Euripides’ Orestes and the Allegory of Hope

Gary Mathews
North Carolina School of the Arts

Recent scholarship on Orestes has tended toward ironic or even nihilistic readings (e.g., Boulter 1962, Smith 1967, Wolff 1968, Parry 1969, Burkert 1974, Schein 1975, Hall 1993).  Willink 1986 and Nisetich 1995 offer more positive readings, arguing that Greek theology and ethics could readily accommodate the dubious action.  Dunn 1996 (cf. Zeitlin 1980) sees the play as a Carnival-like outburst serving as a release for Athenians in 408 (173-74).  But even Dunn holds that Apollo “imposes the traditional outcome that the play will no longer tolerate” (170).

I argue that the negative readings and even to some extent the positive ones are overly literalist.  Reading the play as allegory enables us to see the final scene as a non-ironic emblem of hope amid the current political despair.  My concept of allegory comes from W. Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928).  The style of this baroque art form—a piling up of fragments such that only a miracle can resolve them (178)—incorporates two pessimistic views: that nature is subject to history and the human estate is creaturely (80-92).  But this pessimism was mitigated by allegory’s arbitrariness, which could render evil illusory while evoking a vision of redemption amid death and decline.  It thus sustained hope in a world seen as hopelessly evil.

Many scholars have called attention to the repeated breakdowns in the action of Orestes.  Euripides represents these fragmentary actions as a subjection of history to nature, specifically human: anthrôpou phusis (3).  Hall 1993 argues that references to theories of Empedocles and other phusikoi envision the action of the play (and the underlying historical myth) as subject to a natural law of ceaseless alternation of love and strife.  But Hall’s conclusion that “real life cannot be controlled like a literary narrative” and only in the world of drama can the deus ex machina “intervene in the laws of nature and abolish . . . the cosmic principle of strife” (284-85) takes Apollo’s intervention, and the play as a whole, too literally.  It is also only in the world of drama that the conflict between love and strife has been presented from the start.  The drama treats Empedocles’ theory not as cosmic truth, but an arbitrary projection of polis life onto the universe and back again, i.e., as an allegory that reduces world to idea.  Apollo’s intervention reasserts the poet’s claim to render the world as idea.  Reference to Apollo’s role is constant early in the play.  At the end the god says he forced (1665 exênangkasa) Orestes to kill his mother.  Apollo (with the other gods: 1633-35, 1639-42) has been prime mover of love and strife all along.  Thus the traditional symbols of ultimate reality, the gods, are subsumed into an allegorized phusis, seen at first in the pessimistic view of the phusikoi, then at the end in the poet’s revision of this view to allow for miraculous salvation.  The deus ex machina is an allegorical rereading of Empedoclean phusis expressing hope, rather than a literal plot turn whose gratuitousness irony cannot tolerate.

Allegory reads meaning into the world by arbitrarily correlating heterogeneous levels, e.g. history (human and divine) and nature (A. Fletcher, Allegory, 1964: 115-16).  It can damn the world, or see it as irredeemable and redeem it anyway.  This need not be ironic.  It may be the only hope amid despair.  It may have been the only way Euripides could go on working in 408.

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]