Classical Studies 2200 Study Guide - Final Guide: Thyestes, Atreus, Aegisthus

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Agamemnon’s Nostos
Tragedy and the Athenian Democracy
o Recall introduction to Prometheus Bound
o Plays written by Athenians for audience of Athenians and visitors
o The birth of Greek tragedy is roughly simultaneous with establishment of
democracy, in the late 6th century BCE
o The plots of tragedy tend to problematize aristocratic values
o But the tragic plots are based on stories from mythic (epic) past, which uphold
aristocratic values
o Tragedy often explores tensions between loyalty to the larger community (polis) and
loyalty to the family (oikos)
The Oresteia: A Familiar Story
o The audience of Athenian tragedy knew, from the Odyssey and elsewhere, the story
of Agamemnon’s homecoming
o In Athenian tragedy, familiar myths are enacted on the stage. The interest lay in how
the playwright chose to interpret the story, or to find new meaning in it
o Some changes could be introduced, but the basic plot was fixed
o This contributes to a sense of inevitable fate
o It also offers rich potential for irony, because the audience has information that the
characters do not have
House of Atreus (Argos)
o Pelops is cursed from his method of obtaining
Hippodameia’s (name meaning ‘hose tamer’) hand
o The king Pelops has two son, Atreus and Thyestes
who constantly fight for the throne
o Thyestes seduces Aerope (wife of Atreus) to
overcome his older brother
o Atreus kills Thyestes and all of his sons, except for
Aegisthus who did not come with his father to
Atreus’s household
o Aegisthus seduces Clytemnestra, wife of
Agamemnon (son of Atreus)
Clytemnestra and Helen are sisters
o Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon when he returns home
from Troy after inviting him to the dining hall
Agamemnon’s son later kills Aegisthus
o Remember that Tantalus (Son of Zeus) is heubristic from
trying to feed his son to the gods, and from eating the food
of the gods
Also dined with the Gods
Pelops
o To win his bride Hippodameia (‘horse tamer’), he deceived
and kill her father, King Oinomaos
Atreus and Thyestes
o Sons of Pelops, they fought over the throne
o Thyestes slept with Atreus wife
o Atreus exiled Thyestes
o Atreus later invited Thyestes home to a Reconciliation
sacrifice and feast (Thyestes’ own children)
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Inherited Hatred:
o Thyestes -> Aegisthus
o Atreus -> Agamemnon and Clytemnestra + Menelaus and Helen
Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had three children: Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes (who
avenged his father’s death)
Aeschylus’ Oresteia
Performed at the City Dionysia, in Athens, in 458 BC.
o Evolving democracy
Connected tragic trilogy consisting of 3 plays:
o Agamemnon
o Libation Bearers
o Eumenides
Transformation of Justice
o From: a constant cycle of violent revenge
o To: a trial by jury of peers
o Civic institution founded by the Athenian democracy
o What does this transformation involve?
the gods?
gender roles?
time (old vs young)?
light and darkness?
oikos vs. polis?
Aeschylus’ Agamemnon
oikos vs. polis
o oikos the family, the family’s property and the house (deals with the ecology and
economics)
o polis means city in Greek
private vs. public
female vs. male
o Chorus of elders of Argos: A long choral ode near the beginning of the play takes the
audience back in time to the departure of the Greek expedition for Troy
o The Sacrifice of Iphigeneia is remembered as a past event
o The expedition as an agent of Zeus (like twin eagles of Zeus), bringing justice
(revenge) to Troy
o But the sacrilegious destruction of Troy is in turn punished by the gods
o Trouble at home arising from resentment over the loss of so many men
o Clytemnestra avenges the death of Iphigeneia
The Greek Fleet at Aulis
o The Greek ships are gathered at Aulis under Agamemnon’s command
o Portent of the eagles and the hare
o Priest of Apollo (Chalchas) interprets: the eagles are the sons of Atreus, the hare is
Troy. But Artemis will be offended
The fleet is becalmed at Aulis
o The army is running out of supplies, hungry
o The priest is consulted
o Artemis is angry at Agamemnon demands sacrifice of Iphigeneia, Agamemnon’s
daughter
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Agamemnon’s decision
o “It is a grievous doom not to comply, and a grievous one if I am to slay my child, the
delight of my house, polluting a father’s hands with streams of a slaughtered
maiden’s blood close by the altar. Which of these options is free from evil? How can
I become a deserter of the fleet, losing my alliance?”
He chooses violence against his household in order to fulfil his public duties
He offends Clytemnestra as mother and protector of the household’s wealth
Iphigeneia as Bride of Death
o Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice Iphigeneia.
o Agamemnon’s trick (Euripidean, not mentioned in Oresteia)
o Distortion of marriage ritual
o Distortion of sacrificial ritual
And when he put on the yokestrap of necessity, his mental wind veering in a
direction that was impious, impure, unholy, from that point he turned to a
mindset that would stop at nothing; for men are emboldened by miserable
Infatuation, whose shameful schemes are the beginning of their sufferings.
In short, he brought himself to become the sacrificer of his daughter, to
further a war of revenge over a woman and as a preliminary rite to the
fleet’s departure. Her pleas, her cries of “father!”, and her maiden years,
were set at naught by the war-loving chieftains. After a prayer, her father
told his attendants to lift her right up over the altar with all their strength,
like a yearling goat, face down, so that her robes fell around her, and by
putting a guard on her fair face and lips to restrain speech that might lay a
curse on his houseby force, by the silencing power of a bridle. As she
poured saffron dye towards the ground she cast on each of her sacrificers a
glance darted from her eye, a glance to stir pity, standing out as if in a
picture, wanting to address them by namebecause often at the rich
banquets in her father’s dining-chambers she had sung, a pure virgin with
pure voice, duly and lovingly performing her father’s paean for good fortune
to accompany the third libation.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia
o Clytemnestra is portrayed differently in Agamemnon (dominant) compared to the
Odyssey (more weak)
Clytemnestra (Clytaemestra) on Stage
o Compare her character and motives in this play with her portrayal in the Odyssey,
where we hear about her from other characters, especially Agamemnon in the
Underworld.
She controls who can enter and leave the palace while her husband is gone
o She dominates the space and action on the stage of the Agamemnon.
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Document Summary

In athenian tragedy, familiar myths are enacted on the stage. The interest lay in how the playwright chose to interpret the story, or to find new meaning in it: some changes could be introduced, but the basic plot was fixed, this contributes to a sense of inevitable fate. It also offers rich potential for irony, because the audience has information that the characters do not have: house of atreus (argos, pelops is cursed from his method of obtaining. Aegisthus who did not come with his father to. Atreus"s household: aegisthus seduces clytemnestra, wife of. Inherited hatred: thyestes -> aegisthus, atreus -> agamemnon and clytemnestra + menelaus and helen, agamemnon and clytemnestra had three children: iphigenia, electra, and orestes (who avenged his father"s death) I become a deserter of the fleet, losing my alliance? : he chooses violence against his household in order to fulfil his public duties, he offends clytemnestra as mother and protector of the household"s wealth.

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