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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 Oresteia (Ancient Greek: Ὀρέστεια) is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus concerning the end of the curse on the House of Atreus. When originally performed it was accompanied by Proteus, a satyr play that would have been performed following the trilogy. Proteus has not survived. In all likelihood the term "Oresteia" originally referred to all four plays; today, however, it is generally used to designate the surviving trilogy. The only extant example of an ancient Greek theater trilogy, the Oresteia was originally performed at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BC, where it won first prize. Principal themes of the trilogy include the differences between revenge and justice, as well as the shift from practicing personal vendetta to a system of litigation. The name derives from the character Orestes, who sets out to avenge his father's murder.
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 Argos, from the Trojan War. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder, partly as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family (Agamemnon's father, Atreus, killed and fed Aegisthus's brothers to Aegisthus's father, Thyestes, when he took power from him), who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.
The play opens to a watchman on top of the house, reporting that he has been lying restless there "like a dog" (kunos diken) for a year, "for so rules the expectant manly-willed heart of a woman" (that woman being Clytemnestra awaiting the return of her husband, who has arranged that mountaintop beacons give the signal when Troy has fallen). He laments the fortunes of the house, but promises to keep silent: "A huge ox has stepped onto my tongue." However, when Agamemnon returns, he brings with him Cassandra, the enslaved daughter of the Trojan king, Priam, and a priestess of Apollo, as his concubine, further angering Clytemnestra.
From the silence of the watchman the chorus begin with the great parodos, which as Kitto expressed it ['It lays down the intellectual foundation of the whole trilogy'], bears the weight of the trilogy . . . Through descriptions of the past, hopes and fears for the future, and statements of the present (which together constitute the narrative) this song develops a series of tensions . . .[it] opens with the narrative of events leading towards the Trojan expedition
The central action of the play is the agon between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. She plays the loving, waiting wife and attempts to persuade Agamemnon to step on a purple (sometimes red) tapestry or carpet to walk into "his" palace as a true returning conqueror. The problem is that this would indicate hubris on Agamemnon's part, and he is reluctant. Eventually, for reasons that are still heavily debated, Clytemnestra does persuade Agamemnon to cross the purple tapestry to enter the oikos, where, according to her later account, she kills him in the bath: she ensnares him in a robe and as he struggles to free himself she hacks him with three strokes of a pelekus.
While Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are offstage, Cassandra, who had heretofore been silent, is suddenly possessed by the god Apollo and enters a tumultuous trance. Gradually her incoherent delirium starts making some sense, nouns and adjectives lining up to form the rudiments of meaning, and she engages in anguished discussion with the chorus, whether she should enter the palace, knowing that she too will be murdered. Cassandra has been cursed by Apollo for rejecting his advances at a feast celebrating the opening of his temple in Corinth. He has given her clairvoyance so that she can foresee future events, but he has cursed her so that no one who hears her prophesies will believe them until it's too late. In Cassandra's soliloquy, she runs through many gruesome images of the history of the House of Atreus as if she had been a witness of them (though she is too young to have seen them), including betrayal, murder, cannibalism, and rude language. She eventually enters the palace, knowing that her fate is preordained and unavoidable. The chorus, in this play a group of the elders of Argos, are left bewildered and fearful, until they hear the death screams of Agamemnon and frantically debate on a course of action.
A platform is then rolled out by the palace servants displaying the butchered and dismembered corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra, along with Clytemnestra brandishing the bloodied axe of the Cyclops, and defiantly explaining her action. Agamemnon was murdered in much the same way an animal is killed for sacrifice: with three blows, the last strike accompanied by a prayer to a god. Cassandra was killed with only two blows, omitting the prayer. She is soon joined by Aegisthus, Agamemnon's dispossessed cousin and her lover, now the king, strutting out and delivering an arrogant speech to the chorus, who nearly enter into a brawl with him and his guard. However, Clytemnestra halts the dispute by swinging the axe wildly, saying that "There is pain enough already. Let us not be bloody now." The play closes with the chorus reminding the usurpers that Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, will surely return to exact vengeance.
|The Libation Bearers|
Orestes, Electra and Hermes in front of Agamemnon's tomb by Choephoroi Painter
|Setting||Argos, at the tomb of Agamemnon|
The Libation Bearers (Χοηφόροι, Choēphoroi) is the second play of the Oresteia. It deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills Clytemnestra to avenge the death of Agamemnon, Orestes' father.
