While many other Greek tragedies tend to reiterate already established myths and customs, Euripides’s Orestes appears to be entirely his own invention. Chronologically, the plot of the play takes place after the events contained in Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers. It was first performed in 408 BC, near the close of the Peloponnesian War.
In Orestes, Electra recounts the story of her mother, Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband Agamemnon upon his return home from Troy, and her brother, Orestes’s subsequent murder of Clytemnestra at the behest of Apollo. As a result, Orestes lies unconscious for days on the floor. Meanwhile a band of citizens has begun calling for the death of Orestes for his crime of matricide. When Menelaus and Helen arrive from Sparta, Orestes suddenly awakens but he is in a tormented psychological state, haunted by the Furies (recall the plot of Aeschylus’s Eumenides). What are the Furies? Orestes tells us: “I call it conscience. The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime” (395-396). It is not unlike the psychological terror experienced by Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Orestes begs Menelaus to save him and Electra from certain death: a verdict of death by stoning from the people of Argos. Initially, Menelaus relents to Orestes, however his father-in-law Tyndareus (also Orestes’s grandfather) appears and is disgusted by Orestes. He persuades Menelaus not to help Orestes. Perhaps we can hear the words of Euripides in the mouth of the elder Tyndareus, defender of a sanitary and rational rule of law, as he criticizes Orestes’s act of murder rather than taking Clytemnestra to trial:
“When his father died-
killed I admit, by my own daughter’s hand,
an atrocious crime which I do not condone
and never shall-he should have haled his mother
into court, charged her formally with murder,
and made her pay the penalty prescribed,
expulsion from his house.
not murder. That was the course to take.
Under the circumstances, a hard choice,
true, but the course of self-control
and due respect for law, and the better choice
of two evils
But as things stand now,
what difference is there between him and his mother?” (497-503).
Tyndareus believes the law trumps all. He criticizes Orestes for stooping to a petty act of vengeance when he could have taken his mother to court instead, despite Apollo’s wishes. Orestes’s pleas to Menelaus for help fall on deaf ears. He has come to Argos and returned from Troy a weakened man and he cannot help Orestes. He gives some prescient advice on the nature of the mob-mentality:
“Look at it this way my boy.
Mobs in their emotions are much like children,
subject to the same tantrums and fits of fury.
But this anger must be treated with patience
rather like a fire that gets out of control” (695-700).
However, the mob quickly declares a death sentence for Orestes and Electra so they both conspire to kill Helen and Hermione, Helen and Menelaus’s daughter. Just as Orestes holds a sword to Hermione’s throat and demands that Menelaus profess Orestes’s innocence to the people, the god Apollo appears – another deus ex machina. He commands that everyone stop: Orestes is to go to Athens to stand trial, and Menelaus is to return to Sparta. Also, Orestes is destined to marry Hermione, Menelaus’s daughter, and Electra is to marry Pylades, Orestes’s lifelong friend and companion. Thus truces are made and the possibility of justice is introduced, though curiously, yet again, Euripides introduces a deus ex machina. For Euripides the plot of the play is almost irrelevant, or is at least secondary, to the feelings of sorrow he arouses in his characters. It matters very little that a god should suddenly appear at the end and set things right. Euripides’s primary goal is to make Athenian audiences reflect on themselves and their activities, particularly pertaining to the war with Sparta, in the words of people like Menelaus and Tyndareus. His focus is on tragic character study, thus inverting the classical Aristotelian view of tragedy.