The Eumenides

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Orestes Character Analysis

The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes is in exile from his home city of Argos because he killed his mother (who herself killed his father). Pious and moral, Orestes is hounded by the Furies for what they consider to be an unforgivable crime against his mother, despite the fact that Orestes was ordered to kill Clytemnestra by the god Apollo. Orestes’ trial eventually becomes the centerpiece of the play, as Athena and the citizens of Athens strive to determine whether or not he should be punished for his divinely sanctioned murder.

Orestes Quotes in The Eumenides

The The Eumenides quotes below are all either spoken by Orestes or refer to Orestes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of The Eumenides published in 1975.
Lines 64-234 Quotes

You—how can you sleep?
Awake, awake—what use are sleepers now?
I go stripped of honour, thanks to you,
Alone among the dead. And for those I killed
The charges of the dead will never cease, never—
I wander in disgrace, I feel the guilt, I tell you,
Withering guilt from all the outraged dead!
But I suffered too, terribly, from dear ones,
And none of my spirits rages to avenge me.
I was slaughtered by his matricidal hand.
See these gashes—Carve them in your heart!

Related Characters: The ghost of Clytemnestra (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 97-107
Explanation and Analysis:

The Furies sleep, exhausted from chasing Orestes, even as their prey is spirited away by Apollo and Hermes. As they slumber, however, the ghost of the murdered Clytemnestra emerges and berates them for failing in their task.

Her speech helps audiences and readers to understand the Furies' motivation, and their purpose in life. In their worldview, the dead cannot rest until they are avenged. Clytemnestra is a tortured ghost precisely because her murderer (and son) still lives, unpunished, despite having corrupted his familial bond with his mother.

Clytemnestra's appearance also emphasizes the vivid presence of the dead in The Eumenides, a fact that is true in many Greek dramas. To the characters in the play, the dead are still an active and powerful presence, and letting them down or going against their wishes can have terrible consequences. 

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other The Eumenides quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

Marriage of man and wife is Fate itself,
Stronger than oaths, and Justice guards its life.

I say your manhunt of Orestes is unjust.
Some things stir your rage, I see. Others,
Atrocious crimes, lull your will to act.

Related Characters: Apollo (speaker), Orestes, The Furies, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Page Number: 215-221
Explanation and Analysis:

As Apollo and the Furies continue their debate, they touch on the difference between the bonds of mother and child, and those of man and wife. The Furies argue that because Orestes killed his own flesh and blood, he is at fault. Apollo, however, responds that the connection between a husband and a wife is fated to be, and that their bond is guarded by "Justice" itself. (Implicit in these arguments is also the sexism that undergirds Greek society at the time—Apollo is seen as more "correct" here because Clytemnestra not only violated a sacred bond in killing her husband, but also acted distinctly un-feminine.) This debate illustrates the tangled web of allegiances that vengeance creates. Although Apollo and the Furies are each trying to convince the other, they will never actually agree on who is in the right.

Apollo also brings up another crucial concept: the idea of justice. In accusing the Furies--goddesses of vengeance--of being unjust, he is implying that there is a difference between vengeance and justice. This attitude differs from Apollo's beliefs in The Eumenides' prequel, The Libation Bearers, in which he commands Orestes to perform an act of vengeance (killing his mother) in order to bring about justice. This shift highlights the evolution in The Eumenides towards a system of justice, rather than a system of vengeance.

Lines 235-566 Quotes

Queen Athena,
Under Apollo’s orders I have come.
Receive me kindly. Curst and an outcast,
No suppliant for purging…my hands are clean.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Athena, Apollo
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 232-235
Explanation and Analysis:

Having reached Athens and the temple of Athena, Orestes begs the goddess to shelter him from the avenging Furies. His prayer illustrates his deep faith in both Apollo and Athena, demonstrating the immense power of the gods over human life within this play—and presenting Orestes as a worthy hero because of his piety. 

Orestes' claim that his "hands are clean," meanwhile, allows us to understand that Orestes does not view himself as guilty of his mother's murder. He has followed divine orders, and carried out what he believes to be justice, and is therefore free of sin or corruption. At the same time, however, Orestes considers himself to be unfairly "curst" by the actions of the Furies. 

You’ll give me blood for blood, you must!
Out of your living marrow I will drain
My red libation, out of your veins I suck my food,
My raw, brutal cups—
Wither you alive,
Drag you down and there you pay, agony
For mother-killing agony!
And there you will see them all.
Every mortal who outraged god or guest or loving parent:
Each receives the pain his pains exact.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 262-269
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Furies find Orestes cowering at the shrine of Athena, they threaten him, demanding their vengeance. Their brutal, bloody language vividly illustrates their violent worldview. The language they use also illuminates their eye-for-an-eye mentality. The Furies' logic is very simple: since Orestes has shed his mother's blood, his blood must be shed in turn. Or in their words: "Each receives the pain his pains exact."

This point of view contrasts with that of Apollo and Orestes, who believe that since Orestes was avenging his father, he does not deserve to be punished for his own murder of his mother. It is this debate that will become central as the play continues. 

