Study Guide for The Oresteia

by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Department of Classics, Temple University

 

This is, at times, an extremely confusing trilogy, especially the first play. Consult the genealogy, glossary and notes at the back of the book for help. Taplin (Greek Tragedy in Action) is valuable for understanding the play's visual power.

Structure: all Greek tragedies are organized by a pattern that alternates choruses (stasima) and action (episodes -- literally means "after" or "in between the odes"). The chorus is more central here than in any other Greek tragedy.

Line numbers: Fagles' Penguin edition numbers lines as they appear in English, but the line numbers of the original Greek text are provided at the top of each page. The notes below follow the Greek line numbers. This scheme will help you organize the play's action.

You can view a on-line text of the dramas of Aeschylus at the Perseus project; this text contains links to information that can further explain various aspects of Greek culture.

There is also available a text of Pindar's 11th Pythian Ode, which contains another version of this myth.



Agamemnon

1-39 Prologue
40-263 Parodos
264-354 episode 1
355-488 stasimon 1
489-680 episode 2
681-809 stasimon 2
810-975 episode 3
976-1034 stasimon 3
1035-1071 episode 4
1072-1330 Kommos (a lyric exchange between chorus and character)
1331-1342 stasimon 4
1343-1447 episode 5
1448-1673 exodus

 

Study questions and topics:

Throughout the play, pay close attention to what and when information is divulged about this family's past. Try to consider why these events are happening to these people.

Why is the watchman so worried in the prologue?

The parodos of the Agamemnon discusses the departure of Agamemnon's fleet for Troy 10 years before. Why is Artemis' anger so important? Why is she angry? Can you interpret the omen of the hare and the simile involving birds?

Why does Agamemnon have to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia?

Watch the development of the character of Clytemnestra over the course of the play. Note how others, especially the Chorus, describe her. Always be on the lookout for double-meanings in everything she says.

How do you feel about Agamemnon by the time he enters?

Why does Clytemnestra make such a big deal about Agamemnon's entrance? Why, after all his protests, does he walk on the robes? Note the attitudes toward gender and the role of persuasion.

How do the characters view the Trojan War?

Pay close attention to the Herald's description of the Greeks' conduct during the final sack of Troy, which incurred the wrath of Athena. There is a vase painting of the rape of Cassandra in the Temple of Athena. A second painting shows how popular this story was.

Greek poets typically view the divine world as somehow connected with or symbolic of events on earth. Can you point out some ways this is true in this play? What conception of justice is there in this play?

What role does the Cassandra scene play? What new information comes out? Why does Clytemnestra kill her as well as Agamemnon?

At the end of the Cassandra scene, what do we know about Apollo?

Key images and themes: lion, eagle, yoke, net, hunting, growth, heredity, revenge



To see the resonance of the image of the lion, look at the picture of the Lion Gate at Mycenae, traditionally thought to have been the palace of Agamemnon.


Libation Bearers

Readers often mistakenly ignore this play. Please read with special care the long kommos (306 478, the longest in Greek tragedy), the Nurse's speech (734ff), and the great first stasimon (585ff). How does the change in the identity of the Chorus affect it?

 

Outline:

1-21 prologue

22-83

parodos: note the themes this ode uses: blood, earth, breeding, infection, justice. It's worthwhile to note the role they play elsewhere in the trilogy.

84-305

episode 1: Apollo, Orestes says, charged him to seek revenge. Note the language used here, especially the references to the soil and the Furies.

306-478

kommos: this is the longest one in Greek tragedy. Orestes and Electra invoke their father's spirit and predict vengeance on Clytemnestra.

479-584

episode 2: at line 527 (Fagles 514) the chorus leader tells of the snake, the image which dominates the play. Can you find other images of perverted nature in the trilogy?<

585-651

stasimon 1: One of the most famous choral passages in Greek tragedy. While Stanford's notes help with the allusions, keep your mind on the line of thought: what is the worst of the dangers or marvels the Chorus has in mind? What common theme links the allusions?

652-782

episode 2: here we encounter the Nurse, who puts the action we are witnessing in a different light. Imagine you were staging the play: would you emphasize the humor in her speech? What moments do you find funny?
Here the play moves from the tomb to the palace; how is this onstage shift important?

783-837

stasimon 2: Why at the end does the Chorus refer to Perseus?

838-934

episode 4: the climactic moment -- the murder of Clytemnestra. Note her response to the news Orestes has arrived. Note Orestes' hesitation. His companion Pylades speaks only once in the play; how does this affect how we regard his word s? There are images of Orestes killing Aegisthus, and another vase depicting Orestes' revenge against Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

935-972

stasimon 4: the chorus is assured that victory is final. Note how the strings of images seem to come to a close here.

973-1076

exodus: but Orestes sees no closure. Why not? Are the Furies real, or in his mind?

Study Questions and Topics:

Look out for scenes and actions that parallel or resemble ones in the previous play

How is Orestes' behavior similar to or different from Clytemnestra's in the Agamemnon ?

Is your perception of Clytemnestra different in this play than the first?

The theme of the corrupted sacrifice

Revenge as a form of justice

Misogyny and sexual politics

Why is Orestes' murder of Aegisthus not a problem?

Apollo has now entered indirectly into both plays; how does he come across to you?

If this play seems slow or static to you, try to imagine it staged.



Eumenides

1-139 Prologue
140-178 Parodos
179-234 Episode 1
235-306 episode 1 continued, with rare scene change
307-396 stasimon 1
397-489 episode 2
490-565 stasimon 2
566-777 episode 3
778-915 kommos
916-1020 stasimon 3
1021-1047 exodus

This play opens at Delphi, which you can study in detail and even visit, seeing many pictures. see.

There is a vase painting showing Apollo defending Orestes from the Furies at Delphi, and another of Orestes at Delphi, but with Athena already present.

Questions and topics:
Who, or what, are the Furies? Is Aeschylus' presentation of them consistent with traditional Greek thought or has he developed them into something new?

Why hasn't Apollo been able to protect Orestes?

Read with special care the scene in which Athena persuades the Furies to end their wrath. How does she do it? Do the Furies lose their power?

By the end of the trilogy, a kind of justice is established. What is its nature?

Can you comment on Athena's function here? How does she transform Persuasion from Clytemnestra's use of it?

What do you think of Apollo' s argument during the trial (and, indeed, during the whole play). Is the father really the true parent? What do you think a Greek would have made of this "logic"? You can see confirmation of Apollo's argument in a vase painting depicting the birth of Athena.

What would be the effect (dramatic, social, and ethical) if Apollo's argument at 625-39 succeeded and the play ended then? Is Apollo an admirable force?

How do the Furies recall the language of stasimon 1 of the Libation Bearers ?

Using the evidence in the text, what do you think is the vote of the jury? Does Athena tie the vote or break a tie? This is a very important point!

The trilogy attempts to solve some of the major problems of Greek society: male authority over women; vendettas, retribution. Do you see any carry-over to present day problems? Does the Oresteia really solve its own problems?

To what extent does this play offer a myth of the polis ?