Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.05

Lutz Käppel, Die Konstruktion der Handlung der Orestie des Aischylos. Die Makrostruktur des 'Plot' als Sinnträger in der Darstellung des Geschlechterfluchs. Zetemata 99.   München:  Beck, 1998.  Pp. 310.  ISBN 3-406-44860-7.  

Reviewed by Mischa Meier, Universität Bielefeld (
Word count: 2389 words

Aeschylus' Oresteia, the only ancient Greek trilogy which completely survived, is one of the most complex and weighty pieces of world literature. There are many studies on the Oresteia, and several commentaries on each of the plays are available. Now a further book comes along: Lutz Käppel deals in his Habilitationsschrift with the whole Oresteia. This is a quite bold undertaking, considering the fact that despite the great amount of studies on the Oresteia there are still some central issues which are being discussed. So Käppel concedes right from the start that there are only two ways to approach the Oresteia. First, given the complexity of this work, one is asked to study each word and passage so extensively that an overall rating is not possible. The second way is to look at the trilogy entire. In this case it is necessary to reduce the complexity to one aspect of its main sense (7). Käppel preferred this second way, which is the more difficult one. His aim is to understand the construction of the plot ("Handlungsstruktur", 25), in order to solve the main problems of interpretation of the Oresteia, which are still under discussion or -- according to his view -- are answered insufficiently so far. The very difficult construction of the plot of the Oresteia seems to be a good object for Käppel's new method, but there are also some basic problems. One is often tempted to forcibly interpret every hint or allusion on stage as a "Sinnträger" in the wider context of causal connections, which leads to a too schematic interpretation of the plot. Käppel sometimes succumbs to this, especially when discussing the parodos of Agamemnon. On the other hand there is the danger of tracing only the contents of the plays. So in his discussion of Choephoroi and Eumenides, Käppel sometimes does nothing more than summarize.

As a whole, Käppel's book marks a step of great importance in research on the Oresteia, because the author at times comes to remarkable results and offers plausible answers. Fortunately, Käppel deals also with matters of detail, although his method is directed primarily towards the macrostructure of the trilogy.

The author sees his book as a contribution to the ongoing debate on Aeschylus-interpretation, especially on the question whether man's behaviour is really free or determined (20). So Käppel deals with important matters such s the question of freedom of choice regarding Agamemnon and Orestes, or the reason for Artemis' grudge and her demand to sacrifice Iphigeneia.

Käppel starts with an introductory chapter (i: "Einleitung", p. 9-38), in which he summarizes the recent discussion on "die Freiheit des menschlichen Handelns im Verhältnis zum Geschlechterfluch in der Orestie" (9-20). He then turns to an explanation of his specific method and develops two basic elements of his later interpretation: 1. "Der Begriff der dramatischen Handlung nach Aristoteles" (20-25). He points out that, in the view of Aristotle, the myth as an important part of the plot consists of elements which are meaningfully combined and not simply followed one by another. The myth can deal with aspects of the past (desis) and lead to a critical situation, which culminates in the metabole and comes to an end with no consequences in the context of the myth (lysis). In this sense the myth help to analyze the structure of a tragedy, because it is the "Sinnträger". 2. "Die Methode der Rekonstruktion des 'Plot' als des Kausalzusammenhangs dramatischer Handlung" (25-38). Käppel has to show what he means by "Ursache" or "Kausalität", for he deals particularly with the causal connections in the Oresteia. He refuses the definition of causality as a regular result of an incident, but constructs a "für sich 'ursachenlos' dahinfliessendes Kontinuum, in das Ereignisse als 'Ursachen' gleichsam dazwischenfunken, 'Weichen umlegen', eben jene 'Verzweigungspunkte' bilden, die das Geschehen von einem ungestörten 'Normalverlauf' zum tatsächlichen Verlauf hinlenken" (36). This is Käppel's own definition of causality, which constitutes the basis of the interpretation that follows.

In the two following chapters (ii: "Die Konstruktion der Handlung des Agamemnon: Die Wurzeln und das erste Wirken des Geschlechterfluchs", p. 39-192; iii: "Die Konstruktion der Handlung in den Choephoren und den Eumeniden: Die Fortpflanzung und das Ende des Fluches", p. 193-271), Käppel tries to understand the trilogy with his method of examining the plot as a net of causal connections following the Oresteia. The longest part is dedicated to the Agamemnon, especially the parodos (47-137).

