The Eumenides has two prequels—Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers—and these three plays together form Aeschylus’s trilogy called the Oresteia. In both of those first two plays, revenge and justice are essentially equated—that is, paying back someone who has wronged you is considered the right and moral thing to do. In The Eumenides, however, revenge and justice are not only defined as two separate concepts, but in fact often stand opposed to each other. And, in the end, justice prevails.
Characters within the play are strongly associated with these two ideas. The Chorus of Furies symbolizes vengeance, while the goddess Athena stands for justice. The Furies seek only to punish a wrongdoer—Orestes—by whatever means necessary. They do not even attempt to explore the nuances of Orestes’ crime of matricide (killing his mother), despite the fact that his murder of his mother Clytemnestra was sanctioned, and indeed commanded, by the god Apollo. The Furies’ black-and-white understanding of the facts stands in contrast with Athena’s methodical and logical ability to comprehend the situation before her. Impartial and evenhanded, she seeks to hear all sides of an issue before making her decision, clearly displaying the power of justice.
The trial of Orestes constitutes a pivotal moment not simply within the structure of the play, but also within the mythological history of Ancient Greece. Athenians, who prided themselves on their fair and democratic justice system, considered the trial represented in The Eumenides to be the first of its kind. Thus the progression from vengeance to justice that takes place within the play—and, more broadly, over the course of the three works that make up the Oresteia—not only creates a satisfying dramatic arc, but actually represents a crucial moment within the creation of Classical Greek civilization. By leaving behind vengeance in favor of justice, the characters within the play are taking a huge step forward for their entire civilization. Their decision does not simply affect Orestes’ fate, but also that of Athens itself, where the play is set.
No dramatic moment better symbolizes the significance of this shift than the transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides at the end of the play. Wrathful, bereft, and robbed of purpose, the Furies seem poised to take revenge on the entire city. Yet instead of doing so, they finally hear reason, and decide to become beneficial goddesses who will watch over and bless the city of Athens. The literal symbols of vengeance have abandoned that force entirely, a metamorphosis that dramatically embodies the move towards a more civilized, rational, and just society.
Revenge vs. Justice ThemeTracker
Revenge vs. Justice Quotes in The Eumenides
They disgust me.
These grey, ancient children never touched
By god, man, or beast—the eternal virgins.
Born for destruction only, the dark pit,
They range the bowels of Earth, the world of death,
Loathed by men and the gods who hold Olympus.
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!
Lord Apollo, now it is your turn to listen.
You are no mere accomplice in this crime.
You did it all, and all the guilt is yours.
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.
Under Apollo’s orders I have come.
Receive me kindly. Curst and an outcast,
No suppliant for purging…my hands are clean.
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.
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!
Two sides are here, and only half is heard.
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?
We respect you. You show us respect.
But were we just or not? Judge us now.
My fate is in your hands. Stand or fall
I shall accept your verdict.
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.
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.
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?
If you would hear my law, you men of Greece,
You who will judge the first trial of bloodshed.
Now and forever more, for Aegeus’ people
This will be the court where judges reign.
Here from the heights, terror and reverence,
My people’s kindred powers
Will hold them from injustice through the day
And through the mild night.
Untouched by lust for spoil, this court of law
Majestic, swift to fury, rising above you
As you sleep, our night watch always wakeful,
Guardian of our land—I found it here and now.
Beware. Our united force can break your land.
Never wound our pride, I tell you, never.
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.
You, you younger gods!—
You have ridden down
The ancient laws, wrenched them from my grasp—
And I, robbed of my birthright, suffering, great with wrath,
I loose my poison over the soil, aieee!
Poison to match my grief comes pouring out my heart,
Cursing the land to burn it sterile and now
Rising up from its roots a cancer blasting leaf and child,
Now for Justice, Justice!—cross the face of the earth
The bloody tide comes hurling, all mankind destroyed.