The Conscience as Justice: Guilt in The Oresteia

Sarah Gustafson

Sarah Gustafson (class of 2014) is from Wilton, Connecticut. Though Sarah has not yet declared a major, she hopes that her academic career will reflect and incorporate her love of ancient and modern languages and literature and also international studies. This past summer, with a national grant from the Sons of Italy Foundation, she studied in Italy to further these passions. A Belk Scholar, outside the classroom, Sarah is a Chidsey Leadership Fellow, 2011 Chair of the Student Government Elections Council, a CatsConnect Mentor, a 2011 Orientation Team Member, and lifelong ballerina. Her writing has been included in Davidson Collects: One Hundred Writers Respond to Art. She was also honored as a U.S. Department of Education Presidential Scholar in 2010. Sarah is an enthusiastic student in the Humanities Program in Western Civilization. Her essay was written for Professor Hansford Epes’s Humanities 150.

Aeschylus’ The Oresteia debates what is just and from what source or authority that ideal emanates, a debate which is modified and clarified by the trials of Clytemnestra and Orestes. While the queen embraces humans’ power to enact and shape justice, her son dwells on its root in divinity. However, they each doubt the righteousness of their murderous deeds, and their ensuing need to justify them reveals a greater truth. Aeschylus presents the need for justification as itself a form of justice because it shows their guilt–the painful, personal punishment caused by conflicted conscience. The conscience, Aeschylus suggests, ultimately brings judgment on us all.

Clytemnestra takes responsibility for Agamemnon’s murder with the conviction that humans must make justice for themselves, despite all ramifications and punishments. At the end of Agamemnon, she willingly resigns herself to suffer those consequences, yet begs her lover Aegisthus “No more, my dearest/No more grief”1 Exhausted by the House of Atreus’ cycle of violence and orestia11-150x150 The Conscience as Justice: Guilt in The Oresteiavengeance, to which they both contributed, she stresses that without more carnage they still “have too much to reap/Right here.” [emphasis added]2 Clytemnestra strengthens the agricultural metaphor into an apt one for the cycle of justice. She calls the consequences of murder “our mighty harvest of despair,”[emphasis added], a description which displays her great foresight into the ebb and flow of retribution.3 Just as currently “[Their] lives are based on pain,” she acknowledges that the harvest will yield troubles for years to come.4 Justice, like farming across the seasons, follows cycles: the Chorus’ condemnation, Orestes’ retribution, and her own personal pain will continue to revisit Clytemnestra. She knows she cannot escape the fruits of her deeds or the seeds she has sown. By showing the queen as understanding and accepting her place as victor and victim in the tragic cycle of the Atrides, Aeschylus renders her philosophy more accessible and herself more sympathetic to the audience.

The conscience, Aeschylus suggests, ultimately brings justice on us all.

At this point, the queen moves to address her audience, the Chorus, and further alludes to the cyclical nature of justice with the logic of action-reaction. She reminds the elders that any vengeance by them would meet equal pain: “turn for home before you act/and suffer for it.”5 Her next claim, “What we did was destiny,” abruptly and uncharacteristically shifts the emphasis from human to divine.6 Yet were she able to explain even part of her actions as destiny, she would seem less responsible; the status of a manipulated player might soften the elders’ scorn and, more importantly, boost her own morale. Clytemnestra feels guilty, a sensation which shines through the façade of her rejoicing in her own accomplishments. Her boast that “If [she and Aegisthus] could end the suffering, how [they] would rejoice” reflects such a conflicted psyche.7 Here, apparent joy contrasts with self-doubt; although they rejoice in the death of Agamemnon, could and would suggest their ultimate inability to control any cycle of violence. Clytemnestra wonders how responsible and guilty she actually is, and how guilty she wants to consider herself. Though she asks the elders, “Can you accept the truth?” neither she nor they know the truth.8 With this ambiguity, Aeschylus softens Clytemnestra from a wronged, headstrong vigilante, filled to the brim with her beliefs to a woman conflicted in the aftermath of a terrible deed.

In contrast to his mother’s convictions, Orestes, in The Libation Bearers, attributes his deeds more to divine than human influence. Yet he emphasizes divinity’s “tremendous power” to such an extent that he reveals his own insecurity over the righteousness of murdering his mother.9 To start, he boldly asserts that “Apollo will never fail [him]”10 because “his oracle charges [him]/to see this trial through.”11 The justification of a divine mission and Apollo’s pledged support encourage Orestes, but that support is conditional. “His voice ringing with winters of disaster,”12 the god incites terror in Orestes, who claims Apollo will “[pierce] the heart within [him]. . ./unless [he hunts] down my father’s murderers.”13 Based on that characterization of Apollo, Orestes must murder his mother and Aegisthus out of fear for his life as much a out of anger or justice. Apollo’s threat corrupts his otherwise “pure” motives, so Orestes disguises blackmail with self-righteous indignation: “they destroyed my birthright.”14 By rationalizing murder both as a god’s order and as a rightful course of action for any good man, Orestes displays sensitivity to the weight of his coming deeds.

Orestes’ sensitivity enables self-reproach and guilt from both Apollo and his conscience. Though he accepts the thundering order to “Gore [Clytemnestra and Aegisthus] like a bull. . .or pay their debt/with your own life,” like any man, Orestes has fears. Specifically, he fears Apollo’s threat of “one long career of pain.”15 By inserting the issue of self-preservation into the murders of his mother and her lover, Aeschylus emphasizes the multiple levels of guilt which Orestes feels. he orestia11-150x150 The Conscience as Justice: Guilt in The Oresteiasuffers from divine pressure to murder and suffers under the weight of premeditated matricide. He suffers from the truth that he would equally regret murder and the failure to avenge his father through murder; Orestes must choose between killing his own blood and living as a coward, with no “refuge, none to take[him] in/a pariah, reviled.”16 His burdened conscience independently anticipates the “madness [and]. . .terror.”17 Apollo’s vow creates turmoil; the deeds Apollo asks of Orestes are as much conflicts of divided loyalties as they are of justice. Orestes doubts himself and so lives in a state of guilt like his mother, proving the inescapability of the conscience.

Despite Clytemnestra’s and Orestes’ philosophical differences over the source of justice’s authority, the pair suffers the same punishment. The former’s emphasis on the tie between humanity and justice and the latter’s bequeathing of justice to divinity do little in the grand scheme to give them impunity; neither conviction cleanses them completely. The mother and son desperately try to justify their deeds, as they seek approval and closure as much from society as from their own consciences. Through that tension, Aeschylus reveals the most original form of justice: guilt, the soul’s punishment. Like the harshest judge, it is scarcely mollified by intent or inspiration. Condemning its creator, the phenomenon haunts anyone who doubts his choices, whether they are condoned by men or by gods. Thus, Aeschylus suggests that only a truly just action produces no guilt. Our consciences are the preliminary and most powerful courts of law.


Aeschylus. The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1984.

  1. Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. trans. Robert Fagles, (New York: Penguin, 1984), 1688-9. []
  2. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 189-90. []
  3. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1690. []
  4. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1671. []
  5. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1692-3. []
  6. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1693. []
  7. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1693. []
  8. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1696. []
  9. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 274. []
  10. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 272. []
  11. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 273-4. []
  12. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 276. []
  13. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 277. []
  14. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 279. []
  15. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 281. []
  16. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 299-300. []
  17. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, 293-4. []