Oresteia

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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.[1] 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.[2]

Agamemnon[edit]

Agamemnon
The Murder Of Agamemnon - Project Gutenberg eText 14994.png
The murder of Agamemnon, from an 1879 illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church
Written by Aeschylus
Chorus Elders of Argos
Characters
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 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.[3]

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 she and Aegisthus now have all the power and they re-enter the palace with the doors closing behind them.[4]

Agamemnon walks on the carpet of sacred peplos garments.

The Libation Bearers (Choephoroi)[edit]

The Libation Bearers
Orestes Elektra Hermes Louvre K544.jpg
Orestes, Electra and Hermes in front of Agamemnon's tomb by Choephoroi Painter
Written by Aeschylus
Chorus Slave women
Characters Orestes
Electra
Servant
Clytemnestra
Pylades
Cilissa
Aegisthus
Attendants
Setting Argos, at the tomb of Agamemnon

In the second play of Aeschylus' The Oresteia, many years after the murder of Agamemnon, his son, Orestes returns to Argos with his cousin Pylades to exact vengeance on Clytaemnestra, as an order from Apollo, for killing Agamemnon.[5] Upon arriving, Orestes reunites with his sister Electra at Agamemnon's grave, while she was there bringing libations to Agamemnon in an attempt to stop Clytaemnestra's bad dreams.[6] Shortly after the reunion, both Orestes and Electra, influenced by the Chorus, come up with a plan to kill both Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.[7] Orestes then heads to the palace door where he is unexpectedly greeted by Clytaemnestra. In his response to her he pretends he is a stranger and tells Clytaemnestra that he (Orestes) is dead causing her to send for Aegisthus. Unrecognized, Orestes is then able to enter the palace where he then kills Aegisthus, who was without a guard due to the intervention of the chorus in relaying Clytaemnestra's message.[8] Clytaemnestra then enters the room, however Orestes hesitated to kill her, but through Pylades reminding him of Apollo's orders he eventually did.[6] Consequently, after committing the matricide (killing his mother), Orestes is now the target of the Furies' merciless wrath and has no choice but to flee from the palace.[8]

The Eumenides[edit]

The Eumenides
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Remorse of Orestes (1862).jpg
"Orestes wird von den Furien verfolgt" (Orestes Pursued by the Furies) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Written by Aeschylus
Chorus The Erinyes
Characters Priestess
Apollo
Orestes
Ghost of Clytaemnestra
Athena
Athenian citizens
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.[1] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[1] After the trial came to an end the votes were tied and Athena ruled that Orestes would not be killed.[11] 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".[12] Athena then ultimately ruled that all trials must be settled in court rather than be carried out personally.[12]

Analysis of Themes[edit]

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[edit]

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.[13] 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.[2] 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".[13] 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.[13] 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.[2]

Justice Through the Law[edit]

This part of the theme of 'justice' in The Oresteia is seen really only in "The Eumenides," however its presence 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.[1] 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.[14] 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.[11] 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.[15] The Oresteia, as a whole, stands as a representation of the evolution of justice in Ancient Greece.[16]

Moral Responsibility[edit]

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.

Revenge[edit]

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.

Relation to the Curse of the House of Atreus[edit]

The House of Atreus began with Tantalus, son of Zeus, who murdered his son, Pelops, and attempted to feed him to the gods. The gods, however, were not easily tricked and so banished Tantalus to the Underworld and brought his son back to life. Later in life Pelops and his family line were cursed by Myrtilus, a son of Hermes, catalyzing the curse of House Atreus. Pelops had two children, Atreus and Thyestes, who are said to have killed their half-brother Chrysippus, and were therefore banished. Thyestes and Aerope, Atreus’ wife, were found out to be having an affair, and in an act of vengeance, Atreus murdered his brother's sons, cooked them, and then fed them to Thyestes. Thyestes had a son with his daughter and named him Aegisthus, who went on to kill Atreus. Atreus’ children were Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Anaxibia. Leading up to here, we can see that the curse of the House of Atreus was one forged from murder and deceit, and continued in this way for generations through the family line. To put it simply, the curse demands blood for blood, a never ending cycle of murder within the family. Those who join the family seem to play a part in the curse as well, as is seen with Clytaemnestra when she murders her husband Agamemnon, as an act of revenge for him sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia.[17] Orestes, goaded by his sister Electra, murders Clytaemnestra in order to exact revenge for her killing his father. Orestes is said to be the end of the curse of the House of Atreus. The curse holds a major part in the Oresteia and is mentioned in it multiple times, making it obvious that many of the characters are very aware of the curse's existence. Aeschylus was able to use the curse in his play as an ideal formulation of tragedy in his writing.

