Agamemnon is one of the most famous plays by Greek dramatist Aeschylus. First performed at the influential dramatic festival in Athens in 458 bce, it is the first play of the trilogy called The Oresteia, which concerns events surrounding the return of Agamemnon, king of Argos and leader of the Greek army that invaded Troy. According to legend, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his own daughter's life before the goddess Artemis would allow the Greek ships to sail from their shore. In Aeschylus's play, Agamemnon returns to a trap that his wife, Clytaemnestra, has been plotting for ten years to avenge her daughter's death.
The Oresteia won first place at the Athenian festival the year that it premiered. It is now the only surviving trilogy by Aeschylus, who is credited as the first to have written interwoven trilogies for the competition while other playwrights were submitting three unrelated pieces. Over the centuries, this story has been familiar in cultures throughout the world, and has been the basis for hundreds of similar stories. It deals with issues basic to humanity and civilization, such as honor, responsibility, revenge, deceit, kinship, and power. Readers of Agamemnon might feel a sense of outrage over power usurped; however, by the end of the trilogy, it is clear how such outrage can lead to one senseless act of revenge after another.
Dozens of reliable translations of Agamemnon are available today. One of the most recommended is by Robert Fagles, published in the 1979 Penguin Classic edition of The Oresteia.
The facts about Aeschylus's life are not considered verifiable because he lived centuries ago, and they have been pieced together from existing information. He is believed to have been born in 525 bce at Eleusis, near Athens, the capital of modern-day Greece. His father, Euphorion, was from a noble family. When Aeschylus was young, he worked in a vineyard, and it is said that it was his devotion to Dionysus, the god of wine, that led him to become a playwright. (The earliest Greek dramas were written and performed for feasts in celebration of Dionysus.) Aeschylus fought in the Persian War, in battles at Marathon, Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea. He earned distinction as a soldier. In his epitaph, which Aeschylus wrote for himself, he talked about his accomplishments in battle but not the awards he won in playwriting competitions, indicating that he treasured his life as a soldier more than his life as a writer.
Aeschylus was writing dramas for competitions before he served in the army. His first competitive piece was produced in 499 bce for the dramatic competition at the City Dionysian Festival in Athens, and his first victory in competition came in 484. After that, he became a regular if not constant winner, receiving first place about twelve more times. In all, he is thought to have written between fifty and ninety plays, of which only seven remain. The earliest remaining play is Persians, from 472 bce, when he was fifty-three years old.
Aeschylus is known to have spent two distinctive periods of his life on the island of Sicily, then a center of wealth and power among the Greece states and now an autonomous region of Italy. It was in Athens, however, that he produced The Oresteia, a trilogy that includes Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.
Aeschylus died in the city of Gela in Sicily in 455 or 456 bce, at the age of sixty-nine. Two of his sons became dramatists: Euphorion (who also restaged many of his father's plays) and Euaeon.
Agamemnon begins with a lone Watchman, standing guard on the roof of the house of Atreus, the royal dwelling in Argos, as he has stood watch for hundreds of nights before. He struggles to stay awake, assuming that this night will be no different than any other. He is so bored with his task that he begs the gods to free him. In his musings, he thinks of how difficult life has been in Argos under Clytaemnestra, who is ruling the land in her husband's absence, and longs for the security of the old times before the king, Agamemnon, sailed off to war.
The Watchman sees a light on the horizon and thinks that he is seeing the sun rise. After a moment, though, he realizes what it really is: the signal that he has been watching for all these years. After a brief dance of joy, he climbs down from the roof through a side entrance into the palace.
A crowd of old men, the Chorus, enters, discussing the events that have led to the current situation. It was ten years ago to the day that Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, sailed off with the entire Greek army to attack Troy. Since they do not know of the signal the Watchman has seen, they do not know what to make of the cry of excitement that Clytaemnestra lets out within the palace. They continue their discussion, imagining the sight of battle on the Trojan fields, waged to retrieve Menelaus's wife, Helen, who was abducted by Paris, the prince of Troy. The members of the Chorus express the wish that they could have taken part in the battle, but they were deemed too old to fight and were therefore forced to stay home, feeling dishonored and useless.
