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The Oresteia

In the first two plays of the Oresteia Aeschylus dramatizes legendary events well known to his audience. In the first play, Agamemnon, the Greek leader is unwelcome on his return to Mycenae from the Trojan War, because his wife, Clytemnestra, prefers her lover. She kills Agamemnon in his bath.

In the Choephoroi (meaning 'libation bearers') Agamemnon's son, Orestes, returns to Mycenae seven years later. At the unmarked tomb of his father he meets his sister, Electra, and her slave women, bringing libations. Together they plot how Orestes will murder their mother and her lover. At the end of the play he does so, displaying to the chorus the blood-stained bath robe worn by his father when Clytemnestra stabbed him.

In the third play, the Eumenides, Aeschylus departs from legend to provide a profoundly satisfying conclusion. Orestes has done his filial duty in killing his father's murderers, but now the blood guilt is his. The avenging Furies pursue him relentlessly. He flees to the sanctuary of the goddess Athene in Athens. She has a new solution to an old problem.

She refers the case to an Athenian court, the Areopagus, and on a split verdict gives her casting vote to Orestes. He leaves a free man, saved by Athenian law from the barbaric cycle of revenge. Athene then placates the Furies by giving them an honourable position in Athens and a new name - the Eumenides, meaning 'well-disposed'.

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