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.)