Noting that Clytaemnestra and her entourage have appeared and lit the altar fires, they ask her what news she has heard of the war, but she does not answer and goes away, which prompts the Chorus to dwell on more details of how the war began. They recall the call to arms, the gathering of a thousand ships to sail against Troy, and how the goddess Artemis halted the invasion by holding back the wind so that the ships could not sail. As the seer Calchas determined, Artemis would not let the invasion go forward until Agamemnon killed his daughter, Iphigenia, in sacrifice to her. He did, and the winds became favorable again. The Chorus knows, though, that during the ten years that Agamemnon has been gone, Clytaemnestra has sat in the palace, growing angrier and angrier over the loss of her daughter.
The Leader of the Chorus approaches Clytaemnestra and asks why the altar fires are being lit. She tells him that the war with Troy is over and that the Greeks have won. When the Leader asks if she might have dreamed this, Clytaemnestra is offended. She explains to him the system of signal fires that she has arranged, in which one outpost lights a fire upon seeing the fire from the previous outpost, so that the message of the Greek victory can travel across land and sea as quickly as the speed of light. She hopes that the soldiers who went off to battle will not take too much time to plunder the city but instead will come home quickly.
As they talk about the abduction of Helen and the course that the war has taken, the members of the Chorus begin to doubt that Clytaemnestra's system of signal fires could work as well as she says it has. She is just a woman, they say, and is likely to be gullible enough to get excited over something that could just be a coincidence, or a trick. But then a Herald arrives, announcing that Troy has indeed fallen to the Greek troops. The Chorus welcomes him and tells him that they have lived in fear of their lives for the past ten years. They have only been able to survive Clytaemnestra's reign by keeping silent.
Clytaemnestra enters with her servants and rebukes the Chorus for doubting her word that the war was indeed ended. She gives orders for Agamemnon to be sent to her when he returns, and then she leaves. The Chorus expresses distrust in her motives. Asked about the fate of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, the Herald says that his ship was lost in a storm after leaving Troy; though the men are presumed dead, they might show up again, a reference to Greek poet Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. The Herald leaves, and the Chorus ruminates on the tragic fate that is destined to befall all of the house of Atreus.
Agamemnon enters in a chariot that is heavy with treasures, the goods that he has taken from Troy as his plunder. This includes Cassandra, who rides in the back of the carriage, away from the audience. He arrives thanking the gods, praising those who died in the war, and promising to look into rearranging the city's system of justice.
- A film of this drama, directed and produced by Sir Peter Hall for the National Theater of Great Britain, was released on videocassette by Films for the Humanities, of Princeton, New Jersey, in 1983.
- A two-tape audio cassette version of Agamemnon was released in 1977 by Jabberwocky Studio of San Francisco.
- A more recent version of Agamemnon is included in Blackstone Audiobooks's 2007 compact disc release of The Oresteia, from a translation by Ian Johnston, directed by Yuri Rasovsky and performed by Hollywood Theatre of the Ear.
- A 1992 translation of Agamemnon: A Tragedy by Aeschylus by Peter Meineck, Graham Mitchell, and Dirk Obbink, performed by Aquila Productions of London, is available on videotape from Film Counselors Associates.
Clytaemnestra enters and explains how difficult life has been for her while Agamemnon was gone. She mentions their child, who is gone but should be there. When Agamemnon looks startled that she would bring up the sacrifice of Iphigenia, he explains that she is talking about their son, Orestes, who has gone into exile with Strophios the Phocian, to keep him safe during the war. In the name of doing honor to her husband, the conquering hero, Clytaemnestra has her servants lay out tapestries on the ground, saying that his feet should never again have to touch plain soil. Agamemnon objects, saying that such treatment is only fitting for gods, but she tells him that he should feel he deserves to be revered above all other men because he is a war hero. Agamemnon gives in at length. As he dismounts onto the tapestries, Cassandra can be seen in the back of his chariot. He tells the servants to escort her into the house and treat her well, and then he enters the palace. Clytaemnestra follows him in.
