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The Oresteia

The Oresteia is a trilogy of tragedies about the end of the curse on the House of Atreus, written by Aeschylus.

It is the only surviving trilogy of ancient Greek plays, although the fourth satyr play that would have been performed with it has not survived. The plays were originally performed in Athens in 458 BC.

Table of contents
1 Agamemnon
2 The Libation Bearers
3 The Eumenides


Agamemnon details the return of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War to his death. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his death as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia.

The play opens to Clytemnestra awaiting the return of her husband, having seen the sign that Troy had fallen. However, when Agamemnon arrives, he has in tow as a slave, the prophetess Cassandra. This, of course, serves to anger Clytemnestra further.

The main action of the play is the agon between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. She attempts to persuade Agamemnon to step on a purple (sometimes red) tapestry or carpet to walk into the their home. The problem is that this would be indicative of hubris on Agamemnon's part, and he does not wish to do this. Eventually, (the reasons why are highly debated) Clytemnestra does convince Agamemnon to enter the house, where she kills him in the bath.

Whilst Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are offstage, Cassandra discusses with the chorus whether or not she ought to enter the house, knowing that she too will be murdered. In Cassandra's speech, she runs through many images of the history of the House of Atreus, and eventually chooses to enter the house.

The Libation Bearers

The Libation Bearers is the second in the Oresteia. It mainly deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes.

Electra arrives at the grave of her father to pour a libation, and comes upon a man in the graveyard, whom she believes must be her estranged brother. Together, they plan to avenge their father by killing Clytemnestra and her new husband, Aegisthus.

Orestes is not sure that he ought to kill Clytemnestra, since she is his mother, but is guided by Apollo and his friend Pylades that it is the correct course of action.

The play ends with the death of Clytemnestra and the knowledge that the Furies will begin to haunt and torture Orestes for his crime.

The Eumenides

The Eumenides is the final play of the Oresteia, in which Orestes and the Furies go before a jury of Athenians to decide whether Orestes' murder of his mother, Clytemnestra makes him worthy of the torment they have inflicted upon him.

Apollo acts as attorney for Orestes, while the Furies act as spokespersons for Clytemnestra. In the end, we wind up with a hung jury and Athena must be brought in to make the final verdict. She votes in favour of Orestes, and then must persuade the Furies to accept her decision.

That the play ends on a happy note may surprise modern readers, to whom the word tragedy denotes a drama ending in misfortune. The word did not carry this meaning in ancient Athens, and many of the extant Greek tragedies end happily.

Worth noting here is the metaphorical aspect of this play, possibly suggesting a change from an archaic method of justice by personal revenge to the somewhat more recent method of justice by trial. The metaphor may have been embodied in the myth which Aeschylus chose to adapt.

See also: Greek literature.