Monday, June 11, 2012

The Oresteia

    For the first time since What Should Kester Read? first started, I have been assigned a collection of plays (and of poetry, but that's another blog post). The collection of plays; Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides is, in fact, a trilogy of Greek tragedies known as The Oresteia. Written by the deeply religious thinker Aeschylus, the story focuses on the House of Atreus and the curse upon it. 
    It seems almost silly for me to refer to such a classic work as brilliant, but brilliant is what it is. It was once written (though, Google be damned, I cannot seem to find the source) that "justice without mercy is tyranny and mercy without justice is sentimentality." The Oresteia addresses these themes of justice and mercy with great thoughtfulness and care. In brief, the story goes that Agamemnon sacrifices he and his wife, Clytemnestra's, daughter, Iphigenia to the gods. Upon his return from Troy, Clytemnestra takes revenge upon Agamemnon and kills him and his concubine, Cassandra. Agamemnon and Clyemnestra's son, Orestes, then kills Clyemnestra, seeking justice for the death of his father. Clyemnestra's ghost then urges the Furies to torment Orestes, who seeks refuge from Apollo and then Athena.
    What makes the play so compelling is the delicate balance it strikes between the themes of justice and mercy. Each of these killings is, in some sense, justified, and yet each killing leads only to more killing. And so, Orestes ultimately appeals for mercy. And, in light of where all these justice killings have gotten us, mercy seems the prudent response.
    What follows then is a warning from the Furies of what will be wrought upon mankind should justice be too quickly dismissed. Without a healthy fear and awe for justice, there will be more killing, but of an increased senselessness.
    In the end, the play is a reminder that justice and mercy must act within and alongside one another; that too err to firmly on one side is to, in fact, undermine both sides. 

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