After the Chorus expresses their foreboding once more, Clytaemnestra emerges from the palace and approaches Cassandra, inviting her inside. When she does not move or talk, Clytaemnestra goes inside again, furious, telling the Chorus to make her understand her new position as a slave in this house. Eventually, Cassandra does speak, but she talks in cryptic half-sentences about destruction and death; the Chorus assumes that she is remembering the war zone from which she recently came. The more she talks, the more the old men assume that she has been driven insane by the war and by being enslaved. They are amazed by her ability to correctly speak about the events that have occurred in the house of Atreus in the past though she comes from a land overseas, and they listen to how she came to have her particular powers. The god Apollo fell in love with her and gave her the gift of being able to tell the future, but she ended up rejecting him, so he added a curse, that all of her prophesies, though correct, would not be believed. The Chorus listens carefully, and true to the curse, they still are unable to understand what Cassandra's predictions of death have to do with Agamemnon and herself. When she eventually, reluctantly, goes through the doors, they are curious about why she seems so sad.
Soon, a cry rings out from within the palace, then another. The doors open to reveal Agamemnon's body, wrapped in bloody robes, lying across a silver cauldron, with Cassandra's dead body beside him. Clytaemnestra, with a bloody sword in her hand, steps forward and explains how she enacted the plan that she has worked on for years while he was gone. She lured him into a bath, she says, then wrapped him up in robes so that he could not fight and stabbed him again and again until, on the third thrust, he died. The Chorus is horrified that she has killed the king, but Clytaemnestra defends herself on the grounds that he killed Iphigenia, their daughter, in sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. Her defense includes a reference to Cassandra, the concubine that Agamemnon brought home as a war trophy.
The Chorus declares that Clytaemnestra is either insane or horrifyingly evil, telling her that she will be brought to justice for killing the king. Clytaemnestra announces that she is not without defenses. She brings out Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin, who she says is going to rule by her side. Aegisthus has lived his life waiting for revenge on Agamemnon. His father, Thyestes, was the brother of Agamemnon's father, Atreus. Atreus and Thyestes competed for control of Argos. Once, after having banned Thyestes from the city, Atreus invited him back in and served him a feast. When he was nearly finished eating, Thyestes discovered that he was eating the flesh of his recently murdered children. He fled into hiding with his one surviving infant son, Aegisthus, who waited in exile until a time when he could return and take control of Argos.
The Chorus refuses to accept Aegisthus as their ruler. He calls his soldiers to make the Chorus comply. The soldiers draw their swords, and the old men of the Chorus raise their canes. Clytaemnestra prevents the imminent battle. Aegisthus swears that he will make them pay for standing up to him, and the members of the Chorus say that Orestes, who is in exile at the time, will return to save the city from the tyrant's clutches.
Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin, appears at the end of the play as a conspirator who is going to help Clytaemnestra rule Argos once Agamemnon is dead. In different versions of the story, Aegisthus has an active hand in the murder of Agamemnon, though in the story that Aeschylus tells in this play, the murder is committed solely by Clytaemnestra.
As Aegisthus explains it, he has been in exile for his entire life, waiting for his chance to take the throne of Argos, which he feels is rightfully his. His father, Thyestes, was the brother of Agamemnon's father, Atreus, and had equal claim to the throne. The two brothers fought back and forth until Atreus invited Thyestes to a feast and tricked him into eating the bodies of his own children. Aegisthus survived and was raised out in the countryside, educated in hatred for Atreus and his sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
Within moments of taking control of Argos, Aegisthus shows that he will be a king who rules by intimidation. The old men of the Chorus object to the fact that their king has been murdered and that his replacement is the man who is going to marry the murderess, so Aegisthus commands their silence. To back up his command, he calls in armed guards, and is prepared to have his guards kill the citizens before Clytaemnestra calls the attack off.
