When the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus known as the Oresteia was first produced in 458 B.C., Athens was in full flush of the exuberant energy that was driving it to greatness. Starting from well-known stories about the Trojan War and the House of Atreus, as well as legends about the establishment of the Athenian legal courts, Aeschylus shaped his material into three dramas that depict the movement from primitive retaliatory vengeance to civilized justice. In doing so, he created an enduring dramatic representation of the human and supra-human elements that must be held in carefully tuned and sometimes precarious balance to ensure a just civic order.
The plays take their keynote from a saying by the chorus early in Agamemnon: “we must suffer, suffer into truth” (p. 109). From the outset of the trilogy, we are immersed in a world already full of the misery of the Trojan War and stained by the murderous House of Atreus. In each generation, there have been acts of violence and retribution, intermingling the private and public realms, that have called forth further vendettas in a seemingly endless chain. The facts in each case are indisputable: Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia ten years prior to Agamemnon in order to advance his campaign against Troy; Clytaemnestra then kills Agamemnon to avenge the sacrifice; in The Libation Bearers, Orestes kills his mother Clytaemnestra in retaliation for her killing of Agamemnon. What Aeschylus calls into question, both for his characters and for his spectators, is the meaning of each act. Does Agamemnon choose justly between the interests of his command and his fatherly love and duty? Is Clytaemnestra justified in carrying out the sentence she passed on Agamemnon? Is Orestes right to value vengeance for his father’s death more than his mother’s life?
Progressively, the suffering that each of the main characters inflicts is weighed more and more heavily against the suffering that each undergoes in carrying out violence. Each character gives justifications for their actions, backed up by presumptions of what the gods may require them to do, but always coming nearer are the torments threatened by the Furies.
In The Libation Bearers, after Orestes has killed his mother—assuming like so many before him that an act of revenge will resolve a troubled state of affairs—the Furies begin to torment his conscience, driving him from the place where he assumed he would recover his patrimony. Again, Aeschylus challenges us to suffer toward truth with his protagonist, asking how his seemingly just case of revenge can be reconciled with the intent of the Furies to punish the crime of matricide. Depicting the Furies as both fiercely reasonable and physically repugnant, Aeschylus asks us to understand their stature and authority.
The culminating play in the trilogy, The Eumenides, brings the action of the drama out of the world of archaic history into the crucible of Athenian culture and thought, and therefore into the intellectual and civic world to which we are heirs. In the debates between Athena, Apollo, and the Furies, Aeschylus represents the elements that must be balanced and held in tension to create a resolute civic order. In making the exoneration of Orestes dependent on a tie vote of the jurors that is broken only by Athena’s vote, a searching question is raised about the meaning of justice ordained by a court: What can make a verdict such as this one—justifiable manslaughter—more than a contradiction in terms?
The metaphoric movement from darkness to light is present throughout the Oresteia. However, when the Furies become the Eumenides—the Kindly Ones—and are established as the guardians of the court, Aeschylus is asking us to consider the way in which law and the primitive, ferocious drives that are its source must combine to produce the energy and judiciousness that can make a society great and vigorous. Concluding with an ongoing torchlight procession of celebrants, the trilogy ultimately turns toward a rich chiaroscuro—a recognition of the necessity of controlling opposing forces in such a way that they complement each other.
Born near Athens around 525 B.C., Aeschylus lived through the tumultuous events that marked the successful defeat of the invading Persians in 490 B.C. and 480 B.C., the decades of internecine fighting for political power in Athens, and the emergence of a democratic city-state under the leadership of Pericles in the early 450s B.C. Aeschylus, then, was from the first generation of what is often called classical Greece. He fought at the momentous Battle of Marathon where the forces of the Persians were turned back, setting the course of Western history.
Along with Sophocles and Euripides, both younger, Aeschylus was recognized during his lifetime as one of the leading tragic poets. He is known to have written about ninety plays, fifty-two of which won first prize in the annual competition at the Theater of Dionysus, one of the most prestigious honors an Athenian writer could attain. Of all his work, only seven plays and a few fragments have survived. According to the usual practice of Greek playwrights, Aeschylus would have acted in his own dramas, as well as directed the elaborate productions that included music, dance, and striking costumes.
Before Aeschylus, Greek tragic drama is thought to have been largely choral reading, with only one individual character on stage at a time. Aeschylus is generally credited with the innovation of introducing two or more characters onto the stage, making possible a rich interplay of speech and action. In addition, he seems to have shifted the dramatic emphasis in Greek tragedy to characters whose personal fates are bound up with their political standing and whose actions have profound implications for the well-being of the state.
In 458 B.C., three years before his death at the age of sixty-nine, Aeschylus produced the Oresteia, reflecting the recent civic strife in Athens and the transition from vengeful bloodshed and strife to a hopeful new order under the rule of law.
Robert Fagles is Arthur W. Marks Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He is the recipient of a 1996 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His acclaimed verse translations include Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays, Aeschylus’ Oresteia (nominated for a National Book Award in 1977), Homer’s Iliad (winner of the 1991 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award by The Academy of American Poets, an award from the Translation Center of Columbia University, and the New Jersey Humanities Book Award) and Homer’s Odyssey (1996). He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is currently at work on a new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Drawing on the stories that Aeschylus used in the Oresteia, this play depicts the same events as The Libation Bearers. Sophocles portrays the judicious righting of wrongs and the reestablishing of civic order without the dire consequences that Orestes suffers in Aeschylus’ Eumenides.
Euripides, Electra; Orestes; Iphigenia at Aulis
In Electra and Orestes, Euripides adds a complex psychology to the characters, questioning the effectiveness of the gods and human reason in maintaining a just and balanced personal and civic life. Iphigenia at Aulis recounts the sacrifice of Clytaemnestra’s daughter, for whom she seeks revenge by killing Agamemnon.
Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931)
Set at the time of the American Civil War, this play transports the story of the House of Atreus to a world where tormented human desires leave little room for redemption, and the grandeur of great human suffering provides only dark consolation.
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Flies (1943)
Originally written and produced in France during World War II, The Flies casts Orestes as an anti-authoritarian protagonist determined to overthrow the illegitimate rule of his murderous mother and her despotic consort, Aegisthus.