Hold out your hands, if they are clean
No fury of ours will stalk you,
You will go through life unscathed.
But show us the guilty—one like this
Who hides his reeking hands,
And up from the outraged dead we rise,
Witness bound to avenge their blood
We rise in flames against him to the end!

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 313-320
Explanation and Analysis:

Having confronted Orestes in Athena's temple, the Furies weave a spell in order to trap him there. As they do so, they explain the rules under which they carry out their grim task, promising not to harm anyone innocent of sin. Their only purpose, they say, is to punish the guilty, especially those (like Orestes) who hide among the innocent.

During their chant, the Furies also make clear the close ties that they have to the dead, explaining how they "rise" from "the outraged dead" in order to exact vengeance. To the Furies, the dead (such as Clytemnestra) are just as important as the living (like Orestes). They believe that it is their duty to put the dead to rest, and that the only way to do so is through bloody and violent vengeance. 

Two sides are here, and only half is heard.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Page Number: 440
Explanation and Analysis:

The Furies and Orestes turn to Athena for judgement, and the goddess agrees to hear both sides of the story. Her measured, balanced language contrasts with that of the Furies, who utterly reject logic and moderation. Athena also differs from Apollo, who is clearly biased in Orestes' favor.

In short, in both her language and her actions, Athena exemplifies justice personified. She is determined to render a fair judgment, and will do so by learning as much as she can about both the Furies' and Orestes' points of view. More broadly, Athena's logic and fairness represent the system of values that sit at the core of the city of Athens (as the Athenian Aeschylus portrays it). A city known for its enlightenment and intellect, Athens here represents a place where justice and reason will always prevail. 

ATHENA: …you are set
On the name of justice rather than the act.

LEADER: How? Teach us. You have a genius for refinements.

ATHENA: Injustice, I mean, should never triumph thanks to oaths.

LEADER: Then examine him yourself, judge him fairly.

ATHENA: You would turn over responsibility to me,
To reach the final verdict?

LEADER: Certainly.
We respect you. You show us respect.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), The Furies (speaker), Orestes
Page Number: 442-449
Explanation and Analysis:

The Furies try to convince Athena that they are in the right, but she quickly explains to them that she is interested in justice rather than simply shows of justice. Flattered that the goddess has shown them "respect," the Furies agree to abide by whatever she decides.

This moment is a crucial one within the play. Up until now, the Furies have remained convinced that only they can decide Orestes' fate. Impressed and placated by Athena, however, they have given that power over to her. In essence, the Furies--embodiments of vengeance--have acknowledged the authority of Athena, an embodiment of (relatively) unbiased justice. This shift from vengeance to justice will continue to gain momentum as the play continues, and parallels Aeschylus' praise of the ideals of Athens itself.

But were we just or not? Judge us now.
My fate is in your hands. Stand or fall
I shall accept your verdict.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Athena
Page Number: 482-484
Explanation and Analysis:

With the Furies having agreed to accept Athena's verdict, Orestes does the same. Up until now, he has maintained his innocence. Now, however, he admits that perhaps he and Apollo were wrong to seek Clytemnestra's death, and leaves it up to Athena to decide. With Orestes' agreement, the trial begins, and Athena becomes a judge. 

As this passage makes clear, the shift from vengeance to justice is rapidly occurring. The Furies, agents of vengeance, have agreed to follow Athena's judgement, and Orestes, who himself has carried out bloody vengeance, has done the same, even admitting that his original act may have been wrong.

Embrace the one? Expel the other? It defeats me.
I will appoint the judges of manslaughter,
Swear them in, and found a tribunal here
For all time to come.
My contestants,
Summon your trusted witnesses and proofs,
Your defenders under oath to help your cause.
And I will pick the finest men of Athens,
Return and decide the issue fairly, truly—
Bound to our oaths, our spirits bent on justice.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Page Number: 496-505
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Athena is the all-powerful goddess of wisdom, she admits that she alone cannot decide whether Orestes or the Furies are correct. Instead, she decides to create a trial by jury--in Greek myth, the first trial by jury to ever take place, setting a precedent "for all time to come."

The action that Athena takes here is emblematic of Athenian values. Athenians believed in justice, but also found the ideas of community and democracy to be equally important. Even though Athena is the patron goddess of the city, she still does not consider herself entitled to judge Orestes' fate. This decision illustrates Athena's fairness and rationality, while also emphasizing the importance of central Athenian values. 

Lines 567-1043 Quotes

So
You’d force this man’s acquittal? Behold, Justice!
Can a son spill his mother’s blood on the ground,
Then settle into his father’s halls in Argos?

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes, Apollo, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 659-662
Explanation and Analysis:

After Apollo has testified in Orestes' favor, the Furies once again take the stand, mocking what the god has just said. While Apollo has argued that Orestes in fact carried out justice by killing his mother, the Furies find this argument laughable. To them, the fact that Orestes has killed his mother is unforgivable. They believe that he should be cast out of society altogether, rather than eventually take his father Agamemnon's place as king of Argos. 

The Furies' powerful argument illustrates the true difficulty of this case. Although Orestes seeks justice, he himself is a murderer, and an agent of vengeance. Apollo calls for justice, but the Furies point out his hypocrisy, given his investment in vengeance in this play's prequel, The Libation Bearers.

