LITR 5831 World / Multicultural Literature: Tragedy & Africa

Lecture Notes

The Oresteia

Readings: The Oresteia Trilogy of Aeschylus (only surviving trilogy of Greek tragedies): Agamemnon (complete); The Libation Bearers (excerpts); The Eumenides (excerpts)

discussion leader:

Aristotle's Poetics: parts I, IV: instructor

Video presentation:

Oakland production of Agamemnon (masks)

humorous amateur silent production of Death of Agamemnon (YouTube)

The Death of Agamemnon (Texas State U.)

Bacchae Presentation One (lines 1-72): instructor


Introduction to Greek Theater

Australian production of Agamamnon (1.04 Cassandra) line 1435

BBC podcast on Oresteia

scene: Clytaemnestra & bodies x chorus  (masks) (solves problem of speaking through masks)

Agamemnon daughter-sacrifice

Greek theater masks

masks in Oresteia

masks in Bacchai

Edith Hall      UHCL library p. 212

Noh masks

women in Greek theater



discussion leader assignment



2. Everyone can agree that Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia is horrible, but in the spirit of tragedy, how is it that he's not just a villain or a bad guy as in romance?

ll. 100-260



 1. Agamemnon starts and builds slowly, but what kinds of audience pleasures may grow with it? How does the play challenge you not only to take some kind of pleasure but also to learn? (literature entertains and informs)

l. 1121 introduces Cassandra

silence, dread builds, distracted by Ag climbing stairs

Cassandra like Iphigenia

innocent girl, sings


4. Uses or repression of spectacle?

1580-90 screams, etc

1621 palace doors open







Nigerian history

Precontact traditional culture: dispersed nations, tribes, peoples; subsistence + warfare usu. limited, cf. football

> colonialism > colonizers > hybrids > colonized



Yoruba = language

Oyo = land






chorus as narration, later Clytaemnestra

Clytaemnestra ll. 337 ff: more narration


Opening scene, watchman & chorus take turns providing background (like narrator)

p. 11, Clytaemnestra enters scene, talks to Chorus


pp. 18-19 Herald; p. 20 dialogue with Chorus


One actor interacting or speaking with Chorus was standard Greek drama until Aeschylus—you can see Aeschylus still using that style


p. 29 Clytaemnestra meets Agamemnon and Cassandra


32 dialogue b/w C & A







does Artemis (l. 158) reappear besides in Hippolytus?

177-8 Artemis's demand for another sacrifice / one which violates all human law

ll 211, 295 wisdom through suffering [relate to Poetics]

relate to Aeschylus in Poetics part 4

ll. 730 ff: lies re fidelity


Agamemnon not what you mgiht want, but see birth of theater in earliest stages

Chorus 903 ff. problem of old violent aggression > new troubles

942 Iphegenia's sacrifice redeemed?

999 root out infectious evil > Clytaemnestra enters

1031 Orestes mentioned

1061 what joy to escape necessity!






chorus as narrator

figuration l. 649

comedy (Poetics) > Thursday assignment

RFK, Aeschylus, MLK

RFK speech


tragic choice 243-4, art imitates reality


Suppression of spectacle in Tragedy is a convention or norm, but not a rule

Example of spectacle in Agamemnon so far?









What are the appeals of Aeschylus? What kind of poetic power or attraction may the audience feel toward Agamemnon?


Sophocles: subtle, interwoven, careful development of metaphors, intertwining of motives, mixed attitudes

Aeschylus: not subtle but grand, slow but powerful, simple straightforward but compelling shifts in story + some spectacle


33 C on crimson dye

34 A treads on tapestry—hubris?

p. 35 Chorus: sense of dread


+ one test of greatness--can it take you up high, and then take you higher?


Remaining pages of Agamemnon mostly concern Cassandra

Princess of Troy, beautiful doomed prophetess



narrative as ritual? ceremony?

sacrifice as part of narrative?



CASSANDRA:  No . . . no . . . a house
that hates the gods . . . house full of death,
kinsmen butchered . . . heads chopped off . . .
a human slaughterhouse awash in blood . . .                                                  1290

CASSANDRA:     . . . I see evidence I trust—young children               1293
screaming as they're butchered—then their father
eating his own infants' roasted flesh . . . 

CASSANDRA: Look over there! Look now!
Keep the great bull from his mate.
She's caught him in her robes—                                                                1330
now she gores him with her black horn.
A trap! He's collapsing in the bath! . . .

[Instructor's note: Tragedy tends to repress spectacle. Here Cassandra describes Agamemnon's murder, but that murder is not shown on stage.]]

1345 Why have you brought me here,
so wretched, if not to die,
the second victim? Why else?

1363 CASSANDRA: Alas for that wedding . . . Paris and his bride . . .
how it destroyed his loved ones . . . 
Alas for the Scamander, river of my home!          [my home = Troy]
By your banks I was raised so long ago,

Where does this end?
That's what I can't see.

CASSANDRA: Then my prophecy will veil itself no more,
like some new bride half-concealed from view.                                               1390
 . . .
I'll teach you no more in cryptic riddles.

