Sleep Imagery in The Oresteia
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. Not only does she know about the plan to murder Agamemnon, but she is the mastermind behind it. One is cognizant of evil it when awake, but unaware in sleep.
In the second play, "The Libation Bearers", awareness occurs during sleep rather than during waking hours. When Clytaemestra dreams Orestes is a snake that draws blood from her breast, the chorus says, "She woke screaming out of her sleep, shaky with fear…" (The Libation Bearers 535) Her fear came as a result of the realization that Orestes, her son, would harm her. This image of evil came to her in sleep, rather than while she was awake. Because she was aware of potential harm, Clytaemestra was able to act more cautiously. But despite efforts to protect herself, Orestes ultimately takes his revenge on Clytaemestra. Though dreams are not representative of perception in the first play, in the second part of the trilogy, they are seen as a definite type of awareness. Although contrary to...