Answer: Every sin is punished but in the punishment innocents are hurt. “While Zeus abides enthroned… the wrongdoer suffers,” but often so does the wrongdoer’s children or wife or concubine. This “curse of the gods” is not unique to Aeschyls plays; it is the condition of our fallen world. Protestants in Northern Ireland cannot identify the IRA members who kill their police so they murder innocent Catholic children, at Versailles the Allies punished the German people in general because they could not punish war-criminals in particular. In the American West settlers called for the extermination of all Indian tribes because some tribes attacked them. Unless the gods intervene justice will never come to all, as new innocents are tangled in the web of revenge.
Agamemnon is what we would call a Greek tragedy of sin in the form of a family tragedy. It stresses violence in the form of sacrificing a child (Iphigenia), murdering a spouse (Agamemnon), and murdering a parent (Clytemnestra). Stressing family violence is typical in the Greek tragedy, stemming from the fact that the importance of family is such a large part of the Greek culture. Greeks believed that the most serious crimes committed were those enacted against family, ‘shedding of kindred blood’, and incest.
This is much less comforting than the Christian doctrine of the fall because in The Oresteia the gods who are asked to intervene are the same gods who pronounced the curse to begin with. Redemption for man entails the repentance of the gods. In Euripides tragedy man is the evolutionary being of modern thought. Because his only purpose is to survive at the expense of others he is inherently unlikeable.
The line of descent and connection from Achilles to Agamemnon to Oedipus to Antigone to Medea is one that discloses a kind of spiritual angst, at once terrifying and redeeming. In these tragic figures and in the dilemma of each hero’s agon, we recognize the deeper parts of our extended selves in the undulant process of purification and expiation. In their pathos we perceive our own—and we take note of the redemptive context of reverence. Their tragedy helps us to understand our limits, our limitations. Such tragedy, at once humane and humanizing, helps us to encounter and also to measure our humanity. It enables us to perceive, even if from a distance, what is called, in Hellenic contexts, a “vision of the agathon” as a dimension of a “divine paradigm,” and always against the background of those “unwritten laws” that Sophocles describes in Antigone: “The immortal unwritten laws of Heaven, / They were not born today nor yesterday; / They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.” Ancient tragedy, it can be said, has its ground of being in these “laws,” these first and last principles, the archê and telos of all human experience and meaning. This is tragedy of transcendence, as it were, with its informing metaphysic in relation to human nothingness (“I count your life as equal to zero,” the Chorus cries in Oedipus Rex) and also, in the end, to the suffering which also brings a cleansing self-recognition—a kind of grace at the edge of redemption in the country of the spirit: “Submit, you fool. Submit. In agony learn wisdom” as Aeschylus declares.
The Chorus sings of the terrible destructive power of Helen’s beauty. Agamemnon enters, riding in his chariot with Cassandra, a Trojan Princess whom he has taken as his slave and concubine. Clytemnestra welcomes him, professing her love, and orders a carpet of purple robes spread in front of him as he enters the palace. Agamemnon acts coldly toward her, and says that to walk on the carpet would be an act of hubris, or dangerous pride; she badgers him into walking on the robes, however, and he enters the palace.
The answer is clear: justice is only a mask for pride in an unjust Worland should not be sought out. Aeschylus solution to the problem of injustice is for redemption through god-sanctioned punishment on the guilty. Euripides solution is to ignore injustice. Perhaps this seems more merciful. However, Aeschylus doctrine also demands that we forgive the sin which is atoned for and demands that we do not commit injustice ourselves.
Euripides does not provide any such inhibitions on our avarice. Aeschylus demands that we look on our fellow man with love; Euripides doctrine means we must despise him as other than ourselves. This most likely reflects the Athens known by each playwright. Aeschylus knew Athens as a light of civilization standing alone for justice amidst barbarian empires. Euripides knew an Athens which was beginning to form its own empire as corrupt as those preceding it. Which view of mankind is correct? This question has been asked by philosophers and theologians since thought began. Aeschylus and Euripides have shown us what a world of unredeemed men looks like and what a world of irredeemable men look like. It is for us to decide in which world we live.