Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 1320 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Definitive 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...
(The entire section is 1224 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1477 words.)