This may very well be every lawyer's favorite Greek play. The Eumenides is all about justice and judgment getting the upper hand over the bloody cycles of revenge that dominated the action of Agamemnon and Libation Bearers (the first two plays in the Oresteia trilogy).
Now, the key thing here is that justice and judgment triumph. The characters that carried out gory revenge-killings in the earlier plays in the trilogy thought of themselves as carrying out justice… but unbiased judgment wasn't really part of the equation. As it turns out, according to The Eumenides, justice without judgment is like cranberry sauce without sugar, or popcorn without salt. It's incomplete, and kinda gross.
Aeschylus's The Eumenides shows that courtroom trials are good because they put an end to the cycle of revenge-killings—but they're still somewhat arbitrary, which makes them potentially unjust.
Aeschylus's The Eumenides shows that fear is not enough to make people just; they must also be rewarded for doing good deeds.
Quentin Tarantino fans, eat your heart out. Revenge is the flavor of the month in The Eumenides… at least until the last scene when judgment triumphs.
The eye-for-an-eye idea that the Furies advocate for does have a certain logic to it. But, as the saying goes, it leaves the whole world eventually blind. The problem with revenge is that it never ends. Instead, revenge breeds revenge faster than bunnies breed baby bunnies. Towards the end of The Eumenides, this is mentioned as especially dangerous for civic order.
Aeschylus's play portrays the presence of a judge as the only fundamental difference between justice and revenge.
The worst thing about revenge, as it is portrayed in Aeschylus's play, is that it leads to more revenge.
If there's one thing The Eumenides tells you, it's that honoring the gods pays off. Even though Orestes did probably the most horrible thing you can think of—killing his own mommy—the fact that he was carrying out Apollo's orders makes it a-okay.
Also, Orestes keeps obeying Apollo's instructions, like coming to pray at his temple carrying the appropriate olive-branch-wreathed-in-wool. As a result, Orestes gets a powerful force on his side, a deity that ends up saving him from the wrath of the Furies and the Athenian law court. Of course, you don't want to honor just any gods—you want to honor the gods on the winning side. So, even though we learn from the Ghost of Clytemnestra that she always honored the Furies, her cause ends up losing out to the more powerful divinities.
Aeschylus's The Eumenides depicts a profound transformation in the relationship between mortals and the gods. In the time before Orestes's trial, mortals who got caught between competing groups of gods had no way out. After Orestes's trial, the gods get put into proper hierarchy, obedient to the orders of Zeus.
Apollo's argumentation at the trial is so wacky, and Athena's decision is so sexist and arbitrary, that Aeschylus's The Eumenides shows us that nothing has really changed after Orestes's trial. It's still all about which gods you've got on your side.
We're not talking about the kind of "Guilty!" proclamation that is accompanied by a strike of the gavel. We're talking about the feeling of guilt that someone has after doing an evil deed and the self-blame that results.
What's perhaps most amazing in The Eumenides is how little guilt and self-blame Orestes has for his crime. He seems more interested in getting on with his life. Actually, the ones who are really on a guilt and self-blame trip are the Furies, who are insecure about losing respect if they can't carry out their duty of hounding Orestes to the ends of the earth.
The Furies simply want to inflict maximum pain on wrongdoers. Inflicting mental guilt is a useful tool for the Furies, but it isn't their only tool.
Orestes performs rituals to remove his guilt because his guilt causes pollution, making other people have to keep away from him. This is different from the modern sense of guilt, which is more about how you think about yourself as a person.
Times were tough in ancient Greece. It wasn't just a question of do or do not—it was a question of do, do not, carry out orders from the gods, worry about whether you tick off other gods by carrying out those orders, and puzzle over what color life-thread the Fates had spun for you. Yeah. It was exhausting.
The Eumenides features lots of ambiguity about the question of whether individuals have free will, or whether they are just controlled by fate… and this ties right in with the question of justice. After all, if people are fated to commit crimes (or ordered by some god or other) how can it be just to punish them?
