.......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.
.......Although they are separate playseach one complete in itselfthe second play continues the story of the first and the third play continues the story of the second. In addition, the plays share a common theme: how the justice system of ancient Greece evolved from a crude, "eye for an eye" system to a civilized system with courts and trials.
.......In ancient Greece, three plays with a related theme and plot were called a trilogy. We still use this word today to identify three plays, novels, films, etc., with related themes and continuing plots. The first three Star Wars movies are an example of a modern trilogy. The title of the Aeschylus trilogy is derived from the name of a pivotal character in The Libation BearersOrestes.
.......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:
.......Agamemnon was the son of a man named Atreus. When Agamemnon and his younger brother, Thyestes, were adults, Atreus became King of Mycenae, a city in southern Greece on a peninsula today known as the Peloponnese. Atreus then drove his brother out of the city when the latter challenged him for the throne. One account of this tale says Thyestes had first seduced Atreuss wife, Aërope, to gain possession of a lamb with a golden fleece that conferred on its owner the rulership of Mycenae. When Thyestes left the city, he took with him Atreuss child, Pleisthenes, and reared the boy.
.......One day, Thyestes sent Pleisthenes on a mission to kill Atreus. But the murder plot was foiled and Pleisthenes was killed. Atreus did not immediately realize that the man who tried to kill him was his own son. However, after he discovered to his horror the identity of the assailant, Atreus hatched a plot to get even with his brother: He invited Thyestes to a banquet, pretending he was ready to reconcile with his brother. The main course turned out to be the cooked remains of the sons of Thyestes. Thyestes ate heartily of the fare. After he learned of his brother's treachery, he laid a heavy curse on Atreus and his descendants to get even for this unspeakable abomination.
.......So it was that the son of Atreus, Agamemnon, inherited the sin and guilt of his father, just as Christians of later times inherited the sin and guilt of Adam and Eve.
.......Thyestes then fathered another son, Aegisthus. When he grew up, he and Thyestes killed Atreus. Thyestes then seized the throne of Atreus and became King of Mycenae.
.......Meanwhile, Agamemnon went on to become King of Argos, a city in the Peloponnese, and later became general of all the Greek armies when Greece declared war on Troy. However, a cloud of doomthe curse pronounced by Thyesteshovered over Agamemnon everywhere. It eventually manifested itself at Aulis, a Greek port city where Agamemnon's fleet had gathered to debark for Troy. There, the Olympian goddess Artemisoffended because Agamemnon had killed an animal sacred to herstayed the winds, making it impossible for Agamemnon and his armies to sail to Greece. The only way to gain favorable winds, she said, was to sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon did so and even gagged his daughter so that, with her last breath, she could not curse him for this deed. Her death enraged Agamemnon's wife, Queen Clytemnestra. After Artemis quickened the winds and Agamemnon sailed off to Troy, Clytemnestra never forgot what Agamemnon did. While he was fighting the Trojans, she took a loverAegisthus, the son of Thyestes. Together, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plotted Agamemnon's murder while he was fighting at Troy. When the Greeks at long last defeated the Trojans and Clytemnestra received word that Agamemnon would soon return home as a conquering hero, Clytemnestra set in motion the murder plan. It is at this point that Aeschylus picks up the story.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......A night watchman on the roof of King Agamemnons palace in Argos sees a mountain-top fire reddening the horizon. It is a signal that the Trojan War has ended in a Greek victory and that Agamemnon will soon return home.
.......After the watchman hurries into the palace to report the sighting to Queen Clytemnestra, a chorus of old men walks to the front of the palace and points out that ten years have passed since Agamemnon left Argos to lead the Greeks in the war. The elders remember a seers prophecy that the king would sacrifice his and Clytemnestras daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in order to gain favorable winds for his fleet on its journey to Troy. For this act, it was foretold, there would be retribution. When the time came for his ships to debark. Artemis withheld the winds because Agamemnon had killed a stag sacred to her. To loose the winds, the goddess decreed, he had to pay for his offense by sacrificing Iphigenia. Agamemnon did so. This horrible act was made even worse when he gagged Iphigenia to prevent her from pronouncing a curse on him. So enraged was Clytemnestra that her anger never subsided during the ten years that Agamemnon was at war. The chorus of elders suspects that the queen is plotting against her husband:
.......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.
Clytemnetra Queen of Argos. She plans to murder her husband, King Agamemnon, because he sacrificed their innocent daughter, Iphigenia, to gain favorable winds from the gods for his sea voyage to Troy. Clytemnestra is strong-willed and ruthless, a man in womanly dress.
Agamemnon King of Argos and general of all the Greek armies that defeated the Trojans in a long war. He is the son of Atreus, who was cursed by his brother, Thyestes, after Atreus killed his sons. Agamemnon inherited this curse
Chorus Elderly men of Argos who express views in unison to reflect the views of the citizens of Argos.
Leader of the Chorus Member of the chorus who individually addresses Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Cassandra, and the herald.
Cassandra Daughter of the King of Troy. Agamemnon brings her home with him as a captive concubine.
Aegisthus Clytemnestra's paramour and son of Thestes, who pronounced the curse on the House of Atreus
Watchman Sentinel who sees the mountain-top beacon fire signaling the end of the Trojan War.
Herald Messenger who announces the arrival of Agamemnon in Argos.
Attendants, Bodyguard of Aegisthus
.......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.
.......In this play, King Agamemnon suffers a downfalla humiliating deathpartly because of flaws in his character that caused him to make bad decisions. But he does not experience a moment of enlightenment (unless one interprets his passive, compliant demeanor upon his return to Argos as a signal that he realizes he has sinned, that his wife desires revenge, and that he expects to be punished.)
As for Queen Clytemnestra, she does not suffer a downfall in this play and does not experience a moment of enlightenment. However, she does have flaws and is prophesied to suffer a downfall. This downfall, her death, occurs in the second play of the Oresteia trilogy.
Which character, then, is the main character (protagonist)?
.......One could argue in favor of either characterAgamemnon for the aforementioned reasons, as well as the fact that he is the title character and that his past actions and family history dominate the choral songs; Clytemnestra for her flaws and predicted downfall, as well as the fact that she speaks far more lines than Agamemnon and comes under greater psychological scrutiny.
.......However, because Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon before the Greeks canonized the requirements for tragedysome of which he introduced to Greek dramahis characters cannot be measured by later standards. In the end, it may be more sensible to identify both Clytemnestra and Agamemnon as protagonists (when using protagonist as a synonym for main character).
.......The overall theme of the Oresteiathe evolution of the Greek justice systemsuggests 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 Troys holy
.......One could argue that the circumstances forcing him to decide whether to sacrifice his daughter arose as a result of the curse pronounced on the House of Atreus by Thyestes. Whatever the case, Agamemnon lives under the weight of inherited sin and sin that he wills. Of course, killing his daughter and defiling Troys altars are not his only sins; he also commits adultery and indulges his own pride by walking on the purple carpet. After Clytemnestra murders him, she defends her action by saying she represented the gods carrying out a divine sentence. But it is obvious that she is also a human avenger getting even for the murder of her daughter and for Agamemnons infidelity. Ironically, Clytemnestra has also been unfaithfulwith the son of the man who was wronged by Atreus. At the end of the play, the chorus declares that another avenger will appear to exact revenge against Clytemnestra.
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, Oresteswith the support of his sister, Electraassumes 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, everyoneincluding the Furiesaccepts 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 itintentionally or unintentionallyin choral songs.
Infidelity: A Motif in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers
.......Both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra commit adulteryhe with Cassandra, whom he brings home from Troy as a captive, and she with Aegisthus, the son of the bitter enemy of Agamemnons 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.Climax
.......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.
There is a kind of birth going on, and there are labor pains. The newborn child finally sees the light of day, for good, in the third play of the trilogy.
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 purplea mixture of blue and redwith blood seems scientifically sound, for deoxygenated blood takes on a bluish or purplish hueas in cyanosisand 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 bloodbathfor 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:
Metaphor, Personification, Paradox, Hyperbole, Synecdoche
As saith the adage, from the womb of Night................[womb of Night: metaphor, personification]
Spring forth, with promise fair, the young child Light.....[womb of Night / child Light: paradox
Ayfairer even than all hope my news....................[fairer even than all hope: hyperbole
By Grecian hands is Priam's city ta'en!.......................[by Grecian hands: synecdoche
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]
Herald of upper and of under world,
Proclaim and usher down my prayer's appeal
Unto the gods below, that they with eyes
Watchful behold these halls. My sire's of old
And unto Earth, the mother of all things,...................[Earth, the mother: personification, metaphor]
And loster-nurse, and womb that takes their seed.
Speaker and play: Electra in The Libation Bearers while praying at the tomb of Agamemnon.
.......Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the first of ancient Greece's great tragedians. Because of the standards of excellence he established and because of innovations he made in the staging of Greek drama, he is often referred to as the "father of Greek tragedy." Before Aeschylus wrote and staged his plays, Greek drama consisted primarily of choral songs, recitations, and dances, as well as dialogue expressed by a single actor who generally played more than one part. (The actor wore a mask that signified which character he was playing at a given time. When he switched characters, he changed masks.) Aeschylus added a second actor, enabling the first actor to engage in dialogue with the second actor and providing greater latitude for plot development. He also increased the dialogue portions of plays, reduced the lyrical portions of the chorus, and designed stage sets and costumes.
Definition and Background.....The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater.