The Oresteia (458) is the only trilogy, which has preserved until today. By its drama, the tragedy of the trilogy is the most perfect of all the works of Aeschylus, and in its thoughtfulness it compete with Prometheus, but it has the advantage of depicting not a divine, but a human environment.
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The content of the trilogy is the fate of the House of Atreus, represented by its most famous representatives – Agamemnon and his son Orestes. The author uses only a part of the mythological story. The action of the first part of Agamemnon takes place in Argos, which was often identified by the Athenian tragedians with the traditional residence of the House of Atreus – Mycenae. Aeschylus introduced a motive of Clytemnestra’s personal interest in the death of Agamemnon – the love to Aegisthus. He reinvented the motif of ancestral curse and blood vengeance according to modern public fears of the new tyranny. No less significant are deviations from the mythological tradition in the second part of the trilogy – the theme of divine vengeance is less of an issue, for Orestes completely takes revenge on himself. Aeschylus never mentioned the will of Apollo, whose role was embodied by Pylades, a friend and companion of Orestes. Gaining his revenge, Orestes has to kill his mother, falling under the ancestral curse.
This creates the tragic conflict and the problem of choice. Orestes understands the horror of the crime to which he was doomed by gods: “Pylades, what do I do? It’s a dreadful act to kill my mother” (1117-1118). Pylades in response reminds him of Apollo’s divinations and Orestes’ vows. Neither his mother’s pleading nor her threats of Erinyes’ vengeance have turned him from killing. It is interesting how the author interprets of these “old” deities—avengers for the blood of murdered close relatives—as they are opposed to the “new” ones – Athena and Apollo: “The essential conflict is not between Orestes and Clytemnestra or Aegisthus, but between Apollo and the daimon or Erinys of the house of Atreus. Orestes appears under the aegis of Apollo… to act as Apollo’s agent of justice.” (Otis 81). Usually they were depicted in the form of three sisters with snakes for hair and whips in their hands. Their toothless mouths were dripping blood and they produced terrible screams, chasing their prey.
After the Clytemnestra’s murder that was accomplished in palace chambers (according to the laws of the ancient theater the viewer was not supposed to see the bloody scenes), the chorus sings about the rightful Justice and celebrates the salvation of the royal house (934-973). Orestes, pursued by Erinyes is running in horror in search of salvation. The leader of the choir advised him to seek help from Apollo. Preserving the most ancient stratum of tribal morality, with its fear of the ancestors’ curse and the duty to take revenge for the blood, Aeschylus creates a new ideological framework, in which at the foreground comes a personal responsibility of an individual, whose subjective activity loses its former unambiguity and is involved into the internal contradictory relationships with objective law that rules the world.
Equally peculiar is the final part of the trilogy, Eumenides. Attention is drawn to the title of this part of the tragedy, which is translated from Greek as “merciful”, “supportive”, “kindly ones”. This is how Erin would be called after the acquittal of Orestes, when they agreed to settle in Athens and promote the good of the city. Aeschylus changed the original version of the myth, according to which Orestes was cleaned and saved by Apollo. Clashing the old goddesses Erinyes with the new ones Apollo and Athena Aeschylus presented this dispute as a struggle between the principles of patrimonial and matrimonial rights. Orestes actions symbolized “the overture to a new phase in Athenian history” (Silk 127).
In Eumenides Aeschylus demonstrates with a great skill the art of intertwining mythological motifs with topical political challenges of contemporary times. The most typical example of this is Aeschylus’ attitude towards the reform of Areopagus, which exercised a supreme supervision of public institutions, laws and customs of the citizens, carried out in 462 BC by Ephialtes, an advocate and adherent of Pericles. After the reform the Areopagus preserved its right to judicial authority in cases of intended murders, arsons and the right to make decisions on religious matters, especially on blood feud. In Aeschylus’ tragedy Athena establishes such judicial board to decide on the guilt or innocence of Orestes, which was turned by her into a permanent tribunal in cases of bloodshed (690 - 693). Aeschylus also explains the name of Areopagus – “the hill of Ares”. On that hill once stood the camp of Amazons who had come to fight with Theseus. They erected a city and dedicated it to Ares. Aeschylus supports the reform undertaken by the Areopagus, but urges citizens not to deprive the members of the Areopagus their former honor and respect: “The fate of Orestes is thus subordinated to the foundation of the Athenian court whose collective conscience was to be the supreme voice of justice regulated by man” (Smyth 229).
The second important political allusion, which received an original mythological explanation, was the issue of foreign policy of Athens concerning Argos, which at that time was a motif of a fierce struggle in the Greek society. The fact that Orestes oaths on behalf of Argos for the eternal loyalty to Athens and promises never to resume hostilities against Athens (765 - 769) played an important role for the contemporaries of Aeschylus and his own political position.
Finally, the tragedy contains another hint. It is associated with an episode of Athena appearance. She searched the land, inherited as the trophy of war by the sons of Theseus, the participants of the Trojan campaign. Athena considers these lands as her property. Thus Aeschylus supports Athens claims of land near the Hellespont. They intensified after the victories over the Persians. Aeschylus thus justifies his attitude to topical political disputes by the references to the past, which was the most powerful argument in the eyes of his contemporaries. The myth is not seen by Aeschylus as merely a historical reality, but is a means of disclosure of reality.
The tragedy Oresteia is very important for understanding the world of Aeschylus. As the choral parts suggest, Aeschylus opposed the traditional idea of the epic poetry of mechanical alternation of happiness and unhappiness in life. Above all Aeschylus puts the justice, which he sees in performance of the elementary requirements of patriarchal rule – in compliance with the duties of hospitality, in the worship of the gods and parents. Truth and justice provide the person with success in all his undertakings. In Choephoroi (946-952) the poet provides the glorification of justice, which, though after a long time, triumphs and wins. It is an opponent of arrogance, audacity, resentment, which is given the definition “hybris.” All serious crimes of people, according to Aeschylus, result from pride, lose of sanity, and insanity becomes the source of disaster. Poet proclaims knowledge as the weapon of retribution. Countless times Aeschylus repeats the idea that suffering teaches, that by suffering knowledge is gained. Here the poet’s belief in justice is revealed: acting fairly people can find out the will of gods, which was hidden from him.
Orestes, therefore, is the first optimistic character, although he is tragic in his actions and decisions. In the trilogy Oresteia man begins to tragically realize his detachment from the world of gods, and this leads him to self-confidence and the freedom of choice.
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