Classic Lectures

Darkness, Light, and Drama in the Oresteia

English professor Thomas Gillcrist explores Aeschylus's great trilogy.

By Thomas Gillcrist

This is the third of our classic Hum lectures, selected by Peter Steinberger [political science 1977–].


The Orestia: a plot summary:
The basic outlines of the story are not complicated, though the details vary from version to version. As we all know, Paris, a Trojan prince, ran off with the beautiful Helen. Of course, Helen’s husband Menelaus wasn’t too happy about this, and Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, the most important man in all of Greece, felt compelled to punish the affront by leading an enormous army against Troy. Now the goddess Artemis was sympathetic to the Trojans, so she prevented the Greek army from sailing across the Aegean. At that point, Agamemnon faced a tragic choice: either he could give up the expedition, thereby failing in his duty as a brother and a king, or he could propitiate the goddess by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia, thereby failing in his duty as a father. He chose the latter. This allowed the Greeks to reach Troy, where they won the war. But it also made Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra furious—and who can blame her? During Agamemnon’s absence, she took up with his cousin Aegisthus and, upon Agamemnon’s triumphant return, she and Aegisthus killed him. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, then killed his own mother to avenge his father. Aeschylus’s great trilogy, the Oresteia, is the story of Orestes.

The stage is dark at the beginning of the Agamemnon. In darkness the Watchman laments his discomfort and anxiety. When the beacon appearsp, it is the visual initiation of a motif that will recur throughout the trilogy, both verbally and visually: light out of darkness. This light is both real and a will o’ the wisp. It is the signal the watchman was set out to wait for, announcing Agamemnon’s victory and impending return. But it is not the “good news” that “shines through the darkness” the Watchman hoped for. The King’s return will not bring the restoration of order in the house and city, the “happy deliverance from toil” that the sentinel desires. By the time he descends from the roof, he knows it will not, and why. The Watchman is only the first of the play’s characters whose hopes for light out of darkness are quickly seen or feared or expected to be deluded, by themselves or us.

The interaction of visual and verbal images in this opening is characteristic of the play, and the trilogy. Though regarding light out of darkness the visual precedes the verbal, elsewhere the reverse can be true. So it is with another motif, that of the net, which binds together many things, perhaps indeed the trilogy itself. Actually, by net I mean a complex of related images, net, coils, web, harness—constructs of fabric or cord that link, entangle, capture, or constrain. Harness appears first in a metaphor: Calchas at Aulis foresees the Greek army as a “great bit for Troy’s mouth.” Also, when the Chorus envisions Agamemnon reaching his terrible decision at Aulis, they describe him as having “put on the yoke-strap of compulsion.” This is a particularly complicated instance of the cluster. The yoke-strap signifies compulsion, but Agamemnon himself dons it. Translator Lloyd-Jones allows the reading that Agamemnon has no choice here, but not all scholars agree. We should consider the ode and the event it describes theologically, psychologically, and ethically before we decide—including the question of what Agamemnon believes or convinces himself compulsion is.

The next appearance of the net motif is verbal again, but intensely visualized by the speaker and demanding an equally intense imaginative visualization from the audience. This is the Chorus’s conception of Agamemnon’s command regarding Iphigenia and its effect:

to lift her face downwards like a goat above the altar,
as she fell about his robes to implore him with all her heart,<
and by gagging her lovely mouth
to stifle a cry
that would have brought a curse upon his house;
using violence, and the bridle’s stifling power.
And with her robe of saffron dye streaming downwards
she shot each of the sacrificers
with a piteous dart from her eye . . .

Why did this execution occur and in this way? Artemis demanded it, at least conditionally, but why? It is often observed of Shakespearean characters that they tend to be actors. Similarly it may be said of characters in the Oresteia, even invisible divinities, that they tend to be dramatists or directors. Here the Chorus envisions the way Artemis required Agamemnon to perform a ritual sacrifice of his daughter if he was to leave the harbor, thereby publicly manifesting himself as the murderer to be of countless young people, Greek and Trojan alike, in his role of king responsible for the expedition.

