By Aeschylus (525-456 BC)
A Study Guide
Introduction: Agamemnon as Part of The Oresteia Trilogy
.......Agamemnon is a tragedy that was first performed in Athens, Greece, in 458 BC, along with two other plays: The Libation Bearers (also called Choephori, Choëphoroe, and Choephoroi in English transliterations from Greek) and The Eumenides. These three plays make up a set known as The Oresteia, considered Aeschylus's finest work and one of the greatest works in world literature.
.......Aeschylus based the plot of Agamemnon and the other plays in The Oresteia (also spelled Orestea) on a mythological story well known to Greeks of his time. Because Aeschylus focused his plays only on a later part of this story, readers need to be familiar with the earlier
part in order to understand the later part. Following is an abbreviated account of the story up to the time when Aeschylus picks up the story:
At home there tarries like a lurking snake, [snake: Clytemnestra]In addition to recalling the seer's prophecy, the chorus also recalls the prophecy that the Greeks would win the war but commit evil in doing so. However, the old men point out that it was a young Trojan, Paris, who provoked the war. While visiting Greece, he violated divine and human laws by running off with the beautiful Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother, King Menelaus of Sparta. Such an act was not only an offense against Menelaus as the husband of Helen but also against Menelaus as the host of Paris. The Spartan king deserved respect on both accounts.
Biding its time, a wrath unreconciled,
A wily watcher, passionate to slake,
In blood, resentment for a murdered child.
.......While the old men recount these events of a decade ago, Clytemnestra leaves the palace [through a door at the center of the stage] and lights fires on a sacrificial altar. She had decreed that similar sacrificial fires be kindled throughout Argos. When the chorus asks why, she informs them that she has received notice of a Greek victory in the Trojan War. The message arrived via a series of signal fires kindled by sentinels posted by her on mountain tops between Troy and Greece. Even as she speaks, she says, the Greeks are in Troy celebrating victory. She lit her own sacrificial fire, she says, to pray that the Greeks are gracious in victory and respect the gods Troy holds dear.
Yet let them reverence well the city's gods,After asking the chorus likewise to pray for a righteous treatment of the Trojan gods, she returns to the palace. The chorus then offers of a prayer which thanks Zeus for the victory and reminds the audience that he punishes all who commit an ungodly offense like that of Paris when he caused the war.
The lords of Troy, tho' fallen, and her shrines;
So shall the spoilers not in turn be spoiled.
Yea, let no craving for forbidden gain
Bid conquerors yield before the darts of greed.
.......Days later, a herald arrives at the palace to confirm that the war has ended and that Agamemnon is in Greece and soon will return to Argos. The herald also reports that other returning warriors are unaccounted for, having apparently been blown off course or lost at sea. There is an implication here that the gods may have punished them for desecrating Troy's shrines. When Clytemnestra comes forth, she pretends that she is joyful at the prospect of reuniting with her husband:
What day beams fairer on a woman's eyes.......Clytemnestra speaks here with verbal irony, of course, for she plans to kill Agamemnon to avenge the death of Iphigenia.
Than this, whereon she flings the portal wide,
To hail her lord, heaven-shielded, home from war?
.......When Agamemnon finally appears, he is riding in a chariot at the head of a procession that includes a chariot carrying a captive princess, the prophetess Cassandra, who is Agamemnon's concubine. That Agamemnon would bring home a mistress to live in the same house with his wife further enrages the queen. After the chorus greets him, Agamemnon salutes his native land and the gods who helped Greece win its victory and who watched over him when he sailed home.
