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  • Orestes and the Light of Day
  • Robert S. Miola (bio)

Ancient representations of Orestes drew upon earlier portraits and myths, now largely vanished in the dark backward and abysm of time. In the Odyssey, Odysseus, unlike Agamemnon, returns home to his faithful wife Penelope, unlike Clytemnestra. Athena herself extols Orestes as a model for Telemachus to imitate:

ἢ οὐκ ἀίεις οἷον κλέος ἔλλαβε δῖος Ὀρέστηςπάντας ἐπ᾿ ἀνθρώπους, ἐπεὶ ἔκτανε πατροφονῆα,Αἴγισθον δολόμητιν, ὅ οἱ πατέρα κλυτὸν ἔκτα;

(1.298-300; Or have you not heard what fame the noble Orestes won among all mankind when he slew his father's murderer, the guileful Aegisthus, because he slew his glorious father?)1

Hesiod makes the first direct reference to the killing of Clytemnestra (Catalogue Fragment 19).2 The surviving fragments of Stesichorus's Oresteia emphasize the treachery involved in the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and Clytemnestra's ominous dream of a snake.3 Aristophanes's joke about a drunk or mad Orestes knocking someone on the head (Acharnians 1166-68) obviously refers to a well-known fifth-century stage figure.4 In eight plays, the Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides bequeathed a rich legacy of poetry, drama, and myth to the West. Later, Latin playwrights Ennius, Pacuvius, Naevius, and Accius all wrote tragedies, now lost, that appear to have dramatized some aspect of the Orestes mythos. Vergil compared the raging Dido to Orestes furens, again referring to the familiar stage figure, scaenis agitatus Orestes (Aeneid 4.471).5

Such depictions came to new life in humanist publication and in European vernaculars. The figure of Orestes became a familiar and flexible signifier in contexts far removed from its mythic origins, especially in early modern England.6 Since Gilbert Murray's seminal [End Page 588] 1914 British Academy lecture "Orestes and Hamlet," scholars have seen Orestes as a mythic prototype for Shakespeare.7 Recent work by Louise Schleiner, A. D. Nuttall, and Tanya Pollard, along with an issue of Classical Receptions Journal devoted to the topic, argue for more and more precise connections between Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan stage through Latin intermediaries and publication of Greek editions, as well as adaptations, redactions, references, and translations.8 More specifically, scholars have argued for connections between Aeschylus and Macbeth: concentrating on imagery and situation, John Churton Collins drew parallels between the Oresteia and Macbeth in 1904, as did Earl Showerman in 2011.9 Prophetically pointing to this special issue, Adrian Poole entitled a chapter of Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example, "'The Initiate Fear': Aeschylus, Shakespeare" in which he wrote: "Fear takes many diverse forms and Aeschylean tragedy is uniquely rich in its power to represent fear, its symptoms, sources, objects and consequences. Macbeth is in this sense Shakespeare's most Aeschylean tragedy."10 We do not have to argue for sources in the conventional sense, succumbing to a fallacy of misplaced specification, in order to recognize deep affinities and even deeper differences.

The Tyrants: Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Macbeth

In the Agamemnon, Alan H. Sommerstein notes, Aeschylus appears to have expanded Clytemnestra's role with some significant innovations, notably her portrayal as a dominant and masculine woman, and her killing of her husband alone with no assistance.11 Horrified by the murder, the Chorus reads it as a tyrannical action and blames Clytemnestra and Aegisthus:

          φροιμιάζονται γὰρ ὡςτυραννίδος σημεῖα πράσσοντες πόλει.

(1354-55; At the outset they give the signs of a tyrant to the city)12

Aegisthus later threatens them but the Argive elders stand firm in opposition:

ὡς δὴ σύ μοι τύραννος Ἀργείων ἔσῃ,ὃς οὐκ, ἐπειδὴ τῷδ᾿ ἐβούλευσας μόρον,δρᾶσαι τόδ᾿ ἔργον οὐκ ἔτλης αὐτοκτόνως. [End Page 589]

(1633–35; So you think you will be the tyrant over the Argives, you who, after you had planned the murder, did not dare to do the deed with your own hands!)

They refuse to grant to Clytemnestra or Aegisthus the title τύραννος (1633), here meaning ruler, with the distinct suggestion of δημοφάγος, "devourer of the people."

Contrarily, after the murder of Duncan, the language and action of Shakespeare's Macbeth insistently brand the usurper as a tyrant, this word echoing no fewer than sixteen times in the second half of the play.13 Lennox remarks Macduff's absence from "the tyrant's feast" (3.6.22); the Lord says, "this tyrant holds the due of birth" (3.6.25) from Duncan's son. This son, Malcolm, says Macbeth's "sole name" of tyrant "blisters our tongues" (4.3.12...


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