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Greek Tragedy

Synopsis of the Oresteia Trilogy by Aeschylus: Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers,The Eumenides


The first of three poets of tragedy whose works have survived.  

The Oresteia Trilogy won first prize in Athens in 458 BC. It relates the story of the House of Atreus and begins with the assassination of Atrius' son Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra. In the second play the story evolves around the twins Orestes and Electra who, to avenge their father's death, conceive a plan to kill their mother and her lover Aegisthus. In the last play Orestes is tormented by The Furies. The goddess Athena questions the consequences of exacting personal vengeance in a dispute - a way of life in Ancient cultures - and offers the wiser alternative of a judge and jury. 

A watchman waits for King Agamemnon’s imminent return to Argos. When he sees the beacon announcing the fall of Troy he hastens to tell Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra.

The Chorus, or the Twelve Elders of Argos, relates how Paris, son of the king of Troy, abducted Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus (Agamemnon's brother) that led to ten years of war between Greece and Troy.

The Chorus recalls how Clytemnestra's husband Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the god Artemis to obtain a favorable wind for the Greek fleet. The Chorus doubts that the war is truly over until a Herald arrives to confirm the news, and they give thanks. Clytemnestra sends him off to tell Agamemnon that everything is ready for him at the castle. The Chorus asks him about Menelaus.The Herald tells them about the horrors of the war and how Menelaus was missing since a storm hit his fleet on its way back to Greece. 

While the chorus speaks of the destructive force of Helen's great beauty Agamemnon arrives in front of the castle with his cortege and his slave Cassandra, a Trojan princess and priestess who can predict the future but is never taken seriously. Clytemnestra greets her husband and has a carpet of purple robes spread at his feet. Agamemnon balks at the idea of walking on them as an act of undue pride but Clytemnestra insists.

The Chorus is dreading what is to come. Clytemnestra calls for Cassandra, who does not move. Clytemnestra goes back into the castle and Cassandra starts to speak of a curse on the house of Agamamnon. She tells the Chorus that both she and their king will be killed and that the despicable act will be avenged. Resigned, she walks through the doors and as the old men worry they hear Agamemnon cry out in pain. 

The doors open and Clytemnestra appears with the two corpses at her feet. She tells the public she killed her husband to avenge their daughter Iphegena and, along with her lover Aegisthus (Agamemnon's cousin) takes control of the kingdom. The chorus predicts that Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, will take revenge on his father's assassination.

This particular tragedy takes place at the end of the Trojan War but the "curse" on the House of Atreus started long before. Agamemnon and Aegisthus were cousins. Aegisthus' father Thyestes had an affair with his twin brother Atreus' wife. In revenge Atreus (Agamemnon's father) killed his brother's children and fed them to him. Aegisthus was born after the fact, son of Thyestes and his sister Pelopia, who abandoned him. Atreus raised him but when his father appeared and told him what Atreus had done he vowed revenge on Atreus' children. 

The whole expedition was a farce from the start. Most likely Helen was not ravished and went willingly with the Trojan Prince. One can understand Clytemnestra's hatred for her husband, killing her child for such a stupid endeavor, brewing for ten long years with Aegisthus to feed the flame.

However, grieve she may for her youngest daughter it doesn't look like she was a very caring mother to the twins. She sent Electra away and married her to a laborer. Orestes was able to escape before Aegisthus' soldiers got to him. His friend Pylades' father invited him to stay at their home but he lived in hiding and in exile.

The Libation-Bearers

Several years after the murder of his father Orestes goes to Apollo’s temple in Delphi and is told, with threats of leprosy and continued exile, that he must avenge his father's death. He sneaks back to Argos with Pylade. 

They stop at Agamemnon’s grave and find his sister Electra, whom he doesn’t recognize right away. Electra tells him their mother Clytemnestra sent her bring libations to Agamemnon’s grave after she had a dream she was nursing a snake. 

With the Chorus’ encouragement they share their hatred for their mother and love for their father, and how it could have been had he lived. The Chorus eggs them on, tells them to focus on how they can channel their anger. They invoke their father’s spirit to help them and work on a plan so Orestes, disguised, can get into the castle to kill Aegisthus.

However he meets up unexpectedly with his mother, and has to improvise. He tells her he brings news of her son’s death, she grieves for a minute, sends for Orestes’ old nurse Cilissa as well as Aegisthus and his bodyguard, and leaves. 

