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Study Guide: Aeschylus' Oresteia

Guide to Greek History and Myth | History timeline from Greek Persuasion site | Additional reference links under "Resources"

Link to 21-Feb quiz study guide. . .

I.                   Oresteia

Aegean World
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A.                The Plays

Aeschylus: Born 525/524, Athens. Died 456/455 in Gela, Sicily.

Plays: Unlike most tetralogies we know of, the Oresteia constitutes a connected story line. It was produced at Athens in the year 458.

Setting: Agamemnon and Libation Bearers in Argos (where Agamemnon is king); Eumenides at Delphi, then at Athens. Proteus (lost satyr play) in Egypt

Time: The aftermath of the Trojan War

  1. Agamemnon: The return of the victorious Agamemnon from Troy, and his murder at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, in revenge for sacrificing their daughter, Iphigeneia. Cassandra, princess of Troy and Agamemnon's captive, is also killed
  2. Libation Bearers: Orestes and Electra (brother and sister) conspire to kill Clytemnestra (their mother) and Aegisthus (Clytemnestra’s lover) in revenge for the murder of Agamemnon, their father
  3. Eumenides: Orestes is put on trial at Athens for the murder of his mother. The Furies (Erinues), goddesses of punishment, are at last appeased. The cycle of violence is broken
  4. Proteus (lost): Satyr play; concerns what happened to Menelaus (Agamemnon’s brother) through all this - i.e., his and Helen's adventures in Egypt

B.                 Conflicts, Oppositions

  • man versus woman
  • civic harmony versus civic chaos
  • persuasion versus violence
  • new gods versus old gods
  • new political order versus old

C.                Study Questions

What connections are there between justice, power-force-violence, and persuasion in Aeschylus’ Oresteia?


In general, think about how imagery RESONATES and ECHOES in the Oresteia - images "bouncing off" of one another and reflecting one another and the action of the play, too.


  • For the trilogy, what are the types of justice?
  • Do they conflict?
  • What are their relative merits?
  • Which justice is ultimately 'just”?
  • Do you see an evolution in how justice is conceived?
  • How do you yourself possibly define/redefine justice as a result of reading the Oresteia?
  • Does the Oresteia say anything about the role of persuasion and justice in a community?

Is there at the end of it all "theodicy": divinely validated justice?

II.                  The Agamemnon

A.               Class Exercises

19-Feb . . .

The Chorus in Agamemnon

We shall interrogate Hegelian notions of the chorus as "simple consciousness" in opposition to "individual pathos," the "ethical mode" associated with the main characters - the "heroes" - of tragedy.

21-Feb Discussion: "There are no bad tragic characters" . . .

The case of Clytemnestra. Organized class discussion.

B.                Issues, Topics Preview

  • "Tragic formula"
    • koros (excess)
    • hubris (arrogance, transgression)
    • atē (delusion, ruin)
    • dikē (justice)
  • Cycle of suffering
  • Pathei mathos, "knowledge through suffering"

C.               General Issues

IN GENERAL. How do YOU respond to the various characters? Bad guys? Good guys? In between? Why?

The chorus. The role of the chorus (VERY prominent): their effectiveness/ineffectiveness in the action of the play; their function within the POETIC structure. Note the play of imagery - metaphor and simile - in their songs. How to make sense of all those images?

Clytaemnestra. Gender issues: In what ways does she play the woman’s part? In what ways the man's part? Justice: Do YOU think Clytaemnestra (who kills her husband) does/does not have justice on her side? Why??

Agamemnon - red carpet scene. His arrival and the red carpet scene (lines 795–976): What are the issues in this episode? Why in the end does Agamemnon tread upon the carpet? Why is it a fatal mistake?

Cassandra scene. Can you make sense of the telescoping of prequel into action of play?

Mythological Background

A.                 Important divinities

  • Zeus: "Father of gods and men," arbiter of justice, etc.
  • Ares: god of destructive war
  • Apollo: god of prophecy; grants Cassandra (Trojan princess, Agamemnon's prisoner) the gift, but decrees that she will never be believed
  • Artemis: Demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter if the Greek fleet is to be allowed to sail out of Aulis for Troy
  • Furies: Deities of punishment

B.                Genealogy: House of Pelops

Agamemnon genealogy

C.                Prequel

"Feast of Thyestes"

  • Atreus and Thyestes, sons of Pelops, quarrel over the kingship of Argos
  • Atreus becomes king, but Thyestes has an affair with Atreus wife
  • Atreus exiles Thyestes, but then invites his brother back to Argos, supposedly to give Thyestes a chance to seek forgiveness
  • Pretending to serve his brother meat from a sacrificed animal, Atreus actually tricks Thyestes into eating two of Thyestes' own sons - this is the Feast of Thyestes

Trojan War

  • Atreus' two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, become kings - Agamemnon of Argos, Menelaus of Sparta
  • Agamemnon marries Clytemnestra, Menelaus marries Helen, Clytemnestra's sister
  • Paris, prince of Troy (in Turkey), steals Helen; the brothers (the "Atreids") organize an army to get her back
  • But the Greek army can't set sail from Aulis until the goddess Artemis' desire for a human sacrifice is satisfied - it must be Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon
    • The Chorus in Agamemnon provides no clear motivation - an offense against the goddess or the like - to explain Artemis' anger at Agamemnon and Menelaus
  • Iphigenia dies, the Greeks set sail. While Agamemnon is gone, Clytaemnestra has an affair with Aegisthus, the surviving son of Thyestes (see "Feast of Thyestes," above)
    • It is important to note that in Agamemnon's absence, Clytemnestra has sent Orestes, their child, away to be raised by Strophius of Phocis, allegedly so that in the event of Agamemnon's death, an uprising of the people of Argos won't endanger the child
  • Agamemnon conquers and loots Troy, and returns to Argos with Cassandra, formerly princess of Troy, now his slave
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Mail to ascholtz@binghamton.edu. Last modified February 15, 2008.