.......Clytemnestra comes out of the palace and says she endured great agonies when rumors spoke of Greek woes at Troy, one of which even reported the death of Agamemnon. (If she did experience agony, it was probably born of disappointment that she would be denied the opportunity of killing Agamemnon herself.) She wept. When sleeping—on the rare occasions when she could sleep—she jumped awake at the slightest sound, she says. After she has her say, she welcomes her husband and orders handmaidens accompanying her to lay down a path of finest purple cloth for him to walk on from his chariot to the palace. Agamemnon thanks his wife for her greeting but declines her invitation to walk on the makeshift carpet. To do so would be to exhibit great pride offensive to the gods:
A mortal man to set his foot.......But Clytemnestra tells him he well deserves to enter the palace like a god. As an all-conquering hero, he has earned the right to enjoy a stately, majestic homecoming. Agamemnon gives in. After attendants remove his sandals, he proceeds into the palace on the purple walkway. Clytemnestra follows.
On these rich dyes? I hold such pride in fear,
And bid thee honour me as man, not god.
.......The chorus, still suspicious of Clytemnestra’s motives, senses that death has entered the palace with Agamemnon, for “these wild throbbings of my heart and breast— / Yea, of some doom they tell.”
.......Clytemnestra returns and orders Cassandra to enter the palace. When Cassandra does not respond, Clytemnestra leaves it to the chorus to persuade the girl to accept the invitation, then goes back inside. After the old men importune Cassandra to obey the command, she prophesies that she and Agamemnon both will die if she sets foot inside the palace. Nevertheless, she agrees to go inside, stoically accepting the fate she knows awaits her. Before entering the palace, she makes another prediction: The day will come when deadly vengeance is exacted against those about to murder her and Agamemnon.
.......Shortly after Cassandra enters the palace, the chorus hears Agamemnon crying out that he has been struck down. Moments later, he cries out again after suffering another blow. The members of the chorus fear that their own lives are in danger. While they try to decide what to do, Clytemnestra opens the palace door, revealing the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra.
.......Without qualm, she admits killing her husband, saying she struck him three times in all and that the blood spurting forth was as sweet as “the rain of heaven to cornland.” When the chorus asks what drove her to kill her husband, Clytemnestra, as expected, cites Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia as the primary reason. But she says she did the deed for another reason as well: Agamemnon had been unfaithful to her and even had the audacity to bring Cassandra, his paramour, back to Greece with him. Now both of them have received their just deserts.
.......The chorus accuses her of having ensnared Agamemnon in a “spider-web of treachery” and predicts an avenger will one day visit its wrath upon her. Clytemnestra answers that she was merely the agent of vengeance, an executioner who carried out a just sentence on a man condemned by his own actions.
.......Clytemnestra’s second motive for killing Agamemnon, infidelity, rings of hypocrisy, for she herself was guilty of infidelity when Agamemnon was at Troy. She took a lover, Aegisthus, who conspired with her to murder Agamemnon. Aegisthus had long thirsted for Agamemnon’s blood as a result of the deadly feud between his and Agamemnon’s family.
.......Aegisthus now takes his place at the side of Clytemnestra, declaring that he too exults in the death of Agamemnon. Defiantly, he admits “plotting and planning all that malice bade.” The chorus condemns him:
Thou womanish man, waiting till war did cease,Clytemnestra ends the play by telling Aegisthus:
Home-watcher and defiler of the couch,
And arch-deviser of the chieftain’s doom!
Heed not thou too highly of them—let the cur-pack growl and yell:.
I and thou will rule the palace and will order all things well..
.......The action takes place in Argos, Greece, at the palace of King Agamemnon. Argos is a city on a mountainous peninsula, the Peloponnese, that makes up southern Greece. The peninsula is south of the Gulf of Corinth and north of the Mediterranean Sea. Argos is in the northeastern part of the peninsula. Citizens of Argos were called Argives.
.......A typical Greek play written by an author after the time of Aeschylus has only one protagonist, a person of noble lineage who suffers a downfall partly because of a flaw (or flaws) in his character. Usually, when the protagonist suffers his downfall, he experiences a moment of enlightenment in which he
acknowledges the flaw.
.......The overall theme of the Oresteia—the evolution of the Greek justice system—suggests that the forces operating against Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are the antagonists. These forces include the curse of inherited guilt that dogs Agamemnon and the overpowering desire for vengeance that drives Clytemnestra and the gods offended by human actions.
