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Dead Man Walking: The Use of Funerary Motifs in Euripides’ Orestes

Wendy Closterman

In numerous ways, Euripides’ tragicomic play Orestes explores, in the words of M. Wright, a “theme of reality and illusion” (2006, 41), “problematizing not only the central moral questions themselves but the very nature of truth and our knowledge of it” (2006, 46). This paper considers one under-discussed aspect of this theme in Euripides’ portrayal of Orestes. The Orestes begins in the wake of Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra, when Orestes and his sister Electra await the verdict of the Argive citizens about the nature of Orestes’ guilt, anticipating the death sentence. As the first third of the play unfolds, various characters—including Orestes himself—describe Orestes as if he is already dead. Euripides bolsters this characterization by evoking funerary ritual, treating Orestes as if he is a corpse, even though he is still living. By doing so, Euripides adds to the play’s exploration of tensions surrounding Orestes’ choice to kill Clytemnestra. In Euripides’ hands, Orestes is ethical yet immoral, justified yet unjust, alive yet dead.

When the play opens, Orestes has been in bed for six days, ill and experiencing bouts of madness induced by the Furies. Studies have analyzed the nature of Orestes’ disease, often contrasting it with Euripides’ depiction of Herakles’ madness (e.g. Hartigan 1987; Theodorou 1993). But Orestes is not only ill and raving; he is also at times as if dead. The identification of Orestes as like someone dead occurs repeatedly. For example, near the beginning of the play Electra declares “Here I sit, keeping vigil beside a wretched corpse—I don’t mean to slight his troubles, but his breath is so faint now that he might as well be a corpse” (l. 83-85; translated by R. Waterfield 2001). In addition to direct descriptions of this type, Euripides also weaves a funerary motif into the play’s opening narrative. Not only does Electra describe Orestes as dead in these lines, but her sleepless attendance on him also evokes a prothesis, the first stage of the Greek funeral when female relatives of the deceased washed and dressed the corpse and mourned while the body was on display on a couch. Other details make this allusion more vivid, for example, when, like women preparing a corpse for burial, Electra actively tends Orestes’ body, washing his mouth and eyes (220-230).

Orestes is simultaneously living and dead. In response to Menelaus’s question if Orestes is one of the dead, Orestes replies “You’re right: alive I may be, but my troubles have killed me” (387; translated by R. Waterfield 2001). Although Orestes seeks to escape a verdict of death at his upcoming trial, Orestes’s murder of Clytemnestra has already brought with it his own demise. Orestes died when Clytemnestra did.

The death sentence issued to Orestes and Electra at the trial initially begins to tip the balance of Orestes' dual status more strongly from living to dead. Orestes and Electra speak of him as already dead. But then Orestes’ perspective shifts. He no longer views himself as dead and instead seeks to escape death. At the same time, Orestes stops acknowledging the possibility of his own guilt. He turns from planning his own suicide to plotting—and justifying—another murder of vengeance, this time of Helen. The unconflicted, living Orestes of the later parts of the play, in conspiracy with Electra and Pylades, becomes increasingly violent, vindictive, and outrageous in his behavior. D. J. Mastronarde (2010, 83-5) has argued that the play’s opening scenes provide the most sympathetic treatment of Orestes and Electra, a perspective that subsequent scenes undermine. These later scenes highlight that it is only with uncertainty about the justice of his cause—ambiguity about whether he is alive or dead—that Orestes is most ethical.

Session/Panel Title

Discourses of Greek Tragedy: Music, Natural Science, Statecraft, Ethics

Session/Paper Number

45.6

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