I will concentrate on some selected aspects, which seem particularly important to me:

Chapter ii: Käppel takes the prologue to demonstrate how narrowly and economically the plot is constructed by Aeschylus already at the beginning of the trilogy (45). Remarkably he rejects the thesis that Clytaemestra is already on stage in Ag. 40 or at least since Ag. 83, and that the chorus approaches on her orders. Käppel argues that the chorus comes out of curiosity, in order to ask Clytaemestra what the sacrifices it has seen meant. But it does not meet Clytaemestra there, and it therefore begins to present the mythical past, until Clytaemestra appears in Ag. 257. Käppel explains the presentation of the past by the chorus as an element of communication with the audience. He interprets the chorus as dramatis persona, not as an organ of Aeschylus himself. But if the chorus does not speak to another person on stage, as in Ag. 104sqq., its statements -- according to Käppel -- are to be seen as an element of communication between poet and audience. The chorus is not asking whether Agamemnon and Menelaus are authorized or obliged to fight against Troy, but its function is to expose individual elements and to join them in order to build a structure in poetic form (49-71). Käppel has specified his view of function and significance of the chorus in the Oresteia in a recent publication.1

In the next step, Käppel comes to one of the main issues concerning the interpretation of the Oresteia: "Woher rührt der Zorn der Artemis, und weshalb fordert die Göttin das Opfer Iphigenies?" (80-81). Just as in other parts of the book he firstly gives a summary of earlier scholarship, which is used to develop his own thesis. He tries to demonstrate that the murder of Thyestes' children is the reason for Artemis, who is very fond of children, to demand the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. However, this seems to be questionable because it is hard to believe that Artemis should have demanded a child be killed in order to take revenge for the murder of other children. Käppel knows this objection, but for him this is no problem: "Gemessen an der Stringenz, Stimmigkeit und Eindeutigkeit des aschyleischen Textes wirken die Irritationen mancher Interpreten darüber, daß Artemis als kinderfreundliche Göttin ausgerechnet die Opferung eines Kindes fordert, unverständlich" (91). Käppel emphasizes that the murder of Thyestes' children calls for a sacrifice of the same kind (Iphigeneia), and in this way the murder of Iphigeneia, which also calls for equal retribution, is to be revenged by the murder of Agamemnon, the son of Atreus (92). Nevertheless, this is not convincing, because Agamemnon certainly is the son of Atreus, but he is no longer a child. This is one of a few passages where Käppel's attempts to press everything into a wide net of causal connections go too far: Agamemnon is the son of Atreus, but when he dies, he is already grown up, and so it is hard to believe that Artemis should have demanded the killing of a child as a revenge for the murder of other children.

The next main question Käppel approaches is as follows: "Ist die Opferung Iphigenies durch Agamemnon ein unausweichliches Unglück von schicksalhafter Notwendigkeit oder die Tat eines frei entscheidenden Menschen und damit ein schlimmes Verbrechen Agamemnons, für das er allein die Verantwortung trägt?" (99). Again the author develops his own answer while discussing the modern scholarship. He points out that Agamemnon does not act against Artemis' will, but under the goddess's pressure (112). One of the important achievements of Käppel's book is the explanation of Agamemnon's decision to sacrifice his daughter. The critical situation of the Atreids is not only defined by the problem that the winds of Artemis delay the departure to Troy, but is even worse: the survival of all soldiers, the whole army, is threatened by these winds. So Agamemnon has to decide whether to sacrifice his daughter or all his soldiers. In this situation Agamemnon deliberately decides to save the army. It is not until this decision that he goes mad, because now he realizes that sacrificing Iphigeneia is not only the way to save the army but also to continue the expedition against Troy. So the outrageous madness of Agamemnon is not the reason but the consequence of his decision, which is completely his own (114-137).

What is not convincing, however, is Käppel's claim that the rape of Helena and the meal of Thyestes inaugurate a string of causal connections which lead to a certain end, with the consequence that the decision of Agamemnon to sacrifice his own daughter is a part of this string of incidents (135-136). If so, can we really call his decision a "freie Entscheidung"? We even have to ask in general whether we can fully understand the situation of Agamemnon in the category of free decision, given his alternatives of sacrificing either his soldiers or his daughter.

Quite surprising, but well in line with Käppel's arguments is his observation that the famous scene in which Agamemnon is made to walk over the red carpet by his wife Clytaemestra (Ag. 931-957) is quite irrelevant for the plot of the tragedy, because the murder of Agamemnon is not caused by his walk over the carpet (152-158). Nevertheless, Käppel tries to demonstrate that this scene is an important passage, for it makes clear that Agamemnon certainly is free to decide, but his decisions are rather irrelevant, because it is the net of causal connections, which drives the king to death (157).

