Essay The Cycle of Vengeance in Aeschylus’s Oresteia

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The Cycle of Vengeance in Aeschylus’s Oresteia

The cyclic thread of vengeance runs like wild fire through the three plays in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. This thread, with its complexity of contemporary and universal implications lends itself quite well to – in fact, almost necessitates – deeply interested study. While a brief summary of the Oresteia will inevitably disregard some if not much of the trilogy’s essence and intent, on the positive side it will establish a platform of characters, events, and motives with which this paper is primarily concerned. As such, I begin with a short overview of the Oresteia and the relevant history that immediately precedes it.

The house of Atreus is cursed, it would seem, with the perpetual cycle
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Now joined together (amorously) by a common hatred for Agamemnon, Clytemnestra (Agamemnon’s wife) and Aegisthus plot and execute the death of Agamemnon. As John H. Finley, Jr. has rightly put it, “Both Agamemnon and Aegisthus perpetuate their father’s infections” – Agamemnon by the slaughter of innocents and Aegisthus by the adultery with Clytemnestra (Pindar 258). The Libation Bearers speaks of the remaining children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, who (with some urging from Apollo) avenge the death of their father by killing both Aegisthus and their own mother. The Furies, enraged by Orestes’ violation of the filial bond, pursue his punishment. The Eumenides covers the taming of the Furies, the reconciliation of the dominant opposing forces in the trilogy, the establishment of Athena’s court of law, and, as J. J. Pollitt argues, “brings us out of the earlier dark irrationality into what seems an enlightened world of order and reason” (30). Each of these acts, excepting the first and the last, is both a consequence and a cause: every individual involved sought to avenge the horrid act of an offender – each seemingly sought justice by way of retribution. By identifying only a single reason or cause each for the vengeful acts outlined above, it is easy to generalize this chain of events into cyclic manifestation of the age-old law “an eye for an eye.” Much is lost in this simplification of the story; the
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