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Orestes: Synopsis

J. Fittler after T. Kirk. Troilus and Cressida, act 5, sc. 3 ... Print, 1795

It has been six days since Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra, avenging his father’s murder. While Orestes acted primarily at the urging of the god Apollo, he was also aided by his sister, Electra. It has now fallen to Electra to care for her sickly brother who is plagued in his dreams by the nightmarish Furies, supernatural creatures that avenge matricide. The siblings are awaiting the public verdict for their crime when their aunt Helen arrives. She asks Electra to take offerings to Clytemnestra’s grave which Helen cannot do herself; she fears the anger of the citizens, whose sons were lost in a war waged primarily to recapture her. Electra refuses to return to her mother’s grave and suggests Helen send her own daughter, Hermione, to perform the rites.


Orestes wakes up and learns of his uncle, Menelaus’ arrival in Argos. Menelaus discusses Orestes’ unfortunate position with him, but just as Orestes begins asking Menelaus for help, Orestes’ grandfather, Tyndareus, arrives. He admits that his daughter deserved her fate but reminds them that, to avoid perpetual bloodshed, the law called for the exile of Clytemnestra, not her death. As punishment for his grandchildren’s unlawful act, he believes both of them should be stoned to death. Tyndareus makes it clear that he expects Menelaus to renounce the siblings, too.

Once Tyndareus leaves, Orestes pleads with Menelaus to repay the debt he owes Orestes’ father, Agamemnon, and help Orestes and Electra. Menelaus acknowledges this debt but says that his army is too weak and his allies too weary to fight for Orestes. He says he will try to help by negotiation, but Orestes doubts his loyalty.


Orestes begins to despair when his friend Pylades arrives. He suggests Orestes go to the trial and plead his own case. Orestes does so. Although unable to change the verdict, Orestes manages to convince the judges to allow him and his sister to take their own lives rather than be publicly stoned. Pylades proposes that to get their revenge on the disloyal Menelaus, they should kill Helen. Electra adds that if they take the princess Hermione hostage they might even be able to secure their own freedom.


Electra leaves to intercept Hermione on her way back from Clytemnestra’s grave while Orestes and Pylades find Helen. Helen disappears before Orestes has a chance to kill her and Menelaus arrives to find them holding a knife to his daughter’s throat. Menelaus refuses to give Orestes the throne of Argos and Electra prepares to burn the whole palace down. Suddenly, the god Apollo makes himself heard and explains that he took Helen up to heaven where her beauty would be immortalized. Apollo commands Orestes to go into exile for a year during which time he will be tried in Athens but acquitted. He will then marry Hermione and return to his father’s throne. Menelaus will remain King of Sparta and Electra will marry Pylades. At the unquestionable will of the god, they leave to follow their destinies.


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  Did you know?

Deus ex machina is a literary device in which a difficult set of circumstances is miraculously and unexpectedly resolved. It has its origins in Greek drama where an actual god would appear near the end of a play and avert a catastrophic build-up of events. The actor playing the god would often be suspended from a crane and lowered onto the stage. Thus the term literally means "god from a machine".

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