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THE ORESTEIA: INTRODUCTION
The Plays: Date and Composition
Aeschylus' most famous and perennially successful masterpiece, the tetralogy of plays comprising Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers (in Greek, Choephoroi), The Eumenides, and the satyr-drama Proteus, won first prize in the Athenian tragedy competition of 458 BCE. The three tragedies are the only connected trilogy to have survived from antiquity. We do not know when the title Oresteia for the whole group was first assigned, but we find The Libation Bearers being referred to individually as "The Oresteia" in Aristophanes' Frogs. The three tragedies later came to be listed separately (in alphabetical order) among the plays of Aeschylus, and seem most oft en to have been read separately too. We cannot tell how oft en the whole trilogy was performed after its initial production; but some ancient readers certainly knew the sequence of plays, and it cannot be mere accident that these three tragedies were included among the seven that were preserved in our medieval manuscript tradition.
The sequence of calamities and grisly deeds of vengeance within the family of Tantalus was a common subject of poetic narratives and dramas in antiquity; likewise the saga of tales about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Aeschylus wove together several elements from both of these traditions to make his complex yet tightly connected tetralogy. The most important are the following.
Tantalus' son Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. They squabbled about the inheritance and throne. In pursuit of his ambitions, Thyestes seduced Atreus' wife, but Atreus got his revenge by pretending to seek reconciliation, inviting his brother to dinner, and there serving him his own (Thyestes') children to eat, chopped into pieces and cooked in a stew. When Thyestes realized what had happened he pronounced a curse on Atreus and all his descendants.
After some years had passed, Atreus' two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, became the kings of Mycenae/ Argos and Sparta, respectively—though sometimes they are described in the Oresteia as being still a united pair, "the Atreidae," both of them apparently residing in the "House of Atreus." They were married to the two daughters of King Tyndareus of Sparta, Clytaemestra (sometimes spelled Clytemnestra) and Helen.
Meanwhile, Thyestes' one surviving son, Aegisthus (cousin of Agamemnon and Menelaus), was growing up separately, planning vengeance for Atreus' crime against his father.
When the Trojan prince Paris/Alexander, son of King Priam, visited Menelaus and eloped with his wife, Helen, Agamemnon organized a huge Panhellenic expedition to recapture her and punish Paris, Priam, and the whole city of Troy. The expedition assembled at Aulis (on the east coast of mainland Greece), but before it could sail for Troy a favorable wind had to be obtained— which could only be brought about, apparently, through the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (also spelled Iphigenia), the eldest daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemestra. (In most versions of the myth, the goddess Artemis actually saves Iphigenia at the last moment and substitutes a deer instea video d, though everyone present still believes the girl has been killed. In the Oresteia, such a rescue is neither directly indicated nor explicitly excluded.)
While Agamemnon is away fighting for ten years at Troy, Clytaemestra, bitterly resentful of his killing of their daughter, forms an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, who is still planning to avenge his father and brothers for Atreus' crime. Together they plot Agamemnon's death. When Agamemnon returns victorious from Troy, bringing with him vast war spoils and a new Trojan slave concubine, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam, Clytaemestra welcomes him and lures him into the palace, where, with Aegisthus' help, she kills him and Cassandra. They take control of Argos/ Mycenae and become rulers—what the Greeks would call "tyrants," or nonhereditary kings. So ends the first play, Agamemnon.
Several years later, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytaemestra, who as a child was not present at the killing of his father and has grown up in Phocis (near Delphi) as the ward of Strophius and his son Pylades, consults with the god Apollo at Delphi and is told that he must seek vengeance for his father's murder. He returns to Argos, accompanied by Pylades, is reunited with his sister Electra, and successfully carries out his long-awaited revenge, killing Aegisthus and Clytaemestra and thus regaining his kingdom and inheritance. At this point, the avenging spirits, or curses, of his mother (in Greek, Erinyes) begin to hound him, and he flees in a state of acute mental disturbance. Here ends the second play, The Libation Bearers.
Orestes goes to Delphi for purification of the matricidal blood, and Apollo continues to protect him against the Furies. But they persist in pursuing and tormenting him, and eventually some kind of resolution has to be found. In Aeschylus' version, this takes place in Athens when a trial is held before the Court of the Areopagus, with Athena herself presiding.
The Areopagus Council was a venerable Athenian institution, composed of former archons—high-ranking elected officials. In the years just before the first production of the Oresteia, amid bitter civic dissension, new reforms had been enacted by the democracy, removing many of the council's powers but leaving it with its traditional responsibility for homicide trials. The idea of having the Argive hero Orestes come to Athens and be prosecuted in front of the Areopagus Court may or may not be Aeschylus' own invention: scholars disagree. In the trial, the Furies are the prosecutors, Apollo the defense counsel. As the result of an evenly split vote, Orestes is acquitted, and Athena, through her great patience and tact, manages to persuade the Furies not to punish the city of Athens for its leniency toward a matricide but to accept instead a position of honor for themselves within the city: they are to become the "august goddesses" who will live in the caves below the Acropolis and will protect the city in the future from all kinds of ills. Thus The Eumenides—and the trilogy—comes to an end. (Alas, we know little about how the fourth play proceeded, the satyrdrama Proteus; but see pp. 165–66.)
Most of the elements in this saga were already familiar to Aeschylus' Athenian audience. Homer's Odyssey was especially important for the pointed parallels and contrasts drawn between Orestes and Telemachus, Aegisthus and the suitors, Clytaemestra and Penelope—though the actual matricide is not explicitly mentioned, and no ugly consequences for Orestes' vengeance seem even to be implied. Important too was the epic poem from the Trojan Cycle titled Returns (Nostoi), ascribed to Homer; but this is now lost and we do not know how it treated Agamemnon's death and Orestes' vengeance. Many other poetic and visual treatments were in circulation, including perhaps Pindar's eleventh Pythian ode (scholars disagree whether that poem was composed before or after the Oresteia). Vase paintings and sculptures of the sixth and early fifth centuries tend to focus on the killing of Aegisthus, not of Clytaemestra, and thus give the vengeance a complexion very different from Aeschylus'. The most influential "source" for Aeschylus seems to have been Stesichorus' choral lyric poetry (from sixth-century Sicily), which appears to have dwelt quite vividly on the troubling issues of matricide, including descriptions of Clytaemestra dreaming about a snake, a prominent Nurse character, and vengeful Furies pursuing O
Excerpted from AESCHYLUS II by David Grene. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Editors’ Preface to the Third Edition
Introduction to Aeschylus
How the Plays Were Originally Staged
The Libation Bearers