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THE HEART OF THE MATTER: Gods, Grief, and Freedom in Aeschylus' Oresteia
Michael R. Deschenes

For the rest I stay silent; a great ox stands upon my tongue
Agamemnon 36-37

Grief and gods in ancient Greek plays act as yokes of slavery on the heart by putting restraints on the act of venting one's emotions, thereby affecting or hindering what comes out of one's mouth, the external expression of internal desire. To escape these yokes and thus attain internal freedom, the ability to express oneself (the heart) without any conflict from within (grief) or external oppression (gods), is highly desirable, yet rarely possible. Therefore, a great deal of conflict transpires internally as well as externally: in Greek tragedies "mere mortals" spend a large portion of their time worrying about what they ought to say or do, and the presence of grief or the afflictions of a god act as heavy burdens upon one's personal freedom. Inability to express inner thoughts or feelings reflects a loss of personal freedom.

The Athenian playwright Aeschylus (525-456 BC) in 458 BC produced an extremely powerful dramatic production, what Vellacott determines "the greatest of all Greek plays,"1 the Oresteia, the trilogy consisting of the Agamemnon, The Choephori and The Eumenides, which deals greatly with this issue of loss of freedom through inability to express intent. The Oresteia centers on the House of Atreus, a family besieged by deception and murder. The tale begins with the return of the Greek general, Agamemnon, back from the ten-year war against Troy, to his home in Argos. In the first play, Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra kills him because he had been forced to sacrifice their daughter Ipheginia to the gods while on the way to Troy; she is in turn slain by their son, Orestes (after whom the trilogy is named) in the second play, The Choephori, as an act of just retribution for the murder of his father Agamemnon. In the final play, The Eumenides, the race of immortals called the Furies demand retribution from Orestes for the murder of his mother. Ultimately, the goddess Athena assists Orestes in gaining clemency for his past act of vengeance on his father's behalf, by pacifying the Furies and granting Orestes purification. The majority of the Oresteia, however, deals not with godly beings and their decrees, but rather with mortal feelings and actions. Particularly essential, the plays focus on how humans are moved by their hearts to act as opposed to what they in fact say or do.

 

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