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The play tells the story of how King Agamemnon was murdered by his wife and Aegistheus fifteen years prior, and how the people of the city (The Argives) knew what would happen but did nothing to prevent it, and as a punishment, the gods sent in Flies to torment the city. Since the murder the Argives have been living in remorse and have been attempting to atone for their sins. The play continues to show how Orestes, the long-lost son of King Agamemnon, tries to tell the people of Argos that they do not need to live in remorse, and with the help of his sister Electra they set out to kill the present king and queen who were guilty of overthrowing and murdering their parents. After the murder, Electra begins to feel remorseful for the crime that she and her brother committed, and as an act to escape her guilt she hands herself over to the torturers. Jupiter enters at that time and proposes to the siblings that he will give them salvation and the throne of Argos if they repent their crime, Orestes however, refuses. The final part of the play describes how Jupiter tells Orestes he is completely alone and how he has violated the laws of the gods, causing Orestes to respond that he is free and that he can follow only his own laws, even if it means that he must be alone forever. Electra rejects Orestes and follows Jupiter, whilst Orestes himself explains to the Argives that he is their rightful king and has come to free them, taking their remorse and the flies upon himself and that they must not learn to create their lives in freedom. He walks away and the flies follow his trail.
The main theme used in this play is that of freedom, with Orestes being the tool in which to express Sartre's philosophy. Sartre describes freedom as this ability to invent new values and to create oneself and one's own world. Orestes is the only character within the play that understands this idea of freedom, as the other inhabitants of Argos answer to the 'God' Jupiter, and in Act Two Scene 1 he makes his decision to kill the King and Queen and acts upon it in scene 2, underlying Sartre's definition of freedom, which involves 'both a choice and an action based on that choice'. At present, it can be argued humans do not live up to this idea of complete freedom; they follow orders from 'the powers that be' and live in this herd-like state which the philosopher Nietzsche describes. This idea of man being like herded animals describes how people follow orders and continue to go with the flow, in this case it is what Jupiter decides, and Sartre argues that this is what is wrong with society and how it limits the human potential. Within this play Jupiter is the tool in which Sartre uses to explain how the way we live our lives is not down to natural conditions, they are not down to laws of nature but it is up to us and we are free to change them.
Another equally important theme present in Sartre's play is 'Responsibility and Guilt'. Responsibility can be related wither to guilt or freedom, Jupiter tells the Argives that they are responsible for their sins and must spend their lives repenting what they did. Whilst Orestes decides to rotate this view of responsibility and suggest one will only feel guilty for their actions if they fail to take responsibility and regret what they did. Sartre portrays guilt to be something that occurs when an individual judges their actions against what is considered to be the social norm, he continues with this portrayal and adds that if an individual acts freely then they cannot feel guilty. In the play Orestes takes full responsibility, he turns down the offer of the freedom if he repents his actions, yet he does not and as a result of that he feels his actions were right as he acted with his free decision. In the opposite to that Electra refuses to take her share of the responsibility in killing the King and Queen and as a result she is tormented by guilt and in an attempt to shift blame of her she accuses Orestes of the crime and the running of her innocence. This idea of responsibility and guilt is still very much around in the modern day society; Sykes and Matza (1957) would describe the way that Electra behaves as a technique of neutralisation, something which many individuals who have committed crimes partake in. Techniques of neutralisation is the term to describe how individuals shift the blame and clear their conscience by blaming other individuals for their actions. For instance, if an individual commits internet fraud, either by stealing money from accounts or even just downloading music illegally, often there defence is no-one got hurt. Because in this example, there are no victims present when this crime takes place, the offender will try to neutralise his part in the crime in an attempt to reduce his/her feelings of responsibility. Interestingly this idea of responsibility and guilt, portrayed in this play, coincides with another one of Sartre's theories; 'Existence before Essence'. This term describes how Sartre believes we as individuals cannot shift blame on to other people for our actions as we as humans have complete control over what we do, and we make the choices to produce actions ourselves. In this case, Electra is blaming Orestes for causing her to behave in a manner which goes against the social norm, however Sartre wanted to show that we as individuals cannot do that, and if we do, we will produce this feeling of guilt and responsibility.
Sartre uses the idea of past and future in a bid to portray how it can shape an individual's ability to realise their own freedom. In the play, Sartre shows how The Argives are not free, how they only look to their past and the sins they have committed, and how their feelings of guilt are what is causing them to be unable to open up the new values which would be available to them.