(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Megaera, one of the Furies, summons the ghost of Tantalus to return from Hades to Argos, where Tantalus in life had been king, to watch revenge, hate, and havoc spread across that kingdom. Tantalus does not want to be reminded of the part he played in the story of his royal house, but Megaera forces him to witness the fate of his descendants.

The grandsons of Tantalus, the sons of Pelops, whom Tantalus sacrificed to the gods, are at war with each other. The elder of Pelops’s sons, Atreus, is the rightful ruler of Argos, but his brother, Thyestes, has seduced Atreus’s wife and carried her away. With them they have taken the golden ram, the symbol of power held by the ruler of the kingdom. Civil war breaks out, and Thyestes is defeated. After his defeat, he is exiled by Atreus.

Exile is not sufficient punishment for Thyestes. The fierce hatred of Atreus, burning over his brother’s crimes and his own misfortune in the loss of his wife, demands greater revenge. A tyrant who believes that death is a comfort to his subjects, Atreus broods over fierce and final vengeance upon his younger brother. He feels that no act of revenge can be a crime when committed against a man who has worked against him as his brother has. Moreover, he feels that he, as a king, can do as he wishes; private virtues are not for rulers. When an attendant suggests that Atreus put Thyestes to the sword, Atreus says that death is only an end. He wants Thyestes to suffer torture. Atreus finally decides on a punishment: He will feed Thyestes’ own children to him at a banquet.

Atreus takes the first step toward accomplishing his revenge. He sends his own sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, as emissaries of goodwill to Thyestes and asks the exile, through them, to return to a place of honor at his brother’s side. Fearing that if his sons know his plans they might lack the discretion they need to act as friendly ambassadors, he does not tell them the part they are playing in his scheme of revenge.

Thyestes, trusting the king, returns to Argos with his three sons, including one named Tantalus, for his great-grandfather of famous memory. When Thyestes looks again on familiar landscapes, he feels a sense of foreboding. His footsteps falter, and his sons note his apparent unwillingness to return. The...

(The entire section is 944 words.)