Study Guide

The Eumenides Revenge

By Aeschylus

Revenge

(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; but on the other hand I can't compare them to Gorgon-figures. I did see those in a painting once before, carrying off Phineus' banquet; these however have no wings to be seen; and they are black, utterly revolting in their manner, snoring out a breath which is unapproachable, while their eyes run with a loathsome fluid. Clothing of this form is not right to be brought near gods' images or into men's houses. I have not seen the race this company is from, nor the land which can boast of nurturing this progeny without harm or sorrow afterwards for its labour." (46-59)

Aeschylus makes the Priestess describe the Furies as some pretty nasty ladies. Could this be his way of commenting on the nastiness of revenge as a social practice?

(Apollo): "And now you see these rabid creatures overtaken (gesturing towards the closed door): they have fallen into sleep, abominations that they are, maidens in old age, ancient children, whom no god mixes with, nor man, nor beast, ever. It was for evil's sake that they even came into being, since their sphere is the evil dark of Tartarus under the earth; and they are objects of hate to men and the Olympian gods—but make your escape from them nevertheless, and do not soften! For they will drive you throughout all the long mainland as your steps take you constantly wandering the earth beyond the ocean and the cities round which it flows." (67-77)

Here, we see Apollo continuing the theme from the previous quotation: you don't want to get mixed up with the Furies. Now we learn that even the gods won't have anything to do with them. Could this be Aeschylus's way of signaling that he is disgusted by the social practice of revenge killing?

(Clytemnestra): "Hey! Stay asleep, then, do! And what's the use of your sleeping? Here am I dishonoured like this among the other dead because of you, and with the slain ceaselessly reproaching me for those I killed; and I wander in shame. I tell you solemnly that they accuse me very much; and that although I have suffered so terribly from my closest kin, not one divine power is angry on my account, although I was slaughtered by the hands of a matricide. See these blows, see them with your heart!—the mind asleep is given clear light by the eyes. You licked up many enough things from me, libations without wine, plain offerings of appeasement. Meals, too, solemnized by night in burning altar-hearths, were my sacrifices, at an hour shared by no god; and yet I see all these heeled and trodden down, while the man has made his escape and is gone like a young deer, and lightly at that: he bounded from your nets' midst, with a great mocking leer at you. Hear me! I have been talking about my existence; give it thought, you goddesses under the earth! I am Clytemnestra, and I call on you, in your dream!" (94-116)

These lines are interesting because they reveal a special relationship between Clytemnestra and the Furies. The question that is left open is when Clytemnestra made these "offerings." Did she make them after she killed Agamemnon, in an attempt to buy off the Furies and prevent them siding with her son, Orestes? Or did she make them before she killed Agamemnon, in an effort to bring the spirits of vengeance on to her side.

Back-story: Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon in part because he killed their daughter Iphigenia. Remember, too, that the Furies don't buy into Apollo's wacky theory that husbands and wives are related by blood to each other (217-224) but mothers aren't related to their children (657-667). Also, the Furies are mainly in charge of punishing murders committed against members of one's own family: from their point of view, what Clytemnestra did to Agamemnon was justified.

The CHORUS OF FURIES moan from within.
(Clytemnestra): "Moan, then, do!—while the man is already far away in his escape! Suppliants are no friends of mine!"

The FURIES moan again.

(Clytemnestra): "You are too sleepy, you have no pity for my suffering! This is the mother Orestes murdered, and now he is gone!"

The FURIES groan.

(Clytemnestra): "You groan, you are sleepy—be quick and get up! What work is set for you except to wreak evil?"

The FURIES groan again.

(Clytemnestra): "Those conspirators with authority, Sleep and Weariness, have enfeebled the dreadful serpent's energy!" (117-128)

The Furies are tired out after having to follow Orestes on his winding course all the way from Delphi to Athens. Could this be a way of saying that, as time goes on, the urge to get revenge diminishes? And what about the fact that Clytemnestra urges them on to continue their revenge: could this be Aeschylus's way of saying that, from the victim's perspective, nothing short of revenge is good enough?

(Chorus of Furies): "Look, here he is himself, with no defence,

clasping the statue of the immortal goddess:

he wants to undergo trial for his accountability!

That is not possible; a mother's blood on the ground

is not to be recovered—horror, no!

What soaks into the earth when shed, is gone!

(to ORESTES) You must repay us with a gruel of red

to slurp from your limbs while you live;

I shall want my food from you by drinking this grim draught […]." (257-266)

The Furies think that revenge is the only way to go. Even a trial is unacceptable to them. Orestes had simply better pay up, and fast, in their (not so) humble opinion.

(Chorus of Furies): "We drive murderers from their homes."

(Athena): "And where has the killer an end to his flight?"

(Chorus of Furies): "Where happiness has no currency at all." (421-423)

Trial? Fat chance. The Furies know in advance what they want: Orestes's death… and they don't plan on letting up until they've made it happen.

(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)

Here we see, once again, the incompatibility of the Furies' idea of justice and that of the characters who side with Orestes. The Furies are simply 100% convinced that they're right. When the trial ends with Orestes being acquitted, the Furies don't say, "Oh, well, justice was done, he gets to be let off." No. They say that justice itself will bring utter destruction on the land of Athens. Now, is this really justice? Or are they just calling their anger, frustration, and desire for revenge against the city that offended them "justice" because it sounds nicer that way?

(Chorus of Furies): "What then do you bid me invoke for this land?" (Athena): "Such things as attend victory not badly won, and for these to come from the earth, and from the waters of the sea, and from the heaven; for the winds to come to the land blowing their breath amid happy sunshine; for an abundant, thriving yield for citizens from soil and beasts not to fail with time; and for safety for its human seed. May you bring more to birth who are reverent—because like a man husbanding his crops I cherish this nation of righteous men in freedom from sorrow. Such things lie with yourselves; and in war's glorious conflicts I shall myself not tolerate a lack of honour among men for this city and its people's victories." (902-915)

What Athena asks the Furies to do now is the opposite of what they did before: giving good things to good people instead of just giving bad things to bad people. What does this say about revenge? Is revenge bad simply because it just increases the amount of human misery? Or is it bad for other reasons?

(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,

in retribution,

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)

Here we see that the Furies have completely changed their tune. Now that they are involved in the goings-on of the city, they want to make sure everything runs smoothly. The Furies make a prayer to ward off "counter-killings in rage, / in retribution" (279-280). Basically, they're saying that civic peace can't really exist if revenge is tolerated.

(Athena) (to the FURIES): "Come! Hasten below the earth while these solemn sacrifices are made!

Keep ruin in check and away,

but send what gives the city advantage, for victory! (1007-1009)

This continues the theme of the complete turnaround of the Furies at the end of the play. What do you think of the fact that the Furies are supposed to live underground, though? Is that a kind of punishment for being so revenge-happy?