Orestes arrives at the grave of his father, accompanied by his cousin Pylades, the son of the king of Phocis, where he has grown up in exile; he places two locks of his hair on the tomb. Orestes and Pylades hide as Electra, Orestes' sister, arrives at the grave accompanied by a chorus of elderly slave women (the libation bearers of the title) to pour libations on Agamemnon's grave; they have been sent by Clytemnestra in an effort "to ward off harm" (l.42). Just as the ritual ends, Electra spots a lock of hair on the tomb which she recognizes as similar to her own; subsequently she sees two sets of footprints, one of which has proportions similar to hers. At this point Orestes and Pylades emerge from their hiding place and Orestes gradually convinces her of his identity.
Now, in the longest and most structurally complex lyric passage in extant Greek tragedy, the chorus, Orestes, and Electra, attempt to conjure the departed spirit of Agamemnon to aid them in revenging his murder. Orestes then asks "why she sent libations, what calculation led her to offer too late atonement for a hurt past cure" (l.515–516). The chorus responds that in the palace of Argos Clytemnestra was roused from slumber by a nightmare: she dreamt that she gave birth to a snake, and the snake now feeds from her breast and draws blood along with milk. Alarmed by this, a possible sign of the gods' wrath, she "sent these funeral libations" (l.538). Orestes believes that he is the snake in his mother's dream, so together with Electra they plan to avenge their father by killing their mother Clytemnestra and her new husband, Aegisthus.
Orestes and Pylades pretend to be ordinary travelers from Phocis, and ask for hospitality at the palace. They even tell the Queen that Orestes is dead. Delighted by the news, Clytemnestra sends a servant to summon Aegisthus. When Aegisthus arrives, Orestes reveals himself and kills the usurper. Clytemnestra hears the shouting of a servant and appears on the scene. She sees Orestes standing over the body of Aegisthus. Orestes is then presented with a difficult situation: in order to avenge his father, he must kill his mother. Clytemnestra bares her breast and pleads, "Hold, oh child, and have shame" to which he responds by saying to his close friend Pylades, the son of the king of Phocis: "Shall I be ashamed to kill [my] mother ?" (l.896–899). Some interpreters have suggested that Orestes' question may be connected to a greater theme in the Oresteia: that sometimes we are faced with impossible decisions; in this case, Orestes' familial duty to his father is fundamentally opposed to his familial duty to his mother. On the other hand, it appears straightforwardly as not much more than a pro forma rhetorical question because he readily accepts Pylades advice that it is the correct course of action. Pylades implores Orestes not to forget his duty to Apollo "and our sworn pact" (900). Orestes proceeds immediately with the murder and wraps the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in the cloak that Agamemnon was wearing when he was slain.
As soon as he exits the palace, the Erinyes begin to haunt and torture him in his flight. Orestes flees in agonized panic. The chorus complains that the cycle of violence did not stop with Clytemnestra’s murder, but continues.
Pietro Pucci of Cornell University argues that in making reference to The Libation Bearers in Electra, Euripides made a social commentary on the relationship between truth and evidence. Euripides criticized the scene of recognition when Electra realizes that the lock of hair on Agamemnon's tomb belongs to Orestes. In his own play Electra, Euripides has Electra make a scathing remark about the ridiculous notion that one could recognize a brother solely by a lock of hair, a footprint and an article of clothing. What Euripides (presumably purposely) ignores in Aeschylus' play was the religious significance of the act of placing a lock of hair on a tomb, which was a much more powerful clue as to who left the lock than the actual nature of the hair. Only a friend of Agamemnon's would dare approach his grave and leave a lock of hair, and even more importantly, this ritual had a specific father/ male heir significance. Aeschylus' Electra, therefore, recognized her brother based on her faith in a religious act. Euripides' Electra, on the other hand, judges the situation solely on evidence, and comes to the wrong conclusion that Orestes cannot be present, when in fact the audience knows that he is there and the two characters have just spoken to each other. This commentary suggests that Euripides is referring to the then pertinent argument over evidence and truth, an issue which had no weight when Aeschylus was writing.
