Legal Action: The Trial As Theater in Aeschylus' Oresteia

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Departmental Papers (Classical Studies)
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Aeschylus' Oresteia is a key text for analyzing the relationship between law and drama both because it includes the earliest surviving instance of a trial scene in western drama and because it is explicitly concerned with the nature of trials, telling a story of repeated conflict that can only be resolved by the invention of the trial as a new form of action. First produced in Athens in 458 B.C, the Oresteia is a set of three connected tragedies, of which the final one, the Eumenides, concludes with the mythical first trial of a man for homicide, the trial of Orestes, the character who gives the trilogy its name. Orestes is tried for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, a murder undertaken at the instigation of the god Apollo in retaliation for Clytemnestra's earlier murder of her husband Agamemnon, Orestes' father and the leader of the Greek expedition against Troy; in turn, retaliation for Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia is one of Clytemnestra's several motives for his murder. These murders take place in Argos, the city ruled by Agamemnon's family, the House of Atreus, but the trial of Orestes takes place in Athens at a court, the court of the Areopagus, which is brought into being by the goddess Athena to adjudicate cases of homicide on this occasion and in the future. The trial in the Eumenides is at once a conclusion-the conclusion to the story of Orestes and his family-and a beginning-the inaugural use of this new court and the inauguration of legal action rather than revenge as the appropriate consequence of an act such as Orestes' matricide.

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