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.
Agamemnon’s palace. Royal palace of King Agamemnon at Argos. In ancient productions of this play, at the open-air theater of Dionysus in Athens, the palace was represented by the skene, a two-story wooden building located at the rear of the stage. There, as in most Greek tragedies, place is of much less importance than space. The large central door of the skene provides an entrance into an inner, “private” space concealed from the audience’s view. When Agamemnon comes on stage fresh from his victory at Troy, he is greeted publicly by his wife, in full view of both the audience and the chorus, whose members move about in the orchestra, the open space between the skene and the audience. In this open space, Agamemnon is safe; when he enters the palace, however, he will die. In Libation Bearers, Orestes confronts his mother outside the palace, but will force her inside—out of the audience’s view—to exact his revenge.
*Temple of Apollo
*Temple of Apollo. Home of the Pythia, Apollo’s priestess and oracle, at Delphi; one of the greatest shrines of ancient Greece. The temple contains the omphalos, the “navelstone,” whis is supposed to mark the center of the earth. Eumenides opens here, with the temple represented by the skene. Pursued by the Furies (primal agents of vengeance), Orestes comes to Delphi to implore Apollo’s help in cleansing himself of the guilt of his mother’s murder. Apollo almost immediately sends him to Athens, directing him to seek sanctuary at the temple of Athena.
*Athens. Ancient Greek city-state that is home to the Temple of Athena, atop the Acropolis, and the Areopagus, where Eumenides concludes here with a trial presided over by Athena.
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.