We can see the dawn of our laws not in Eden but in our felt need to control the vendetta – unless the law intervenes, a blood feud may have no end. If the law helped to contain the vendetta, then a failure of the law to deliver justice to the family of the victim may well see a revival of self-help. We can see that word for word in the beginning of The Godfather.
Homer saw the vicious the cycle. Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, elopes to Troy. The Greeks, led by King Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, want to go after her. This is the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad. The gods hold them up. Agamemnon is persuaded to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that his boats can sail for Troy. After the war, his wife, Clytemnestra, who has taken Aegisthus as a lover, kills Agamemnon to avenge the death of a daughter. Then her son, Orestes, with another daughter, Electra, kills Clytemnestra to avenge his father. And so the vendetta goes on. This theme is treated by the three great tragedians of ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.
Beowulf is replete with the blood feud – that is one reason we refer to that time as the Dark Age.
In Hamlet, the king is murdered by his brother who then speedily marries the widow. The child of the marriage, Hamlet, is revolted by the conduct of both his uncle and his mother. Her descent into those ‘incestuous sheets’ makes him ill. Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the young prince that his brother killed him and that Hamlet must avenge his death.
Was Hamlet morally obliged or entitled to kill the king to avenge his father? A C Bradley apparently thought so. A Mafia don may feel it now. But this was not the Dark Ages. There are exchanges of students to fine German universities. The royal family is firmly Christian. Would they still be wedded to the vendetta?
Surely, no. The answer is given by Tony Tanner. (I know I have referred often to this before, but the point is worth it.) Tanner described how western tragedy began two thousand five hundred years ago. A play, the first in a trilogy, begins with a troubled guard on a battlement on a castle where the people live in disquiet. A member of a ruling family has to avenge a murder. Shortly before he executes his mother, Orestes pauses. But not for long.
The play Hamlet is at the birth of modern drama nearly two thousand years later. It opens in the same way with a guard on a battlement over an unquiet people. The hero again pauses before taking revenge. But this time the pause lasts for nearly the whole play. Why? ‘Because between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity and, more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’
Tanner went on to say out that although the Greeks dwelt on guilt, they had no word for conscience (a word that occurs seven times in Hamlet).
How, then, did the Greeks handle the vendetta?
The first in time is the trilogy of Aeschylus called The Oresteia. Agamemnon deals with the murder of the husband; The Libation Bearers deals with the murder of the father; and The Eumenidies seeks to offer a solution – a court of law. The difference to Hamlet is almost absurd here. Having butchered the lover, Aegisthus, Orestes turns to his mother, Clytemnestra. She reminds Orestes that she suckled him as a child. Orestes pauses and asks his friend what he should so. Should he be ‘shamed to kill his mother’? His friend reminds Orestes of the oracles and their oaths in three lines. Orestes then says:
I judge that you win. Your advice is good.
Orestes tells his mother:
You killed and it was wrong. Now suffer wrong.
Now madness is at hand. Orestes is pursued by the furies of his mother – ‘the bloodhounds of his mother’s hate.’ The play ends:
Where is the end? Where shall the fury of fate
Be stilled to sleep, be done with?
The Orestes of Aeschylus was, then, a different cup of tea to Hamlet
It is not quite so with Euripides. His Orestes opens after the murder. Electra tells Helen that Orestes killed himself when he killed his mother. Orestes explains his sickness:
I call it conscience. The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime…..I mean remorse. I am sick with remorse.
(I am not qualified to warrant the validity of the word ‘conscience’ there in light of the remark of Tony Tanner, but we are reminded that in all translations we are asked to take a lot on trust.) Orestes had already prefigured the injunction given to Hamlet when he told Electra:
I think now
If I had asked my dead father at the time
If I should kill her, he would have begged me,
Gone down on his knees before me and pleaded,
Implored me not to take my mother’s life.
What had we to gain by murdering her?
Later he says he was ordered by a god, Apollo, to commit the murder. This leads him to this question. ‘Was he [the god] competent to command a murder, but now incompetent to purge the guilt?’ That is a very fair question for that god.
The father of Clytemnestra can recall when they did things better:
Where I want to know, can this chain
Of murder end? Can it ever end in fact
Since the last to kill is doomed to stand
Under permanent sentence of death by revenge?
Their ancestors banished the murderers and bound them to silence. ‘They purged their guilt by banishment, not death. And by so doing, they stopped that endless vicious cycle of murder and revenge.’ After that, the play takes a dive in tone. Orestes says ‘I can never have my fill of killing whores’, and in trying to escape judgment for their crime, they plot to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage,
Euripides also had an Electra , but you get the Full Monty of the vendetta with Sophocles. Electra is waiting for the return of Orestes to avenge her father’s death.
