Points of View
Aeschylus faces off with Euripides in a dramatic contest and is declared the victor. The decision is one of cosmetics more than substance. Aeschylus wrote plays that appealed to the people of Athens. The Oresteia is a story with strong characters faced with difficult decisions in which justice prevails. On the other hand, Euripides wrote plays that were more realistic, such as The Electra, which reveals the weakness of men and women. That both authors wrote plays dealing with the same story helps us to see the differences in their opinions and styles.
The Oresteia probably was favoured more by the Athenian people because of some key factors. One of these is character portrayal. Aeschylus made his heroes strong minded and full of resolve, whereas Euripides tended to show his characters’ shortcomings. An example of this is the character of Orestes. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes comes upon the scene and makes himself known to his sister immediately and quickly reveals his plot to kill their father’s murderers. He is in control of the situation and prepared to kill both his mother and her lover: “Our Fury who is never starved for blood shall drink/ for the third time a cupful of unwatered blood” (Libation Bearers, Lines 577-578). Orestes would have appealed to the Athenian populace because of his strength and his desire to avenge the murder of his father and fulfill the oracle of Apollo. In The Electra, Euripides creates a very different personality for Orestes than does Aeschylus. Orestes does not burst onto the scene and immediately make himself known to his sister. He actually does not willingly reveal himself. It is not until his old tutor comes and recognises him that he admits to Electra that he is her brother. This must have distressed an Athenian audience to see the son of Agamemnon hiding his identity from his sister for quite a long tract of dialogue. When his identity is know, it must have been very disheartening to see the former Greek leader’s son being so indecisive. Orestes cannot seem to think or act for himself: “Whom shall I make/ my ally? Shall I act by night or by day? What path shall I/ take against my foes?” (Electra, Lines 599-601). Oresetes’ weak will shows itself again when he sees his mother coming and cries out: “Orestes: Hold! We must revise our plan./ Electra: What is it? Do you see reinforcements from Mycenae?/ Orestes: No, but the mother, the woman that gave me/ birth” (Electra, Lines 963-967). Orestes reluctantly slays his mother only after a great deal of pushing by his anxious sister. This scene is very different from Aeschylus’, where Orestes needs no such prodding from his sister to avenge their father’s murder.
Electra is another character that probably did not win Euripides any votes from his audience. In The Oresteia, Electra lives in the same house as her mother and holds the noble position of a king’s daughter even though her father is dead. In Euripedes’ version of the story, Electra was cast out from the royal house, marries a peasant, and is dressed in the rags of poverty. Also, she complains constantly about her low status. All throughout the beginning pages she tells the audience of her woes, raising questions as to her motives for having her brother return and her mother killed. This is most obvious in the conversation with her brother, his identity still concealed, in which she “must speak out” of her “grievous fortunes” to Orestes. Interestingly, the murder of her father ranks behind the state of her clothes, the hovel in which she lives, the work she must do (even though the man she marries offered to do it all for her), the fact that she can not socialize at the holy festivals, and the fact that her mother is queen. These selfish complaints are very different from the Electra of The Oresteia who speaks of her father first and also of the powers of “Force, and Right,/ and Zeus almighty” (The Libation Bearers, Lines 244-245).
A second area in which Aeschylus probably won the favour of the judges is the death scenes of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and the events following their deaths. In The Oresteia, Orestes confronts both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus individually and kills them. Then, in The Eumenides, the play is devoted to deciding whether the matricide committed by Orestes is justified. The resolution of this play is the recognition of the Furies as justice of an older time, and Athena gives them their rightful place in modern justice.
Euripides treats the deaths of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus very differently. First, Euripides gives a detailed description of the death of Aegisthus, which at the time was not a popular thing with the audience. The way Orestes stabbed Aegisthus in the back probably did not win any point from the judges either. Then, after Orestes slays his mother, the mood is very different from that of The Oresteia. Orestes and Electra both realise that what they did was not justified even by the oracle of Apollo and lament their actions. This is quite different from the stout Orestes of The Oresteia. Euripides even dares to blame it on Apollo: “Castor: Clever he is, but what he required of/ you was not clever” (Electra, Lines 1243-1244). The ending of the play is very abrupt and does not give much detail about the future for Orestes or Electra. The play leaves the reader questioning if justice truly was served.
Aeschylus would win the contest in Athens because Athenians would want to identify more with his play. Aeschylus provides for the audience a play of heroic actions, noble characters, and the development of justice, which is a very pleasing image for Athenians. Euripides, on the other hand, questions the nobility of wealth and the actions of his “heroic” characters. Also, Euripides writes some daring, unpopular things in his plays, such as the scene in The Trojan Women when Athena asks Poseidon to help her punish the Greeks by causing a giant storm on their voyage home. I think Euripides is better suited to save Athens from moral destruction because of the underlying values in his plays. In The Electra, Euripides uses the character of the peasant to show that wealth does not mean strength of character. The peasant shows that even a poor man can be noble and honourable, and in my opinion is more honourable than any of the other characters who are considered noble because of their royal lineage. Euripides’ plays contain more realism than Aeschylus’ plays, and I believe they give better insight into the moral problems of the common man than does a play that has characters that seem more mythical than real. The truth can sometimes be ugly, and Euripides tries to convey reality in its raw form through his plays. He also helps to give insights on some remedies for social problems. The Trojan Women is a good example of how Euripides shows the audience the ugliness of war through the eyes of Hecuba, coming at a time when Athens is preparing a military campaign in Syracuse. Euripides focuses on moral and social issues far more than Aeschylus does and that is why he would be better suited to save Athens.