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Aeschylus and the Fate of


The Oresteia: Three plays about the

royal house of Mycenae, the first of
which was titled Agamemnon

The Nostoi or “Returns”

„ Because of Ajax’s impiety, Hera and Athena were angered
and sent a storm to scatter the Greek ships
„ Nestor
‰ Arrived home to Pylos without much trouble
„ Menelaus
‰ Battered by storms, he took a detour to Egypt, but eventually
made it home (with Helen!)
„ Agamemnon
‰ Arrived home but was slain by his wife, Clytemnestra,
because of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, his liason with Cassandra,
and her affair with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin
„ Odysseus
‰ Odysseus’ return is the story of The Odyssey

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The House of Atreus

„ Pelops brought a curse upon the
house of Atreus by winning a
chariot race against Oenomaus Atreus Thyestes
through treachery
‰ When Pelops threw his
Agamemnon = Clytaemnesta Aegisthus
accomplice, Myrtilus, over a
cliff, Myrtilus cursed Pelops Iphigeneia Orestes Electra
and his descendents as he fell
„ Pelops’ son, Atreus, brought an
additional curse upon the family „ Curse referred to Aeschylus’
when he killed the children of Agamemnon:
Thyestes, his brother and rival to ‰ “a house that God hates, guilty
the throne, and fed them to him within of kindred blood shed,
torture of its own, the shambles
„ Agamemnon sacrificed his for men’s butchery, the dripping
daughter Iphigeneia to have floor . . . The small children wail
success in the Trojan expedition for their own death and the flesh
roasted that their father fed upon
. . .” (Ag. 1090–1097)

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The Oresteia
Aeschylus’ Tragic Trilogy on the Family of Agamemnon

„ Agamemnon (with chorus of Argive elders)

‰ Agamemnon returns from Troy and is killed by Clytaemnestra
and her lover Aegisthus
„ Libation Bearers (with chorus of maids accompanying Electra to
Agamemnon’s tomb)
‰ Orestes returns from exile to avenge his father by murdering his
„ Eumenides (with chorus of Furies or “Kindly Ones)
‰ Furies from the Underworld haunt Orestes, driving him to Delphi
to see cleansing from the bloodguilt of matricide
‰ Apollo sends Orestes to Athens, where Athena establishes a
court to justify Orestes and placate the Furies

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„ Background
‰ 524? – 456 B.C.
‰ Born to an aristocratic landowning family
‰ Was conservative, patriotic, and religious
‰ Fought at the battles of Marathon and Salamis in the Persian
„ Introduced the second character, creating true dramatic
‰ Characters conversed in iambic trimeter (three measures of
short-long-short-long), which Aristotle claimed was closest to real
„ Chorus continued to be set in difficult lyric meters
‰ Later in his career he adopted the Sophoclean innovation of a
third character
„ Invented “spectacle”
‰ Painted scenery, elaborate costumes, machinery for technical
effects (e.g., entries of gods and ghosts)

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The Art of Aeschylus

„ “Scraps from Homer’s banquet”
‰ With the exception of the historical play The Persians, Aeschylus used
myths and legends to explore questions of human suffering and
psychology as well as the nature of the gods
‰ Only six of some 70 tragedies survive
„ Concerned with justice, the role of the gods, the human
condition, and the cause of suffering
„ Lyric Tragedy
‰ use of flashback
‰ continued prominence of chorus
„ These long, often confusing, choral passages were written in difficult, lyric
Greek (a difficult, complicated Greek meter; epic is in dactylic hexameter
and the dialogue of tragedy in simple iambic trimeter)
‰ story continued across trilogy
„ Influence of Classicism—the tragic trilogy of Agamemnon’s family
‰ simplicity (few subplots)
‰ symmetry (murder, matricide, absolution, see next slide)
‰ dramatic restraint (messenger scenes for murders, etc.)

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„ Historical and political contexts
‰ Basileus and aristoi = Agamemnon → represent traditional authority
even if failed
‰ Demos and tyrannoi = chorus/citizens Aegisthus → represent revolution
and (violent) change
„ Note effects of war in chorus’ response to the fall of Troy (Grene, 15–19, esp. Ag. 429–
„ But the people are oppressed in the end by Aegisthus
„ Characters: Watchman, Clytaemnestra, Herald, Agamemnon, Cassandra,
„ Review basic storyline
„ Clytaemnestra’s motivations
‰ Iphigneia’s sacrifice
‰ Affair with Aegisthus
„ Emotions and Behaviors Represented
‰ Love in hate
‰ Male rationalism and female irrationality
„ A lady’s male strength of heart . . . A woman-lioness who goes to bed with the wolf

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Pivotal Points
„ Agamemnon’s hamartia or “mistake”
‰ Hybris in walking on the tapestries, accepting extravagant honors and
treading on the images of the gods?
„ “ . . Let not your foot, my lord, sacker of Ilium, touch the earth . . . Strew the
ground before his feet with tapestries. Let there spring up into the house he
never hoped to see, where Justice leads him, a crimson path.” (Aesch. Ag.
„ “ . . . Such state becomes the gods, and none beside. I am a mortal, a man; I
cannot trample upon these tinted spendors without feat thrown in my path. I
tell you, as a man, not a god, to reverence me.” (see Aesch. Ag. 918–925)
„ Cassandra’s echo of Agamemnon’s hamartia
‰ Rips off the prophetic regalia of Apollo and tramples it
„ “Why do I wear these mockeries upon my body, this staff of prophecy, these
flowers at my throat? At least I can spoil you before I die . . .” (Aesch. Ag.
‰ Difference?
„ Agamemnon does not know the full import of what he does, she
purposefully rejects Apollo’s protection and walks knowingly to her
„ Her prayer: to die quickly and have rest . . . the Chorus is amazed at her
serenity in the face of death

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Some Themes, Images, and Quotes

„ Parable of the Lion Cub (Aesch. Ag. 714–736)
„ Sea/purple/blood
‰ Clytaemestra: “The sea is there, and who shall drain its yield? . . . The purple
ooze wherein our garments shall be dipped . . .” (Aesch. Ag. 958–960)
„ Entanglement: Spider’s web, robe, yoke, snare
‰ Cassandra: “ . . . Keep from his mate the bull. Caught in a folded web’s
entaglements she pinions him and with the black horn strikes. And he crumples
in the watered bath . . .” (Aesch. Ag. 1125–1127)
‰ Chorus: “Caught in the spider’s web you lie, your life gasped out in indecent
death, struck prone to this shameful bed” (Aesch. Ag. 1492-1494)
‰ Clytaemestra: “ . . . As a fisherman cast their huge circling nets, I spread deadly
abundance of rich robes and caught him fast . . .” (Aesch. Ag. 1379–1390)
„ Snake: Viper who turns on its own = Clytaemestra
‰ Chorus: “No, this is daring when the female shall strike down the male. What
shall I call her and be right? What beast of loathing? Viper double-fanged . . .”
(Aesch. Ag. 1231–1233)
„ Swan: Cassandra, sings in the face of death
‰ Pulls off Apollo’s regalia and tramples on them, repeating the hamaria of
Agammenon (Aesch. Ag. 1264–1270)
‰ Clytaemestra: “He lies there; and she who swanlike cried aloud her lyric
lamentation out is laid against his fond heart . . .” (Aesch. Ag. 1444–1447)

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