While it has significant plot differences, the Theban cycle of plays by Sophocles have similar themes in how mistaken identity, generational curses, and vengeance cause murder and destruction of a "tragic" family. Written in classical Greece about 30 years after the Atreus series, it is probable that Sophocles was at least aware of the Atreus series when writing his more famous Oedipus tragedies.
Ghost of Clytaemnestra
|Setting||before the temple of Apollo at Delphi and in Athens|
The Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες, Eumenides; also known as The Kindly Ones) is the final play of the Oresteia, in which Orestes, Apollo, and the Erinyes go before Athena and eleven other judges chosen by her from the Athenian citizenry at the Areopagus (Rock of Ares, a flat rocky hill by the Athenian agora where the homicide court of Athens later held its sessions), to decide whether Orestes's killing of his mother, Clytemnestra, makes him guilty of the crime of murder.
Orestes is tormented by the Erinyes, or Furies, chthonic deities that avenge patricide and matricide. He, at the instigation of his sister Electra and the god Apollo, has killed their mother Clytemnestra, who had killed their father, King Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter and Orestes's sister, Iphigenia. Orestes finds a refuge and a solace at the new temple of Apollo in Delphi, and the god, unable to deliver him from the Erinyes' unappeasable wrath, sends him along to Athens under the protection of Hermes, while he casts a drowsy spell upon the pursuing Erinyes in order to delay them.
Clytemnestra's ghost appears "exactly how or from where is uncertain ... noteworthy is the poet's bold inventiveness in presenting her as a dream to a collection rather than to a single individual", to the sleeping Erinyes, urging them to continue hunting Orestes. "As the first of them begins to awake the ghost departs". The Erinyes' first appearance on stage is haunting: they hum in unison as they slowly wake up, and seek to find the scent of blood that will lead them to Orestes' tracks. An ancient legend says that on the play's premiere this struck so much fear and anguish in the audience, that a pregnant woman named Neaira suffered a miscarriage and died on the spot.
The Erinyes' tracking down of Orestes in Athens is equally haunting: Orestes has clasped Athena's small statue in supplication, and the Erinyes close in on him by smelling the blood of his slain mother in the air. Once they do see him, they can also see rivulets of blood soaking the earth beneath his footsteps.
As they surround him, Athena intervenes and brings in twelve Athenians to join her in forming a jury to judge her supplicant. Apollo acts as counsel for Orestes, while the Erinyes act as advocates for the dead Clytemnestra. During the trial, Apollo convinces Athena that, in a marriage, the man is more important than the woman, by pointing out that Athena was born only of Zeus and without a mother. Athena votes last and casts her vote for acquittal; she does so before the votes are counted. After being counted, the votes on each side are equal, thus acquitting Orestes as Athena had earlier announced that this would be the result of a tie. She then persuades the Erinyes to accept the verdict, and they eventually submit. Athena then leads a procession accompanying them to their new abode and the escort now addresses them as "Semnai" (Venerable Ones), as they will now be honored by the citizens of Athens and ensure the city's prosperity. Athena also declares that henceforth tied juries will result in the defendant being acquitted, as mercy should always take precedence over harshness.
Although Proteus (Ancient Greek: Πρωτεύς, Prōteus), the satyr play which originally followed the first three plays of The Oresteia, is lost, except for a two-line fragment preserved by Athenaeus, it is widely believed to have been based on the story told in Book IV of Homer's Odyssey, where Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, attempts to return home from Troy and finds himself on an island off Egypt, "whither he seems to have been carried by the storm described in Agam.674. The title character, "the deathless Egyptian Proteus", the Old Man of the Sea, is described in Homer as having been visited by Menelaus seeking to learn his future. In the process, Proteus tells Menelaus of the death of Agamemnon at the hands of Aegisthus as well as the fates of Ajax the Lesser and Odysseus at sea; and is compelled to tell Menelaus how to reach home from the island of Pharos. "The satyrs who may have found themselves on the island as a result of shipwreck . . . perhaps gave assistance to Menelaus and escaped with him, though he may have had difficulty in ensuring that they keep their hands off Helen" The only extant fragment that has been definitively attributed to Proteus was translated by Herbert Weir Smyth as "A wretched piteous dove, in quest of food, dashed amid the winnowing-fans, its breast broken in twain." In 2002, Theatre Kingston mounted a production of The Oresteia and included a new reconstruction of Proteus based on the episode in The Odyssey and loosely arranged according to the structure of extant satyr plays.
