Sleep—it's what divides the day and the night; the conscious and the subconscious; the aware and the unaware. It's image, then, is a powerful tool for polarizing such extremes. In his trilogy, The Oresteia, Aeschylus utilizes sleep imagery to divide between those who are aware and those who aren't. Though sleep's meaning changes throughout the plays, Clytaemestra is always able to use it to her aid. Her story accompanies a shift in a justice system that defines right and wrong. Throughout the trilogy, the meaning of sleep evolves from a clear division into a more indefinite one as the definition of right and wrong becomes increasingly ambiguous.
"…fear in sleep's place stands forever at my head against strong closure of my eyes, or any rest:" (Agamemnon 14) So says the watchman, who begins "Agamemnon", the first play of The Oresteia. As guardian of the house, the watchman is fearful of falling asleep because it leaves him unaware of what is happening. Though he is awake to see the beacon in the distance, he is oblivious to the mutinous plans taking place inside the house. The reference to sleep in his speech emphasizes his lack of awareness for the evil taking place right under his eyes. Clytaemestra, planning to kill her husband upon his return, takes advantage of those who are unaware like the watchman. Because of their sleep, she is able to plot against her husband without their knowing. When Agamemnon returns home, Clytaemestra says to him "…my hearts unsleeping care shall act with the gods' aid to set aright what fate ordained." (Agamemnon 912) Just as "sleeping" represented obliviousness for the watchman, "unsleeping" represents awareness for Clytaemestra. N...
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...inia and Agamemnon, respectively. However, in the third play, the role of sleep becomes more ambiguous—it no longer represents a division, instead it is a struggle. Similarly, the third play calls for a new system of justice, one that weighs the right and wrong of each side to come a fair conclusion, as seen in Orestes' trial. Just as the clear separation of right and wrong is emphasized by a clear meaning of sleep in the first two plays, this more ambiguous definition of justice is complemented by a more ambiguous definition of sleep. Thus, while emphasizing the awareness of different characters, the image of sleep throughout the trilogy also serves to distinguish the old system of justice from the new.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1953.
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