, Research Paper
The Role of Cassandra in the Oresteia Trilogy
“Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved. ” – Immanuel Kant, “Crooked Timber of Humanity”
The character Cassandra in Aeschylus’ classic trilogy, The Oresteia, plays a small yet acutely important role in the advancement of the entire drama. Cassandra appears only in the first book, Agamemnon, but her prophetic visions and declarations concerning the House of Atreus ring true throughout the work, and provide not only plot advancement but also thematic fodder for the audience to consider.
Taken from the razed and pillaged city of Troy, Agamemnon the king flaunts his return with his new trophy mistress, Cassandra, the beautiful prophet. Seized from royalty and debased into a concubine, the seer Cassandra is simply one more spoil of war with which Agamemnon returns. Clothed in the sacred robes and regalia of the god Apollo, though, it is immediately apparent to the audience that she is no normal captive.
The first action that illustrates Cassandra’s importance is her initial reaction to Agamemnon’s wife, Clytaemnestra. When the queen directs her to step down from the chariot and assume her new role as slave, Cassandra remains “impassive”. As Clytaemnestra and the chorus of people tell her to do as she must – assume her “yoke,” and go inside – still she remains motionless in her gaze with Clytaemnestra. She is quickly misinterpreted in her freeze as being either proud or stupid. Only once she cries out in lamentation to the god Apollo, ” Rape of the Earth – Apollo Apollo!”(Line 1072), is it apparent, if only to the audience, how much she truly knows.
The words Cassandra then communicates are revealing on more than one level. Quite effectively, she tries to elucidate to the masses the foul plot afoot. Veiled behind the grief produced by both her knowledge of her own futility, and by her Apollonian curse of disbelief, though, the full magnitude of her speech is tragically unseen. This aspect of Cassandra’s dialogue is the factual, if oblique, disclosure of plot and background. In such a minimalist production as a Greek tragedy, required plot must be construed primarily by dialogue. Here Cassandra serves the necessary function of conveying the action and energies of the offstage characters through her own clairvoyant toils. “Look out! Look out a thrash of robes, she traps him – writhing – black horn glints, twists – she gores him through theres stealth and murder in the cauldron, do you hear?”(Lines 1127-1131). As the Chorus wonders on, the audience begins to get a clearer and clearer picture of the scheming and vileness beneath Clytaemnestra’s delight in the return of Agamemnon. Quite descriptively, here, Cassandra tells her audience the gory details of the impending murder. This pre-exposition of plot supplants the actual witnessing of the deed, and serves well to illustrate the adeptness of Aeschylus with his medium.
Another aspect of Cassandra’s speech, beyond simple plot, is the elucidation of some recurrent themes within the work as a Trilogy. As Cassandra reawakens the specter of Atreus and Thyestes, and discloses the sordid history of the House of Atreus, she also makes prophetic references to its future. “These roofs – look up – there is a dancing troupe that never leaves. And they have their harmony but it is harsh, their words are harsh, they drink beyond their limit the Furies! They cling to the house for life “(lines 1089-1189). Unlike her plot expositions, wherein her prophecy applies to the immediate future, this reference clearly applies to the past of Atreus, the present with Clytaemnestra, and also the distant future of Orestes and his trials with the Furies in The Eumenides. Beyond a mere pre-cognition of events, though, her words speak more of the nature of the generations of the House of Atreus, rather than of any particular deeds. The “dancing troupe” is, rather than a cause, more a symptom of the sin flooding from these generations of blood. ” The house that hates god, an echoing womb of guilt, kinsmen torturing kinsmen slaughterhouse of heroes “(lines 1088-1092). It is clear here that Cassandra is not talking of any one event, but, again, is illustrating the deepest sordid nature of this royal family. This theme is perhaps one of the clearest throughout The Oresteia, as the insanity of seeking retribution upon every wrong becomes so clear in this exaggerated royal example.
Cassandra the seer plays a brief, yet important and necessary, role in The Oresteia Trilogy. As a voice of divine insight, she makes clear to the audience, through her words, the depravity and inanity of the House of Atreus. Aeschylus the playwright, through his adept usage of characters and lyric exposition of faults, has proclaimed through Cassandra and his trilogy the absurdity of “eye for an eye” justice. In drawing conclusions to a more modern similarity within the humanities, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative can be viewed as a modernization of this eternal concept and this particular theme of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law.” To define this work as “a classic” defines its message as eternal and close enough to “truth” that we grasp it for millennia. Perhaps the only testament to the validity of a work is its timelessness, wherein The Oresteia, as the oldest surviving Greek Trilogy, is defining in its stature.