor for the idea of revenge, and justice. The feeling of revenge can be likened to a mother's claim on her kiddo: if a kid comes out of a woman's birth canal, it's hers, just like if you feel a need for revenge, it's yours. There's also the implication of overwhelming (traditionally "feminine") high emotion.
Good justice, on the other hand, is full of judgment. You have to take a detached look at the situation. "Is this kid mine?" requires the same thought processes, necessarily removed from emotion, as "Is (insert act here) justifiable?"
So The Eumenides isn't just being a sexist pig. It's also being a very clever, metaphor-using, abstract-thinking pig.
Technically speaking, The Eumenides doesn't have a narrator at all, because it's a play. Instead of hearing what characters do, we actually see them do it. Of course, these characters also talk about themselves, in which case they briefly become first-person narrators, and also about each other, in which they case they briefly become third-person narrators.
All the same, because these are just isolated instances within a larger structure, it makes most sense for us to think of the play as having a Third Person (Objective) perspective.
This is a pretty clear example of the "Call." That's because, literally, a god (Apollo) appears and tells Orestes what he's got to do: go to Athens and pray to the goddess for help. This is echoed by a parallel call, from the ghost of Clytemnestra to the Furies, when she sends them in hot pursuit of our (sort of) valiant hero.
Okay, so we don't actually see Orestes go to Athens, but we do see him arrive there. Assuming that Aeschylus never watched Star Trek, and that teleportation wasn't part of his dramatic repertoire, we think this means Orestes had to make a journey to get there. Remember, this is a play, so some of the plot elements will necessarily have to be compressed or simply implied. The trip from Delphi to Athens is one such element.
Just when Orestes arrives in Athens and prays to the goddess Athena for help (as Apollo told him to), the Furies show up after him. It looks like he isn't out of hot water yet. This becomes even clearer once the Furies sing their magical "binding song," which anchors him to the spot.
As in your typical episode of Law & Order, the final ordeal of Orestes' quest is a trial. Athena is the judge, the citizens of Athens are the jury, the Furies are the prosecuting attorneys, and Apollo is the defense attorney. Orestes's fate hangs in the balance as the two attorneys conduct cross-examinations and make arguments in an attempt to persuade the judge and jurymen.
Once the jury's votes are cast and Athena breaks their tie in favor of Orestes, our hero is home free. He heads off to Argos in high spirits, pledging to make his city allies with Athens forever. This doesn't leave much for the plot to wrap up, except for the small problem of what to do with the ravenous Furies, who are hell-bent on obtaining Orestes's blood, verdict or no verdict.
When Athens persuades them to become goddesses in favor of helping good people as well as harming evil people (leading to their name-change to the "Kindly Ones" or "Eumenides"), the plot gets all tied up with a nice little bow.
This is the state of affairs before the story even begins; the opening scene shows the priestess of Apollo discovering what has happened: Orestes and the Furies are asleep in Delphi. This opening situation essentially carries over from the end of Libation Bearers, the previous play in the Oresteia trilogy. It shows us that things have yet to be resolved between Orestes and the gods over the killing of his mother Clytemnestra. Dum dum dummm.
Not only have things yet to be resolved, but also Orestes and the Furies are still going head to head. Apollo sends Orestes to Athens; the ghost of Clytemnestra sends the Furies after him. It's basically a manhunt that transcends both the afterlife (don't mess with angry ghosts) and the border between the mortal world and the gods' world (if you make sacrifices to Apollo, he'll have your back.)
Just when it looks like things are bad for Orestes—the Furies have caught up to him and caught him, literally, with their binding-song, Athena shows up and twists the plot up even more by getting the parties to agree to a trial. It looks like things aren't over for Orestes yet.
The whole problem of the play comes to a head when the Furies get Orestes and Apollo to admit that Orestes killed Clytemnestra on Apollo's command—but then Apollo argues that the murder was justified, and that Clytemnestra isn't even related to Orestes by blood, because no mother is related to her child by blood. Even if this weren't the dramatic climax of the play (which it is), it would certainly be the climax of its outrageousness.
The votes are being counted. Will Orestes get acquitted? Or will the Furies tear him limb from limb…?
The vote is even; Athena breaks the tie in favor of Orestes. From Orestes's point of view, the play is now over, and he's off the hook. He heads home to Argos, swearing that his city and Athens will be allies forever. Everything seems to be coming up roses.
Even after Orestes gets acquitted, there's still the problem of what to do with the Furies, who are spoiling for a fight, and threatening to destroy the city of Athens in revenge. When Athena convinces the Furies to become local divinities in Athens, in charge of helping the good as well as hurting the wicked, this is the final signal that everything is going to be OK. The name-change of the Furies to the "Kindly Ones" or "Eumenides" (in Greek) doesn't just bring a positive end to this play, but also to the Oresteia trilogy as a whole.
Orestes and the Furies wake up in Delphi and get sent to Athens by Apollo and the ghost of Clytemnestra, respectively.
The Furies catch up to Orestes in Athens, but the goddess Athena appears and organizes a trial, with Athenian mortals as jurors, the Furies as prosecuting attorneys, and Apollo as Orestes's defense attorney.
Orestes is acquitted and goes home to Argos; Athena transforms the Furies into benevolent helpers of good people and punishers of evildoers. Their new name is the "Kindly Ones" or "Eumenides."