THE ORESTEIA

A summary and analysis of the dramatic trilogy by Aeschylus

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 78-104.

Introduction · Agamemnon · Libation Bearers · Eumenides · Overview

Overview

Reviewing the trilogy as a whole, it will be observed that in the Agamemnon arbitrary free-will prevails in the plot and perpetration of the deed; the principal character is a criminal, and the piece ends with the triumph of insolent and audacious tyranny. In the Choëphoræ the deed is partly the decree of destiny and partly the result of Orestes' natural impulses, his desire to avenge his father's death. In the Eumenides he becomes merely the passive instrument of fate, all freedom of action being transferred to the gods, with Pallas at their head. Thus the contradiction between the holiest of human relations which often occurs in life as a problem not to be solved by man, is here represented as a subject of contention among the powers above.

There is in all the three dramas a deep symbolical significance. The Titans denote the dark mysterious powers of primeval nature and are nearly allied to Chaos; the younger gods represent what enters into the sphere of consciousness, into a world that has begun to assume form and order. In the Furies we have the force of conscience, actuated by fears and misgivings and unrestrained by reason. Thus, the voice of blood accuses Orestes, strives as he will to represent to himself as righteous the motives that prompted him to the deed. Apollo is the god of youth, with its effervescence of anger and indignation, and it is he who orders it, while Pallas is typical of the wisdom, justice and moderation which alone can end the strife.

Even the falling asleep of the Furies in the temple has a symbolical meaning, for only in the sanctuary, only in the refuge offered by religion, can the fugitive find repose from the torments of conscience. No sooner has he ventured forth into the world than the image of his murdered mother appears and wakens them afresh, while in the speeches of Clytemnestra and the horror of Apollo the symbolical purport is obvious. The equipoise between the conflicting motives for and against the deed is denoted by the equally divided number of the judges. When at last the Furies are appeased, on being promised a sanctuary in Athenian territory, the meaning is that reason must not always enforce her moral principles against involuntary impulse.

In the construction of these dramas Aeschylus had also political aims, chief among which was the exaltation of Athens. Delphi was the religious centre of Greece, and yet how far does it retire into the shade! It is only against the first stress of persecution that Delphi can defend Orestes, it has not the power to make him wholly free; this is reserved for the land of law and humanity. Yet further, he wished, and this was the main point, to recommend as essential to the welfare of Athens, the Areopagus, an incorruptible yet mild tribunal, in which especially the white pebble of Pallas, given in favor of the accused, is an invention which does honor to the humanity of the Athenians. The poet shows us how from a portentous round of guilt arose an institution which became a blessing to mankind.

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