The Orestreian Trilogy

21 Feb

For anyone planning to read the Oresteia my best advice would be cut it short and stop after you finish Agamemnon. In both The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides Aeschylus never approaches the moral complexity, depth, or pathos of his opening, and neither of the latter plays offers a character as compelling and sympathetic as Agamemnon’s Clytemnestra. There’s a sense when regarding the work as a whole that Aeschylus deliberately backs off the difficult questions he asks with Agamemnon so he can reassure his audience, first implicitly in The Libation Bearers and then more overtly in the Eumenides, that these difficulties need not trouble them because the status quo is the will of the gods.

Agamemnon opens with an exposition by a watchman who has been ordered by Clytemnestra to the roof of the house so he can look for a signal fire that will announce the fall of Troy; within the first fifty lines he introduces the play’s two important themes: appropriate gender roles and silence in the face of wrongdoing.  Both themes figure strongly in Agamemnon then are a carried through the next two plays of the trilogy in a more limited way. The watchman first describes Clytemnestra as having “the determined resolution of a man” and then in closing his ode he alludes to some troubles in the house of Agamemnon and says he will keep his silence about them:

As for all the rest, I’m saying nothing.
A great ox stands on my tongue. But this house,
if it could speak, might tell some stories.

A chorus of Argive elders then enters and begins a long series of stanzas, first telling of Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’s departure for Troy, then of a sign Zeus sent to the two brother-kings, and finally of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia in which they note, “They gagged her lovely mouth…to stifle any curse which she might cry”. Despite the level of detail the elders are able to give about Iphigenia they maintain that, regarding her sacrifice, “What happened next I did not see. And I won’t say.”

In a significant departure from more familiar versions of the myth, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon depicts Artemis as sending hostile winds and delaying the Achaean voyage to Troy due to her anger at the sign of victory Zeus gave to Agamemnon and Menelaus – two eagles devouring a hare and its unborn young.  Artemis’s actions are not shown as a personal animosity toward Agamemnon, but rather as the natural and expected capriciousness of a god. Agamemnon is still faced with either sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, or peremptorily giving up the war against Troy and returning home with his troops, but by omitting any insult or offense given to Artemis by Agamemnon, Aeschylus relocates the immediate cause of the Orestreian tragedy to Agamemnon’s desire to maintain his reputation and press forward with his army and, thus, his valuation of his honor over Iphigenia’s life.

Clytemnestra then enters and the chorus of elders asks her if she’s received any message. After detailing the relay system she sat up to signal from Troy to Argos, Clytemnestra describes in detail the aftermath of Troy’s fall. While there’s nothing unusual about what she claims the soldiers are doing now that they’ve captured the city, even though she can’t possibly know all the specifics she gives, her speech ends with an ominous reference to Iphigenia:

But even if the soldiers do reach home
without offending any god, harsh sorrow
for the dead may still be watching for them

Perhaps realizing she’s spoken too plainly, Clytemnestra concludes with, “Well, I’ve let you hear my woman’s words. May good things now prevail for all to see.” The dramatic irony wouldn’t have been lost on Aeschylus’s audience but the Argive elders prove they are not only unable to speak the truth, as in their description of Iphigenia’s death, but unable to hear it as well. Before Clytemnestra’s exit they complement her by saying, “You speak wisely, like a prudent man.”

Left alone the chorus now recites several stanzas discussing the will of the gods, the war, Helen, and divine punishment of wicked men. Their words not only foreshadow Agamemnon’s death with references such as “those men who trample underfoot”, and “destruction is the penalty for those with reckless pride”, but give the impression that they and the Argive people, although unhappy with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, aren’t willing to speak out about it. Some stanzas seem particularly bold in condemning Agamemnon:

Some complain about that woman [Helen],
how she’s to blame for all of this—
but do so quietly. Nonetheless,

this sorrow spreads resentment
against the leaders of the war,
the sons of Atreus.

For gods aren’t blind to men who kill.
In time, black agents of revenge,
the Furies, wear down and bring to nothing
the fortunes of a man who prospers
in unjust ways.

The chorus of elders, however, quickly backtracks from this boldness and begins to question whether Clytemnestra’s message is even real. They now describe her as a woman and “far too trusting.” When the elders see a herald coming they say they’ll soon find out the truth, but hint at a deeper truth they’re unwilling to speak of, “and we can then rejoice still more, or else . . . but I won’t think of that.” The herald confirms that Troy has fallen, then Clytemnestra enters and gives a dissembling speech proclaiming how faithful she’s been while Agamemnon was away. After she exits the herald tells the elders about Menelaus’s trouble getting home and then he leaves as well. Alone on the stage the chorus excoriates both Helen and Paris, they allude to the curse of violence and death Agamemnon inherited from his father and this sets the stage for Agamemnon’s entrance with Cassandra.

Since Agamemnon killed his daughter to ensure he’d have the opportunity to obtain wealth and glory in the Trojan War, the wording of the elder’s welcoming ode to him seems particularly ironic:

For many men value appearances
more than reality—thus they violate
what’s right.

Agamemnon gives thanks to the gods for his victory and his return then informs the elders he’ll set up an assembly to “root out all infectious evil” in the city. Clytemnestra enters and gives a clearly duplicitous speech honoring her husband, chillingly referring to him as “his father’s truly begotten son.” She then tells the women of her household to spread out valuable tapestries for Agamemnon to walk on. She closes with lines that, as with so much she’s said in the play, have an obvious double meaning for the audience:

Let his path be covered all in red, so Justice
can lead him back into his home, a place
he never hoped to see. As for the rest,
my unsleeping vigilance will sort it out,
with the help of gods, as fate decrees.

Agamemnon and Clytemnestra enter their palace, leaving the chorus of elders alone with Cassandra. The elders express their unease and foreboding, then Clytemnestra returns and tries to persuade Cassandra to enter the palace with her. Cassandra remains mute and unmoving so Clytemnestra exits to the palace once again. The Argive elders now have a long exchange with Cassandra. When she obliquely prophesies Agamemnon’s death and her own the elders are very sympathetic toward her, but when she tells them directly what is happening they refuse to believe her. Although the audience is aware of what’s going to happen, Aeschylus maintains tension in Agamemnon by the character’s repeated refusal – or in Cassandra’s case, inability – to speak plainly about what’s going on. When Cassandra exits to the palace, the Argive elders turn their attention to Agamemnon:

Take Agamemnon…if he must pay the penalty
for blood which other men before him shed
and die in retribution for the dead
he killed himself, what mortal human being
who hears all this can boast he lives
a life unscarred by fate?

Even though they seemingly understand what’s happening the chorus becomes panicked and confused when they hear Agamemnon crying for help. They decide not to take any action until they know for certain what’s going on inside the palace. Just then the palace doors open and reveal Clytemnestra standing over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. She gives a powerful speech to the elders, closing with:

He filled the mixing bowls in his own house
with such destructive misery, and now
he drinks it to the dregs. He’s home at last.

The Argive elders are aghast at what she’s done and wonder how she can gloat over her dead husband but Clytemnestra is unrepentant and informs them, “You’re testing me, as if I were some silly woman. But my heart is fearless.” The elders and Clytemnestra now have a back and forth exchange, she continually justifies her actions until Aegisthus enters accompanied by armed retainers. The chorus is insulting and contemptuous of him, referring to him as a “womanly creature” not brave enough to kill Agamemnon himself. Aegisthus is ready to have his retainers attack the chorus of elders but Clytemnestra intervenes to diffuse the tense situation. The play ends with the two of them returning to the palace and leaving the armed guards and the Argive elders facing each other outside.

After Aeschylus’s subtle meditations on the nature of revenge and fate, the intricately used motifs of refusal to say/refusal to hear, and the compelling character of Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, the falling-off that occurs in The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides is a disappointment, to say the least. To save you the trouble I’ve rewritten them here and, for brevity’s sake, maintained all the important plot points and characterization while omitting needless dialogue.


Didn’t we know someone named Iphigenia once?


Iphigenia who?


I love my daddy!


I love my daddy!


Patriarchy, patriarchy, yay!


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