The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Grief and Politics in Grecian Tragedy

Grief is constantly entangling itself within politics in the tragedies of ancient Greece. From Aeschylus' Oresteia to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone to Euripides' Medea, grief created by inter-familial conflicts and struggles weaves itself directly into the political power landscape of the various city-states represented in the plays of the Greek tragedians. Every character in these plays—from the rulers (Oedipus, Creon, etc.) to their families (Clytaemnestra, Medea, etc.) to their courts (Creon, the choruses, etc.)—have their actions directly related to grief. These actions are related to grief in one of two ways: either in the way of motivating the character to seek some sort of vengeance—namely by taking the law into their own hands, and extracting some sort of pain or committing murder—or by the way of having characters, usually the rulers, take action to stop the effects that they think or see grief is causing. Either of these manifestations of grief is directly related to the political power landscape in the Greek tragedies, as the actors are all figures of significant political clout, and their actions all change the political balance of power of their respective city-states. Furthermore, grief also serves as the main force driving the plot in these plays.

Perhaps the clearest example of grief driving and influencing politics and political action is Aeschylus' Oresteia. In the first of this trio of tragedies, Agamemnon, the central conflict of the play is the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War, and the hate that  Clytaemnestra has for him because of his murdering of their daughter, Iphigenia (Oresteia 136). This hate is the result of the grief that Clytaemnestra experienced from the death of her daughter that festered for the ten years that Agamemnon fought at the city of Pallas. Clytaemnestra also has motivation for killing her husband due to his return with the concubine, Cassandra (Oresteia 125, 143-144). However, this motivation is an additional motivation for killing Agamemnon, not the prime motivation, for Clytaemnestra's speech to the chorus of Argoan Elders shows her intent to seize control of the city from her husband through the double entendre that she so frequently deploys in the course of the Oresteia, saying, “The city is ours –  in our hands this very day,” and  “Let the best win out,” (Oresteia 115-116). These two lines are a part of a larger speech addressing the victory of the Greek forces at Troy. On their own, these phrases, and the speech itself, could be seen as simply praising the Greeks for their victory. However, given the later murder of her husband to put her and her puppet—Aegisthus—in power, and the description that Clytaemnestra gives of the Trojans as “victims” and that of sobbing infants, these phrases reveal the true, more sinister meaning behind her words.

In the second of the three plays in the Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, grief drives political action in much the same way that it does in Agamemnon. In this play, Orestes kills his mother, Clytaemnestra, because of her having killed his father in the previous play. The play begins with Orestes standing over the grave of his father, mourning him, and vowing to give him the vengeance that he deserves (Oresteia 177-178). This vengeance was also motivated by the desire of Orestes to return home from the exile that Clytaemnestra imposed on him (Oresteia 177), it is motivated by the order of Apollo to get vengeance for Clytaemnestra's actions (Oresteia 191), and it is motivated by the Orestes' desire for power (Oresteia 198). However, the visceral opening of the play gives the reader the first of the motivations for killing his mother—that being the hate that grew from his grief that was allowed to fester in his exile—and the repeated mentioning of this motivation (Oresteia 192, 199) leads one to believe that it is the driving motivation behind the actions of Orestes.

In The Eumenides—the last of the three plays of the Oresteia—grief shows itself in a much different manner than it has in the previous two plays. The Eumenides is essentially Orestes' trial for the killing of Clytaemnestra, with the Furies acting as the prosecutors, Apollo acting as the defense, and Athena the judge. The trail in itself is entirely about actions that were caused by grief, and in that way, the play is driven by grief. However, the influence of grief is deeper than that. The Furies have another grief that drives their actions—that being the grief that they hold for the defeat of the chaotic gods of old (of which they are members), and the rise of the new gods. The Furies see the actions that the new gods have taken, both in their ordering of the world, and in how Athena conducted the trial of Orestes, as being unjust (Orestiea 266). This grief that the Furies have regarding the loss of the old order turns into rage after Orestes is allowed to go free, and the Furies then threaten to raze the world, destroying mankind, and all of the creations of the gods. This then drives the rest of the action in the play, as Athena talks the Furies down, and convinces them that they should protect Athens—thus turning their grief into a force that changes political power, by giving Athens an advantage over other city-states (Oresteia 271-272).

