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HIST 207: Sample Student Notes

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The Protagonist of Euripides' Orestes
by Christy Herndier

Euripides presents an Orestes unlike that of other playwrights. And in typical fashion, the character initially presented is not the same Orestes that is ultimately revealed to the audience. Painting a pathetic picture of a man driven mad after the "just" murder of his mother, Euripides portrays Orestes as a sympathetic figure, suffering at the hands of the gods. Paradoxically, Orestes should be anything but pitied. In a series of unique and dramatic tragic events, the true nature of Orestes is revealed, and the audience is faced with a character that is selfish and evil. Desperate to save his own life, he loses all regard for others, despite full comprehension of his acts.

When the play begins, the audience sees an Orestes collapsed in bed, wasted by fever and pursued by the Eumenides. Electra relates his suffering, pointing out that the blame lies with Apollo. It was this god who persuaded Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, and therefore he was left with no choice but to murder. Electra, Helen and the chorus all lament over Orestes' condition, "condemned to suffer for a god's command" (Orestes 160). They feel sorry for him and cover up the fact that Orestes wanted to kill his mother. Orestes himself even disguises this in the beginning, also placing the blame on Apollo by stating, "I accuse Apollo. The god is the guilty one" (Orestes 285). Despite this blame, it is Apollo who he calls to for help when madness surrounds him, "Apollo, save me!" (Orestes 260), he cries out.

Orestes wants pity and sympathy from the other characters. He plays on his sad appearance, in hopes that someone will help him. When he hears of Menelaus' return, he is hopeful that his uncle will save him from death. He praises him, "Menelaus, I lack your clever wit" (Orestes 423), but his words are untruthful and deceitful. As soon as he discovers that Menelaus will not assist him, he hurls words of hatred, "you cheap traitor" (Orestes 717). He pretended love for his uncle, but he was only interested in serving his own purpose. He even lied about his feelings over what he had done.

When pleading with Menelaus, Orestes tells him that he is in despair over the act he has committed. When Menelaus asks him what sickness afflicts him, Orestes replies, "I am sick with remorse" (Orestes 398). But Orestes is not sorry for what he has done, and as the play unfolds and he presents his true self, this fact is revealed. He expresses no regret when speaking to Clytemnestra's father Tyndareus. He tells the old man that "I had every right to kill her. I hated her, and I had every reason in the world to hate" (Orestes 573-575).

When Orestes finally gives up hope that he will not be sentenced to death, his desperation finally reveals his true character. He no longer tries to hide behind a wall of pity and becomes evil in his decision to do anything that might help his position. Along with his friend Pylades, Orestes decides to murder Helen, stating "death to Helen! That will be our motto" (Orestes 1130-1131). He does not hesitate in this plan, "if we can manage it, I'm more that willing" (Orestes 1108), even quickly adding that they will murder her slaves if they call for help. The decision of Orestes to murder Helen is driven by his newfound hatred and desire to punish Menelaus. He is not driven to the act by Apollo or any other god, he knows what he is doing and is unbothered by any moral affliction. He states aloud that, "revenge alone would make me happy" (Orestes 1172). After the murder is committed, a Phrygian slave tells the chorus of Orestes' brutality, and then is faced with it himself. Pushed along further by Electra, Orestes also favours the idea of holding Hermione hostage, and killing her if "it comes to that" (Orestes 1614).

Orestes is self-centered and thinks only of himself even as he holds a knife to the girl's throat. Menelaus cries over Helen, and Orestes replies "no pity for me?" (Orestes 1611). When Menelaus states that all his labours are now in vain, Orestes once again replies, "nothing done for me" (Orestes 1615). He is unconcerned with the feelings of the people he once pretended to care about when all was well.

In a strange twist on convention, Euripides presents the god Apollo to Orestes and the other characters when everyone is unsure what to do, and unsure what will happen. In a small amount of time, everything is set right and things seem in order. Orestes is saved from death, pronounced ruler of Argos, and told that he shall marry Hermione. Orestes is suddenly happy and complacent, "but all is well, and I obey" (Orestes 1670-1671). He makes peace with Apollo and Menelaus and the play ends with the chorus exalting, "Hail, O Victory!" (Orestes 1691).

It seems as if Orestes is once again the good character presented in the beginning of the play. It was only his dire straits that caused him to act so terribly. But his heart and mind remain evil and cruel and if the opportunity arises, he will show his true colors again. The face he puts on covers his real personality, and he will always change to suit his needs alone. In the end, he achieved what he wanted, and this alone is the reason why he is once again an Orestes that is good-natured and loving.

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