Study Guide

The Oresteia

by Aeschylus

The Oresteia Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Oresteia is the only ancient Greek trilogy to survive. (Sophocles’ Theban Trilogy consists of three plays that were actually written many years apart and never performed together during the poet’s lifetime.) The three plays of the The Oresteia are the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides (“kindly ones” or “furies”). The Proteus (458 b.c.e.), The Oresteia’s satyr play (a humorous work traditionally performed at the end of a trilogy), has been lost; it is unclear whether the Proteus would have continued the plot of The Oresteia or, as is more likely, dealt with the encounter of Odysseus and Proteus described in the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614).

A central motif of The Oresteia is the curse that has afflicted Agamemnon’s family for several generations. Tantalus, Agamemnon’s great-grandfather, had slaughtered his own son, Pelops, after divulging the secrets of the Olympian gods and stealing from them the nectar and ambrosia that conveyed immortality. Pelops, whom the gods later restored, betrayed and killed the charioteer, Myrtilus, by pushing him from a cliff. As Myrtilus fell to his death, he cursed Pelops and all of his descendants; that was the origin of the curse upon this household. Pelops’s son, Atreus, butchered the children of his brother, Thyestes, and tricked Thyestes into eating the flesh of his own sons. When Thyestes learned what he unwittingly had done, he cursed Atreus and all of his children; the curse upon the house of Atreus was thus renewed. Atreus’s son, Agamemnon, after whom the first play in this trilogy was named, sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigeneia, in order to obtain winds necessary to carry him to Troy. There, Agamemnon was responsible for the defeat of the Trojan army and the slaughter of many innocent victims.

This entire line of bloodshed, crime, and curse all devolves upon the single figure of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon who gives his name to the trilogy. Orestes must put an end to the curse, and he can do so only with the help of the gods. Moreover, Orestes stands at the end of another line, a line not of kinship this time but of vengeance or retributive justice. The Trojan War began when Paris, the son of the Trojan king Priam, abducted Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus. To avenge this crime, Agamemnon and Menelaus were responsible for the deaths of many innocent victims, including Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia. To avenge her death, Agamemnon is killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, in the first play of The Oresteia. Orestes is then bound by duty and honor to avenge his father, but to do so would entail killing his mother. Caught in this “double bind,” Orestes can escape only with the gods’ help. To end the cycle of retribution, the gods Apollo and Athena must intervene and create a new institution, a court that for all future time will replace endless reprisals with divine justice.

Seen from one perspective, therefore, The Oresteia traces the development of law from the time when its enforcement rested...

(The entire section is 1320 words.)

The Oresteia Summary (Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The house of Atreus was accursed because in the great palace at Argos the tyrant, Atreus, had killed the children of Thyestes and served their flesh to their father at a royal banquet. Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus. When Helen, wife of Menelaus, was carried off by Paris, Agamemnon was among the Greek heroes who went with his brother to battle the Trojans for her return. On the way to Troy, however, while the fleet lay idle at Aulis, Agamemnon was prevailed upon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods. Hearing of this deed, Clytemnestra, his wife, vowed revenge. She gave her son, Orestes, into the care of the King of Phocis, and in the darkened palace nursed her consuming hate.

In her desire for vengeance she was joined by Aegisthus, surviving son of Thyestes, who had returned from his long exile. Hate brought the queen and Aegisthus together in a common cause; they became lovers as well as plotters in crime.

The ship of Menelaus having been delayed by a storm, Agamemnon returned alone from the Trojan wars. A watchman first saw the lights of his ship upon the sea and brought to his queen the news of the king’s return. Leaving his men quartered in the town, Agamemnon drove to the palace in his chariot, beside him Cassandra, captive daughter of the king of Troy and an augeress of all misfortunes to come, who had fallen to Agamemnon in the division of the spoils. She had already warned the king that some evil was to befall him.

Agamemnon, however, had no suspicions of his homecoming, as Clytemnestra came to greet him at the palace doorway, her armed retainers about her, magnificent carpets unrolled for the feet of the conqueror of Troy. Agamemnon chided his queen for the lavishness of her reception and entered the palace to refresh himself after his long journey. He asked Clytemnestra to receive Cassandra and to treat his captive kindly.

