[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Roth remarks on the parallels between Aeschylus's Eumenides and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, with special reference to their depictions of the conflict between old and new orders of revenge and justice.]
Two thousand years before Portia appealed to the "Jew" for mercy and then defeated him, the maiden Athena convened the world's first court of justice. She stood between Orestes and the Erinyes, who were, like Shylock, doggedly bent on revenge. She too made an appeal to sweet "Persuasion." Aeschylus' Eumenides (458 B.C.) is a play about justice, but instead of the static dimension of rights and wrongs it is worked out in dark and vivid shapes: heavy breathing, tension in the jaw and fingers, an aching to bite and tear.
The Eumenides dramatizes certain truths about revenge and justice that are also present in the Merchant of Venice (1597) in a less obvious form. These are, first, that revenge is no less a legitimate form of justice for being hideous; and second, that justice is a creation of value that has little to do with the tangled arithmetic of legal systems. Aeschylus and Shakespeare dramatize that mystery of justice that we still live with under the pale and secular name of rehabilitation. The true function of the courts is reclothing and renaming--the transformation of social hatred into social health. Two golden maidens, "the golden daughter of Zeus" and Portia, have magical roles to enact within their respective courts.
The Eumenides begins with a slow and measured account by the priestess of Apollo of the successive deities who have presided over her sanctuary at Delphi. She enters the temple and is convulsed by what she sees; she crawls out, dragging herself by her hands. Within are things as terrible to tell about as they are for eyes to see:
... they are black and utterly repulsive, and they snore with breath that drives one back. From their eyes drips the foul ooze, and their dress is such as is not right to wear in the presence of the gods' statues.1
They are the Erinyes, the Furies, encircling an exhausted Orestes. They are the material (and maternal) embodiment of revenge, called by the shade of Clytemnestra to punish her murderer. The Erinyes are revenge; they have been the image and instrument of justice from the beginning of time, and their ancient authority is indisputible--
... my place has been ordained, granted and given by destiny and god, absolute. Privilege primeval yet is mine.(148)
The Eumenides dramatizes the conflict between this authority and that of a new rule, the dispensation of the Olympians whose clean sweep of heaven had been praised by Hesiod as the final ordering of the universe.2
The authority of the Erinyes is absolute also because it is "natural." Among other things, they represent the sudden onrush of hatred that is unleashed by the sight of a person who has done us injury. Their role cannot be a matter of argument in...