The woman you call the mother of the child
Is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed,
The new-sown seed that grows and swells inside her.
The man is the source of life—the one who mounts.

Related Characters: Apollo (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Page Number: 666-669
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of the trial, Apollo tries to explain why the death of Orestes' father outweighs his murder of his mother. In doing so, he turns to a common Ancient Greek idea about parenthood: that a child is incubated in the womb of its mother, but truly belongs only to its father, who provided the "seed" for its conception.

Although tremendously sexist (and unscientific), it is this argument that eventually wins the day. Apollo has essentially proved that Orestes' familial bond to his father was more important than that to his mother; and that therefore, it made sense for him to turn against his mother after she killed his father. 

It is important to note that the trial of Orestes v. the Furies, along with the ideological struggle of justice v. vengeance, also contains the age-old struggle of male v. female. Just as Apollo proves that male trumps female in terms of family ties (and social power), so too will male triumph over female in the trial (which is judged only by men), as Orestes prevails over the Furies. 

Orestes,
I will cast my lot for you.
No mother gave me birth.
I honour the male, in all things but marriage.
Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.
I cannot set more store by the woman’s death—
She killed her husband, guardian of their house.
Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Zeus
Page Number: 750-756
Explanation and Analysis:

With the jury split down the middle, Athena casts the deciding vote for Orestes. Greek myth has it that the goddess was born from her father Zeus' head, hence her statement that, "No mother gave me birth." Although she is a woman, Athena still believes that children belong to their fathers, and views men as the dominant gender.

Given these facts, Apollo's argument--that a father matters more to a child than a mother--has been successful, and Orestes wins. Although modern readers may view this reasoning as appallingly sexist, ancient audiences would have approved of it as traditional and correct.

It is important, too, that Athena casts the dividing vote in the trial. The Athenian court is as even-handed as the justice that it serves: blind and impartial. They have clearly understood the difficulties of the case, and it is up to Athena, a god, to make the final decision. The brand-new Athenian court is a fair and balanced one.

Get the entire The Eumenides LitChart as a printable PDF.
The eumenides.pdf.medium

Orestes Character Timeline in The Eumenides

The timeline below shows where the character Orestes appears in The Eumenides. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-63
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
...unseen horror. She describes how she walked into the sanctuary only to find a man (Orestes) inside waiting to be purified at her altar. He is covered in blood, but holding... (full context)
Lines 64-234
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
The doors to the temple open, revealing Orestes, who prays as the Furies sleep. The god Hermes watches as Apollo appears, swearing to... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
...she killed are taunting her. Showing them the ghostly gashes on her skin made by Orestes’ blade, she begs them to seek vengeance. Clytemnestra then recounts how she used to make... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Furies awake, and their leader commands them to search for Orestes—they are appalled to find that he has fled. They describe the pain that they are... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
...The leader of the Furies, however, fires back, telling Apollo that he is responsible for Orestes’ crime of matricide. They ask why he dares to stop them when they are doing... (full context)
Lines 235-566
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
The scene changes to the Acropolis, the main square of Athens, where Orestes kneels before the shrine of Athena and prays for her to shield him from the... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Furies enter, exulting that they have found Orestes at last. Noting that he has hurt himself in his flight, they vow to continue... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
In response, Orestes explains that suffering has made him wise. He describes how Apollo has purged him of... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
...of the Furies spits back that neither Apollo nor Athena will be able to save Orestes. She waits for him to reply, but he prays in silence—full of rage, the Fury... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
Athena enters, armed for combat, and sees Orestes and the Furies at her altar. She asks who they are, and the Furies explain... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
Athena then turns to Orestes, asking him to tell her his story, and whether he has come to her to... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
Athena contemplates the difficult decision before her: on one hand, she acknowledges that Orestes has come to her as a suppliant, and that she should show him mercy. On... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
After Athena exits, the chorus of Furies begins to worry that Orestes will be found innocent. They imagine a world in which they are powerless, and fear... (full context)
Lines 567-1043
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
Orestes enters, and Athena directs him to the Stone of Outrage. The Furies enter, and Athena... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
...responds that he has come as a witness for the defense, explaining that he commanded Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, and subsequently purged the mortal of all guilt. He urges Athena to... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
...Athena offers the Furies—the “prosecution”—the first speech. The leader of the Furies starts to question Orestes, asking if he killed his mother. He agrees that he did. They ask how he... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
Orestes begs Apollo to explain to the jury why he killed Clytemnestra, adding that his murder... (full context)
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
...out of Zeus’s head) as an example. He then attempts to flatter Athena, saying that Orestes and his kin will honor her for generations. (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
Athena comes forward to cast her ballot, and announces that she has been swayed in Orestes’ favor. She explains that she will always honor men above women, since she was born... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
As the ballots are tallied up, Orestes prays to Apollo and wonders what will happen. The Furies, meanwhile, pray to their Mother... (full context)
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
The votes have been counted, and the lots are equal— therefore, Athena announces, Orestes will go free. Overwhelmed, Orestes cries that Athena has saved his house, and returned him... (full context)