Greek Tragedies were always performed as quadrologies with three tragic works connected thematically and one burlesque satyr play at the end. Aeschylus’s Oresteia is our only surviving example of a complete Greek trilogy, although we have since lost the satyr play, Proteus, which goes along with it. While often Agamemnon or The Libation Bearers are taught independently in many college courses around the country, the intact trilogy allows us to also consider the importance of reading the plays as a set rather than as individual parts.
The play opens with a watchman waiting for a signal to come from Troy that the city has fallen. His first words bemoan his fate and asks the gods for relief from these burdensome duty. This pessimistic gloomy attitude sets the mood for the rest of the play. Overall, the play is rather simple; the plot consisting of Agamemnon’s return from Troy with Cassandra, and then Clytemnestra kills him.
The Libation Bearers
This is the play that has the most developed plot. Orestes returns home and conspires with Electra to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, in retribution for his father’s death. The back-and-forth conversation at the end of the play between Clytemnestra and Orestes is some of my favorite dialogue in all of literature.
The final play in the trilogy has the furies chasing after Orestes as punishment for the murder of his mother. He goes before Athena in the land of Attica for aid. A trial is held with men from the land voting on the case. After a tie, Athena’s final vote acquits Orestes of any wrong doing. Athena then tries to appease the enraged furies, which serves as a ritual explanation for their worship in Athens, and all of this ends with a poetic homage to the glory of the city. To put it more cynically, he panders to his audience!
Aeschylus relies on mood and poetic dialogue to create a tragic atmosphere. My impression is that his plots are relatively simple compared to Sophocles, while Euripides seems superior to both in really exploring the depths of a character. From A Handbook of Classical Drama by Philip Whaley Harsh (1944): “Though held in the very highest esteem throughout the fifth century, Aeschylus as a dramatist gradually faded out of the practical theater, and during the fourth century, Euripides and Sophocles were far more popular. His dramatic virtues were too simple, and his poetry was too ornate and difficult. Hence in later times, he was always regarded as a great poet but not as a dramatist compared with his two eminent successors.” Many critics consider Sophocles the superior dramatist in that he is better at constructing engaging dramatic plots, while naming Aeschylus the superior poet.
Still, drama owes a lot to Aeschylus’s innovations. During the time period of these plays, there was generally only two speaking parts and other characters might appear in silent roles. It must have been a huge surprise to the audience when Cassandra whose initial silence sets her up as one of these silent “background” characters suddenly breaks out into speech.
Taken together the plays consider how sin builds upon sin in the cursed House of Atreus. Aeschylus seems to be thinking about how one can be both justified in an act such as murder as an act of revenge for a previous crime, while simultaneously committing new offense against the gods and overturning basic morality. It explores the intricate conflict of loyalties and strained social responsibilities. On the one hand, Agamemnon is sworn to protect his daughter, Iphigenia, from harm. On the other, he is sworn to aid his brother, Menelaus, and wage war on Troy who broke the sacred guest-right by stealing Helen. This is the background for the plays. Do you sacrifice the daughter so you can help your brother or do you protect your daughter at the expense of your brother’s honor and the loss of respect in front of the assembled Greek armies? The point here is that one can perform an act that is morally right by Greek standards, even obligatory, while still doing a moral wrong by that same moral code and by extension forbidden. It is obligatory and morally necessary that Orestes’s avenges his father, it is forbidden and morally wrong to kill his own mother. The problem, of course, is that it is his mother who killed his father. The play unveils the contradictory and paradoxical positions inherent in revenge-driven and blood feud social systems.
This leads to the other major theme of the trilogy, which is about the movement away from monarchy and blood feuds to democracy and trial by rule of law and one’s peers. Justice cannot exist in a monarchy where revenge, violence, and power, acts as the law. Only with the rise of Athens in the final plays does justice flourish and the cycle of revenge that plagues the House of Atreus is finally ended. When the furies are incorporated into the state of Athens, it is symbolic; the furies, who are divine representations of justice and punishment, are being brought under the rule of the state of Athens. Athenian democracy now holds sway over dealing out justice and punishment, not violent furies who punish moral transgressions. Likewise, the final plays emphasis on the furies representing the old laws and Zeus, Athena, and the rest of the newer Olympian gods substantiating the new moral order further mirrors this movement of the new replacing the old. The furies brand of justice is outdated, old-fashioned, monarchical; it’s only value is to be appropriated by the democratic state’s true and balanced form of justice.
Lastly, Aeschylus shows a strong concern for the proper role of women in the Greek world. Clytemnestra in the first play is often described by the chorus and other characters as acting masculine; her lust for power, her ability to rule without her husband, her cuckoldry, and even the sexual imagery used to describe her orgasmic joy at killing her husband likely would have come across as excessively masculine qualities to the original Greek audience. Unlike Sophocles’ Electra who seems to lust a little too much for blood, this Electra seems to lust a little too much for her dead father with no thought towards marriage proposals or the future. The females in the play express values at odds with the Greek social norms. Only Athena who explicitly sides with “male” justice over “feminine” justice embodied by the furies, can restore the balance to the patriarchal order. Once more the play shows a thematic progression from Clytemnestra’s rebellion against the masculine in the first play to Athena’s reaffirmation of male rule and wisdom in the final play.