[The Oresteia is a] trilogy whose special greatness lies in the fact that it transcends the limitations of dramatic enactment on a scale never achieved before or since.
—Richard Lattimore, “Introduction to the Oresteia” in The Complete Greek Tragedies
Called by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “the masterpiece of masterpieces” and by Algernon Charles Swinburne “the greatest achievement of the human mind,” Aeschylus’s Oresteia is the monumental accomplishment of drama’s greatest early visionary and progenitor. Considered by the Greeks the “father of tragedy,” Aeschylus, “more than anyone,” according to classical scholar C. M. Bowra, “laid the true foundations of tragedy and established the forms and spirit which marked it out from other kinds of poetry.” The Oresteia, the only surviving Attic tragic trilogy, dramatizes the working out of the curse on the house of Atreus from Agamemnon’s homecoming from Troy and his murder by his wife, Clytemnestra, through her subsequent death at the hands of her son, Orestes, and the consequences for human justice and cosmic order. Aeschylus presents the archetypal family tragedy, the influences of which can be felt in subsequent theatrical depictions of the houses of Oedipus, Tyrone, Loman, Corleone, and Soprano and other uses of the family as the locus for dramatic conflict. Aeschylus points the way by which a domestic tragedy can serve in the hand of a great poet and stage craftsman as a profound enactment of the human condition and human destiny on a truly colossal dramatic scale.
To understand Aeschylus’s originality and achievement in the Oresteia, it is necessary to place the trilogy in the context of the origins and development of drama in ancient Greece. Western drama’s beginnings are obscure, but most authorities have detected a connection with religious rituals that enact the central myths of a society’s understanding of the powers that govern its well-being and its own interrelationships. Greek drama derived from the religious festivals that paid tribute to Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility, wine, revelry, and regeneration, who was celebrated and worshipped in choral song and dance. Aristotle, in the Poetics (c. 335–323 b.c.), the earliest extant account of how Greek drama originated, asserted that tragedy began with the speeches of “those who led the dithyramb,” the choral lyric honoring Dionysus, and that comedy came from the “leaders of the phallic songs” performed by a group of singers and dancers representing satyrs—half men, half goats—who were the attendants of Dionysus. At some point during the sixth century b.c., the choral leader began to impersonate imaginary characters and to imitate, rather than narrate, the story of a deity or a mythical hero. Tradition credits Thespis (none of whose plays survive) with first combining the choral songs and dances with the speeches of a masked actor in an enacted story. As the first known actor, Thespis is memorialized in the term thespian, a synonym for actor. It is believed that Thespis first performed his plays at festivals throughout Greece before inaugurating, in 534 b.c., Athens’s reorganized annual spring festival, the Great, or City, Dionysia, as a theatrical contest in which choruses competed for prizes in a festival that lasted for several days. During the City Dionysia, performed in an open-air theater that held audiences of 15,000 or more, businesses were suspended and prisoners were released on bail for the duration of the festival. The first day was devoted to traditional choral hymns, followed by the competition in which three dramatists each presented a tetralogy of three tragedies, as well as a comic satyr play.
If Thespis is responsible for the initial shift from lyric to dramatic performance by introducing an actor, it is Aeschylus who, according to Aristotle, added the second actor to performances and thereby supplied the key ingredient for dialogue and dramatic conflict between characters on stage that defines drama. Aeschylus was born near Athens around 525 b.c. The known facts of his life are few. He fought during the wars against the Persians in the battle of Marathon in 490, and his eyewitness account of the battle of Salamis in his play The Persians, the only surviving Greek drama based on a contemporary historical event, suggests that he was also a participant in that battle. Although his role in Athenian politics and his political sympathies are subject to differing scholarly conjecture, it is incontestable that in his plays Aeschylus was one of the principal spokesmen for the central values of the Greeks during a remark-able period of political and cultural achievement that followed the defeat of the Persians and the emergence of Athens to supremacy in the Mediterranean world. Aeschylus wrote, acted in, and directed or produced between 80 and 90 plays, of which only seven—among the earliest documents in the history of the Western theater—survive. No other playwright can be credited with as many innovations as Aeschylus. Besides adding the second actor, Aeschylus also, according to Aristotle, reduced the number of the chorus from 50 to 12 and “gave the leading role to the spoken word.” Aeschylus thereby centered the interest of his plays on the actors and their speeches and dialogue. He is also credited with perfecting the conventions of tragedy’s grand poetic diction and introducing rich costuming and spectacular stage effects. Underlying his grandiloquence, Aeschylus produced some of the greatest poetry every created for the theater and used masterful representational stagecraft as a fundamental element in his plays, which helped turn the theater into an arena for exploring essential human questions. “In all probability,” literary historian Philip Whaley Harsh has concluded, “Aeschylus is chiefly responsible for the essentially realistic nature of European drama—qualities which can be fully appreciated only by making a comparison between Greek tragedy and Sanskrit or Chinese drama. European drama, then, is perhaps more heavily indebted to Aeschylus than to any other individual.”
