Oresteia Summary

Aeschylus

Oresteia

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Oresteia Summary

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The Oresteia, a trilogy of Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, was first presented in Athens at the festival celebrating the God Dionysus in 458 B.C. The trilogy of plays consists of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. The Oresteia is the only surviving example of the works of ancient Greek theater. Proteus, a play written by Aeschylus as a follow-up to the trilogy no longer exists with the exception of one line. In the three plays making up The Oresteia the themes of murder, revenge, power struggles, and the relationships between men and Gods drive the plots in the post Trojan War era.

Agamemnon opens the trilogy and is the longest of the plays. A slave on a rooftop in Argos sees the distant fire, which has long been awaited as a signal that Troy has fallen and that the conquering hero, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and Greek general, will soon be returning home from the ten-year ordeal. The slave informs the queen, Clytemnestra, who declares the righteous warriors will be returned and the sinners will meet with evil. Meanwhile, a Greek chorus has been singing of the evils of war and of being thankful to the Gods for victory. When a messenger from Agamemnon arrives to confirm the victory, he tells of a storm along the way that took many lives, suggesting there were many who were deemed unjust. The chorus then curses the one who precipitated the war, Clytemnestra’s sister, Helen of Troy.

Before his departure to destroy the city of Troy, Agamemnon had sparked the wrath of Clytemnestra. The goddess Artemis told him that to receive a favorable wind by which to sail to Troy, he must sacrifice his daughter which, though filled with guilt over his decision, he agreed to do. Clytemnestra has been plotting her revenge against Agamemnon since his departure. She has been involved in an affair with Aegisthus, one of the king’s kinsmen. When Agamemnon returns, he has with him a mistress, a Trojan princess captured in the battle. Clytemnestra feigns joy at her husband’s return and makes it look as if all is well in the kingdom. She then kills him with an ax as he is taking a bath. After that she kills the princess mistress as well. Aegisthus tries to take responsibility for the actions as Clytemnestra tells him that the kingdom can now exist peacefully, and she and Aegisthus go on to reign as queen and king.

The middle play of the trilogy takes place a few years after the first. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes returns from exile (Clytemnestra had sent him away for fear the new king might have him killed) and plans to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon. He meets with his sister Electra who is still angry and in grief. She asks Orestes to kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra; he begins to develop a plan. Orestes and his friend Plyades pretend to be travelers with news for the king and queen. They claim to have news of the death of Orestes and wish to inform the rulers that although he is “dead” it also means that the pair can now rule without the fear of retribution. They are granted an audience, and Orestes kills Aegisthus. Clytemnestra tries to take flight as Orestes and Pylades chase her with swords. She begs for mercy saying that it was predestined that she kill Agamemnon. Orestes pauses momentarily and then replies that it was predestined that he kill Clytemnestra and, having already killed his stepfather, takes his mother’s life as well. Orestes feels that the chain of events cursing his family has come to an end, but then finds that the goddesses of natural justice, the Eumenides, consider the killing of a mother by her son to be the worst crime possible and chase Orestes as he goes on the run.

The Eumenides closes the trilogy and is set several years after The Libation Bearers. The ongoing chase of Orestes by the Eumenides has both sides exhausted and not sure how the pursuit will end. Orestes turns to the god Apollo, asking for assistance. Apollo sends him to Athens to seek justice at the temple of Athena. Orestes heads there with the Eumenides still in pursuit. Athena appears at the temple and hears the stories of both sides. She establishes a panel of judges, referred to as the Aeropagus, which will listen to the case and pass judgment. When it is time to vote, the panel reaches an impasse giving Athena the decisive vote. The goddess rules in favor of Orestes meaning the pursuit by the Eumenides has come to an end. Athena gives the Eumenides a less powerful position among the gods and makes the Aeropagus her representatives and the holders of justice in the human world.