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a synopsis and analysis of the trilogy by Aeschylus

The following essay on the Oresteia was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 114-21.

The Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides were the last tragedies composed by Aeschylus, and were produced in 458 [B.C.], two years before his death, along with the satyric drama Proteus. The tetralogy as a whole was called the Oresteia, a name which, whether due to Aeschylus or not, appears to have been in use at any rate as early as the time of Aristophanes. The contents of the Proteus are unknown, and its connection with the preceding tragedies obscure; but it probably dealt with the fortunes of Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, and related the story of his detention on the coast of Egypt, and his rescue by the help of Proteus, the sea-god.

The subject of the trilogy is one of those dark stories of hereditary guilt, of which the Septem (Seven Against Thebes) [supplies another] example. Atreus had sown the first seeds of woe by his murder of the children of Thyestes; and Agamemnon, later on, had sacrificed the life of his daughter, Iphigenia to his own ambition. The results are unfolded in the Oresteia. Clytemnestra, assisted by her paramour Aegisthus, murders Agamemnon, partly to conceal her adultery, partly in revenge for the loss of her daughter. The murderers are slain in turn by Orestes, who thus incurs the guilt of matricide. For this offense he is exposed to the vengeance of the Furies, who typify the workings of remorse, and by whom he is hunted from place to place, until at length he reaches Athens, where he finds release from his sufferings.

The story is mentioned several times in Homer, but contains, as related by him, none of those subtler traits which appeared in later times, such as the mixture of motives in the case of Clytemnestra, and the hesitation and remorse of Orestes. In Homer it is an ordinary tale of lust, murder, and laudable revenge. At a subsequent date it was treated at length by Stesichorus in his Oresteia, and by Agias in his Nosti, one of the poems of the Epic Cycle. Little, however, is known as to the form which the legend assumed in these two narratives, except that in Stesichorus the idea of Orestes' remorse was now made prominent, and he was pursued by the avenging spirit of his mother. Later on Pindar, in a passing reference, suggested that vengeance for the loss of Iphigenia, and not mere lust, may have been the cause of Clytemnestra's crime. Nothing further of importance can be ascertained concerning the early history of the legend. At the same time these brief notices are sufficient to show that it had already been to a certain extent developed and expanded, and its meaning intensified, even before the time of Aeschylus.

But the depth of moral significance which it acquires in the hands of Aeschylus was essentially his own creation. Under his treatment it becomes one of the most solemn and impressive pictures of guilt and retribution which was ever painted by any poet. One thought inspires the whole trilogy from first to last -- the thought of the crimes which have been committed in the past, and of the blood which has been shed, and which still cries out unceasingly for vengeance. This recollection seems to haunt the very souls of the actors in the successive tragedies. It hangs like a dark cloud over the minds of the Theban elders, damps their joy at the news of the victory, and fills them with gloomy forebodings. It forms the constant burden of those odes in the Choephori, where the chorus justify the approaching act of retribution. It is never absent from the lips of the Furies, as they pursue Orestes with righteous chastisement.

The Agamemnon has generally been regarded as the greatest of all Greek tragedies, though its structure is simple and unpretentious, and it possesses few of the qualities which constitute the attraction in a modern drama. The antique severity of the style is brought into prominent relief, if we compare it with the various imitations of modern authors. In these latter works the interest centers mainly in the passions and the plot -- in the struggles between love and honour which agitate the breast of Clytemnestra, and in the sudden difficulties and counter-maneuvers which hinder the execution of the murder. In Aeschylus, on the other hand, there is no vacillation of motive, and the action, slight as it is, moves forward steadily and without hindrance to the inevitable conclusion. But the absence of all complexity in the conduct of the incidents is counterbalanced by the impressive solemnity of the tone, as the helpless victim draws closer and closer to his doom. Scene follows scene in an ascending scale of tragic intensity. The first note is struck by the guarded hints and allusions of the watchman. Then follow the reminiscences and apprehensions of the chorus, the dejected narratives of the herald, and the hollow and hypocritical greetings between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. In all these passages the sound of approaching calamity grows louder and louder, until at length it reaches its climax in the ravings of Cassandra, which foretell the commission of the murder.

The introduction of Cassandra, which gives occasion to the finest scene in the play, answers a double object. As an example of the insolence of Agamemnon, in bringing home his captive mistress before the very eyes of his wife, it lessens out sympathy with his misfortune, and fixes our attention on his guilt, in accordance with the moral purpose of the trilogy. At the same time the inspired utterances of the prophetess serve to recall to the minds of the audience those dark crimes of Atreus which were the primal source of the present evil. Another noticeable feature in the Agamemnon is the humorous scene which follows the murder. The sententious ineptitude of the old men, in the presence of the crisis, is one of those passages of semi-comedy with which Aeschylus occasionally relieves the tension of the feelings; and it may be compared with the speeches of the porter which precede the discovery of the murder in Macbeth, or with the bantering dialogue of the gentlemen after the death-scene in the Maid's Tragedy.

