The Oresteia (Ancient Greek: Ὀρέστεια) is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra, the murder of Clytaemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, and end of the curse on the House of Atreus. This trilogy also shows how the Greek gods interacted with the characters and influenced their decisions pertaining to events and disputes. The only extant example of an ancient Greek theater trilogy, the Oresteia won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BC. Many consider the Oresteia to be Aeschylus' finest work. The principal themes of the trilogy include the contrast between revenge and justice, as well as the transition from personal vendetta to organized litigation.
The murder of Agamemnon, from an 1879 illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church
|Chorus||Elders of Argos|
|Setting||Argos, before the royal palace|
The play Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων, Agamemnōn) details the homecoming of Agamemnon, King of Mycene, from the Trojan War. After 10 years of warfare, Troy had fallen and all of Greece could their lay claim to victory. Waiting at home for Agamemnon is his wife, Queen Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder. She desires his death to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, to exterminate the only thing hindering her from commandeering the crown, and finally be able to publicly embrace her long-time-lover Aegisthus. This play is first of the three within the Oresteia trilogy.
The play opens to a watchman looking down and over the sea, reporting that he has been lying restless "like a dog" for a year, waiting to see some sort of signal confirming a Greek victory in Troy. He laments the fortunes of the house, but promises to keep silent: "A huge ox has stepped onto my tongue.". The watchman sees a light far off in the distance and is overjoyed at the victory and hopes for the hasty return of his King as the house has "wallowed". Clytaemnestra is introduced to the audience and she declares that there will be celebrations and sacrifices throughout the city as Agamemnon and his army return. Clytaemnestra's encounters with the Leader, the chorus, and other males within the artistocracy are a manifestation of the Sexism within Ancient Greek Society.
Upon the return of Agamemnon, his wife laments in full view of Argos how horrible the wait for her husband, and King, has been. After her soliloquy, Clytaemnestra pleads, and later convinces Agamemnon to walk on the robes laid out for him. This is a very ominous moment in the play as loyalties and motives are questioned. The King's new concubine, Cassandra, is now introduced and this immediately spawns hatred from the queen, Clytaemnestra. Cassandra is ordered out of her chariot and to the altar where, once she is alone, is heard crying out insane prophecies to Apollo about the death of Agamemnon and her own shared fate.
Inside the house a cry is heard. Agamemnon had been stabbed in the bathtub. The chorus separate from one another and ramble to themselves proving their cowardice when another final cry is heard. When the doors are finally opened, Clytaemnestra is seen standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytaemnestra describes the murder in detail to the chorus, showing no sign of remorse or regret. Suddenly the exiled lover of Cytaemnestra, Aegisthus, bursts into the palace to take his place next to her. Aegisthus proudly states that he devised the plan to murder Agamemnon and claim revenge for his father (The father of Aegisthus, Thyestes, was tricked into eating two of his sons by Agamemnon). Clytaemnestra claims that her and Aegisthus now have all the power and they re-enter the palace with the doors closing behind them.
The Libation Bearers (Choephoroi)
|The Libation Bearers|
Orestes, Electra and Hermes in front of Agamemnon's tomb by Choephoroi Painter
|Setting||Argos, at the tomb of Agamemnon|
Some time after the murder of Agamemnon, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, returns home with Pylades, his cousin, to mourn over his father's grave. Up to this point, Orestes had been living in exile, but was been sent back, in secret, by the oracle of Apollo, to exact vengeance on the murderer(s) of his father. Apollo left Orestes with no choice by threatening him with a horrible fate if he were not to comply. Orestes then places two of his own hairs on Agamemnon's grave. While standing at his father's grave, Orestes meets up with his sister Electra and they quickly reminisce. Orestes and Electra are encouraged by the chorus to unearth their hatred for their mother and pray to bring about the spirit of their father, Agamemnon, to aid them in their quest for revenge. Orestes and Electra, with the help of the chorus, begin to plot the destruction of Clytaemnestra. Orestes decides he will sneak into the palace and kill Aegisthus and the chorus, with Electra, leave for the palace.
Orestes comes to the door and to his surprise Clytaemnestra opens it greeting him. He acted as if he were a stranger with the sad new of his own death. Clytaemnestra sends for Aegisthus, but her servant is intercepted by the chorus and her orders are not followed. Aegisthus goes into the palace where he is met and killed by Orestes. Clytaemnestra enters and sees Orestes standing over the body of Aegisthus. Notice the similarity between this scene and that of Agamemnon's death. Orestes intends to follow out his orders from Apollo, but he hesitates and is reminded by Pylades that he must exact his revenge. Orestes gathers himself and proceeds to ignore the cries of Clytaemnestra and stabs her. Orestes wraps the bodies in the same shroud his dead father was wrapped in and announces the end of tyranny. However, Orestes is now mercilessly chased by the Furies for the murder of his mother. He is driven to madness and must flee the palace.
