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  • Tyranny and Fear in Aeschylus's Oresteia and Shakespeare's Macbeth
  • Seth L. Schein (bio)

Aeschylus's Oresteia (458 BCE) and Shakespeare's Macbeth (c. 1606) invite comparison as dramas in which the murder of a king leads to a tyranny that in turn calls forth personal vengeance and further political change; in both works, transgressive desire and gender identity, correlated with transgressive violence, emotional intensity, and instability, are key elements in the characterization of the murderous tyrants, and the world of the play is charged with the affect of fear. In addition, the brevity of Macbeth, (by far the shortest of the major Shakespearean tragedies), its exceptionally dense and complex language, imagery, and syntax, its hero's futile efforts to evade a mysterious, equivocating prophecy that in the end comes true with his strange death at the hands of an enemy "of no woman born,"1 and the focused intensity with which the play represents that hero as trapped in the necessities of his fears and desires make it resemble a Greek, especially an Aeschylean, tragedy in ways unlike any other Shakespearean drama. The historically and politically contextualized, comparative study of tyranny and fear in the Oresteia and Macbeth, especially in relation to the dynamics of gender in each work, can open pathways of interpretation and help viewers and readers to engage with their distinctive dramatic structures, themes, and values. The present essay focuses first on the language and representation of tyranny, showing how Aeschylus and Shakespeare construct tyranny and the tyrant. Then it considers the place of fear, including the tyrant's fear, in each play, and the different ways in which fear is a dramatically significant emotion in the minds of individual characters and, more generally, an affect that pervades the dramatic universe. [End Page 85]


Tyranny in both the Oresteia and Macbeth involves the desire for, and the unlawful acquisition and maintenance of, power and wealth by unjust, often violent means, and tyrants use this power and wealth for their own political advantage and personal gratification. Yet the audience of each play would have understood the words "tyrant" and "tyranny" differently, in accordance with their own history and culture. For example, in Aeschylus's Agamemnon, when the King cries out that he has been "struck a deadly blow within" and then a "second blow,"2 the fourth member of the Chorus to speak in response to the cries says, "It's there to see; this is their prelude / to actions signifying tyranny for the city" (Ag. 1354–55; ὁρᾶν πάρεστι· φροιμιάζονται γὰρ ὡς / τυραννίδος σημεῖα πράσσοντες πόλει). The audience would have interpreted these words in light of the history of tyranny in the Greek world, especially in Athens, including the failed attempt of Kylon in the late seventh century, the sixth-century tyranny of Peisistratos and, from 527 on, of his sons Hippias and Hipparchos, and the failed attempts by the Persians to restore Hippias in 490 and to impose a tyranny on the city ten years later. The audience would have responded similarly when, toward the end of the play, the Chorus sarcastically challenge Aigisthos: "So you will be tyrant of the Argives, you / who planned the murder of this man, but did not dare / to act and cut him down yourself" (1633–35; ὡς δὴ σύ μοι τύραννος Ἀργείων ἔσῃ, / ὃς οὐκ, ἐπειδὴ τῷδ' ἐβούλευσας μόρον, / δρᾶσαι τόδ' ἔργον οὐκ ἔτλης αὐτοκτόνως), and when, in Choephori, Orestes stands over the corpses of Aigisthos and Klutaimestra and calls on the Chorus (and in effect the theatre audience) to "behold the twofold tyranny of the land, / who killed my father and who sacked my house" (Cho. 973–74; ἴδεσθε χώρας τὴν διπλῆν τυραννίδα / πατροκτόνους τε δωμάτων πορθήτορας).

This is not to say that the Oresteia directly alludes to specific events in Athenian history or intervenes in contemporary Athenian politics, as argued by E.R. Dodds.3 After all, the trilogy is set in Argos and based on a traditional myth that it universalizes out of a "concern with human beings as part of a community,"4 not merely with Athens in 458.5 On the other hand, in fifth-century tragedy, Argos is a convenient venue for [End Page 86] recognizably Athenian political institutions,6 and an Athenian audience's association of the tyranny of Aigisthos and Klutaimestra in Agamemnon and Choephori with historical tyrannies in their own city would have been...


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