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Brimming with death, destruction, and despair, the plots of Greek tragedies are often considered the darkest of theatrical genres. However, it is this same dismal theme that occurs in one of the most well-known works of ancient Greece, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, working to represent a past distant not only to today’s readers but to the author himself. Starting with the sacrificial killing of Iphigenia, the Oresteia tells of a brutal cycle of revenge and murder, one that comes to an end solely through the guidance of the gods who help bring order and justice to the city of Argos. Illustrating human incapability to control their emotions, Aeschylus uses the Chorus and theatrical dialogue typical of a tragedy to highlight the dire consequences of lust, rage, and crave of honor. Broken into a trilogy of three plays, the stories of Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Furies portray the barbarity and violence of human nature and our inability as mortals to break the cycle. Upon close examination of the trilogy however, the significance of the tragedy as a form of writing begins to break through, revealing its role as a work that not only recounts the history of the Greek transition into democracy, but also subtly comments on the culture of Aeschylus’ contemporary Greeks.
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Following the murders of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and both of their lovers, the gods realize the propensity of mortals to continue in a never-ending series of vicious actions. Seeing the devastation this could mean for Greek society, the gods take matters into their own hands, fearing that if humanity allows themselves to continue down the path of violence, there is no turning back. Setting laws to keep the society safe, Athena knows that for her efforts to be effective, the “citizens must uphold the law [without] deviation,” for “pure water can never be drawn once the well has been fouled”, suggesting that the people of Greece must be willing to accept the new democracy in order for it to work (Furies, 694-696). In this way, it is up to the government of Greece to establish laws and moral guidelines to restrict the wrong-doings of its people so that their society will not become engulfed in turmoil. Remarking on her achievement of creating a system of justice during the trial of Orestes, Athena highlights the benefits of this newly formed democracy, claiming that she sees “great gain for this city, kind minds for kind minds,” when the laws will “steer this land, [their] city, down the path of righteousness” and bring peace, compassion, and goodness into the hearts of the people (Furies, 991-995). Because human nature cannot control itself, the gods are forced to establish a government to do it for them – for without restriction, the darkness of humanity is allowed to take over, and the cycle of tragedy continues. The strength of human emotion in compelling men and women to take action is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, proving that no amount of logical thought can dissuade an emotionally charged mind.
Through the use of dialogue rather than narration, Aeschylus displays the thoughts and feelings of his characters out in the open, allowing the speaking of every line to separate the Oresteia as a tragedy, distinct from the epic or comedy. Filled with anger and sadness over the loss of her daughter, Clytemnestra declares to the entire audience her reasoning for the murder of her husband: Wasn’t he the one who used treachery and brought ruin down on this House? Yes, he has suffered, deed for deed, for what he did to our daughter, Iphigenia, his own flesh and blood! (Agamemnon, 1522-1526) Exposing her thoughts to the entire audience, Aeschylus highlights the crazed thinking of humans under great stress. Rather than thinking clearly about the consequences she might face for murdering her royal husband, Clytemnestra’s grief from losing her daughter has made her blind to reason, allowing her to justify an action that would otherwise appear reprehensible.
Instead of describing the characters and their actions using a narrator, the Oresteia employs formal dialogue throughout each of the plays, broadcasting the emotions of every actor, establishing attachments in the audience classic to tragedy. Inciting pity from the reader, Aeschylus portrays a heartbroken Orestes, stunned by Agamemnon’s death. After hearing of his mother’s crimes, an enraged Orestes feels compelled to avenge his father’s murder and is even encouraged by Apollo and the Chorus, the latter proclaiming that “Bloody blow pays bloody blow. ‘The doer suffers’ sounds the saying, three times old,” advocating that Orestes get justice for his father’s death, even suggesting that his murderer will suffer for three generations to come (Libation Bearers, 311-313). It is the complete lack of unspoken text in the Oresteia that distinguishes it as a tragedy, showing that just as Clytemnestra felt obligated to retaliate for the murder of her daughter, Orestes was driven by his emotions and the influence of others to get vengeance for Agamemnon’s death. In this way, Aeschylus highlights the violent tendencies of human nature, pointing out not only that they occur in a never ending cycle but also that, without interference from the gods, human beings have no power to stop them. As exemplified by the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, revenge as justification for killing leads only to more death and destruction as each victim has someone to avenge their death. As such, the bloodshed becomes a never-ending loop, one that humanity knows only the gods can break.
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Continuing to define his work as a tragedy, Aeschylus uses a Chorus present in each play to remark upon the action of the narrative, voicing its opinion in every situation. After learning of Clytemnestra’s actions, the chorus declares that she has set upon her family a curse that would last generations to come. Despite Clytemnestra’s belief that the murder was justified, the chorus knew what was to come: But while Zeus sits on the throne, the wrongdoer suffers, that is the sacred law. Can the progeny of this curse be cast from the House, or is this family welded to its own destruction? (Agamemnon, 1563-1566) thereby acknowledging that wrong deeds do not go unpunished and the actions people take will always have consequences that must be paid for. Embodying the character of the Furies, goddess of the world who punish those who commit crimes against the world’s natural order, the Chorus appears in Libation bearers to highlight the power of the gods, remarking on Orestes’ fear, “what mortal man is not terrified, gripped in fear and horror to hear our sacred law determined by Destiny’s decree? The gods yield this right, it is our age-old prerogative” (Furies, 389-394). By doing so, the Chorus in both Agamemnon and the Furies illustrates the cycle of violence and human inability to influence it, extrapolating the power of the gods and their affect on traditional Greek society.
But it is not just the devices and techniques Aeschylus utilizes that make his work remarkable – it is his ability to create an origin story of democracy that keeps the Oresteia relevant centuries after its conception. Beginning with the tragedies of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Aeschylus showcases the sacrifices that must be made in order to reach triumph at the end of the Furies. In this way, the Oresteia displays the transition into democracy in Argos and what losses must be given up in order to reach it. By highlighting the brutality surrounding the murders of Iphigenia, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their lovers, Aeschylus demonstrates the victims of the democracy that ultimately emerges at the end of the play. By doing so, Aeschylus opens a window into an ancient past, explaining that in order for peace and justice to be established within a society, lives must be sacrificed so that others may live. In absence of human self-control, a democratic form of government must be created to establish laws and protect the people from their own emotions and barbaric tendencies. However, in order to establish the democracy, some individuals and ideals must fall victim to the process so that new individuals and greater ideas may arise.
Through his consistent use of dialogue and the function of the Chorus in each of the plays, Aeschylus not only separates the Oresteia as a tragedy, but also helps explain the heroic past at some distance from his own present. By inciting sympathy for tragic characters such as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra through the use of spoken narrative rather than unspoken text, the tragedy of the Oresteia shines through, distinguishing it from alternate forms of literary genres. Subtly questioning the morals of his contemporary Greeks, Aeschylus highlights the incapability of human nature to control itself and the necessity of gods and government to intervene. While at first it appears that this tragedy is just as it’s form suggests – full of brutality and sorrow, the exaggeration of character flaws and description of the transition into democracy display a history of Greece ancient to both Aeschylus and modern day readers. It is Aeschylus’ praiseworthy manipulation of dialogue, the characters, and the action of the narrative that gives us insight into a time deep into the past of Argos.
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