Retribution and Revenge
.......The gods of ancient Greece required humankind to pay for its sins. Sons and daughters of sinners could inherit the sins of their parents, just as the descendants of Adam and Eve were destined to inherit original sin in Christian theology. But of course each Greek also had free will, enabling him or her to choose
good or evil. Agamemnon inherited the sin of his father, Atreus, in the form of a curse pronounced on Agamemnon by his brother, Thyestes. In the Aeschylus play, Agamemnon thus seems doubly cursed. On the one hand, he bears the guilt of his father; on the other, he bears his own guilt for sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, and for participating in the destruction of Troy’s holy
Evolution of Personal Vengeance Into a Civilized Court System
.......In very early Greek history, as well as in the myths and legends recounted by early Greek writers, it was up to individuals to mete out justice for wrongs committed against them. Courts and trials as we know them today did not exist. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra takes justice into her own hands; she believes she has a right to kill Agamemnon in retaliation for his killing of their daughter, Iphigenia. In her own mind, Clytemnestra has tried and convicted her husband. When she kills him, she becomes an executioner. In short, she personifies the entire justice system. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes—with the support of his sister, Electra—assumes the role of judge, jury, and executioner, condemning and killing his mother to avenge the death of his father. In The Eumenides, the Furies attempt to avenge the death of Clytemnestra. However, two powerful gods, Apollo and Athena, intervene. Athena establishes a court to try Orestes for his alleged crime. Apollo testifies for Orestes and the Furies against him. In the end, Orestes is exonerated, and the court system replaces the old "eye for an eye" system.
.......In Agamemnon, Argos is a male-dominated society that reduces women to subservient roles. However, Clytemnestra is a strong woman who rules the kingdom while Agamemnon is away. When he returns from the war to resume his rule, Clytemnestra is expected to yield to him. It may well be, though, that Clytemnestra is wedded to the throne, as it were, and has decided to kill Agamemnon not only as an act of vengeance but also as an act of ambition. This motif receives further attention in The Libation Bearers. In this play, Clytemnestra is described as a tyrant who oppresses the citizens of Argos and enslaves her own daughter. It almost appears as if testosterone, not estrogen, drives her. When Orestes plots her death, he cites reclamation of the throne from a woman as one of one of his goals. After killing Clytemnestra, Orestes is pursued by female deities, the Furies, and saved by a male deity, Apollo. Of course, a female deity has the last word: In The Eumenides, the goddess Athena votes to acquit Orestes, the pacifies the enraged Furies. Her action not only establishes a new order of justice but also reconciles the warring sexes.
Importance of Heeding the Will of the Gods
.......In Agamemnon, the title character faces doom in part because he sometimes failed to respect the gods and their laws. First, he killed an animal sacred to Artemis (an act alluded to but not described in detail in the Aeschylus play). For this offense, she prevented Agamemnon and his armies from gaining favorable winds for their voyage to Troy. The only way for him to reverse her action, she decreed, was to sacrifice his daughter. Second, he exhibited excessive pride on several occasions as commander of the Greek forces. Third, he allowed his soldiers to desecrate the holy places of Troy. After his return to Argos, he allowed his pride to get the better of him again, this time by walking in triumph on the purple carpet. Pride was considered a grave sin in ancient Greece because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community as a whole. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes hesitates when the time comes to kill Clytemnestra. His friend, Pylades, convinces him of the necessity of the act by reminding him that Apollo ordered the killing. In The Eumenides, everyone—including the Furies—accepts the will of Athena.
