Matricide and Cross-Dressing: Gender Clash in Greek Justice

May 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

When two men confront similar situations and meet distinct fates, the perennial question emerges. Why does Orestes in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides win redemption, and Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae die ignobly? Both address the same moral dilemma between condoning retributive justice and upholding social order. Both men witness women aggressing and doling out retributive justice, and, recognizing the burden of their sex, choose to uphold male social order. The son of Agamemnon succeeds in his quest because he remains true to his masculinity and proves rational, persuasive, and resolved; conversely, effeminate Pentheus perishes because he attempts to adopt an unnatural male identity. The Eumenides and The Bacchae demonstrate that triumph goes to those who remain true to their selves. In both plays, the abstract conflict of retributive justice versus social order becomes a concrete gender clash. The female forces of retributive justice include Clytaemnestra, the Furies, and the Maenads; the male opposition comprises Orestes, Apollo, and Pentheus, defending the testosterone-dominated status quo. As the female Chorus in The Bacchae declares, —O Justice, principle of order, spirit of custom, come! Be manifest; reveal yourself with a sword! Stab through the throat that godless man. (The Bacchae 1011-1013)Female justice of the Maenads, revealed with a sword, bursts with violent passion. Women rely on retributive justice, the “spirit of custom,” because they have no other means to realize order and rightness in their worlds. In contrast, the deliberative justice of the laws and courts are made for and by men. Asexual Athena, who sides with Orestes, tells the Furies, “Yes, I love Persuasion; / she watched my words, she met their wild refusals” (The Eumenides 981-982). Men have the ability to respond with words, to be rational and persuasive in their defense. Orestes asserts his male abilities when he enters Athena’s shrine as a suppliant. That he pleads to Athena, the divine guardian of rationality borne from Zeus’ head, showing his respect for not only reason, but also pure male reason untainted by female influence. In submitting to Athena, Orestes does not ignore his identity; he augments it. For when Athena establishes a tribunal with the “finest men of Athens” (The Eumenides 503), Orestes gains the opportunity to testify in his own defense and call upon a strong witness, Apollo. He can now reveal his powers of persuasion; he can now place the Furies, and the female cause they represent, out of their element. The Furies do not testify well because the gender they represent does not traditionally testify at all, and the principle they wish to defend, female retributive justice, cannot easily survive judging by its opposite, male deliberative justice. Finally, the jurors happen to be the best men of Athens. Orestes and Apollo almost win by default, because they embody male qualities of rationality and persuasion in a trial biased towards rewarding such qualities, a trial judged exclusively by men. Orestes gains the upper hand in the trial because of his masculinity. Although the Furies easily obtain an admission of matricide from Orestes, the fact of the murder itself becomes less relevant, superceded by a discussion of gender. Apollo presents arguments to show that “man is the source of life” (The Eumenides 669) and thus is deserving of more rights; killing a woman to avenge a man’s death is thus just, but not vice versa. The Furies decline to respond: “For us, we have shot our arrows, every one” (The Eumenides 687). These divinities shoot retributive arrows, but, in the deliberative court of Athens, rational words are far more potent. Because the Furies fail to show that women deserve equal rights, they lose the advantage. Due to his persuasive power, Orestes wins the trial. He shrewdly, in light of Apollo’s arguments, focuses his own testimony on associating Clytaemnestra with her most damning flaw, her female sex. Even his language universalizes his family tragedy as a battle of the sexes. Orestes, when testifying (The Eumenides 594-619), never once mentions his parents by name. Significantly, he states “my father” twice, but attaches no possessive pronoun to “mother’s blood” (The Eumenides, 612) in a deliberately impersonal reference. The Furies, in contrast, do employ possessive pronouns — “your mother” (The Eumenides 605), “your mother’s blood” (The Eumenides 614) — when questioning Orestes. Judging by his language, Orestes identifies with his father, but distances himself from the mother, casting her as a particularly malignant instance of a gender known for treachery. Because Orestes persuasively defends himself, Athena joins his side: “No mother gave me birth / I honour the male, in all things but marriage” (The Eumenides 264). Orestes then wins the case because of the rational powers that form his male identity and that identity itself, and his allies only add divine reinforcement to his triumphant masculinity. In The Bacchae, Pentheus fails to assert the powerful male identity necessary to overcome a female threat to Theban social order. Instead, Pentheus displays an irrationality more typical of women. He ignores the clear signs of Dionysus’ divine powers: the Maenads’ supernatural feats, Dionysus’ explosive escape from prison, the advice of Teiresias. Dionysus correctly describes Pentheus when he states, “You do not know what you do / You do not know who you are” (The Bacchae 506-507). Pentheus does not respect the limits of his strength and knowledge, integral to knowing himself. In other words, without a strong male identity or even a father figure, Pentheus tries to compensate with obstinate arrogance. He insults Dionysus with “stupid blasphemies” (The Bacchae 490), even though he may be a god. With his irrational behavior, he cannot possibly glorify his gender and save the Theban social order. Pentheus actually identifies more with his enemy than his adopted cause. He describes Dionysus as “effeminate” (The Bacchae 353), like himself. Dionysus, in contrast to Athena, comes from Zeus’ thigh, a body part connotative of female passion, not male rationality. Pentheus shows he possesses female sexual passion, though repressed: You are attractive, stranger, at least to women— … And what fair skin you have—you must take care of it— no daylight complexion; no, it comes from the night when you hunt Aphrodite with your beauty. (The Bacchae 453, 456-458)These suggestive comments reveal that Pentheus responds physically to Dionysus. His “at least to women” disclaimer does not avail him; inside, he is a woman. Ironically, he accuses the Maenads of unleashing sexual passions in the mountains (The Bacchae 222-223). His suspicions of others, later proven false, really show his inner disposition: his female nature and lust. Pentheus switches from threatening Dionysus with force of arms to conspiring with him; his lack of resolve seals the death of his male pretensions and reveals his true effeminate identity. In contrast, Orestes never wavers during cross-examination: “Yes, / and to this hour I have no regrets” (The Eumenides 601-602). Pentheus sinks low when he accepts Dionysus’ suggestion and agrees to “crouch beneath the fir trees” (The Bacchae 817) to spy on the women. He reaches his nadir when he decides to cross-dress. “I would die of shame,” he initially protests (The Bacchae 829), but moments later he asks for the type of costume. Subsequently, he emerges, coyly primping. His dramatic physical transformation shows his betrayal of the male cause. Because of his emasculation, Pentheus loses legitimacy in fighting his side of the battle, allowing retributive justice to triumph and expel the existing social order. He dies covered with the tattered linen cloth of femininity, not the durable, strong bronze of masculinity. Pentheus and Orestes both ultimately remain true to their identities. Orestes leaves a court system with exclusively male jurors; he institutionalizes male, deliberative justice. The Furies become The Eumenides, guardians of the hearth and tamed into domesticity. After Pentheus dies, Dionysian rites are also institutionalized, becoming part of the social order; society permits women certain times to leave the home and experience more freedom. The punishment of Thebes, individually destructive, brings societal catharsis and triggers reform. Orestes, through his male strength and life, deliberately ensures no true social upheaval or reform occurs. Pentheus, through his female weakness and death, unwittingly furthers truly progressive aims.

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