Ghost of Clytaemnestra
|Setting||before the temple of Apollo at Delphi and in Athens|
The play "The Eumenides" illustrates how the sequence of events in The Oresteia end up in the development of social order or a proper judicial system in Athenian society. In this part of The Oresteia the main character Orestes is hunted down and tormented by the Furies also called "the Erinyes", a trio of goddesses known to be the instruments of justice for killing his mother. However through the intervention of Apollo, Orestes is able to escape them for a brief moment while they are asleep and head to Athens under the protection of Hermes. Seeing the Furies asleep, Clytaemnestra's ghost comes to wake them up to obtain justice on her son Orestes for killing her. After waking up the Furies hunt down Orestes again and when they found him, Orestes pleads to the goddess Athena for help and she responds by setting up a trial for him in Athens. This trial is made up of a group of twelve Athenian citizens and is being supervised by none other than Athena. Here Orestes is used as a trial dummy by Athena to set-up the first courtroom trial. He is also the object of central focus between the Furies, Apollo and Athena. After the trial came to an end the votes were tied and Athena ruled that Orestes would not be killed. This ultimately did not sit well with the Furies, however Athena eventually persuades them to accept the decision and instead of violently retaliating against wrongdoers, constructively be a vigilant force in Athens. She then changed their names from the Furies to "the Eumenides" which means "the Kindly Ones". Athena then ultimately ruled that all trials must be settled in court rather than be carried out personally.
Analysis of Themes
In this trilogy there are multiple themes carried through all three plays. Other themes can be found and in one, or two, of the three plays, but are not applicable to the Trilogy as a whole and thus are not considered themes of the trilogy.
Justice Through Retaliation
Retaliation is seen in The Oresteia in a slippery slope form, occurring subsequently after the actions of one character to another. In the first play "Agamemnon," it is mentioned how in order to shift the wind for his voyage to Troy, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his innocent daughter Iphigenia. This then caused Clytaemnestra pain and eventually anger which resulted in her plotting revenge on Agamemnon. Therefore she found a new lover Aegisthus. And when Agamemnon returned to Argos from the Trojan War, Clytaemnestra killed him by stabbing him in the bathtub and would eventually inherit his throne. The death of Agamemnon thus sparks anger in Orestes and Electra and this causes them to now plot the death of their mother Clytaemnestra in the next play "Libation Bearers," which would be considered matricide. Through much presssure from Electra and his cousin Pylades Orestes eventually kills his mother Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus in "The Libation Bearers". Now after committing the matricide, Orestes is being hunted down by the Furies in the third play "The Eumenides", who wish to exact vengeance on him for this crime. And even after he gets away from them Clytaemnestra's spirit comes back to rally them again so that they can kill Orestes and obtain vengeance for her. However this cycle of non-stop retaliation comes to a stop near the end of "The Eumenides" when Athena decides to introduce a new legal system for dealing out justice.
Justice Through the Law
This part of the theme of 'justice' in The Oresteia is seen really only in "The Eumenides," however its presents still marks the shift in themes. After Orestes begged Athena for deliverance from 'the Erinyes,' she granted him his request in the form of a trial. It is important that Athena did not just forgive Orestes and forbid the Furies from chasing him, she intended to put him to a trial and find a just answer to the question regarding his innocence. This is the first example of proper litigation in the trilogy and illuminates the change from emotional retaliation to civilized decisions regarding alleged crimes. Instead of allowing the Furies to torture Orestes, she decided that she would have both the Furies and Orestes plead their case before she decided on the verdict. In addition, Athena set up the ground rules for how the verdict would be decided so that everything would be dealt with fairly. By Athena creating this blueprint the future of revenge-killings and the merciless hunting of the Furies would be eliminated from Greece. Once the trial concluded, Athena proclaimed the innocence of Orestes and he was set free from the Furies. The cycle of murder and revenge had come to an end while the foundation for future litigation had be laid. Aeschylus, through his jury trial, was able to create and maintain a social commentary about the limitations of revenge crimes and reiterate the importance of trials. The Oresteia, as a whole, stands as a representation of the evolution of justice in Ancient Greece.