Adaptations[edit]

In 1967 composer Felix Werder adapted the play into an opera entitled Agamemnon.[18] In 2014 BBC Radio 3 broadcast the entire Oresteia over the course of three weeks as part of their Drama on 3 series:[19]

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.[20][21][22][23]

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.

See also[edit]

Translations[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Porter, David (2005). "Aeschylus' "Eumenides": Some Contrapuntal Lines". The American Journal of Philology. 126: 301–331. JSTOR 3804934. 
  2. ^ a b c Euben, J. Peter (March 1982). "Justice and the Oresteia". The American Political Science Review. 76 (1): 22–33. doi:10.2307/1960439. JSTOR 1960439. 
  3. ^ Burke, Kenneth (1952). "Form and Persecution in the Oresteia". The Sewanee Review. 60 (3: July – September): 377–396. JSTOR 27538150. 
  4. ^ The Oresteia. New York, New York: Penguin Group. 1975. pp. 103–172. ISBN 978-0-14-044333-2.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  5. ^ Vellacot, Philip. "Aeschylus' Orestes". The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States. Retrieved 06-12-2016 15:51 UTC.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  6. ^ a b O'Neill, K. "Aeschylus, Homer, and the Serpent at the Breast". Classical Association of Canada. Retrieved 06-12-2016 16:20 UTC.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. ^ Kells, J. H. "More Notes on Euripides' Electra". Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association. Retrieved 06-12-2016 16:46 UTC.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  8. ^ a b H., R. "Orestes Sarcophagus and Greek Accessions". Cleveland Museum of Art. Retrieved 06-12-2016 16:39 UTC.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  9. ^ Henrichs, Albert. "Anonymity and Polarity: Unknown Gods and Nameless Altars at the Areopagos". University of Illinois Press. JSTOR 23065418. 
  10. ^ 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: |access-date= (help)
  11. ^ a b Hester, D. A. "The Casting Vote". The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR 294130. 
  12. ^ a b 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. 
  13. ^ a b c Scott, William. "Wind Imagery in the Oresteia". The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR 2936026. 
  14. ^ Burke, Kenneth (1952). "Form and Persecution in the Oresteia". The Sewanee Review. 20: 377–396. 
  15. ^ Raaflaub, Kurt (1974). "Conceptualizing and Theorizing Peace in Ancient Greece". Transactions of the American Philosophical Association. 129: 225–250. JSTOR 40651971. 
  16. ^ Trousdell, Richard (2008). "Tragedy and Transformation: The Oresteia of Aeschylus". Jung Jornal: Culture and Psyche. 2: 5–38. 
  17. ^ Zeitlin, Froma I. (1966-01-01). "Postscript to Sacrificial Imagery in the Oresteia (Ag. 1235-37)". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 97: 645–653. doi:10.2307/2936034. 
  18. ^ *Thérèse Radic. "Agamemnon", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed October 15, 2015), (subscription access)
  19. ^ "The Oresteia, Drama on 3 - BBC Radio 3". 
  20. ^ "Terror Expess - Silvia Dionisio". 
  21. ^ "Fistful of Pasta: Texas Adios". 
  22. ^ "The Forgotten Pistolero Review - The Spaghetti Western Database". 
  23. ^ "The Forgotten Pistolero Review by Korano - The Spaghetti Western Database". 

References[edit]

  • 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.

External links[edit]