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Ancient Tragedy, Greece and Rome

Andrew Scholtz, Instructor

Ancient Tragedy, Study Guide. . .

Aeschylus' Oresteia

Text Access

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. Harmondsworth, England and New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

Journal Questions: Agamemnon

Agamemnon readings 1. Clytmenestra is a difficult character to wrap our heads around. Spoiler alert: She will, with her own hands, murder Agamemnon and the girl Agamemnon brings back from Troy, Cassandra. But is Clytemnestra a monster? For if she is a monster, perhaps she isn't tragic. So,. . .

    • How do you think an audience "back in the day" would have responded to her? (Athens ca. 456 BCE was a society in which women of respectable class were expected to stay out of the public eye. They held no political power and rather less personal little autonomy than women here do today)
    • How do you respond? Why?

Agamemnon readings 2. The first several pages of the scene in which Clytemnestra, then the chorus, tries to communicate with Cassandra (pp. 143-146 line 1097) — what do you see as problems or issues in performing? How would you direct the scene?

I.                   Oresteia

Aegean World
Click map to expand

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 divinely validated justice?

II.                  The Agamemnon

A.                Issues, Topics Preview

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

B.               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

D.                Notes on the Text (by page)

107 ff. In the Chorus' song, Artemis pities Troy and is reluctant to allow the winds to let the Greek fleet sail there. The seer Calchas interprets the omen of the two eagles (= Agamemnon and Menelaus) and the hare as meaning that the Greeks will have to offer a sacrifice — Iphigenia, Clytaemnestra's and Agamemnon's daughter.

109. "He who was once so mighty" etc. That refers to Ouranos ("sky"), his son Kronos (king of the Titans), and his Kronos' son, Zeus (king of the gods). Kronos and Zeus each defeats his father to seize control of the cosmos. Zeus, in whom the Chorus seeks salvation, is thus universal victor, but through violent usurpation. The motif of the third fall (decisive in ancient Greek wrestling) and of the third drink offering (to Zeus the Savior — already on p. 111 during recollection of a past festivity) is important throughout the Oresteia.

117 ff. Just as the parodos, or "chorus entry song," centered around the sacrifice of Iphigenia, so the first stasimon centers around the crime of Paris, namely, to have violated the laws of hospitality by seducing Helen, wife of Menelaus (king of Sparta in Greece), and conveying her back to Troy.

126. "He's lost, gone from the fleets! | He and his ship, it's true." The Herald is referring to Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon and husband of Helen — the Herald fears that staorms could have made off with Menelaus, but hopes what will in fact occur: that Menelaus will make it back safely.

144 ff. Cassandra's scene mostly with the Chorus Leader (koruphaios — also Clytaemnestra and Chorus as a whole). She is silent at first, and so Clytaemnestra and Leader imagine that she perhaps speaks a foreign language — "I think she needs an interpreter" (Leader, p. 144). Cassandra alternates between confusing, god-inspired sung prophecy and more coherent and comprehensible spoken speech. See if you can detect where and how she refers to the crimes and calamities she has visions, memories, etc. of: the feast of Thyestes and related crime ("the man who tramples on his brother's bed" - Thyestes' affair with Atreus' wife — Atreus being the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus), the wedding of Paris and Helen, the destruction of Troy ("Oh the grief, the grief of the city," p. 149), her own and Agamemnon's murder ("Ai, drag the bull from the mate"), the return of Orestes ("There will come another to avenge us," p. 155). The Leader at first is confused and reluctant to believe any of it, then begins to accept what she says. She is not believed as punishment for refusing sex to the god Apollo, who gave her the gift of prophecy.

152. "Scylla crouched in her rocky nest" — Cassandra compares Clytaemnestra, who will soon murder Agamemnon, to Scylla, a sea witch or monster responsible for the deaths of sailors.

155. Cassandra describes how no Trojan would believe her when she was predicting the destruction of Troy.


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