There are many didactic motives in the Oresteia, one of them being the matter of moral responsibility. The characters in the novel often face difficulty when it comes to accepting the blame for their actions. Two main characters that are prime examples of this are Orestes and Agamemnon.  Moral responsibility is “the status of morally deserving praise, blame, reward, or punishment for an act or omission, in accordance with one’s moral obligations.” This concept, however, is not exactly equivalent with legal responsibility and so it should be viewed and treated differently. It can be argued that Agamemnon did not accept moral responsibility for sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to be able to sail to Troy without the wind interfering. This does not mean that Agamemnon was not morally responsible. Both sides of the argument stand; that because of the circumstances surrounding his actions, Agamemnon cannot be seen as morally responsible, or, no matter the circumstances, he was morally responsible for killing his daughter. Orestes’ moral responsibility can also be argued, as it can be said that he took moral responsibility for his act of matricide. However, with Apollo stepping in to tell the truth about what had occurred, that he had in fact pushed Orestes to kill his own mother, Orestes can be seen to hold no moral responsibility over the death of Clytaemnestra. Clytaemnestra is another character that is able to be analyzed in terms of moral responsibility, her premeditated killing of Agamemnon was an act of revenge and allows for us to see her as morally responsible for her husband's death.
The theme of revenge plays a large role in the Oresteia. It is easily seen as a principal motivator of the actions of almost all of the characters. It all starts in Agamemnon with Clytaemnestra, who murders her husband, Agamemnon, in order to obtain vengeance for his sacrificing of their daughter, Iphigenia. The death of Cassandra, the princess of Troy, taken captive by Agamemnon in order to fill a place as a concubine, can also be seen as an act of revenge for taking another woman as well as the life of Iphigenia. Later on, in The Libation Bearers, Orestes and Electra, siblings as well as the other children of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, plot to kill their mother and succeed in doing so due to their desire to avenge their father’s death. The Eumenides is the last book in which the Furies, who are in fact the goddesses of vengeance, seek to take revenge on Orestes for the murder of his mother. It is also in this part of the novel that it is discovered that the god Apollo played a part in the act of vengeance toward Clytaemnestra through Orestes. The cycle of revenge seems to be broken when Orestes is not killed by the Furies, but is instead allowed to be set free and deemed innocent by the goddess Athena. The entirety of the play’s plot is dependent upon the theme of revenge, as it is the cause of almost all of the effects within the play.
In 1967 composer Felix Werder adapted the play into an opera entitled Agamemnon. In 2014 BBC Radio 3 broadcast the entire Oresteia over the course of three weeks as part of their Drama on 3 series:
- Agamemnon (12 January 2014) adapted by Simon Scardifield, directed by Sasha Yevtushenko
- The Libation Bearers (19 January 2014) adapted by Ed Hines, directed by Marc Beeby
- The Furies (26 January 2014) adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, directed by Sasha Yevtushenko. The casts included Lesley Sharp as Clytemnestra, Will Howard as Orestes, Joanne Froggatt as Electra, Sean Murray as Aegisthus/Judge, Georgie Fuller as Iphigenia, Joel MacCormack as Pylades/Apollo, Hugo Spear as Agamemnon, Anamaria Marinca as Cassandra, Karl Johnson as Calchas and Chipo Chung as Athena.
The Spaghetti Western The Forgotten Pistolero, is based on the myth and set in Mexico following the Second Mexican Empire. Ferdinando Baldi, who directed the film, was also a professor of classical literature who specialized in Greek tragedy.
In 2004 Yael Farber produced her adaptation Molora, the story of Electra and her children set in South Africa.
In 2014 MacMillan Films staged the entire Oresteia for camera as part of its Greek drama series
- Agamemnon (11 September 2014) using the Peter Arnott line-by-line translation, released by MacMillan Films. The cast included Tanya Rodina as Clytemnestra, James Thomas as Agamemnon, and Morgan Marcum as Cassandra.
- Libation Bearers (11 September 2014) translation by Peter Arnott, The cast included Tanya Rodina as Electra and James Thomas as Orestes.
- Eumenides (11 September 2014) translation by Peter Arnott, The cast included Tanya Rodina as Athena and James Thomas as Apollo.
- The Oresteia in the arts and popular culture
- Mourning Becomes Electra: a modernized version of the story by Eugene O'Neill, who shifts the action to the American Civil War.
- The Flies: an adaptation of the Libation-Bearers by Jean-Paul Sartre, which focuses on human freedom.
- La Tragedie d'Oreste et Electre: Album by British band The Cranes (band) which is a musical adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies.
- Oresteia (2011): an Avant Garde work inspired by Aeschylus' trilogy, written and directed by Jonathan Vandenberg.