Come, how when the dead are in question,
Can it ever be honourable to forget?….
What sort of days do you imagine
I spend, watching Aegisthus sitting
On my father’s throne, watching him wear
My father’s self-same robes, watching him
At the hearth where he killed him, pouring libations?….
She [Clytemnestra] is so daring that she paramours
This foul polluted creature and fears no fury…..
But I am waiting for Orestes’ coming,
Waiting forever for the one who will stop
All our wrongs. I wait and wait and die.
For his eternal going-to-do-something
Destroys my hopes, possible and impossible.
Now, there is a whole lot of Hamlet there – not least the sexual jealousy. And while Hamlet feigned madness to give himself cover, Orestes put it out that he was dead – and sent an urn with his remains to his sister. So, our heroes were cruel to those they loved – they were cruelled by their mission. (The other phrase you see is pathei pathos or ‘suffering brutalises’.)
When Electra realises that she is in truth talking to a very much alive brother, we have one of the great set pieces of our stage. It is wonderfully handled here by this great playwright. Electra then taunts her mother before her death with the deadly steel that Queen Margaret applied to the Duke of York. The Chorus says:
The courses are being fulfilled
Those under the earth are alive;
Men long dead draw from their killers
Blood to answer blood.
Electra asks Orestes ‘Is the wretch dead?’ There is then more icy dramatic irony – or the blackest humour – when Orestes leads Aegisthus, who is next to die, to believe that the corpse in the shroud is that of himself rather than that of Clytemnestra. Orestes endorses justice on all who act above the law – ‘justice by killing.’
In Euripides’ version, Orestes does pause before the horror of killing his own mother. Then he said he covered his eyes before sinking the steel in her neck. Electra also put her hand to the sword. Then Orestes is horrified by his deed. ‘My god, how, how she bent to earth the legs which I was born through?’ But Orestes has a line that is straight Hamlet: ‘What must I do to punish the murderer and purify my mother from adultery?’ (And, yes, when there is adultery, it is always Mum who needs purifying; a quiet word is usually enough for Dad.)
When first rereading the two relevant plays of Euripides for this note, I thought that he had got too close to Neighbours and The Untouchables. If sympathy for the hero is essential in tragedy, these plays have problems. But two translators in the Folio edition have changed my mind. As we saw, these plays are set after the law had provided a remedy. Orestes and Electra now look petty or vicious – Germaine Greer saw ‘a shared craziness.’
This Orestes is aptly compared with another difficult play, Troilus and Cressida –‘tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched, disfigured and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.’ That is spot on for Troilus. Unloveliness pervades both plays, but when Orestes is set in what we would call modern times, we can see the characters for what they are. Both children look more worried about lifestyle than morality. Orestes, like Hamlet, has a grudge that his dynastic leanings have been crushed, and the plays raise an alternative motive – if the children don’t get Aegisthus, he will get them. (And Claudius did go after Hamlet.)
But you get this sense of bourgeois tawdriness that roused one critic to say ‘Electra is a self-pitying slattern, Orestes a timid ruffian, Clytemnestra a suburban clubwoman, Aegisthus a courteous and popular ruler, the murders as dastardly as conceivable.’ The neighbours at Elsinore don’t look so bad now.
That, then, is in part how the Greek tragedians looked at the vendetta. Two things. First, none of these three great playwrights seeks to excuse the vendetta – Electra does not see that she is committing precisely the crime for which she seeks to punish her mother, and Orestes is at best cloudy on that point. Secondly, we will never know if Hamlet would ever have obeyed the ghost. When he returns to Denmark, he has enough evidence to slot the king, but Hamlet kills him because in seeking to kill Hamlet, the king had just killed Hamlet’s mother.
The two worlds were very different. The Sophocles Electra is very high theatre; it is great theatre. Little wonder that Strauss built an opera on it. We hardly see either version. One reason may be that this Electra at times makes The Godfather look like Snow White. Sometimes we may just want to steer clear of those dark lakes lying in all of us. And we must recall that the Greeks got into trouble with a human sacrifice to start a pointless war when they got the vapours about the fall of a Greek wife to a man of an inferior race.
The heroic code and chivalric ideal take heavy hits in these Greek plays and Troilus. They may then be plays for our times when truth has gone clean out the window and people smirk at plain human kindness. In his note on Troilus, Tony Tanner spoke of the ‘great meltdown of distinctions and values.’ It was chivalry versus barbarism. Troilus is a ‘sour and abrasive’ play in which ‘rampant appetite is allowed free rein’. That goes for these Greek plays. And in Troilus, it is the Greeks in the black hats. How stands it with us?