In 458 B.C. Aeschylus produced his great trilogy, “The Oresteia”. The Oresteia was said to perfect the vision of warning and reward, which in other words also can be thought of as betrayal and revenge. The Oresteia originally consisted of four plays-Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Euminides and Proteus. Proteus did not survive, though the three tragedies form a unity in themselves as the only Greek trilogy we have. In this essay I will only focus on one of the three plays, called “The Libation Bearers”. The other play I will be looking at is “Medea”. Medea is the earliest tragedy of Euripides and in it we see a classic moral pattern. Aspects such as betrayal and revenge are explored in this play, such as also in The Libation Bearers, which can also be recognized in many modern plays today. It shows how strong feeling from one person to another can make you do things that are reactions of love and hate.
The first play I will look at is The Libation Bearers, and how already from the start Tantalus of Lydia betrays himself by killing his own flesh and blood. Although the actual “blood curse” first starts later (between two brothers named Atreus and Thyestes) with betrayal and revenge all amongst family members, I believe that it all started with Tantalus, a barbarian whose spirits haunt the Oresteia. Tantalus is the starter of it all; he feeds his son Pelops to the gods for no apparent reason that then gets condemned to starve in Hades. Already here we see how Tantalus is betraying himself by killing his own son and gets his justice from the gods who let him starve. This play runs on an act of recognition, were betrayal and revenge is taken from one generation to the next. The actual blood curse in the house of Atreus, which I mentioned earlier, was started by the a feud between two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes.Thyestes betrays his brother by seducing his wife, whereas Atreus takes revenge on Thyestes and feeds his sons to him. Thyestes takes revenge by cursing Atreus, and then flees with his one remaining son Aegisthus. Atreus had two sons called Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon marries Clytaemnestra, and Menelaus marries Helen. Helen somewhat betrays Menelaus by being seduced by Paris of Troy, and as a result of this Menelaus takes revenge, by him and Agamemnon organizing a massive force to win her back, but as they were just about to set sail the goddess Artemis held the weather against them and Agamemnon was therefore sat a choice that if he wanted to appease the goddess he had to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia. Agamemnon does so and his troops set sail. Agamemnon waged war on Troy for ten long years and on his return betrays his wife Clytaemnestra with his new mistress Cassandra. Clytaemnestra has also betrayed Agamemnon with her new lover, whom is none other than Aegisthus, the surviving son of Thyestes. Clytaemnestra takes revenge by killing Agamemnon for killing their innocent daughter Iphigeneia and the desire for power. This is were the play “The Libation Bearers” starts. Many years after Agamemnon’s death, Orestes and Electra return, which their mother Clytaemnestra has betrayed from their rightful inheritance. Orestes has been commanded by the god Apollo to take revenge on his mother for killing Agamemnon and to reclaim the throne. Electra impels Orestes to do this, and at last he does, killing both Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.
I think that the murderers of Thyestes’ children continue to plague the house of Atreus even two generations later, and although every killing has its own justifications it only leads to more new killings with other new reasons for taking revenge. As it also explains in “The Oresteia”; “He (Orestes) must recognize, in fact, that his revenge is just, but that justice takes the form of matricide, the greatest form of guilt.” As read in the Oresteia it seems as though the crimes committed, only seen between family members, could be contagious, that the dead pursued the living for revenge and the revenge taken lead to more guilt and betrayal. Orestes must choose what justice he desires, but either way he will incite the furies.
The next play I will deal with is Medea. There are a series of acts of betrayal and revenge in this play, also going on between family members and people close to one another. Medea is known as a barbarian witch and princess of Colchis, she was powerful and the granddaughter of the sun god Hellas. Jason her husband is a great Greek hero. They are settled in Corinth were the myth begins. Jason has betrayed Medea by taking a new bride who is none other than king Kreons daughter Glauke. This is when Medea wants to take revenge. But she has betrayed her own family including her father and brother, and therefore feels even more betrayed by Jason, for she believes that she has given up (betrayed) so many people close to her for him. Now, as she has found out Jason is betraying her with Glauke, Medea is planning her revenge. While Medea is still thinking about how to get back at Jason, whom has used the excuse that he didn’t want to be with Glauke out of lust but because he wanted to ensure the children’s future, King Kreon enters and tells her to leave Corinth immediately, but Medea begs for mercy:
“One day, just today, allow me here.
How to save my children. They’re nothing
To Jason now, their portion nothing.
Have pity. You’ve children of your own.
For them, whom fate has made its sport”
King Kreon grants Medea one more day because he thinks it would be too little time to work any spells and leaves it at that. Medea is pleased by his decision for one more day is all she needs to get her revenge. Now an old friend of Medea enters the play, which is Aigeus, king of Athens. Aigeus is childless and wants to become a father, but some god would have it so. Medea tells Aigeus what has happened to her and makes him feel sorry for her. She promises to help him have a child, if he swears under oath that he will protect her in Athens. Aigeus agrees with this and vows by all the gods. With her security certain, she has decided to kill Jason’s new bride and his father-in-law, king Kreon, with the aid of poisoned gifts, and to make her revenge complete, she will kill her own children to wound Jason and protect them from counter-revenge by Kreons allies and friends. As Jason enters again, Medea’s voice has changed, she is now calm and nice, and acting as though she is approving with everything that Jason has done, she even gives her children lavish presents for Glauke: a golden crown (smeared with poison) and a silken dress (which will burn the flesh from her bones). Jason is pleased and takes the children with him to the palace. A tutor soon returns with the children and tells Medea that the gifts have been received. She speaks lovingly to her children and she seems to have a moment of hesitation but eventually kills her two boys. A messenger comes with the awaited news that Medea’s presents have worked and both the king and Glauke are dead. Jason now orders the guards to break down the doors, so that he can take revenge against his wife for those atrocities, but Medea is only to be seen above the palace and will escape to Athens with the help of Aigeus.
Medea is the main character in this play, and she is also the one whom had and was betraying most people. She betrayed her father and brother, King Kreon by making him feel sorry for her, King Aigeus by making him swear by the gods that he will protect her, not knowing from what. And Jason for making him believe that she was all right with him being with Glauke and then ended up killing his bride-to-be and his new father-in-law. The most horrible murder though I believe is Medea killing her children, for they had absolutely nothing to do with what their parents’ actions and only got killed because Medea really wanted Jason to suffer. All these actions are completed because Medea feels betrayed by Jason and therefore wants to take revenge and visa versa, which is seen in the end, the tables turn and Jason feels betrayed by Medea for killing their children and wants to take revenge.
In both Medea and The Libation Bearers we see the similarity of the plays mostly having family members betray each other, and the killings don’t ever seem to want to stop. Whatever actions are taken someone will always feel betrayed and wanting to take revenge, and the only way to take justified revenge back in those days was killing. Looking at these myths and plays from a modern point of view we can surely recognize that betrayal always (wants) to lead to revenge, but isn’t accomplished quite as harshly as in those days. I believe that even for characters such as Medea and Orestes they must have had their doubts, of Medea killing her children or Orestes killing his mother, because a bond is always established between mother and child. But tragedy is a challenge and a trap, which directs us to make certain decisions that lead us to our characters and our fate.