After Agamemnon had retired, Clytemnestra returned and ordered Cassandra, who had refused to leave the chariot, to enter the palace. When Cassandra persisted in remaining where she was, the queen declared she would not demean herself by bandying words with a common slave and a madwoman. She re-entered the palace. Cassandra lifted her face toward the sky and called upon Apollo to tell her why she had been brought to this cursed house. She informed the spectators in front of the palace that Clytemnestra would murder Agamemnon. She lamented the fall of Troy, recalled the butchery of Thyestes’ children, and the doom that hung over the sons of Atreus, and foretold again the murder of Agamemnon by his queen. As she entered the palace, those outside heard the death cry of Agamemnon within.

A moment later Clytemnestra appeared in the doorway, the bloody sword of Aegisthus in her hand. Behind her lay the body of the king, entangled in the rich carpets. Clytemnestra defended herself before the citizens, saying she had killed the king for the murder of Iphigenia, and had also killed...

(The entire section is 1224 words.)

The Oresteia Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Agamemnon. Clytemnestra’s watchman spies a beacon signaling victory for the Greek army at Troy. Hoping that Agamemnon will restore order in Argos, the watchman leaves to inform Clytemnestra.

The chorus, the old men of Argos, laments the ten-year war against Troy and questions whether or not it was justified. It was fought for Helen, Clytemnestra’s sister and the wife of Agamemnon’s brother, Menalaus, who was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris. Although Paris violated a guest’s obligations in stealing Helen, she was unworthy of the anguish caused by the war. The brothers’ attack wedded Greeks and Trojans in spilled blood, with the first sacrifice being Clytemnestra’s innocent daughter, Iphigenia. When the Greek fleet was beached at Aulis, a prophet named Calacas said the goddess Artemis had demanded Iphigenia as the price of reaching Troy. Agamemnon had complied. Now, as Clytemnestra lays offerings at her altars, the chorus, anticipating trouble, prays to Zeus for guidance.

Clytemnestra reports Agamemnon’s victory, while expressing a fear that the victors, by glorying excessively, may offend the gods. The chorus, considering the suffering the brothers caused and the curses that may bring divine wrath upon them, hope the message of the beacons is false. However, a herald confirms that Troy has been destroyed, and the Greeks are celebrating their victory.

Agamemnon, accompanied by Cassandra, credits the gods with his victory. Clytemnestra claims that their son, Orestes, was sent away because, after rumors that Agamemnon had been killed, she had tried to commit suicide. She lays out crimson tapestries for him as a welcome home. Agamemnon fears that stepping on the tapestries will show too much pride in the eyes of the gods, but Clytemnestra goads him into doing so.

Left alone with Cassandra, the chorus wants to be joyous but instead sings a dirge. Returning, Clytemnestra invites Cassandra into the palace, but, foreseeing herself entangled in a net, she remains outside. She bewails her fate after Clytemnestra leaves, predicting a dreadful slaughter in Agamemnon’s house.

The chorus is perplexed because, after promising Apollo her love, Cassandra had reneged, for which he had punished her with prophetic visions that cannot be understood by those to whom she attempts to communicate them. They know well that Aegisthus, whose father had been deceived by Agamemnon’s father into eating his own children, has used Agamemnon’s absence to seduce Clytemnestra. The prediction that the two will kill Cassandra and Agamemnon leaves them mystified. Despairing of being able to stop what is fated, Cassandra enters the palace.

Agamemnon cries out from within. Clytemnestra emerges triumphant with her husband’s blood on her hands. She admits her deceptions but says they were born of necessity and expresses her delight in stabbing Agamemnon so viciously that his blood drenches her. His lust for Cassandra had been a contributory motivation, but she attributes his death to the curse on Atreus and to guilt for Iphigenia’s death. Revenged, Clytemnestra says she will relinquish power.

Aegisthus, however, has grand plans. Intending to use Agamemnon’s wealth to consolidate his own power, he takes credit for plotting this “justice bringing day.” Clytemnestra wants to end the bloodshed, but the chorus opposes them both. Disdainful, the two enter the palace, buoyed by the apparent helplessness of their enemies.

Libation Bearers. Orestes, now grown to a young man, returns with Pylades and places a lock of hair at...

(The entire section is 1477 words.)