Although he is the title character of the play, Agamemnon only appears in it briefly. His importance to the story rests more on who he is, and on what he has done before, than on what he does onstage.
Ten years before this story begins, Agamemnon led the Greek army in an attack on Troy. Paris, the prince of Troy, had come to Argos and abducted Helen, who was the wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, and the Greeks were honor-bound to fight to retrieve her. The invasion itself created some resentment among those who were left behind, especially the women. At one point in the play Agamemnon's wife Clytaemnestra speaks scornfully about the fact that all of the Greek men abandoned their homes and wives to defend the honor of another woman.
When the Greek ships were prepared to attack Troy, they were halted at Aulis by winds that pushed them back toward shore and not out to sea. The goddess Artemis required the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia. Different versions of this story give different reasons for Artemis's demand, but in this play it is to atone for the blood of Greek soldiers who are going to be killed in the coming war. Agamemnon killed his daughter on an altar, earning him the hatred of Clytaemnestra, his wife and the girl's mother.
When he does appear in the play, Agamemnon is a humble man. He gives thanks to the gods for his victory and to the people of Argos, who have waited patiently for the army's return, and he vows to start immediately to rebuild the government. When Clytaemnestra tells him to walk on tapestries instead of walking in the dirt, he modestly states that he is not worth such exalted treatment. He goes inside, and Clytaemnestra is able to bind him up and stab him while she is bathing him because Agamemnon naïvely does not suspect her hatred for him.
In Troy, Cassandra was a princess, the daughter of King Prium and Queen Hecuba. She arrives at Argos as the slave and concubine of Agamemnon, one of the spoils of war that he has earned for himself in his part of defeating the Trojans.
Cassandra has the power of foreseeing what will happen in the future, given to her by the god Apollo, who was in love with her. According to the version of the story she tells in Agamemnon, she had a relationship with Apollo but managed to avoid becoming pregnant with his child. In his anger, he put a curse on Cassandra so that her prophesies would be accurate but they would never be believed by those who heard them.
Arriving at Argos, she refuses to speak to Clytaemnestra or to leave Agamemnon's carriage and enter his palace. Her hesitance is first read as confusion about being in a strange land with people using a different language, and then as a refusal to admit that she is now a slave, but she eventually tells the Chorus that she knows she will be killed alongside Agamemnon when she enters the house. The old men think that she is confused or insane as she walks to the doom that she knows is coming.
The Chorus is a group of old men of Argos who, they explain bitterly, were considered too old to participate in the invasion of Troy. They feel that they have suffered under Clytaemnestra's rule for the past ten years. They do not trust her judgment, particularly because they do not think a woman is fit to rule a country like theirs. They eagerly look forward to the return of their king, Agamemnon.
After Clytaemnestra murders Agamemnon and announces that Aegisthus will be the new king, the members of the Chorus threaten to rise up in rebellion. They stand up to the armed guards who face them with spears and swords, and are ready to face death before Clytaemnestra calls the guards down.
According to tradition, Clytaemnestra was the daughter of Leda, who was also the mother of Helen, Menelaus's wife. In Agamemnon she is presented as a jealous, vindictive woman who has been planning to murder her husband after he returns from leading the army in war.
In Agamemnon's ten-year absence, Clytaemnestra has ruled Argos. She has been an unpopular ruler. The Watchman who begins the play and the Chorus of old men who have been living in the town while the army was away complain about living under her command. There is no question that they look forward to Agamemnon's return because they find him to be a more fair and compassionate ruler than his wife. She seems to be a capable ruler whom the citizens of Argos underestimate because of her gender. For instance, she implements a series of signal fires that can carry a message almost instantly across thousands of miles of sea and land, but the Chorus dismisses her idea as a woman's wishful thinking. Their low esteem only makes Clytaemnestra angrier and crueler.
