In The Oresteia, Aeschylus advocates the importance of the male role in society over that of the female. The entire trilogy can be seen as a subtle proclamation of the superiority of men over women. Yet, the women create the real interest in the plays. Their characters are the impetus that makes everything occur.
The most complex and compelling character in the three plays is Clytaemnestra. Clytaemnestra is consumed with thoughts of revenge. She seeks vengeance on Agamemnon for the loss of their daughter, Iphigeneia whose life was forfeited in order to appease the goddess Artemis so that Agamemnon’s troops would be allowed passage to the Trojan shore. Clytaemnestra displays more intelligence than any other character in The Oresteia in the way she manipulates the events leading up to Agamemnon’s execution in the play “Agamemnon.” Her scheming ways and clever word play make her intimidating in the eyes of the people of Argos. She is looked upon with revulsion because of the manly way she acts. The chorus leader states in line 35 “spoken like a man, my lady, loyal, full of self-command.” (Aeschylus 116). Odysseus of the quick wits was held in high esteem for such craftiness, yet intelligence and wit, while exulted in a man, are threatening characteristics in a woman. In the kingdom, Clytaemnestra has been having an open affair with Aegisthus. The chorus, who acts as the voice of the common man, and therefore the voice of morality, condemn her for this affair even though it is common practice for men in ancient Greece to have many extramarital affairs themselves. In this way Aeschylus condones the double-standards thrust upon the women of the time, but he also, perhaps unwittingly, sets up Clytaemnestra as the antagonist of the plays. In breaking away from the traditional female role, she sets up the scenario for the entire story to unfold. Clytaemnestra is thus the driving force behind the conflicts of the trilogy for it is her actions that spark the debate between the Furies and Apollo over whether or not Orestes is just in committing matricide.
Where as Clytaemnestra breaks with female tradition, Electra is the preserver of the status quo. Because Clytaemnestra is not motherly, Electra who has already lost her father to the depths of Hades, loses her mother to that one’s all-consuming hate of Agamemnon as well. And so she seeks revenge towards her mother, the cause of all her misery in taking away the only family she ever had. She desperately awaits the arrival of her brother, Orestes, who becomes the father figure she lost when Agamemnon was murdered. She says to Orestes on lines 241-242, “I have to call you father, it is fate;/ and I turn to you the love I gave my mother” (Aeschylus 189). In this way, she comes to revere the male over the female, the father over the mother.
Another strong female character who is grossly underestimated is Cassandra, daughter of Priam, King of Troy. Cassandra is brought into this family feud when Agamemnon brings her back from Troy as his personal prize from the war. She has the gift of prophesy but her prophesies are never believed because she once angered Apollo by not submitting to him and has suffered ever since. Even as Agamemnon’s concubine, scorned by Clytaemnestra, and forsaken by the gods, Cassandra shows great strength of character. She foresees the murder of Agamemnon as well as herself and is resigned to her fate for she also foresees her vengeance in the form of Orestes. She says in lines 1300-1304, “We will die,/ but not without some honour from the gods./ There will come another to avenge us,/ born to kill his mother, born/ his father’s champion” (Aeschylus 155). With these words, Cassandra foreshadows the revenge of Orestes and therefore the whole premise of the trilogy.
By the end of the last play in the trilogy “The Eumenides,” Aeschylus has firmly established the dominance of the male role in society over that of the female. This is due in large part to the role the goddess Athena plays in the conflict between the Furies, representing the old, matriarchal gods, and Apollo, who represents the new, patriarchal gods. Athena, goddess of wisdom, attained her title because she was born out of Zeus’ head and so she realizes only the wisdom of man rather than that of woman. Athena has the final vote in the trial of Orestes and she casts her lot for him with these words in lines 751-754, “No mother gave me birth./ I honour the male, in all things but marriage./ Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child./ I cannot set more store by the woman’s death” (Aeschylus 264). As the final victory of the male sphere over that of the female sphere, Athena domesticates the Furies in the final pages of the last play of the trilogy and consigns them to the “traditional” feminine role in society while she takes on the more prestigious, man’s role of the diplomat.
Although the women are considered inferior in The Oresteia, they are actually the backbone of the entire trilogy. Without a character like Clytaemnestra, the plays would have lacked complexity and intrigue.