Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2530
First produced: Agamemnōn (Agamemnon), Choīphoroi (Libation Bearers), and Eumenides, 458 b.c.e. (English translation, 1777)
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of work: After the fall of Troy
Agamemnon, the king
Clytemnestra, his queen
Cassandra, a Trojan captive
Aegisthus, paramour of Clytemnestra
Orestes, son of Agamemnon
Electra, his sister
In the archonship of Philocles, in 458 b.c.e., Aeschylus won first prize with his dramatic trilogy, The Oresteia. This story of the doomed descendants of the cruel and bloody Atreus is one of the great tales of classic literature. Aeschylus, building his plays upon themes of doom and revenge, was deeply concerned with moral law in the Greek state. For this reason the moral issues of the plays are clear and steadfast, simple and devastating in implication, especially the working of conscience in the character of Orestes. Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides are the individual titles which make up the trilogy.
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 Cassandra, with whom Agamemnon had shamed her honor. Her deed, she told the citizens defiantly, had ended the bloody lust of the house of Atreus.
Then she presented Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, who asserted that his vengeance was just and that he intended to rule in the palace of Agamemnon. Reproaches were hurled at the guilty pair. There were cries that Orestes would avenge his father's murder. Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, in a fury of guilty horror, roared out their self-justification for the crime and defied the gods themselves to end their seizure of power.
Orestes, grown to manhood, returned from the land of Phocis, to discover that his mother and Aegisthus had murdered his father. He mourned his father's death and asked the king of the gods to give him ability to take vengeance upon the guilty pair. Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, also mourned and cursed the murderers. Encountering her brother, she did not at first recognize him, for he appeared in the disguise of a messenger who brought word of the death of Orestes. They met at their father's tomb, where he made himself known to his sister. There he begged his father's spirit to give him strength in his undertaking. Electra assured him nothing but evil could befall any of the descendants of Atreus and welcomed the quick fulfillment of approaching doom.
Learning that Clytemnestra had once dreamed of suckling a snake which drew blood from her breast, Orestes saw in this dream the image of himself and the deed he intended to commit. He went to the palace in disguise and killed Aegisthus. Then he confronted Clytemnestra, his sword dripping with the blood of his mother's lover, and struck her down.
Orestes displayed the two bodies to the people and announced to Apollo that he had done the deed required of him. But he realized that he must suffer for his terrible crime. He began to go mad as Furies, sent by his mother's dead spirit, pursued him.
The Furies drove Orestes from land to land. Finally he took refuge in a temple, but the Pythian priestess claimed the temple was profaned by the presence of the horrible Furies, who lay asleep near Orestes. Then Apollo appeared to tell Orestes that he had put the Furies to sleep so the haunted man could get some rest. He advised Orestes to visit the temple of Pallas Athena and there gain full absolution for his crime.
While Orestes listened, the ghost of Clytemnestra spitefully aroused the Furies and commanded them to torture Orestes again. When Apollo ordered the Furies to leave, the creatures accused him of blame for the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and the punishment of Orestes. The god confessed he had demanded the death of Agamemnon's murderers. He was told that by his demands he had caused an even greater crime, matricide. Apollo said Athena should decide the justice of the case.
In Athens, in the temple of the goddess, Orestes begged Athena to help him. Replying the case was too grave for her to decide alone, she called upon the judges to help her reach a wise decision. There were some who believed the ancient laws would be weakened if evidence were presented, and they claimed Orestes deserved his terrible punishment.
When Orestes asked why Clytemnestra had not been persecuted for the murder of Agamemnon, he was told her crime had not been the murder of a blood relative, as his was. Apollo was another witness at the trial. He claimed the mother was not the true parent, that the father, who planted the seed in the mother's womb, was the real parent, as shown in the tracing of descent through the male line. Therefore, Orestes was not guilty of the murder of a true member of his blood family.
The judges decided in favor of Orestes. There were many, however, who in an angry rage cursed and condemned the land where such a judgment might prevail. They cried woe upon the younger gods and all those who tried to wrest ancient rights from the hands of established tradition. But Athena upheld the judgment of the court and Orestes was freed from the anger of the Furies.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
The Oresteia (also known as the The House of Atreus) won first prize in the Athenian drama competition when it was initially presented in 458 B.C. This was the thirteenth time Aeschylus had been awarded the highest honors in a career of forty-one years as a tragedian. No one had done as much to establish the drama as a soaring art form capable of exploring the most compelling problems of human existence. And this dramatic trilogy—the only one in Greek drama to survive intact—was a fitting climax to his life. The Oresteia is not merely a magnificent work, it is one of the supreme achievements of classical culture.
In it Aeschylus took up the theme of the ancestral curse, as he had done in Seven Against Thebes. But here he uses that theme to probe the metaphysical problem of evil. The question amounts to this: in a divinely ordered universe why are atrocities committed, and what is the reason for human suffering? Aeschylus brought all of his dramatic skill, all of his lofty genius for poetry, and all of his intelligence and feeling to bear on the issue. And he came as close as any writer ever has to expressing the profoundest truths of human life.