In Aeschylus's The Eumenides, we see a transition from an earlier view of responsibility (that of the Furies), in which free will is irrelevant to a later view (that of Apollo and Athena), which holds that people are less responsible for their actions if they didn't act freely.
The Eumenides shows that gods and mortals are both free to act against fate, if they so choose.
Okay, Shmoopers, we're going to get deep. Two levels deep.
There are two levels of "memory and the past" involved in this play. There is a) what is in the past from the perspective of the characters in the play and b) references to events that were in the past from the perspective of Aeschylus and his audience, but were in the future from the perspective of the characters in the play. This play was basically an ancient Greek period piece.
There are a lot of references in The Eumenides to a specific historical event that happened not long before the play was first performed. These were the political reforms of a guy called Ephialtes: he took away most of the power of the Areopagus—a council of powerful Athenians.
Even without knowing the specific historical context of Aeschylus's play, it is still possible to understand it because its themes are so universal.
The play does not portray change as inherently good or inherently bad. Change for the better is better, change for the worse is worse.
We tend to think that fear is bad news bears, and that it should be kept out of public life. Not so for the Ancient Greeks. All sorts of different characters in The Eumenides—even those with different stances on whether or not Orestes should get off the hook—still think that fear is needed to keep people in line.
The Furies, of course, are the main ones who hold this view—which isn't surprising, given that they don't really have any other job aside from terrifying and torturing people. And, at the end of the play, Athena simply gives the Furies (now the "Kindly Ones" or Eumenides) the extra duty of rewarding good people; she doesn't take away their duty of harming bad people… and scaring the living daylights out of 'em.
The Furies and Athena both think that Fear is a good thing, but Athena thinks it has to be balanced with rewards for good deeds.
Even though Orestes is pursued by the Furies he is not very afraid because Apollo is backing him up. In fact, the Furies are the most fearful characters in the play—because they are afraid of having their rights taken away from them by Apollo and Athena.
This play is, to put it gently, really crazy freaking misogynist.
The verdict in Orestes's trial ultimately ends up hinging on two gender-related issues. The first issue is whether or not he is related to his own mother. Apollo says that mothers aren't actually related by blood to their children; that mothers are only baby-warming receptacles for the sperm implanted by the father. You might think that no female judge would accept Apollo's appallingly sexist argument—but you'd be wrong. Athena, the judge of the trial, explicitly says that she is biased towards men, and that's why she votes to let Orestes off the hook.
One of the major themes of The Eumenides—already foreshadowed in its opening lines—is the rise of a more patriarchal society, in which women like Clytemnestra and the Furies are increasingly marginalized. The logic? Basically: "women be crazy."
Aeschylus focuses on a transition from a matriarchal order to a patriarchal order because he is tapping into the traditional association of women with nature. In this framework, civilization—including the law-court—is thought of as a male activity that tames irrational feminine nature.
Athena's judgment in favor of Orestes has no other basis than sexist bias. Even so, it is a good decision because it puts an end to the cycle of bloody revenge.
You might have to watch something family-positive (Parenthood? Modern Family?) after reading The Eumenides. The trial of Orestes hinges on an argument—put forth by Apollo—that mothers are just incubators for their children and aren't necessarily related to them. The god says that the father is the only real parent.
What might be the consequences for society if Apollo's sexist views on childbirth became widespread? Well, if only parents are fathers, the importance of the family unit decreases as a whole. And by decreasing the importance of other family members and increasing the power of men as fathers, Apollo's argument paves the way for the patriarchal rule by a council of men that is established at the play's finish.
Aeschylus uses the motif of generational conflict as a way of shedding light on historical change.
The city of Athens, which is dominated by men, resembles the family structure of the end of the play, when the family has been reinterpreted so that only fathers are parents. The city is different from the family structure of the beginning of the play, in which mothers and fathers are equally considered parents, and thus (to some degree) are both in control.