Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
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...
(The entire section contains 960 words.)
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