Prompted by the Chorus, Cilissa convinces Aegisthus to meet the stranger without his guard. Aegisthus appears briefly onstage and goes back into the Palace, where Orestes kills him (offstage). We know he’s dead when the servant calls Clytemnestra. She runs up, the castle doors open and she sees Orestes standing over Aegisthus’' lifeless body. 

Knife in hand Orestes walks up to his mother but hesitates. Clytemnestra takes advantage of this moment of weakness, bares her breast, and speaks of the intimate relationship between mother and son.

Pylades has been listening. He reminds his friend of his duty to Apollo, and Clytemnestra’s words no longer reach Orestes. He stabs her, and the Chorus rejoices. He covers the bodies in the same cloak in which his father was killed and announces he has fulfilled his obligations. 
The Eumenides

The last of the Oresteia plays singles itself from other tragedies as nobody is killed and it has a happy ending when Orestes is absolved and the Furies radically change roles.

If Orestes is following the god Apollo’s orders he is also guilty of matricide, a major crime in Greece. He is tormented by The Furies (Erinyes, Dirae), three female netherworld deities of vengeance targeting blood-related crimes: They persecute Orestes who goes mad with doubts over his actions. He takes refuge at Apollo’s temple at Delphi but the Furies will not leave him. In this play it's likely there are more than three, as they also act as the chorus.

The priestess at the Temple of Apollo says a prayer to the gods and enters the temple. She sees Orestes and runs back out screaming that a man with a sword and blood on his hands is at the altar. He is holding an olive branch with a bit of wool as was the custom with suppliants. Facing him are a group of hideous women, sleeping.

Apollo tells Orestes he will always be persecuted but he offers his protection and tells him to go to Athena’s temple in Athens and supplicate her help. 

After Orestes leaves, Clytemnestra’s spirit appears to complain she is being labeled as a murderess while the gods don’t make an issue of what her son did. After a couple of false attempts she manages to wake the Furies so they can follow Orestes. They reprimand Apollo for his responsibility in this affair but are nonetheless determined to exact long-term punishment on Orestes.

Apollo asks them why they didn’t persecute Clytemnestra; they reply her husband was not blood-related. Apollo refuses to take this as an answer; killing a husband is just as bad and they should revise their principles. The Furies leave to catch up with Orestes, followed by Apollo who has vowed to help the young man. 

Orestes is clinging to Athena’s statue when the Furies make an appearance tracking their prey (a hound passes to hunt a wounded fawn). Orestes begs for Athena’s help, tells her Apollo has purified him from the stain of murder. If she can help him he promises that Argos will remain a faithful ally to Athens.

The Furies object, it’s their role to persecute the likes of Orestes, and Apollo should stay out of their business. Athena appears and the Furies present their case. Athena wants to hear the other side of the argument and they agree to accept her decision.

Orestes tells of the purification that cleared him of guilt. He was enacting what was expected of him; avenge his father’s murder as Apollo had ordered. Athena calls on an elite group of Athenian citizens to act as jury. Immediately the Furies give Orestes the first degree and he admits killing his mother, but on the orders of the god Apollo. He speaks of Clytemnestra’s guilt and calls on Apollo to back his words.

From Apollo’s testimony we learn that the order ultimately came from Zeus. Clytemnestra had used hypocrisy and flattery to kill royalty, which in the eyes of the god-of-gods overrode matricide. Apollo and the Furies argue until Athena asks the jury to cast their vote. She says the trial would set a precedent; from then on disputes would be settled in court (Areopagus).

The Furies, feeling undermined, warn they can cast their vengeance across the entire land. Apollo reminds them the respect due to the oracle that comes directly from Zeus. In case there is a stalemate Athena would act as judge, and cast the deciding vote which she says frankly will go to Orestes. The vote is in fact tied, Orestes is acquitted and he reinstates his promise of peace between Argos and Athens.

However the Furies, having lost their authority with Orestes’ unprecedented acquittal, are now threatening to destroy Athens and its territories. Athena mediates a deal where no Athenian family can prosper without their accord. From then on they will be called Eumenides, or the Benevolent Ones. They are taken to their new quarters. 

Thus ends the Oresteia trilogy.

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