Justice versus Revenge in Greek Drama

American writer, Frank Herbert once said: “Justice belongs to those who claim it, but let the claimant beware lest he create new injustice by his claim and thus set the bloody pendulum of revenge into its inexorable motion” (Herbert, 2009). This phrase, in my opinion, perfectly reflects the connotation of Justice that can be tracked in almost every Greek Drama. Although the motif for Justice is different in each particular literature work, the “main instinct” for Greek justice is the same. The leading instinct is passion driven with superciliousness, outraged dignity, self-absorption and stubbornness. These feelings have already by themselves excluded that Greek justice is unprejudiced, wise and objective. In other words, it was not Justice but Revenge. I would like to prove my point of view on the example of following Greek drams that were written by different great dramatists of those times, such as Antigone by Sophocles, The Medea by Euripides and Agamemnon by Aeschylus. As I said, they all have different motif for Justice in their understanding. Hence in “Antigone”, Creon was sure that he punished Antigone fairly because she disobeyed his direct order, which means that she disobeyed the order of the supreme ruler of the city-state. The gods punished Creon for disobeying their “natural order”, which from their point of view was justice. As a consequence, three innocent persons are dead, which is a usually a result of vengeance, not justice.

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The Medea’s version of justice is even more horrifying than was in “Antigone”. Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis sacrificed a lot for Jason. She betrayed her father and killed her younger brother because she loved Jason with all her heart. Medea had with Jason two sons. However, Jason decided to marry Creon’s daughter and banish Medea from country. Therefore, Medea was full of righteous indignation and decided to restore justice. She not only killed Greek princess, future Jason’s wife and her father, but she also killed her own two sons. She killed her sons because it was the only thing that could make Jason feel her pain; therefore she said: “You think pain in love is a small thing for woman? …Your children are dead. I’m saying this to hurt you.... The gods have seen who was author of this sorrow” (Euripides, 1993). The thing that struck me the most is that the Greek Mythology supports this Medea’s idea for justice. Medea run away unpunished and, moreover, she got married and had children again. As I remember, there is no indication that Medea had been punished for killing her children ever.

The idea of Clytemnestra for justice is also horrifying, but it is more understandable. Agamemnon sacrificed their (Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) beloved daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis for the sake of good wind to set out for Troy so Clytemnestra could not forgive him for this. Therefore, as Agamemnon returned home from the Trojan War, Clytemnestra meanly killed him while he was defenseless by taking a bath. Clytemnestra was not interested that Agamemnon did not have a choice because he was General of the Army and was responsible for the success of the military campaign. She did not consider that her husband simply became a hostage of the gods’ will, which had different interests in the Trojan War. What Clytemnestra sees was she has to avenge the death of her daughter.

Another American writer, Robert Jordan, wrote: “Although people often mistake killing and revenge for justice. They seldom have the stomach for justice” (Jordan, 2006) I think this phrase explains very well the difference between justice and revenge. Revenge is simple because it is primitive and primordial feeling; it is an eye for an eye code of justice. Justice is much complicated conception. It has to be done a lot of consideration and thoughts for justice to be done properly. Justice is objective and well-thought, whereas revenge is biased and prejudged. Revenge is really easy to achieve, but then it is hard to live with consequences, whereas justice is really hard to accomplish, but then it is no regrets. Revenge makes people prisoners of their sin, whereas justice makes people free.

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As it was mentioned, the Greek justice is driven by passion, superciliousness, outraged dignity, self-absorption and stubbornness. More than two thousand years have passed, and with the course of time the morals also has changed. What is yesterday was considered as justice, today is considered as revenge. It is difficult to compare the moral model of this ancient period and moral ideas of contemporary world. What was acceptable then is not acceptable now, and on the contrary what is acceptable now was not acceptable then. Therefore, I think that what Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus described as things that were against “natural order”, from the Greek point of view, was justice. There was divine law and human law. Nothing was superior to divine law. Therefore, anyone who disobeyed the divine law had to be punished (Creon), but those who committed a crime against human could avoid punishment (Medea). And those who occurred in the middle (Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and subsequently their son Orestes) had right for trial with human jury and Athena as the Chief Justice.

In “Antigone” Creon, king of Thebes, forbade burying the body of Polynices, who fought against his brother and his native city. Creon ordered to leave the body of Polynices to rot as a warning. Antigone vows to give her brother the proper burial not because of sister’s love, but in pursuance of divine law.  According to Greek tradition, it was against the natural law to leave the human body unburied. Creon was unyielding to the supplications of Antigone and then his son. He reconsidered his decision only after Tiresias, the blind prophet, warned him about terrible punishment for his unrightful actions; however, it was too late. This Greek myth is not about justice but about obedience. Creon punished Antigone for an act of disobedience to him, and then gods punished him for an act of disobedience to them. From my point of view, it was unjust revenge with innocent casualties as collateral damage. However, from Greek point of view Creon’s punishment was the incontestable justice. Nobody should put himself higher than the divine law of the natural order. Tiresias told him: “You went too far, the last limits of daring – smashing against the high throne of Justice!” (Sophocles, 1984)

Although Medea’s crime is far more terrible in comparison with Creon’s action, there was no punishment for her. All her crimes were against the people: at first against her father, than against her brother, after that against her children. The matter of fact, she was a sorceress as well as a granddaughter of Helios and niece of Circe, maybe it made her more superior to other human. Nevertheless, gods are on her side. There is no indication in the whole play that Medea was going to be punished for her crimes. Actually, she was punished by the Jason’s betrayal for her previous crimes, but there was no punishment for killing her children. I think for Medea works the following law: “What allowed to the gods is not allowed to the ordinary mortals”. From my point of view, there is no excuse for killing her children. Jason was not worth such sacrifice. It was bloody revenge on her part; she used the most effective weapon which was available for her to destroy him, because for the Greeks,  a son (not a daughter) was the most precious thing in the world. She was powerful and could supplicate Helios or Circe get revenge for her humiliation, but she preferred her own way and the gods, all together, had no problem with her horrible actions. It seems that the gods justified her revenge.

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Clytemnestra killed her husband to get revenge for death of her daughter. It is the only character whose motive is understandable to me. However, she killed not just an ordinary human, but someone who followed to gods’ will in his actions. Therefore, from the gods’ point of view she had to be punished, and her own son has to execute the death sentence. In the third part of trilogy, Orestes was undergone the trial where he was acquitted by Athena for the killing his mother. In other words, Clytemnestra’s action was revenge because it was her free will, but Orestes’s action was justice because the gods said so.

Thus, it is obvious that the conception of justice nowadays is very different from conception of justice in ancient times. However, justice remains a relative idea even today, and line between revenge and justice depends rather on morality and cultural values than human ability to be objective.

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