Regarding the scene in which Cassandra foretells her and Agamemnon's death (Ag. 1035-1371), Käppel presents a plausible interpretation (158-166). It is the destiny of Cassandra that she always knows the truth but nobody believes her so her prophecies cannot motivate the chorus to intervene and prevent the murder of Agamemnon. The author shows again, in what manner events from the past (Apollo's curse that Cassandra never be believed) are important elements in the net of causal connections which constitutes the plot of the Oresteia. But this interpretation of the Cassandra-scene is not without problems. One could argue that it is completely irrelevant whether the chorus believes what Cassandra has to say or not, because the murder of Agamemnon is an element of the myth, which constitutes the plot, and thus is not to be prevented. These are the arguments Käppel himself presents when interpreting the scene in which Agamemnon walks over the red carpet.

Concerning the last scene of the Agamemnon (Ag. 1344-1671), when Aegisthus appears, Käppel shows how the different causal connections come together, overlap, and constitute a complex net of connections (166-177). Against the background of the Trojan War and the rape of Helena, the consequences of the meal of Thyestes (which motivates the acts of Aegisthus) join the consequences of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (which leads Clytaemestra to slay Agamemnon). Käppel shows that the real dynamic force of the Agamemnon lies beyond what happens on stage.

Chapter iii deals with the plot of Choephoroi and Eumenides, which are much easier to examine than that of Agamemnon, so Käppel's treatment of these two tragedies is briefer. Concerning the Choephoroi the author especially deals with the problem of interpreting the kommos, which is a main problem in the discussion of this tragedy. He rejects Lesky's assumption that in the kommos Orestes accepts the order of Apollo to murder his mother Clytaemestra and that this even becomes his own desire.2 Käppel emphasizes that Orestes is free in his decision, like Agamemnon in the first tragedy. The function of the kommos is described as follows: Orestes invokes the revenging ghost of Agamemnon and implores him to help. In fact he is successful, for the ghost now takes part in revenging the murder, but, in contrast to earlier scholarship, Käppel states that the ghost does not lead Orestes but Clytaemestra herself, who in this way digs her own grave. Sending Electra and the chorus to Agamemnon's grave, she enables the anagnorismos of Orestes and his sister. Further, when the first plan of Orestes to kill Aegisthus and Clytaemestra fails, it is Clytaemestra herself who involuntarily leads Orestes to put into effect his revenge. According to Käppel, the plot of the Choephoroi, which is unlike that of Agamemnon realized on stage, consists in a connection of free decisions of the characters, especially forced by Clytaemestra's fatal activities (196-232).

In contrast to the preceding tragedies, in the Eumenides the important impulses causing the development come from the outside (Apollo, Athena) and are not consequences of various causal connections, although especially the Erinyes represent the principle of causal connections which inheres in the curse of the Atreids. Käppel points out that there is a fundamental change in the trilogy, precisely when Athena successfully transfers the dynamics of action to herself since she is not involved in the net of connections which had before determined the plot (232-271).

In the last chapter (iv: "Synthese", p. 272-280) Käppel synthesizes his results into a general view of the Oresteia and demonstrates that every part of the three tragedies can be interpreted with the Aristotelian categories of desis, metabole, and lysis. In this context, it is remarkable that the references to the succeeding tragedies always start just before the metabole. So the metabolai of Agamemnon and Choephoroi prepare the plot of the following tragedies Choephoroi and Eumenides, which demonstrates the unity of the trilogy.

Käppel's book has many plans and diagrams to illustrate his interpretation. Because his text follows the structure of the trilogy, he has refrained from adding an index.

The book gives a new and fascinating view on the Oresteia. Although there are a few points on which not everybody will agree with the author, he has presented some answers to long discussed questions which are worth considering. More than that, Käppel's book helps to grasp the structure of this extremely complex trilogy in more detail.


1.   L. Käppel, "Die Rolle des Chores in der Orestie des Aischylos. Vom epischen Erzähler über das lyrische Ich zur dramatis persona", in: P. Riemer/B. Zimmermann (Eds.), Der Chor im antiken und modernen Drama, Stuttgart/Weimar 1999, 61-88.
2.   A. Lesky, Die tragische Dichtung der Hellenen, 3rd ed., Göttingen 1972, p. 120.

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