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HIST 207: Sample Student Notes

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Euripides, Irony, and the Orestes
by Sonya Betz

In his introduction to Euripides: Medea and Other Plays, James Morwood argues that Euripides uses a kind of double-edged irony in his work: "sometimes it describes the hypocritical gap between the rhetorical postures Euripidean characters adopt and their true motives. Alternatively it defines the confrontation of archaic myths with the values of democratic Athens" (xi). In Euripides' play Orestes this irony is obvious from beginning to end. The words of characters in the play sharply contradict the actions they take and the events that occur, while the ancient myths that Sophocles employs so seamlessly become uncomfortably discordant in Euripides' hands.

The Orestes begins shortly after the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus with a speech by Electra. In this speech Electra indicates the arrival of Helen and Menelaus, and mentions more than once the gods' loathing for Helen: "The wife of Menelaus / was Helen, whom the gods in heaven themselves / despise" (19-21). The paradoxical nature of her statement stems from the fact that at the end of the play, Helen will be deified by Apollo as a constellation, "a goddess forever, / forever adored" (1688-89). Electra's conflicting view of the gods' feelings about Helen is the beginning of a progression of ironic rhetoric and incidence.

This irony continues with the treatment of the god Apollo at the hands of Euripides' characters. Many of the players in Orestes blame the deaths of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus on Apollo's oracle. Even Helen, Clytemnestra's sister says to Electra: "You were not to blame. / The real culprit was Apollo. And for my part, / I can see no reason on earth for shunning you" (75-77). The same kind of statement is made by Menelaus to Orestes, and by Orestes himself in defending his actions to Tyndareus. Despite this obvious antipathy and distrust of Apollo the characters of the play obey his proclamations unquestioningly in the bizarre finale.

Not only do the words of the players conflict with their actions and their motives, they also demonstrate the conflict of the mythical world with the world of Athenian democracy. For example, Tyndareus argues that Orestes should have availed himself of the courts for justice rather than kill his mother in revenge: "he should have haled his mother / into court, charged her formally with murder, / and made her pay the penalty prescribed" (499-501). He goes on to say "Legal action, / not murder. That was the course to take . . . the course of self-control / and due respect for law " (502-506). Tyndareus' logical Athenian argument that the chain of revenge murder is somewhat counterproductive is met with Orestes' ridiculous and outdated argument that if he hadn't killed his mother the women of Athens would all kill their husbands and beg for pity. He claims to have "stopped that practice for good" (571). In the world of Euripides' Orestes, the responses of the characters are completely inappropriate to the situations they are presented with.

Another example of the contradiction between the world of mythical Greece and the world of Euripides' Athens comes in the form of the final scene of the play. Orestes' plan to kill Helen and her daughter Hermione to gain his revenge on Menelaus is nearing completion when Apollo appears above the palace. Apollo provides a nicely packaged ending for all of the characters of the play, but it is completely incongruous with the world that Euripides has created. Orestes, for example, is destined to be exiled for a year then to return and marry Hermione, who he is at that moment attempting to slaughter. Menelaus blesses this union at Apollo's urging, despite his previous antipathy for Orestes. This ending is at absolute odds with the rest of the play and serves to demonstrate the contradictory and twisted nature of Euripides' tragedies.

Unlike the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, Euripides' Orestes fails to provide any kind of satisfying or conclusive solution. The words of the characters are in complete conflict with their actions and with the events that occur throughout the play. Even the myth itself becomes perverted in an almost ridiculous way. Euripides presents his audience with ancient ideas set in an environment that is in complete disagreement with the execution of those ideas. The result is a play bursting with contradiction and replete in irony.

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