Look there—see those creatures,
young ones, sitting by the house, dark shapes,
like something from a dream? They're like children
murdered by their loved ones . . . their hands are full,
clenching chunks of their own flesh as food,                                            1440

1463 Whether you credit what I say or not—
that doesn't really matter. Why should it?
What will come will come. And soon enough, 
as you stand here full of pity, you'll say
Cassandra's prophecies were all too true.

CHORUS LEADER: What man is going to commit such crimes?

CASSANDRA: What man? You've completely missed the point.                 1480
You've failed to understand my prophecies.

1514 But we'll not die without the gods' revenge.
Another man will come and will avenge us,
a son who'll kill his mother, then pay back    [son = Orestes; these lines predict the remaining action of the Oresteia]
his father's death, a wanderer in exile,

CASSANDRA: It's this house—
it stinks of murder, blood slaughter . . .                                                           1550

[A scream comes from inside the palace]

AGAMEMNON [from inside] : Help me!
I'm hit . . . a deadly blow . . .

CHORUS LEADER:    Silence!                                                                  1590

1621 [The palace doors open, revealing the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytaemnestra stands over them. She is covered in blood]

[Instructor's note: Aristotle in Poetics 6g de-emphasizes spectacle as a part of tragedy. The display of Agamemnon's and Cassandra's corpses constitutes some degree of spectacle, but note that their actual murder took place offstage and, aside from Agamemnon's screams, was described only by Cassandra's prophecies above and by Clytaemnestra's report below.]

CLYTAEMNESTRA: So now                                                                     1670
you'd sentence me to banishment,
send me from the city a thing accursed?

Back then you made no accusation
against this man lying here. He sacrificed
his own child, that dear girl I bore in pain,                           [child, girl = Iphigenia]
to charm the winds from Thrace—and didn't care.
To him she was a beast for slaughter.

CLYTAEMNESTRA: Are you saying this work is mine? That's not so.
Don't think of me as Agamemnon's wife.                                                    1770
The form of this corpse's wife was taken on 
by the ancient savage spirit of revenge.
For that brutal meal prepared by Atreus,                [meal = the feast of Thyestes]


1803-4 He was the first to draw his sword,
and by the sword he's been repaid.



Ask discussion questions for LB and Eumenides

Libation Bearers

Justify Electra Complex > Homecoming, 1930s Freud popular

Recognitions scene [preview Oedipus]

you have to honor the gods, but revelation can be interpreted

plot as soul of tragedy; plot as ceremony / sacrifice / ritual [narrative]


280 + recognition scene

340 commanded by gods, Orestes becomes inhuman; cf. Agamemnon and Iphigenia Agamemnon line 254

1080 [Aegisthus screams in pain from inside the palace]        [spectacle repressed]

1107 [The palace doors open to reveal the dead body of Aegisthus with Orestes standing over it. Pylades (Orestes’s friend) is beside Orestes] [<spectacle]

CLYTAEMNESTRA:  No, not Aegisthus,
not my love, my power . . . dead.                                     1110

ORESTES: You loved this man?

1214 [The palace doors are thrown open, revealing Orestes standing above the bodies of  Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra. Pylades stands beside Orestes. With them are attendants holding the bloodstained robes of Agamemnon] [spectacle]

1223 CHORUS: Alas for this horrific act,
the monstrous way she died.
But woe on the survivor, too—      [contrast romance narrative]

1334 do I call him our saviour or our doom?
When will all this cease? When will murder,         [preview for The Eumenides]
its fury spent, rest at last in sleep?



Eumenides notes

opening tribute to Athens--drama as civic ritual, support for city; cf. Broadway & Houston

31 Dionysus

33 Pentheus

43 Pythia sees Orestes

52-3 a man the gods despise

55 sword and olive branch

60 groups of women sleeping

77 where does this end?  . . . Apollo's work

Apollo enters, stands near Orestes [contrast Dionysus]

99 reach Athena's city

101-4 speech, find a way

118 Ghost of Clytaemnestra

122 ghosts of those I killed revile me

wakes up furies

312-13 Orestes embracing statue

wants a trial

350 [Athens] will win allies

371 enter Athena

508 new property (Achaea > Troy]

525 one's neighbor who's done no wrong

538 he thought it right to kill his mother

540 two sides to dispute


Athena, heral, 10 citizens, jury

733 Apollo purified Orestes

advocate: I share the blame [compare to sharing honor]

753 the orders of this god . . . my witness

761 she was guilty of two crimes

869 first trial for murder

now and forever this court

880 reverence and terror . . .  rulers of citizens

887 avoid both anarchy and tyranny

936 no mother gave me birth

954 votes equal, acquitted

967 [give justice, receive justice] [cf. 1080]

990+ disease will grow--that's justice

citizens make fun of us

1008 you'll have your place

1066 a place of honor . . . more respect

1080 do good things, receive good things in honor [cf. 967]

1125 a blessing on this land

1127 x-brutal victories, only blessings

1197 struggle for justice > victorious forever

group of citizens

1254 scarlet robes on Furies

1275 worked together for this ending

singing and dancing [like comedy]