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“Oresteia” Trilogy by Aeschylus

The current essay is an analysis of Oresteia based on the book “Aeschylus Oresteia” by Peter Meineck. In this paper, first of all, a brief overview of the trilogy will be presented. Then, the following topics will be addressed and analyzed: the issue of justice and Oresteia’s argument about it; vital moments from each play that illustrate how the theme changes throughout the trilogy; how these moments change the course of the play’s plot.

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A Summary of “Oresteia” Aeschylus

Oresteia is a trilogy of tragedies written by the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus in the 5th century BC. This work is his last and only piece that has survived to his day. The first play of the trilogy is devoted to the tragic story of Agamemnon. The king returns from the Trojan War, and gets murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. She takes revenge on him for the murder of her daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia for the military victory in Trojan War. The play ends with the victory of the killers – they rule Argos. In the tragedy, the vital ancient Greek’s topics are addressed: politics, theology, and justice.

The second play of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers, describes the story of the revenge. Agamemnon’s daughter Electra and his son Orestes decide to avenge the death of their father. Orestes kills both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. After that he flees the palace, overwhelmed by the feelings of guilt and shame, and followed by the Furies (female chthonic deities of vengeance). The second story refers to revenge, punishment and moral choice.

In the last play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, it is shown how a series of tragic events lead to the development of the judicial system and social order in Athenian society. In the third story, a trial for murder unfolds over Orestes. The goddess Athena organizes the process with a jury of citizens, where the Furies are accusers, and Apollo is Orestes’s advocate. The trial ends in the even division of the jury, and Athena decides for Orestes’s acquittal. The Furies do not accept Athena’s choice, but she convinces them to recognize the trial’s outcome, instead of deploying a violent reprisal against Orestes. After that, she changes the Furies’ name on “the Eumenides”, which means “the Gracious Ones”. As a result, a new order is established in Athenian society: only the state is empowered to carry out trials and is governed by the rule of law.

Law vs Revenge: Oresteia

It is evident that the trilogy’s main topic is justice. Even though the theme is fully disclosed only in the third play, the whole story gradually evolves and shifts from revenge to the rule of law. According to the plot, Athenian society experiences a transition from blood feuds to organized trials with a jury of citizens. The importance of justice through the law is deliberately highlighted in Oresteia: the goddess Athena does not just forgive Orestes but instead insists on a trial that is a civilized way to make a sentence or to return a verdict of not guilty. Through Orestes’s case, the era of revenge crimes ends up, and the new justice system is established. The rule of law defeats justice through retaliation in Ancient Greece.

Vital Moments from the Three Plays of Oresteia

In the first play, the topic of nature of justice is addressed for the first time in the trilogy. The important part of the Agamemnon story is when Clytemnestra and Aegisthus decide that justice is on their side: “Welcome bright day of justice!… I planned his killing, with Justice at my side. … Now I could go happily to my grave, seeing him lying here, tangled in the nets of Justice” (Aeschylus, 1998, p. 62). The exploitation of the trial over Agamemnon determines the future development of the trilogy’s plot. The revenge gives rise of new retaliatory actions that take place further in the trilogy.

In the second play, the focus also lays on the revenge. Its power leads the characters and motivates them to act upon it. The crucial moment in The Libation Bearers is the broken circle of endless revenge. Aeschylus demonstrates that the vicious circle is self-destructive, and encourages new violence, as every character has his or her own justice. A turning point is when Orestes needs to flee the palace, as he is ashamed and followed by the Furies: “You can’t see them, but I can, they force me away! I must go now! Now!” (Aeschylus, 1998, p. 112). He feels the self-destructiveness of his actions, and that changes the development of the plot in the third play.

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In The Eumenides, the third play of the trilogy, the significant part is when the goddess Athena leads the trial process, makes a decision, and convinces the Furies to follow the rule of law. This marks the beginning of the new era in Ancient Greece: law replaces revenge. The characters follow the new order: even the Furies receive a new name “the Eumenides”.

Furthermore, it should be mentioned that each of the three plays contains vital moments without which the trilogy would go a different way. For instance, there are two important points related to revenge, which are the basis of the overall plot. Clytemnestra’s blood feud sets the theme of the story and breeds further revenge of Electra and Orestes. Without a vicious circle of vendetta, it would be impossible to demonstrate the transition to another system (the rule of law) in Ancient Greece.

In conclusion, in Oresteia, all themes of the plays are interconnected and influence the overall plot of the trilogy. Changing one of the story’s part means losing the result of the tragedy. The trilogy consists of a number of topics; however, revenge, justice, moral choice, and punishment are central for the plot. The primary outcome of the tragic events is that justice defeats revenge, and the new period begins in Ancient Greece.

References

Aeschylus (1998). Oresteia. (P. Meineck, Trans.), Hackett Publishing Company, (Original work dated in 458 BCE).

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