Fickleness of the Gods
.......The gods of Greek mythology could be fickle and hypocritical, just like humans. Not infrequently, they violated laws which they commanded humans to obey. For example, they frequently committed infidelity. They also lied, promoted violence, and displayed inordinate pride. In Agamemnon, the goddess Artemis exhibited hypocrisy when she withheld favorable winds from Agamemnon for killing one of her sacred animals. To understand her hypocrisy in this case, one must understand what her roles were. First, she was a protector of wild animals while also serving as the patron deity of hunters. She herself was a huntress. Yet she penalized Agamemnon for doing what she often did: kill an animal. Second, as a virgin goddess, she was the patron of chastity. Yet she told Agamemnon that she would not cancel her penalty unless he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, a virgin. Artemis thus exhibited hostility toward two humans she was supposed to favor: a hunter and a virgin. In Agamemnon, Aeschylus does not explicitly address the issue of divine hypocrisy, but he does allude to it—intentionally or unintentionally—in choral songs.
Infidelity: A Motif in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers
.......Both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra commit adultery—he with Cassandra, whom he brings home from Troy as a captive, and she with Aegisthus, the son of the bitter enemy of Agamemnon’s father. Although Agamemnon's infidelity is not the main reason that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, it helps her to drive her weapon into his skull. Before Orestes kills Clytemnestra in The Libation Bearers, he cites his mother's his mother's infidelity with Aegisthus as one of his motives, although it is not the main motive.
.......The climax of the play is the murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra.
Darkness and Light
.......Aeschylus uses images of darkness and light to symbolize the emergence of Greece from the primitive age of personal revenge and vigilante justice, during which powerful monarchs ruled city states, to the civilized age of law courts, during which the people ruled through democracy. In the Oresteia, the
transition from one age to the other begins in the first play, Agamemnon, when the watchman observes a mountain-top signal fire lighting the night sky to alert Argos that the Trojan War has ended. Dawn follows shortly thereafter. From then on, images of darkness and light vie with each other, symbolizing the cultural and social struggle taking place.
The Purple Carpet and Cassandra's Saffron Robe
.......The color of the carpet on which Agamemnon walks into the palace is significant. The Greek word Aeschylus used to described this color has been rendered in English as purple by some translators and red by other translators. Both translations are correct insofar as some purples appear reddish and some reds appear purplish. In fact, purple is sometimes used as a synonym for crimson, a shade of deep red. Since ancient times, purple has signified imperial, godlike power, as indicated by the purple robes kings and emperors have worn. It has also been associated with strong emotion and blood. (The association of purple—a mixture of blue and red—with blood seems scientifically sound, for deoxygenated blood takes on a bluish or purplish hue—as in cyanosis—and oxygenated blood becomes bright red). The purple carpet therefore appears to symbolize (1) the pride, or hubris, that afflicts Agamemnon as conqueror of Troy and King of Argos; (2) the wrath of Clytemnestra; and (3) the bloody death that awaits Agamemnon. The saffron-colored robe worn by Cassandra also appears to symbolize the coming bloodbath—for her as well as Agamemnon. A saffron is a flower with large purple leaves.
Animal and Insect Images
.......In Agamemnon, eagles, hares, spiders, and other creatures exhibit the behavior patterns of humans, figuratively speaking, and thus become symbols for those humans. For example, spiders and snakes are associated with Clytemnestra because she has spun a web of treachery (like a spider) and has poised herself (like a coiling snake) to strike at Agamemnon. Eagles that prey on a pregnant hare are associated with Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, because they are fierce warriors destined to destroy Troy (the hare) and its future (the hare's offspring). In the third play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, the spider-web metaphor appears again when the god Apollo describes how Clytemnestra trapped Agamemnon:
She spread from head to foot a covering net,
And in the endless mesh of cunning robes
Enwound and trapped her lord, and smote him down.
Metaphor, Personification, Paradox, Hyperbole, Synecdoche
As saith the adage, from the womb of Night................[womb of Night: metaphor, personification]
—Speaker and play: Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, referring to the Greek victory over the Trojans
Apostrophe, Personification, Metaphor
O mighty Hermes, warder of the shades,..................[O mighty Hermes: apostrophe]
—Speaker and play: Electra in The Libation Bearers while praying at the tomb of Agamemnon.
Definition and Background
....."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them.
Major Sections of the Theater
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.