Revenge in the Ancient Greek


On the whole, the plot of Antigone is far milder than that of Agamemnon, where there is little sense of the main characters understanding the error of their ways. Whereas Clytaemestra's ambition blinds her to her own mistakes, Creon, the new king of Thebes in Antigone, begins his reign by doing what he believes is necessary to establish his rule. When he is defied by Antigone, however, his drive for justice is so strong that he is blind to all advice to the contrary. As a final outcome, he loses both his wife and son, while he never has the opportunity to repair the damage he has done to the lives of Antigone and Ismene.

In this play, the focus on revenge is far less prominent than a sense of respect for the gods and ancestry. Because Creon would not honor Antigone's wish to honor the body of her brother according to her ancestral customs, he ends the play a broken man, utterly alone in the world. He is still king, but he has nothing left that brought meaning to his kingship. Rather than revenge, the play is therefore a warning against defying the customs established by the ancestry, regardless of the motive behind it.

The play Medea probably offers the most extreme of revenge themes. The play opens with Jason's betrayal of Medea, his wife and mother to his two children by taking another wife. Regardless of all Medea did for him in an attempt to win him the throne, the whole family is exiled for murdering the king. One might regard it as an act of revenge that Jason took a new wife, although this is not the central revenge of the play. After Jason's betrayal, it is Medea that plots revenge, and it is her revenge that also removes everything she cares for from her. After securing her own freedom in the form of protection by Aetreus, and old friend and king, Medea vows to kill not only Jason's new bride and the bride's father, but also her own children. This final extreme action is justified by her wish to wound Jason, but also to protect the children from harm at the hands of her enemies. Of course, the Chorus is completely against this plan and begs her to reconsider. Medea's violent heart, however, is set upon revenge. She succeeds. Jason finds her and her murdered children in a chariot drawn by dragons. She mocks him and they both blame the other for what has happened. There is no remorse on either side.

In contrast to the other plays discussed above, Medea's revenge is solely personal. She makes no attempt to justify it either morally, as Achilles did, or from a divine viewpoint, like Clytaemestra. She is simply angry and this anger drives her towards actions that are the highpoint of extreme. Medea escapes with her life, but with nothing else. As such, her revenge is complete, violent, and brings nobody anything but pain. In terms of ancestry, Medea defies not only her bond with her children, but also all sense of tradition and her own bonds with her family at home. The way in which she murders without remorse to help Jason shows her as a person without any regard for family or ancestral bonds. What she wants or needs take precedence above all else.

Although some ancient literature places more emphasis on the revenge theme while others are more focused upon implicating the wisdom of ancestry and adhering to custom, the general implication in all these plays appear to be that revenge leads only further blood, pain, and loss. The resulting feeling is almost never one of satisfaction. In Clytaemestra's case, she has the satisfaction of ascending to the throne with a new husband and king, but her child is still dead and there is always the fear of further revenge for the deaths she has caused. Even when there is remorse and repentance, as in the case of Creon in Thebes, the loss created by vengeful actions remains complete. Hence, revenge is generally regarded as a less desirable action than an adherence to ancestry and listening to…