The audience inevitably ponders the question of Agamemnon’s degree of guilt and the gods’s fairness. Artemis does give him a choice—he can kill his daughter and proceed to Troy or give up the expedition. But Agamemnon is to be the agent of Zeus’s vengeance for Paris’s violation of guest-host friendship in transporting Helen. Still, if the King is setting out on that basis, it is because of at most a general cultural imperative. He does not receive an express divine directive, as his son does in the second play. Here it is as though Zeus does not need to give one because he knows his man and the man’s vindictive, exploitative nature. On his return from Troy, Agamemnon does intend to thank the gods, but as his allies, for their help in what he has done. One may doubt that Agamemnon feels a divine command with enough intensity for that to absolve him of guilt for murdering his daughter. In his crisis of choice, he thinks of failing not Zeus but his “allies,” which may be merely consideration of his future as a warlord. Is the “doom” he foresees merely political? Apparently so, if the Chorus knows its man. They visualize him acting not in piety but hybristically:

his spirit’s wind veering to an impious blast,
impure, unholy, from that moment
his mind changed to a temper of utter ruthlessness.
And Artemis has another motive:
working to bring about another sacrifice, one without song or feast,
an architect of quarrels grown up with the family,
with no fear of the husband. For there abides, terrible, ever again arising,
a keeper of the house guileful, unforgetting. Wrath child-avenging.

Artemis is contriving not only to have Agamemnon incur and manifest his guilt, but to ensure his punishment by Clytemnestra.

The Chorus’s vision of Iphigenia’s execution includes the detail of her tangled robes falling as she died. And the audience’s memory of that intensifies the irony of Agamemnon’s reluctance to soil the rich cloth, to trample on the treasures of his house, when his Queen in her turn directs him in a staged enactment of his hybris that is of her contriving.

It is more than poetic justice that both father and daughter die amid entangling, bloody fabric. And it is more than strokes of superb stagecraft that bring the verbal image of the net into view at climactic moments. The net is not only a central image of the play—in a sense it is the subject of the play. All the avengers are victims in turn, as they must be while they live within the social net: the ancient, aristocratic code of the vendetta—the convention of justice as retaliation, by a member of the family of the previous victim.

It does not help that the gods seem to be weaving the net, or exploit or at least condone it. The Atreidae are Zeus’s ministers of justice (however conscious they may be of this fact or whatever its position in their hierarchy of motives) and it is in this capacity that Agamemnon incurs the guilt which necessitates his punishment in turn. Avengers characteristically perpetrate culpable excesses in the performance of their function, as do the Achaean troops who while serving as “the mattock of Zeus who does justice” overturn “the altars and the seats of the gods” in Troy and are wiped out by a storm on their return voyage “not without the wrath of heaven.” Avengers also characteristically mingle sanctioned motives with more dubious ones, as when Clytemnestra combines serving as Artemis’s agent with facilitating the consolidation of her paramour’s tyranny. And the despicable Aegisthus, of course, mixes vengeance for Thyestes and his own brothers with sexual and political opportunism. “The impious act/begets more after it” sings the Chorus, ostensibly regarding Paris, as Agamemnon approaches. There seems to be no potential for transcendence from within the system.

From where may help come? From Olympus? That hope has been expressed as early as lines 160–183, by the pious Chorus in their first ode, as they brood upon the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Zeus is only apparently savage, they declare—actually he has a benevolent purpose, inflicting pain on human beings for their benefit: it is Zeus’s law that through our sleepless nights of suffering we come to illumination and maturity. This choral affirmation is often presumed to be privileged, a valid expression of the meaning of the play’s events. But even a hopeful listener must recognize it as an instance of the motif of light out of darkness, which so many characters who hope for peace after turmoil articulate in vain.