The Oresteia Essay - Critical Essays


Critical Evaluation

Aeschylus created what is now called drama, conceiving of a second actor and, thus, the possibility of dialogue between individuals on stage. Oresteia, his last triumph at the festival of Dionysus in Athens (he wrote more than seventy plays and won the festival thirteen times during his lifetime), is the only extant trilogy, a unit of three related plays performed on one day.

Although interested in characterization and individual motivation, Aeschylus’s concerns are larger than individuals or even human character generally. He explores relationships between gods and humanity; the roles of power, hatred, and love in the creation of human values; the transformation of divinity from a rigid threat to a generous force for good; and the creation of justice out of a chaos of sexual aggression and brute rage. Oresteia explores all of these issues through a sequence of events taking place in the royal house of Atreus over successive generations.

Agamemnon, the current king, inherits a family line marked by murder, cannibalism, and other acts of extreme violence. Although the setting of the drama is in the time of the Trojan War, Aeschylus’s retelling of the myth is directed to an audience of Athenian citizens. The main details of the story would be well known to these viewers; it is the dramatist’s particular interpretation and how he relates the themes of the myth to contemporary concerns that would be of greatest interest.

Aeschylus writes in a highly metaphorical poetic style, making frequent use of images. Many of these draw upon agricultural activity, and he is particularly fond of connecting ideas of growth and fertility with sexual intercourse, bloodshed, and sacrifice. Criminal acts sow more bad deeds, and the cycle continues as inexorably as the seasons or the passage of years. Necessity is characterized as a “harness” or a “net” in which an individual is driven along like a horse or trapped like a captured animal. The songs of the chorus are rich in allusions to myths and religious rituals, frequently offering an impressionistic interpretation of events rather than a clear vision of what is happening and why. The language of the first play, Agamemnon, is particularly complex, a rich tapestry of sound and imagery with relatively little dialogue; by the time of the third play, Eumenides, the mode of expression has become notably clearer, reflecting perhaps the trilogy’s trajectory toward a resolution of the dire situation that has arisen in the royal household.

The presentation of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’s version of the tale is far from positive. His disregard for the life of his daughter, Iphigenia, as well as for the emotions of her mother, are indicative of a certain harshness of character. On the other hand, his single-minded pursuit of victory over the Trojans at all costs is what would be expected of a military leader in the heroic era. The actions of Clytemnestra, by contrast, take her far beyond what is deemed appropriate for a woman, even one of distinguished royal...

(The entire section is 1256 words.)