The legend of the dynasty of Atreus is a series of crimes, each committed in retaliation against a close relative. The murder of kin was the most hideous sin a person could perform, according to Greek morality. The blood curse was brought on the house of Atreus when Atreus murdered his nephews, and from there on the history of the family is one of slaughter. Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy, reveals the homecoming and murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and his cousin Aegisthus, who is also her lover. The second play, The Libation Bearers, shows Orestes' arrival in Argos and his revenge upon his mother and Aegisthus for killing Agamemnon. Then he is pursued by the Furies. And in the final play, Eumenides (or "The Kindly Ones"), the curse is put to rest when Orestes is absolved from guilt in the Athenian law court of Athena.
The action of this trilogy is simple enough, but it is in the way Aeschylus develops the action, with layer upon layer of meaning, that these dramas engross us. The curse theme operates on several planes at once, and it is given concrete expression in the recurring images of the web, the net, the coiling snake full of venom.
On the simplest level The Oresteia is a revenge trilogy. Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphigenia, which enables him to make war on Troy. When he returns Clytemnestra kills him in retaliation, aided by Aegisthus, who wants to avenge his father, Thyestes. Then Orestes slays the two of them to avenge Agamemnon, for which the Furies persecute him. Conceivably this chain of butchery could continue forever, if it were not for the intervention of the gods.
Yet on the personal plane crime begets crime not because of any abstract law, but because human motives require it. Aeschylus' characters have freedom of choice, and must take full responsibility for what they do. However, their personalities are such that their deeds seem inevitable. On this level character is fate and impels acts of violence. So Agamemnon brings Troy to rubble because family honor and his own pride demand it. But in the process he kills his daughter and nearly wipes out all the youth of Greece. The tragedy of the Trojan War is repeatedly emphasized, and Agamemnon is in large measure responsible for that waste of life. He is rather a monster, grown fat and arrogant in his power.
Clytemnestra is equally prideful. Her vanity is injured when Agamemnon brings his mistress, Cassandra, home. And out of personal honor she avenges Iphigenia. Also, she is tied by sex to Aegisthus, a demagogue who turns tyrant.
Here another level of meaning becomes visible—that of political intrigue and the lust for power. Agamemnon is king. With him out of the way Clytemnestra and Aegisthus become co-rulers of Argos. And we must not forget that Agamemnon went to Troy fully aware of the wealth and fame in store for him. But Orestes knows, as well, that Argos will fall to him when he kills his mother and her lover. Every act of vengeance in these plays carries some motive of gain.
We see the inevitable sequence of events. Power or the drive for power breeds insolence and crime, which brings retribution. But Orestes breaks this chain. Why? Because he was encouraged to the crime by Apollo; because he feels pain and remorse afterward; because he does not take over Argos once the crime is committed; and because the gods feel compassion for such a man, even if the Furies do not.
Now the final level of meaning emerges—the divine revelation. That this occurs in the Areopagus is Aeschylus' patriotic salute to the notion that Athenian law had supernatural sanction. God, or Fate, tempers retribution with mercy in the end. And the vengeful Furies are placated with an honorary position as tutelary goddesses. If Orestes is absolved by a sophism about paternal lineage, this merely underscores the fact that Athena and Apollo, as the agents of Zeus, have compassion for him and would use any legal pretext to get him off the hook. Man must learn by suffering, Aeschylus says, and Orestes has shown himself to be the only character in the trilogy who is able to learn by agony. Success makes men proud and amoral, but pain teaches men the true way to live. As a vindication of divine justice The Oresteia is splendid, and as a depiction of the cumulative power of evil it is unsurpassed.
- Gagarin, Michael. Aeschylean Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. An accessible and worthwhile source for the nonspecialist. Clearly written and argued, with helpful notes and a bibliography. Includes two excellent chapters devoted to The Oresteia.
- Goldhill, Simon. Aeschylus: "The Oresteia." Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A short but highly informative book by a leading scholar in the field of Greek drama. An ideal introduction to the Oresteia. Especially good discussion of the social contexts for the plays.
- Herrington, John. Aeschylus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Designed for the nonspecialist. Part 1 provides background for Aeschylus' plays, and part 2 discusses the seven existing plays in detail. Discusses the Oresteia as the reconciliation of male and female principles.
- Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. The Art of Aeschylus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Intended for the somewhat advanced student of Greek drama, but includes an excellent discussion of Aeschylus' stagecraft which is accessible to the general reader as well. Includes a useful selected bibliography.
- Spatz, Lois. Aeschylus. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A serviceable introduction to the plays of Aeschylus. Includes a fifty-page discussion of the Oresteia and a useful annotated bibliography.