- Thomas Medwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1832–1834 – verse (Pagan Press reprint 2011)
- Robert Browning, 1889 – verse: Agamemnon
- Arthur S. Way, 1906 – verse
- John Stuart Blackie, 1906 – verse
- Edmund Doidge Anderson Morshead, 1909 – verse: full text
- Herbert Weir Smyth, Aeschylus, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. Greek text with facing translations, 1922 – prose Agamemnon Libation Bearers Eumenides
- Gilbert Murray, 1925 – verse Agamemnon, Libation Bearers
- Louis MacNeice, 1936 – verse Agamemnon
- Richmond Lattimore, 1953 – verse
- F. L. Lucas, 1954 — verse Agamemnon
- Philip Vellacott, 1956 – verse
- Paul Roche, 1963 – verse
- Peter Arnott, 1964 – verse
- George Thomson, 1965 – verse
- Howard Rubenstein, 1965 – verse Agamemnon
- Hugh Lloyd-Jones, 1970 – verse
- Rush Rehm, 1978 – verse, for the stage
- Robert Fagles, 1975 – verse
- Robert Lowell, 1977 – verse
- Tony Harrison, 1981 – verse
- David Grene and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, 1989 – verse
- Peter Meineck, 1998 – verse
- Ted Hughes, 1999 – verse
- Ian C. Johnston, 2002 – verse: full text
- George Theodoridis, Agamemnon, Choephori, Eumenides 2003–2007 – prose
- Ethan Sinnott. Director/Set Designer/Translator, 2008 Spring Production Gallaudet University Theatre arts Department
- Alan Sommerstein, Aeschylus, Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols. Greek text with facing translations,2008
- Dominic J Allen and James Wilkes, 2009 for Belt Up Theatre Company http://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/cgi/events/events.cgi?t=template&a=440
- Anne Carson, 2009, An Oresteia – A translation featuring episodes from the Oresteia from three different playwrights; Aeschylus' Agamemnon Sophocles' Electra, and Euripides' Orestes
- Yael Farber, 2009 Molora, South African adaptation of the Oresteia
- Peter Arcese, 2010 – Agamemnon, in syllabic verse
- Alexandra Spencer-Jones, 2010 – Agamemnon, 1945 context for Action To The Word Theatre
- Alexandra Spencer-Jones, 2011 – Choephori, 1953 context for Action To The Word Theatre
- Porter, David (2005). "Aeschylus' "Eumenides": Some Contrapuntal Lines". The American Journal of Philology. 126: 301–331. JSTOR 3804934.
- Euben, J. Peter (March 1982). "Justice and the Oresteia". The American Political Science Review. 76 (1): 22–33. doi:10.2307/1960439. JSTOR 1960439.
- Burke, Kenneth (1952). "Form and Persecution in the Oresteia". The Sewanee Review. 60 (3: July – September): 377–396. JSTOR 27538150.
- The Oresteia. New York, New York: Penguin Group. 1975. pp. 103–172. ISBN 978-0-14-044333-2.
|last1=in Authors list (help)
- Henrichs, Albert. "Anonymity and Polarity: Unknown Gods and Nameless Altars at the Areopagos". University of Illinois Press. JSTOR 23065418.
- Trousdell, Richard. "Tragedy and Transformation: The Oresteia of Aeschylus". C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. Retrieved 03-12-2016 22:43 UTC. Check date values in:
- Hester, D. A. "The Casting Vote". The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR 294130.
- Mace, Sarah. "Why the Oresteia's Sleeping Dead Won't Lie, Part II: "Choephoroi" and "Eumenides"". The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc. (CAMWS). JSTOR 4133005.
- Scott, William. "Wind Imagery in the Oresteia". The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR 2936026.
- Burke, Kenneth (1952). "Form and Persecution in the Oresteia". The Sewanee Review. 20: 377–396.
- Raaflaub, Kurt (1974). "Conceptualizing and Theorizing Peace in Ancient Greece". Transactions of the American Philosophical Association. 129: 225–250. JSTOR 40651971.
- Trousdell, Richard (2008). "Tragedy and Transformation: The Oresteia of Aeschylus". Jung Jornal: Culture and Psyche. 2: 5–38.
- *Thérèse Radic. "Agamemnon", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed October 15, 2015), (subscription access)
- "The Oresteia, Drama on 3 - BBC Radio 3".
- "Terror Expess - Silvia Dionisio".
- "Fistful of Pasta: Texas Adios".
- "The Forgotten Pistolero Review - The Spaghetti Western Database".
- "The Forgotten Pistolero Review by Korano - The Spaghetti Western Database".
- Collard, Christopher (2002). Introduction to and translation of Oresteia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283281-6.
- Widzisz, Marcel (2012). Chronos on the Threshold: Time, Ritual, and Agency in the Oresteia. Lexington Press. ISBN 0-7391-7045-7.
- MacLeod, C. W. “Politics and the Oresteia.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 102, 1982, pp. 124–144.
- Media related to Oresteia at Wikimedia Commons
- Works related to Oresteia at Wikisource
- Greek Wikisource has original text related to this article: Ἀγαμέμνων
- Greek Wikisource has original text related to this article: Χοηφόροι
- Greek Wikisource has original text related to this article: Εὐμενίδες
- Oresteia at Theatricalia.com
- Oresteia public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- See the triumphant ending of The Oresteia. MacMillan Films staging 2014. 5 minutes.
- BBC audio file. The Oresteia discussion in In our time Radio 4 programme. 45 minutes.