The Oresteia

Definition

Theater

  • A sequence of three tragedies by Aeschylus, the onlycomplete Greek trilogy to have survived (the accompanying satyr-playis lost). Consisting of the plays Agamemnon, the Choephoroi(Libation Bearers), and the Eumenides (Furies),it was first performed in 458 BC in Athens and won firstprize at the City Dionysia. Often considered the profoundestof all tragic works, The Oresteia has many complex themes,but concentrates particularly on guilt and its expiation, the conflictbetween vengeance and justice, and the nature of the relationshipbetween human beings, the gods, and destiny.

    In the first play Agamemnon, king of Argos, returns home fromthe Trojan War to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who has takena lover. She has sent their infant son, Orestes, into exile but inthe Choephoroi he returns as a young man to avenge his father.The pivotal moment in the trilogy occurs when Orestes has to choosebetween avenging his father by committing the heinous crime of matricide,or letting his father remain unavenged, an equally grave offence.A stunning theatrical innovation was deployed by Aeschylus at thispoint. In all previous Greek tragedies the hero was attended by amute companion figure, and Aeschylus uses this character (who speaksonly four lines in the play) to advise Orestes. Orestes kills hismother but is pursued by the Furies, who demand that she, in turn,be avenged. In the Eumenides Orestes pleads before the Atheniancourt, the Areopagus, to be released from his guilt. Eventually thegoddess Athena acquits him, breaking the cycle of vengeance.

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