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The Oresteia: Resolving the Competing Systems of Justice
The Oresteia, a trilogy composed of Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, can be viewed as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of theater art that requires all three plays to fulfill its vision. One of the central “problems” explored in the trilogy is the existence of competing systems of justice. Eumenides, the final play, brings this problem to a resolution. This essay will argue that Eumenides, through a careful examination of the complications, tensions, paradoxes, and complexities featured in Agamemnon and Libation Bearers, resolves the conflict between personal justice and communal justice.

To understand how Eumenides brings resolution to the competing systems of justice, we must first examine the context and complexities presented in Agamemnon and Libation Bearers. In Agamemnon, we witness Clytemnestra’s act of revenge against her husband for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia. Clytemnestra seeks personal justice for this heinous act, which she sees as a betrayal of their family and marriage. Her actions are driven by a desire to restore balance through retribution.

However, Clytemnestra’s personal justice clashes with the concept of communal justice. The chorus, representing the voice of societal norms and values, views Clytemnestra’s actions as an affront to the established order. The tension between personal and communal justice is further heightened when Orestes, in Libation Bearers, seeks vengeance for his father’s murder by killing his mother. Here, Orestes embodies personal justice, driven by familial duty and the obligation to avenge his father’s death.

In this way, both Agamemnon and Libation Bearers present competing systems of justice. Agamemnon focuses on personal justice and individual retribution, while Libation Bearers highlights the struggle between familial obligations and societal expectations. These complexities set the stage for Eumenides to resolve the conflict.

Eumenides introduces the transformative power of Athena’s intervention and the establishment of a new system of justice. The play presents a trial where Orestes is judged for matricide. The competing systems of justice are personified by the Furies, representing ancient blood vengeance tied to personal justice, and Athena, embodying the new communal justice system based on reason and consensus.

Through the trial, Aeschylus explores the paradoxes and tensions inherent in both systems. The Furies argue for blood vengeance and seek to uphold ancient laws rooted in personal retribution. On the other hand, Athena argues for a rational system where disputes are settled through dialogue and consensus. The resolution lies in Athena’s persuasive argument that blood feuds perpetuate an endless cycle of violence and that communal justice is necessary for stability and progress within society.

By choosing Athena’s path, Eumenides culminates in a new configuration of justice – one that emphasizes community over individual desires. This resolution allows for a shift from personal vengeance to a collective responsibility for maintaining order and harmony within society.

To fully understand the significance of this resolution, we must analyze the context provided by Agamemnon and Libation Bearers. Agamemnon explores the consequences of personal vengeance by portraying Clytemnestra’s act as self-destructive, leading to her eventual downfall. Libation Bearers further complicates this issue by depicting Orestes’ internal struggle and moral anguish resulting from his obligation to seek personal justice. These complexities create a foundation for Athena’s argument in Eumenides.

In conclusion, Eumenides resolves the conflict between competing systems of justice by establishing a new configuration based on communal values. Through an examination of the complications, paradoxes, tensions, and complexities presented in Agamemnon and Libation Bearers, we see how personal justice and vengeance are ultimately deemed inadequate. The resolution offered by Athena in Eumenides highlights the necessity of communal justice, emphasizing reason, dialogue, and consensus over individual desires for retribution. The Oresteia as a Gesamtkunstwerk showcases the transformative power of theater art in exploring complex moral dilemmas and offering resolutions that transcend individual perspectives.


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