Aeschylus won his first victory at the City Dionysia in 484 b.c. and followed it with 12 subsequent prizes, a clear indication of his great acclaim and preeminence as a dramatist. It is Aeschylus whom Dionysus recalls from the underworld as the greatest of all tragic poets in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Aeschylus’s plays include The Persians, Seven against Thebes, The Suppliants, and Prometheus Bound. Each is a third of a trilogy whose companion plays have been lost. With the Oresteia, however, we have the only intact tragic trilogy. If his fellow Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripides, concentrated on the individual play as their basic unit of composition, Aeschylus was the master of the linked dramas that explored the wider implications and consequences of a single mythic story, thus extending the range of tragedy to a truly epic scale. The three plays making up the Oresteia—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides—can be seen as three acts of a massive epic drama that invites comparison in its range, grandeur, and spiritual and cultural significance to the heroic epics of Homer, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Aeschylus reportedly stated that his plays were merely “slices of fish from Homer’s great feasts.” However, the Oresteia, combining themes from both the Iliad and the Odyssey, is in every sense a dramatic main course in which the playwright attempts nothing less than to explore with a truly Homeric amplitude the key conflicts in the human condition: between humans and the gods, male and female, parent and child, passion and reason, the individual and community, vengeance and justice. The background for his drama is the curse laid upon the ruling house of Argos when Atreus revenged himself on his brother Thyestes for having seduced his wife by serving Thyestes’ children to him at a banquet. Cursing Atreus, Thyestes leaves Argos with his one remaining son, Aegisthus, vowing retribution. Thyestes’ curse is visited on the next generation, on Atreus’s sons, Menelaus and Agamemnon, through the seduction of Menelaus’s wife, Helen, by the Trojan Paris, which provokes the Trojan War. The Greek force, led by Agamemnon, sets out to regain Helen and take revenge on the Trojans, but their fleet is initially beset by unfavorable winds. Agamemnon, choosing his duty as a commander over his responsibilities as a father, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia as the price for reaching Troy and ultimate victory. The Oresteia considers the consequences of Agamemnon’s act and the Greek’s defeat of the Trojans at the decisive moment of his homecoming to Argos.
Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy, which has been called by some the greatest of all Greek tragedies, works out the revenge of Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, for their daughter’s death. Having taken Thyestes’ son, Aegisthus, as her lover, Clytemnestra both betrays her husband and plots to usurp his throne with his bitterest enemy. Agamemnon returns to a disordered homeland in which all is not as it appears. Clytemnestra’s welcoming of her returned husband is shockingly revealed as a sinister pretense for his murder in what critic Shirley J. Stewart has called “a play of distortion.” Agamemnon is shown arriving in his chariot, proud, self-willed, and oblivious to the insincerity of his wife or his own hypocrisy, riding alongside his prize from Troy, Cassandra, the embodiment of his excessive destruction of the Trojans and an insult to his wife. He is invited to walk on an outspread crimson carpet into his palace. The red carpet, one of drama’s first great visual stage effects, becomes a striking symbol of Agamemnon’s hubris, for such an honor is reserved for the gods, and Agamemnon fi guratively trods a trail of blood to his own demise. “Let the red stream flow and bear him home,” Clytemnestra states, “to the home he never hoped to see.” After Cassandra’s prediction of both Agamemnon’s and her own death comes true, Clytemnestra returns to the stage, blood-spattered, revealing for the first time her savage hatred of Agamemnon and her bitter jealousy of Cassandra. Clytemnestra justifies her act as the avenger of the house of Atreus who has freed it from the chain of murder set in motion by Atreus’s crime. Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon, however, only continues the series of retributive murders afflicting the house of Atreus, while demonstrating the seemingly unbreakable cycle that “Blood will have blood.” The play ends with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus ruling Argos by force and intimidation with the renewal of the demands of blood vengeance suggested by the Chorus’s reference to Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, who must someday return to avenge his father’s death.
In The Libation Bearers Orestes does arrive, echoing the homecoming of his father in the first play. Meeting his sister Electra before their father’s grave, Orestes, Hamlet-like in his indecision, reveals his dilemma and the crux of the trilogy’s moral, religious, and political conflict. Ordered by Apollo to avenge his father, by doing so, Orestes must kill his mother, thereby incurring the wrath of the Furies, primal avengers charged with protecting the sanctity of blood-kinship. By doing what is right—avenging his father—Orestes must do what is wrong—murdering his mother. His conflict is dramatized as a kind of cosmic schism between two divine imperatives and world orders, as a fundamental conflict between the forces of vengeance and justice. Orestes’ seemingly insolvable quandary sets the tragic conflict of the entire trilogy that dramatizes the means by which the seemingly unbreakable cycle of violence begetting violence can come under the rule of law and the primal can give way to the civilized. If, as it has been argued, the essence of tragedy is the moment of concentrated awareness of irreversibility, then Orestes’ decision to act, accepting the certain punishment of the Furies, is the decisive tragic moment of the trilogy. Entering the palace by a stratagem, Orestes kills Aegisthus but hesitates before killing Clytemnestra, who bears her breast before him to remind Orestes that she has given him life. Orestes, sustained by the command of Apollo, finally strikes, but he is shortly beset by a vision of the Furies, women, “shrouded in black, their heads wreathed, / swarming serpents!”
In The Eumenides Orestes is pursued by the Furies first to Delphi, where Apollo is unable to protect him for long, and then to Athens, where Athena, the patroness of the city, arranges Orestes’ trial. In a trilogy that alternates its drama from the domestic conflict of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra to the internal conflict of Orestes, the third play widens its subject to the truly cosmic scale as Apollo, Hermes, the Furies, and Athena all take the stage, and the full moral, political, and spiritual implication of Orestes’ crime is enacted. Aeschylus searches for nothing less than the meaning of human suffering itself and the ways by which evil in the world can be overruled by justice and chaos can be replaced by order.
Ancient critics indicated that Aeschylus’s dramatic method was to aim at “astonishment,” and all of the playwright’s verbal and stage magic are fully deployed in The Eumenides. It is said that the first appearance of the Furies in The Eumenides caused members of the audience to faint and women to miscarry. In the trilogy’s great reversal the competing gods’ dilemma over what to do about Orestes’ crime—matricide according to the Furies, justifiable manslaughter according to Apollo—is finally resolved by representatives of the play’s first audience, Athenian citizens gathered by Athena into a jury. The Athenian legal system, not the gods, Aeschylus suggests, becomes the means for mercy and equity to enter the treatment of crime, breaking the seemingly hopeless cycle of blood requiring blood and ultimately lifting the curse on the house of Atreus. Orestes is acquitted, and the Furies are placated by being persuaded to become Athens’s protectors. Old and new gods are reconciled, and a new cosmic order is asserted in which out of the chaos of sexual aggression and self-consuming rage, justice and civilization can flourish. The final triumphal exodus led by Athena of the jurors out of the theater into the city where the principles of justice and civilization are embodied must have been overwhelming in its civic, moral, and spiritual implications for its first spectators. For later audiences it is the force and intensity of Aeschylus’s dramatic conception and his incomparable poetry that captivates. The Oresteia remains one of the most ambitious plays ever attempted, in which Aeschylus succeeds in uniting the widest possible exploration of universal human themes with an emotionally intense and riveting drama.