The Oresteia

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

In the first play, AGAMEMNON, the protagonist of that name returns home from the Trojan War with his beautiful prize of war, the Trojan princess Cassandra. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra pretends to welcome him home gladly, but when he steps from his bath, she folds him in a large robe and stabs him to death. The helpless Cassandra, a prophetess of Apollo, foresees the fate of her master and her own murder as well, but no one understands her ravings. Clytemnestra flaunts her deeds before the chorus of elders as revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphegeneia to gain favorable winds to sail to Troy.

The second play, THE LIBATION BEARERS, focuses on the return of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, his reunion with his grieving sister, Electra, and their plot to avenge the death of their father. When Orestes kills his mother, however, the Furies, terrible avengers from the underworld, drive Orestes from the scene in a fit of insane horror.

The third play, THE EUMENIDES (Benevolent Ones), is the trial of Orestes, who has sought the protection of the goddess Athena. She convenes a jury of 500 Athenian citizens to try the case. The god Apollo, who had goaded Orestes to avenge his father, defends the matricide. Orestes is acquitted, and Athena performs the more delicate task of persuading the resentful and dangerous Furies to assume a new role as honored protectors of the family.

The first two plays reveal how violence begets violence, each avenger mistakenly believing that he or she has restored moral order in the world. The last play is more philosophical, suggesting a reconciliation between the old gods and men and a more compassionate approach to complex moral situations.


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.

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