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Chapter 18: The Mycenaean Saga


Read the Commentary on Chapter 18.


Familiarize yourself with the map of the Peloponnese.


Investigate the images of Pelops, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra.

Examine the sculptures depicting the race between Pelops and Oenomaus from the east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Familiarize yourself with the Bronze Age site of Mycenae. Pay particular attention to the famed “Lion Gate.”


Read Apollodorus’ account of the Mycenaean saga and compare with Aeschylus’ trilogy.

In the Additional Reading for this chapter (MLS, pp. 449–468) you have read a critical comparison with extended excerpts of the three plays in which Electra figures along with Orestes (Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Electra). Compare the characterizations of the three Electras for yourself, and consider how and why each playwright structures his plot. You may wish to read the complete Oresteia of Aeschylus: the Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. In the Odyssey, the poet continually recalls the incidents in the house of Mycenae. Examine each time the poet has recourse to this myth. Why is it so often brought up in the context of Odysseus’ wanderings? Why does the poet change and enhance each successive retelling of the story?

Read the Roman playwright Seneca’s treatment of the Mycenaean Saga in his Thyestes and Agamemnon. How does Seneca’s treatment differ from Aeschylus’? Having in the previous chapter become acquainted with some of Seneca’s work, what similarities do you see in the playwright’s efforts? What would you say is uniquely Senecan?

Consult Pindar’s Olympian Ode 1, in which the poet recounts the story of Tantalus, Pelops, and the winning of Hippodamia.

Eugene O’Neill, arguably the greatest playwright of  the United States, wrote an ambitious modern treatment of the Oresteia entitled Mourning Becomes Electra. Compare and contrast O’Neill’s trilogy with that of Aeschylus.

The story of Iphigenia among the Taurians has proved a fertile subject for many a later artist. You may wish to read Goethe’s play Iphigenia in Tauris and compare his treatment with Euripides’ version.

Consult the helpful scholarly work Aeschylus: The Oresteia, by Simon Goldhill, who offers some provocative and stimulating insights in a fresh reading of the work.

Compact Discs and Videos

The libretto of Richard Strauss’s Elektra is brilliantly adapted from Sophocles by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Study both the text and the score of this Freudian work and consider what imaginative reworkings have been done to Sophocles’ play. Listen to this opera on CD, and enhance your appreciation and understanding by viewing one of the performances on video.

You must see the masterpiece Iphigenia, a movie adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis by Michael Cacoyannis.

Gluck’s two operas based on Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris, should be heard by anyone who loves music and theater of great beauty and passion.

Sergei Taneiev’s The Oresteia is an opera worth investigating for its powerful theatricality.

If you enjoyed Night Journey, you must view Cortege of Eagles, choreographed and danced by Martha Graham who portrays Hecuba.

Essay Questions

  1. Discuss the movement from blood-vengeance to civil litigation to be found in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

  2. Clytemnestra is one of the greatest creations of the tragic stage. Discuss her motives and her character in the legend with specific reference to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Electra.

  3. In Orestes we see a young man torn between competing demands of justice. What are the demands placed upon him by his situation and by the gods? What is the strength of his character, and how is his dilemma resolved?

  4. The figure of Electra has proved to be fertile ground for the creative imagination. Discuss her motives and her character in the legend, or compare and contrast her depiction in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Electra.

  5. How do you judge the character and actions of Agamemnon? Is he the villain described by his wife, Clytemnestra, or the paragon envisioned by his daughter Electra?

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