That the play ends on a happy note may surprise modern readers, to whom the word tragedy denotes a drama ending in misfortune. The word did not carry this meaning in ancient Athens, and many of the extant Greek tragedies end happily.
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The ancient law of the Erinyes mandates that blood must be paid for with blood. The chorus states this fact several times throughout the play, most clearly in the first section of the kommos. Vengeance is just, they say, and it has been the law of the house for generations. Nothing else can wash away a bloodstain but more blood, which in turn requires more blood in order to be cleansed. The chorus offers no solution to this dire situation of violence breeding more violence. They merely state it as the natural law. However, over the course of The Libation Bearers, one has the sense that this time, things will be different. Apollo has promised Orestes that he will not suffer for his crime, and we know that a god is unlikely to go back on his word.
Since Apollo has thrown his weight behind the path of vengeance, Orestes chooses to comply with his commands. In fulfilling his duty towards Apollo and his father, Orestes condemns himself to suffering. He chooses to make this sacrifice, however, in order to preserve the laws of society. In the end of Eumenides, Orestes is tried in court by the Furies, with the goddess Athena and the Athenian elders acting as the jury. In this case, Orestes is not killed in turn for his crimes as would have been the retributive law at the time, but he is given the opportunity to defend himself, and is ultimately declared not guilty. The Erinyes are angered by this decision as they belong to the old gods, and for decades uncounted blood had to be repaid in blood. Yet Athena calms them with great effort, making it clear to them that a society cannot possibly work and grow under such circumstances, and grants them seats of great power in Athens. Justice is decided by a jury, representing the citizen body and its values and the gods themselves, who sanction this transition by taking part in the judgment, arguing and voting on an equal footing with the mortals. This theme of the polis self-governed by consent through lawful institutions, as opposed to tribalism and superstition, recurs in Greek art and thought. Athena, the goddess of Reason and Protection, calms the Erinyes, the goddesses of revenge and remorse, thereby establishing a legal system centered in Athens, relieving the Greeks of their responsibility to avenge violence with violence. Now the state is the institution to administer justice, employing reason, but also holding the power to punish, violently if need be. Athens has left its barbaric system of blood for blood behind and has embraced an order where people deserve a fair trial.
"Philos-aphilos" (φίλος ἄφιλος; "love-in-hate") is a vigorous force throughout the trilogy. Most of the bloodshed throughout the play is “murder committed not against an external enemy but against a part of the self.”  This can be interpreted literally: Orestes slays his mother, his own flesh and blood; Aegisthus is Clytaemestra’s accomplice in the murder of his cousin Agamemnon, and Agamemnon had killed his daughter Iphigeneia, even as a required sacrifice.
"A part of the self" can also be interpreted more figuratively as a significant other, such as a spouse; thus, Clytaemestra’s feelings for Agamemnon are characterized as ‘philos-aphilos’ as well. As Richmond Lattimore defined it thus, “the hate gains intensity from the strength of the original love when that love has been stopped or rejected.” Clytaemestra’s love for Agamemnon has been quashed by his sacrifice of Iphigeneia and his return with Cassandra as a concubine. Likewise, Orestes’ sentiments toward his mother are intensified by anger at her murder of his father and resentment at the fact that she chose her lover over her children – essentially, they are “the price for which she bought herself this man.” These conflicting feelings are embodied in Clytaemestra’s dream about nursing the snake.
Lattimore also draws a parallel between the Oresteia and William Shakespeare's Hamlet, suggesting that the sensation of ‘philos-aphilos’ engendered by Prince Hamlet’s emotional connections to his mother, Queen Gertrude, and to Ophelia, who are both on the side of King Claudius – himself a close blood relative who might have held Hamlet’s affection and regard before usurping the throne – are what make the play a tragedy.
In 2014, Macmillan Films, produced a film adaptation of the trilogy: