Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the first major tragedian of Greek drama. He was born near, and lived most of his life in and around, Athens. His trilogy Oresteia (including Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides) debuted at the Dionysian festival in Athens in 458 BC, winning first prize.
Oresteia revolves around the attempts to lift the curse plaguing the House of Atreus upon the return of Agememnon from the Trojan War.
Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon. On the left, Aegisthus urges her on, 1817, Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833)
The events of the play arise from the terrible history of the House of Atreus - in brief:
The sons of Pelops – Atreus and Thyestes – became bitter rivals for the throne of Mycenae. After much feuding, Atreus took his revenge by cooking the sons of Thyestes and feeding them to him. Thyestes was forced into exile for eating the flesh of a human. Brooding over his circumstances, Thyestes consulted the oracle who told him to have a child by his daughter. The son of this incestuous union was named Aegisthus, but he was abandoned by his mother out of shame. Eventually, Aegisthus did kill his uncle Atreus, but not before Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, and Menelaus married her sister Helen, who would become known as Helen of Troy. Helen was taken from Menelaus by Paris of Troy during a visit. Menelaus’ determination to regain his wife initiated the Trojan War.
Because Agamemnon had offended the goddess Artemis by killing a sacred deer in a sacred grove, she stopped the winds so that Agamemnon’s fleet could not sail into war. To appease Artemis, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.
Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and mother of Iphigenia, was so outraged by the killing that she began an affair with Aegisthus while Agamemnon was away at war.
Agamemnon returned from the war along with his concubine, the prophetess Cassandra. Shortly after their arrival at the palace, Clytemnestra killed both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s son Orestes was sent into exile after the murders. Later, urged on by his sister Electra, Orestes avenged the death of their father by killing Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.
Orestes was consumed with the guilt of having carried out the required revenge by committing the unforgivable act of murdering his own mother.
This version of the curse on the House of Atreus forms the plotline for Aeschylus’ trilogy. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra awaits the return of Agamemnon from the war and then stabs him to death.
In The Libation Bearers, Electra and Orestes come together and plots their revenege, culminating in Orestes’ murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
In The Eumenides, Orestes is tormented by the Furies, deities that avenge patricide and matricide. Orestes sought refuge with the gods, first with Apollo and then with Hermes, but he was unable to escape the Furies.
Since the traditional “laws” that applied to the situation were in conflict (i.e, obligatory revenge versus prohibition on matricide) the goddess Athena proposed the formation of a jury to determine Orestes’ fate. Apollo served as attorney for Orestes and the Furies were advocates for Clytemnestra. After the trial, the jury’s votes were tied, resulting in an acquittal for Orestes. The Furies were dissatisfied with outcome and protested vehemently, prompting Athena to grant them a position of honor in Athens where they could continue (in a more seemly manner) to promote the cause of parental respect. With Athena’s introduction of the jury trial, a more humane way of dispensing justice (compared with the prior mechanisms of law) became available to the Greek people.
Aeschylus, Oresteia, translated by Richmond Lattimore