The circumstances under which Orestes finds himself upon his return to Argos are strikingly similar to the ones Hamlet encounters upon his return to Denmark. While he was abroad, his father Agamemnon, the conqueror of Troy and king of Argos, has been treacherously murdered by his wife Clytaemnestra and his uncle Aegisthus. The two get married, and Aegisthus takes over the throne of Argos and the royal household. Just as for Hamlet with his father’s ghost, the main proof of his mother’s evil deed comes to Orestes from a supernatural source, namely from the renowned Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, who prophecies that in this case, paying the “blood price” with gifts and sacrifices will not be enough, and that Agamemnon’s death must be avenged through the death of his killers.
Considering this, it appears that Orestes has a considerably stronger case against his mother and her new lover than Hamlet has against his mother and his usurper uncle. The Oracle of Delphi is not some personal apparition; to Orestes’s contemporaries, the Oracle is a trusted and venerable source, an authoritative voice of Apollo on earth, and as such is to be trusted and obeyed. Furthermore, unlike Hamlet, Orestes has what in modern times would be called the social support network: his sister Electra and the household female slaves represented by Chorus. To Orestes, they are material witnesses of his mother’s crime because they were present at the time Agamemnon was killed. They not only reaffirm for him his mother’s and her lover’s guilt but also strengthen his resolve in those moments when his conviction seems to waver.
Thus at least in quasi-legal terms, Orestes’s revenge is justified. He has witnesses attesting to the crime: Electra and Chorus; he has the legal authority to seek retribution: as an heir of a murdered man, he is to receive the blood price for the murder; he has the religious authority to seek the deaths of his father’s murderers rather than allowing them to pay the blood price. Yet despite all this, upon killing Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra – particularly the latter – Orestes is racked with guilt, seeing his mother’s Furies – the vengeful spirits of the unjustly dead – almost immediately upon committing the deed. In these moments, the Chorus’s reaffirmations that he did nothing wrong – indeed, that he has served justice ordained to be served by the authority much higher than himself – are of no use to avail his feelings. Ultimately, he essentially imposes a self-exile, although he justifies it by the need to search for true answers to the acts he has committed.
It is possible to venture an explanation as to why Orestes feels this way. Firstly, even though there is seemingly enough justification for him to seek the death of his mother and her lover openly, like a legal executioner of gods’ will, he instead resorts to deception to set up Aegisthus’s murder. He enters the household under a pretended name, even bearing news of his own death. He conspires with Electra and Chorus for their complicity in this undertaking. Chorus helps in setting up Aegisthus when its leader instructs Cilissa, a household servant who used to be Orestes’s nurses when he was a baby, not to pass along to Aegisthus Clytaemnestra’s instructions to bring his guard with him to the meeting with the “strangers.” Orestes also receives assistance from his friend Pylades who accompanies him on this journey and becomes a willing part of the conspiracy: first proof of this is that there is no textual evidence showing his reluctance or better yet, opposition to Orestes’s plans; second is that he actually encourages Orestes to kill Clytaemnestra when the latter hesitates, by reminding Orestes of the Oracle’s prophesy and saying that making a choice between angering the gods and the people, one must choose not to anger the gods: “What then becomes of what Apollo said, what he foretold at Delphi? We made an oath. Make all men your enemies but not the gods” (1119-1121). The killing of both Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra takes place off stage, behind the closed doors of the guest quarters, with both Orestes and Pylades present there, which even opens the door to a speculation that, given Pylades’s obvious complicity, Orestes does not execute the supposed justice upon his father’s murderers by himself, but rather has help from his friend. The ultimate conclusion here is that rather than exerting open, righteous vengeance, Orestes commits sneaky, premeditated double murder. Consequently, no matter how much supposed justification and legitimacy is attempted to be placed on the deed, it makes Orestes into a criminal rather than a lawful executioner of the gods’ will or even his own desire to restore his father’s honor. He turns out to be exactly what his mother envisioned in a dream – a snake that draws blood from the same breast from which it once drew milk. In Clytaemnestra’s own words, just before she too is killed: “Alas for me! You are the snake I bore and nourished” (1154-1155).
As the just executioner of lawful revenge, it would appear that Orestes should feel no guilt over what he has done. This, however, is not the case. Neither Chorus’s praise of his actions as following the Apollo’s own decree that “well intentioned stealthy trickery will conquer long-entrenched deceit” (11294-1195) and being led by the goddess Justice herself, nor Orestes’s call on the Sun to witness his father’s blood-spattered robes so as to know, in the final judgment, that his act was committed out of righteous vengeance can suppress his pangs of doubt about his mother’s complicity in his father’s death: “Did she commit the crime or not?” (1260). Even though he feels gratified for bringing honor back to his father’s death, Orestes is horrified by what he actually has done: “…I lament my act, my suffering. I mourn the entire race, for though I’ve won, I can’t avoid the guilt which now pollutes me” (1267-1269).
In the end, Orestes ends up seemingly worse than he started – still an exile, but now a complete orphan, wracked by self-recrimination – “an exile who murdered his own blood” (1297) – unable to reason away his guilt and anguish no matter what arguments he brings up.