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A poet imbued with the ideas of Aeschylus could never have accepted the view presented in the Odyssey; that the vengeance of Orestes was a simply righteous retribution, by which the troubles of the house were closed. To the mind of Aeschylus the version which Stesichorus had followed would naturally commend itself: Orestes, the slayer of a mother, could be saved from the Erinyes only by divine aid. And the trilogy, the distinctively Aeschylean form of work, was a framework perfectly suited to such a conception. Clytaemnestra's crime is the subject of the Agamemnon; the vengeance of Orestes fills the Choephori; and the judgment upon him is given in the Eumenides.

The Agamemnon is pervaded from first to last by the thought of the hereditary curse upon the house: Clytaemnestra, indeed, identifies herself with this ‘ancient, bitter Alastor’; and the Argive Elders recognise that this dread power, though it does not excuse her, has presumably helped her1. She is the principal agent in the crime. Her dominant motive is not love of her paramour, but hatred of the husband who slew Iphigeneia2. Aegisthus is a dastard, ‘the wolf mated with the lioness’3; at the close he blusters, and threatens the Elders, while the strong woman treats them with a cold scorn. The shadow of the vengeance is cast before. Cassandra predicts the return of the exiled heir; ‘for the gods have sworn a great oath4.’ And the Chorus reply to the menaces of Aegisthus by reminding him that Orestes lives5.

The Choephori begins with a scene at Agamemnon's grave,

Analysis of the Choephori I. Prologue: 1—21.
near the palace6. Orestes, who has just arrived from Phocis, enters with Pylades, and lays a lock of his own hair on the tomb. A train of women, dressed in mourning, approaches. These are fifteen Trojan captives, now domestics of the palace, who form the Chorus. They escort Electra. Orestes thinks that he recognises his sister, and draws aside, with Pylades, to observe the procession.

The Chorus chant the parodos, and we learn that they have

Parodos: 22—83.
come with libations to the tomb. ‘The impious woman’ has been alarmed by a dream; and the sooth-sayers declare that then dead king is wroth. But such offerings, the Chorus add, cannot atone for her deed. Agamemnon inspired reverence by his majesty; the usurpers rule by fear alone. How long will justice tarry?

Electra asks the Chorus what prayer she is to utter in pouring

II. First episode: 84—584.
the libations7. Can she ask the dead to receive these gifts from the murderess? Or shall she present them in silence? Guided by the counsel of her attendants, she prays to Hermes, and to her father's spirit,—with a special petition that Orestes may return.

In pouring the drink-offerings on the tomb, she finds the lock of hair, and turns in excitement to the Chorus. It resembles her own, and she surmises that it is the hair of Orestes,—not brought by him, of course, but sent. Presently she notices footmarks, which have a resemblance to her own. Orestes now steps forward, and, after a short dialogue, reveals himself. She at first fears an imposture, but is convinced by his appeal to the signs which she had already seen and also to a third,—a piece of work embroidered by her own hand.

She welcomes him as ‘the hope awaited with tears, the heir and the deliverer8’; to her, at once father, mother, sister9, and brother. Orestes responds with a prayer to Zeus for Electra and himself. He then declares the oracle of Apollo, commanding him, under terrible penalties, to avenge his father. ‘Must not such oracles be trusted? In any case, the deed must be done10.’

Kommos: 306—478.
Then comes one of the most characteristic and magnificent passages of the play,—a prolonged lyric chant or dirge (kommos), in which the Chorus, Orestes, and Electra take part by turns. It is a solemn litany, addressed to the divine powers who are to aid the vengeance, and to the spirit of the dead.

After the lyric chant, Orestes and Electra continue in iambic verse the same strain of supplication. Then Orestes asks why his mother had sent gifts to the tomb? She dreamed—the Chorus reply—that she gave birth to a serpent, and was suckling it, when it drew blood from her breast. Orestes accepts the omen: the part of the serpent shall be his own.

He announces his plan. Electra is to enter the house. He and Pylades will arrive at the outer gate11, wearing the garb of travellers, and imitating the Phocian accent12. Electra now goes within, while Orestes and Pylades withdraw to prepare for their enterprise.

First stasimon: 585—652.
The Chorus, left alone, comment on the power of passion over women; Althaea wrought the death of Meleager, and Scylla, of Nisus; the Lemmian women slew their lords. And this house, too, has known such a deed. But now ‘the anvil of Justice is firmly set, and Fate is forging the sword.’

Here ends the first of the three main chapters or ‘acts’ into which the drama falls.

