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Agamemnon - Aeschylus

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Themes: BetrayalThe CityJustice, Marriage,
Prophecy, Suffering

 

This play opens with a Watchman waiting for long-anticipated arrival of the king of Argos. As signal fires are sighted, the Watchman rejoices at the impending return of the king; he also expresses longing and fear: “Just bring him home. My king, / I’ll take your loving hand in mine and then… / the rest is silence. The ox is on my tongue” (36-38). The Chorus of old men describes the passage of time in Argos since Agamemnon left to fight the Trojan War, as well as the horrible sacrifice that Artemis demanded in order to release the winds to take the army to Troy. “Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end,” the Chorus sings more than once (125, 139). Interwoven with the story about Agamemnon, Calchas, and the sacrifice of an innocent young girl is a story the Chorus tells about Zeus and his family. “Zeus has led us on to know / the Helmsman lays it down as law / that we must suffer, suffer into truth,” the Chorus chants. 

 

A Herald enters, announces Agamemnon’s return; his wife Clytaemnestra speaks as though she rejoices at her husband’s survival and their impending reunion. The Chorus, however, when they welcome Agamemnon, exhort him to “Search…and learn at last / who stayed at home and kept their faith / and who betrayed the city” (792-794). When Clytaemnestra presses Agamemnon to walk over crimson tapestries spread over the ground from his carriage to the palace doors, he at first refuses. The two engage in a battle of words; ultimately the queen exclaims, “O give way! The power is yours if you surrender, / all of your own free will, to me!” (939). The king finally relents, entering the palace with Clytaemnestra. He asks that Cassandra, the captive Trojan princess whom he has brought back from the war, be treated gently. 

 

After the king and queen have gone into the palace, Cassandra speaks of Apollo in the hearing of the Chorus, who wonder at her enigmatic words. Calling Apollo her “destroyer,” this girl describes horrors that she can see, foreseeing the murder of a king by his “bedmate” (1118), of dead children, of a house haunted by furies. She tells the Chorus of the curse laid upon her after she refused the amorous advances of the god Apollo; Cassandra prophesies the future, but she will not be believed. She clearly tells that Agamemnon will be seen dead (1258), and she foretells her own impending death (1274); however she also foresees a son who will come to avenge his father’s death. Before she enters the fatal palace, Cassandra asks the chorus to testify to how she died when the murderers are finally themselves executed (1340-1341). Cries from the palace alert the Chorus to a murder taking place inside; Clytaemnestra is revealed standing over two slain by her hand, her husband and Cassandra.  The queen invites the elders of Argos to celebrate: “Rejoice if you can rejoice— I glory…It is right and more than right.” Citing the misery that Agamemnon brought to her house, Clytaemnestra defends herself to the Chorus as a liberator of her house. The Chorus is horrified at what has happened. 

 

Aegisthus, lover to Clytaemnestra in Agamemnon’s absence, emerges from the house and tells of the feud between his family and Agamemnon’s family. The Chorus is horrified: “Aegisthus,” they cry, “you revel in pain—you sicken me. / You say you killed the king in cold blood” (1644-1645). In reality, Aegisthus let Clytaemnestra do the killing; when the Chorus questions this choice, the queen’s love becomes enraged and threatens the elder of the city. Raising deep questions about the nature of justice and of family, this play ends with the Chorus, despondent and dismayed, hoping that Agamemnon’s exiled son, Orestes, will return to avenge the murder of the king. 

 

Opening questions:

 

After the carnage, Clytaemnestra claims “We could not do otherwise than we did” (1658). Did Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus have a choice about what they did to Agamemnon and Cassandra?

 

When Clytaemnestra states, “But the great victor—it becomes him to give way,” 

Agamemnon responds with a question, “Victory in this…war of ours, it means so much to you?” (936-937). What is this war between Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon, and who has the victory?

 

The chorus asks “Who can tear from the veins / the bad seed, the curse?” (1594). What is this curse on Agamemnon’s family, and what does it look like?

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Suggested Pairing:

 

The Oresteia - The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides by Aeschylus; Poetics by Aristotle