The Choephori contains the vengeance of Orestes, and the slaughter of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The latter part of the play, in which the deed is accomplished, displays more ingenuity of contrivance in the management of the incidents than is usual in Aeschylus; and the deception practiced by the nurse upon Aegisthus is the earliest example in Greek tragedy of anything resembling a modern plot. But the first half is almost devoid of action, and consists mainly of the long "commus," in which Orestes, Electra, and the chorus stand round the tomb of Agamemnon, appealing to him for aid, and recalling his mournful destiny. This episode, which appears far too lengthy for modern taste, has provoked much discussion, and the extent to which it is prolonged has been variously explained, either as denoting a certain hesitation on the part of Orestes, or as heightening the feelings of suspense and horror with which the coming doom is anticipated. But we should remember that a scene of this kind, like many other duets between stage and chorus in Aeschylus, is more suitable for acting than for reading; and it is probable that the impressiveness of the spectacle in the theatre -- the black-robed maidens beside the tomb, the weeping figures of Electra and Orestes, the varied gestures of anger, sorrow, and revenge, and the diverse tones of the music, rising and falling with the different emotions of the assembled group -- would go far, during the actual performance, to prevent any feeling of monotony in the minds of the audience.

The older vase-paintings which depict the vengeance of Orestes represent him as stabbing Aegisthus in the breast, while Clytemnestra is endeavouring to strike the assailant with an axe from behind. The same type of scene, though with slight varieties of detail, recurs so frequently, that there can be little doubt that it represents the ancient version of the legend, as given by Stesichorus and the Epic Cycle. According to this account, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra must have been slain together after a promiscuous struggle. Aeschylus has altered the circumstances of the slaughter. He still retains the axe, which figures so prominently in the old pictures, as the weapon of Cletemnestra. But he has caused Aegisthus to be slain first, in order to introduce that impressive scene between mother and son, in which the horrors of matricide are powerfully portrayed, and the mind is prepared for the effects which are to follow.

These effects are exhibited in the Eumenides. Orestes, it is true, was justified, both by the commands of Apollo, and the Greek ideas of right, in killing the murderers of his father. Yet the slaughter of a mother is a deed of such atrocity that it cannot pass unpunished, and he is pursued with relentless hatred by the Furies. He flies to Delphi, and is purified by Apollo. But the Furies still dog his steps till he arrives at Athens, where he is tried before the Areopagus. The Furies accuse, Apollo defends, and the votes of the Areopagites are divided equally on both sides. Finally he is acquitted by the casting vote of Athene.

Throughout this play the interest is transferred from persons to principles. The human element becomes of less importance, and Orestes and his fortunes sink into the background. Their place is taken by the great gods of Olympus and of Tartarus, who represent opposing ordinances. Law and Justice, typified by the Furies, demand the punishment of the matricide; while Equity, personified by Apollo and Zeus, pleads for the release of the avenger of crime. It is between these mighty combatants that the battle is waged. Guilt is set against guilt, duty against duty, and no decision seems possible. At length Mercy, under the person of Athene, decides in favour of Orestes.

The end of the trial concludes the history of the house of Atreus, and would be the natural termination of the trilogy. But Aeschylus here turns aside from his main scheme, and inserts an episode of peculiar interest to his countrymen. The Furies, it is well known, were worshipped at Athens under a special title, as the Holy or Benign Ones, and were regarded by the Athenians not only as ministers of vengeance, but also as beneficent deities, who brought fertility to the earth. Their sanctuary, and the grotto in which they were supposed to live, were situated at the foot of the Areopagus. Aeschylus, by a bold invention of his own, connects their first settlement at Athens with the trial of Orestes. According to his version, when they hear the verdict of acquittal, they are consumed with fury, and abandon themselves to violent outbursts of passion. Disappointed of their prey, they threaten ruin and devastation on the land of the Athenians. But Athene addresses them with mild words of exhortation, and gradually assuages their wrath by recounting the honours they will receive if they take up their abode in Attica. At length their hearts are softened, their curses are turned into blessings, and they march forth in procession, escorted by troops of Athenian citizens, to their appointed home.

This closing scene is one of the finest conceptions in Aeschylus, whether regarded from the moral or from the theatrical point of view. The peaceful conversion of these mysterious goddesses of the underworld from Avenging Furies into Benign Goddesses typifies in the most beautiful manner the spiritual meaning of the play -- the eventual supremacy of mercy over justice. At the same time the final procession cannot fail to have produced an extraordinary effect in the Athenian theatre. The situation of that theatre was such, that when the Furies moved slowly out of sight through the western passage of the orchestra, they would appear to be actually wending their way towards their sanctuary under the Areopagus. Under such circumstances the illusion must have been complete, and the spectators might almost beguile themselves into the belief that they were transported into the remote past, and were witnessing with their own eyes the great events of mythical tradition.

The physical aspect of the Furies, as conceived by Aeschylus, and as represented in the performance of the Oresteia, was a further innovation on previous custom. Before his time there had been nothing loathsome in the mode in which they were depicted, whether in their character as avengerss or as beneficent deities. Aeschylus exerted all his ingenuity to make them as horrible as possible, clothing them in long black garments, and giving them snaky locks and blood-smeared faces. Tradition says that the spectacle was too terrible for many of the audience, and that boys fainted and women miscarried. However this may be, it is certainly a fact that in subsequent works of Greek art there is no attempt to reproduce the Furies of Aeschylus. Later artists, when portraying these goddesses, represent them as beings of a mild, and sometimes beautiful, aspect.

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