III. Second episode: 653—782.
Orestes and Pylades are courteously received by Clytaemnestra. He describes himself as a Phocian from Daulis. With his companion, he was on his way to Argos, when a Phocian named Strophius—a stranger—asked him to carry the news that Orestes was dead, in case the youth's friends should wish to fetch the ashes home.—Clytaemnestra speaks, or rather declaims, as the afflicted mother, and then has the two visitors ushered into the guest-chambers, saying that she will break the sad news to ‘the master of the house.’

A short choral ode follows. It is time that deceiving Persua-

Choral song: 719—733.
sion should help the avenger, and that Hermes of the shades should be his guide.

An old slave-woman, who had been the nurse of Orestes, then comes forth, having been sent by Clytaemnestra to summon Aegisthus. She mourns for Orestes,—recalling, with quaint pathos, all the trouble that the child had given her.—It seems that the queen has ordered Aegisthus to come with armed attendants13. The Chorus prevail on the nurse not to give this part of the message, but to summon Aegisthus alone. At the same time they give her a hint that Orestes still lives, and that all may yet be well.

In the second stasimon the Chorus invoke Zeus, Apollo and

Second stasimon: 783—837.
Hermes. Next, apostrophising Orestes as though he were present, they exhort him to answer his mother's cry, ‘my son,’ with the name of ‘father,’ and to bear a heart like that of Perseus when he slew the Medusa14.

Aegisthus enters. The report that Orestes is dead seems to

IV. Third episode: 838—854.
him doubtful. Women are credulous. He must see the messenger, who will not impose on him. And so he enters the house.

A moment of suspense is marked by the short third stasimon.

Third stasimon: 855—868.
Now is the struggle that must bring ruin or freedom. May Orestes succeed!

The shriek of the dying Aegisthus is heard within. A slave

V. Fourth episode: 875—934.
runs out, crying that his master is slain; and, knocking at the door of the women's apartments, summons Clytaemnestra. She knows that she is lost; but her spirit never quails; she calls for a battle-axe—‘let us see if we are to conquer or to fall.’ But, before she can obtain a weapon, Orestes comes forth:— ‘'Tis for thee that I am looking;—with him, 'tis well enough.’ consummation? Whither shall the fury of disaster go, ere it finish its course, and be laid to rest?’

1 Agam. 1500—1508.

2 ib. 1415 ff.: 1431—1447: 1526: 1555.

3 ib. 1258.

4 ib. 1280 ff.

5 ib. 1646, 1667.

6 Mycenae is not named by Aeschylus, but is not excluded by his mention of ‘Argos’ ( Ag. 24, etc.), where it may mean the land, as in Soph. El. 4(n.). See on this point W. G. Clark, Peloponnesus, pp. 70 ff. (1858).

7 Electra enters with the Chorus at v. 22, but it is not' till v. 84 that she speaks. Aeschylus knew the dramatic effectiveness of such silence. In the Persae, when the Messenger first announces the disaster at Salamis, he is interrupted by the Chorus, but Atossa is mute till v. 290 (“σιγῶ πάλαι”). In the Prometheus Vinctus it is only at v. 88 that the sufferer's voice is heard. Cassandra is long dumb before Clytaemnestra ( Ag. 1035—1071). The Aristophanic Euripides criticises this device, but the god Dionysus reproves him:—“ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἔχαιρον τῇ σιωπῇ” ( Ran. 911 ff.).

8 Cho. 236δακρυτὸς ἐλπὶς σπέρματος σωτηρίου”.

9 In the Choephori no living sister of Electra is mentioned.

10 Cho. 297 f. “τοιοῖσδε χρησμοῖς ἆρα χρὴ πεποιθέναι”; | “κεἰ μὴ πέποιθα, τοὔργον ἔστ᾽ ἐργαστέον”.

11 Cho. 561ἑρκείους πύλας”, as distinguished from those of the women's apartments mentioned in 878 (“γυναικείους πύλας”).

12 Cho. 563ἄμφω δὲ φωνὴν ἥσομεν Παρνησίδα”, | “γλώσσης ἀϋτὴν Φωκίδος μιμουμένω”.

13 Cho. 769<*>γειν κελεύει δορυφόρους ὀπάονας”.

14 Cho. 827 ff.

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hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (10):
    • Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1035
    • Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 24
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 236
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 297
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 561
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 563
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 769
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 827
    • Aristophanes, Frogs, 911
    • Sophocles, Electra, 4
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