Oedipus the King, otherwise known as Oedipus Rex, is a prime example of grief driving political action in Grecian tragedy. Upon learning of Oedipus being her son, and his having killed her husband (and consequently, his father), Jocasta takes her life with her own hand (Sophocles 1 131). The completion of this suicide, paired with the Oedipus learning of the identities of his mother and his father then lead him to both blind himself and go into a self-imposed exile (Sophocles 1 134, 136-137). Both of these actions were motivated by the grief that both Jocasta and Oedipus felt. Granted, this grief is in both instances mixed with guilt and a whole range of emotions—most of which are difficult to put a name to. However, with both Jocasta and Oedipus, I posit that grief is the main emotion, and therefor the driving motivation, for their actions.

In contrast to Oedipus Rex, Sophocles' Antigone has grief not only drive political action, but the plot of the play itself. The play begins in the aftermath of the brutal Thebian civil war that took place after Oedipus went into exile between his two sons—Eteocles and Polynieces. The city-state of Thebes is in a time of mourning—both for the death of the two sons of Oedipus, and then for those other men who died in the fighting. Antigone, the sister of these two brothers, wishes to bestow the honors due to all Greeks to her brother Polynieces. She wishes to grieve for him. However, their uncle Creon, who now rules Thebes, has declared that no mourning of Polynieces is allowed, as he was a traitor (since Eteocles was the rightful heir to the throne) (Sophocles 1 22). The grief that Antigone has for her fallen brother makes her defy the order that her uncle gives, and leads to her imprisonment for illegally honoring Polynieces' body. It is clear, then, that grief drives the actions of Antigone.

However, it also drives the actions of Creon. When Creon takes control of Thebes, he is given a city-state that is in shambles. The old king, Oedipus' father, had been murdered. The city had been held hostage by a sphinx. It had suffered blight and famine. The queen killed herself, and the king (Oedipus), had slept with his mother and had killed his father, the old king. Oedipus then blinded himself, and went into exile. After that mess, his two sons then engaged in a massive civil war. The last thing that Creon wants at this point is more turmoil in Thebes. He needs to stabilize the city-state so that it can heal. Banning the public expression of grief for a rebel—and by all measures, a traitor—is an entirely prudent and logical course of action. Grief can motivate great political action, especially vengeance. In this way, grief drives the actions of Creon. Now, this is not to say that Creon was right in the end, banning the display of grief for Polynieces. In fact, the banning of public mourning of the fallen son led arguably to greater turmoil than if it had not been banned, as if it had not been banned, the events that unfolded in the play would not have occurred, and Antigone and Creon's son would still be alive.

Euripides' Medea also has grief acting as the primary driver of action for the play. In Medea, Medea is faced with an awful scenario: her husband, Jason, has left her and her children to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth. This sends Medea into a great sadness (Euripides 1 19), one that she does eventually emerge from with a vengeance. Hurt and humiliated, Medea turns her grief into rage, and plots the death of those who wronged her—namely Jason and the Corinthian royal family. Ultimately, she is successful with her plots, killing the royals of Corinth, and extracting a great deal of pain and suffering from Jason through their deaths, and the deaths of his children. Grief also drives the actions of the king of Corinth, much in the way that it drives the actions of Creon in Antigone. The King, by marrying Jason to his daughter, sees the previous wife of Jason as a threat to him, his daughter, and Jason—fearing that Medea will seek vengeance. This fear is well-founded, as she does kill them all. This is why the King seeks to exile Medea and her children, to prevent them from doing exactly what Medea ended up doing anyway.

Emotions are powerful motivators. Among all of the emotions humans experience, grief is one of the strongest. In Greek tragedies, grief works as the primary driver of both plot, and political action. In Agamemnon, grief drives Clytaemnestra to kill her husband. In The Libation Bearers, grief drives Orestes to kill Clytaemnestra. In The Eumenides, grief drives the Furies to act against both Orestes and Athens. In Oedipus Rex and Antigone, grief drives suicide of Jocasta, Antigone, and Creon's son, the self-blinding and exile of Oedipus, the creation of law to curtail the power of grief, and resistance to said law. Lastly, in Medea, grief drives both the ordering of the exile of Medea, and the murder of the the king, princess, and children of Medea. Grief, politics, and plot, it seems, are all entangled in a never-ending cycle of cause and effect in Greek tragedies.