Upon Agamemnon's return, Clytaemnestra pretends to be a doting wife. Still, her speech indicates the anger that she harbors. She mentions their absent child, raising the memory of Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon sacrificed on an altar at the beginning of the war. Agamemnon shows himself uncomfortable until she coyly states that she was talking about their son Orestes, who is off in exile. She tells Agamemnon that he should walk on tapestries, sarcastically suggesting that he is too good to touch the ground while at the same time getting him used to the kinds of fine cloths that she will eventually bind him up in to kill him.
Clytaemnestra knows that she will not be able to rule Argos once she has killed Agamemnon, but she also knows that a man who took power from the king could inspire the necessary fear to rule. Part of her plan for murder includes positioning Aegisthus, with whom she has a relationship, on the throne, which she can no longer hold herself.
The Herald is a soldier who has been off to war with the Greek army. He arrives soon after Clytaemnestra has seen the signal fires and confirms what the fires have told her: the war is over, and the army is on its way home. Though his appearance in the play is only minutes after the light of the signal fires reaches Argos, readers can assume that much more time has passed between the two.
The Herald also brings news of a number of Greek ships that were lost in a storm after the war was over, including the one bearing Menelaus. He says that there were bodies floating in the water, but that other soldiers who were not accounted for might show up at home someday. His words echo the events in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, in which Menelaus and his wife, Helen, are found, having been shipwrecked in Egypt.
Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra. She was killed ten years earlier, sacrificed on an altar to the goddess Artemis. Clytaemnestra murders Agamemnon in revenge for having killed Iphigenia.
Orestes is the son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra. He does not appear in the play, as he has been sent to live with a family friend, Strophios the Phocian, while his father was away at war. In the last scene, the Chorus predicts that Orestes will return to Argos to avenge his father's death, as he in fact does in The Libation Bearers, the second part of Aeschylus's trilogy, The Oresteia.
The Watchman is the first character to appear in the play. He stands guard on top of the palace, looking out into the night for a signal. He has been there night after night over the course of the ten-year war and complains about the cold and the boredom of his task until, within the context of Agamemnon, he actually does see the signal fire that was lit far off on the horizon; then he runs inside to spread the word.
The action of Agamemnon is mostly driven by the question of how justice would best be served. Agamemnon is a conquering hero, the leader of an army that triumphed after a decade of fighting. Looking at that aspect alone, he deserves a hero's welcome upon his return home. Clytaemnestra, on the other hand, views him differently. To her, he is the man who murdered her child, Iphigenia, the product of Agamemnon's own blood. In Clytaemnestra's mind, the military victory in Troy does not justify the sacrifice that Agamemnon made to achieve it.
The play, therefore, raises complex questions about the nature of justice. On one hand, it is true that Agamemnon has the responsibilities of a leader, which sometimes might necessitate committing acts for the greater good that would not, individually, be acceptable in peacetime. Military leaders are not considered to be murderers when their actions are taken in the course of fulfilling their duties. Furthermore, Iphigenia's death was ordained by the goddess Artemis, a higher moral power than Agamemnon himself. Clytaemnestra, on the other hand, feels that justice is on her side. As she has him walk the blood-red tapestry into "the home he never hoped to see," leading Agamemnon to his death, she announces "Justice, / lead him in!" Aeschylus asks whether certain acts can ever be considered just, regardless of the surrounding circumstances, and whether acting for one's country is just if it does clear and direct harm to one's family. Aeschylus does not answer these questions, though the other plays in The Oresteia go on to explore them with increasing subtlety.
Clytaemnestra nurses her anger for ten years, waiting to take her revenge against her husband. Aegisthus waits even longer—his entire life since infancy—to exact his revenge, as his cause is more complicated and the crime committed against Aegisthus's family was even more barbaric. The offense that Aegisthus wants revenge for is unimaginable in its cruelty, but it was perpetrated by Agamemnon's father, not by the man Aegisthus intends to punish. His is a more theoretical hatred.
One question raised constantly in The Oresteia is this: how personal does an offense have to be in order to warrant revenge? Aeschylus complicates this question in Agamemnon by making those who have suffered wrongs also stand to gain earthly rewards from their vengeful actions. Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus feel entitled to act against Agamemnon because offenses were done against them, but like any conspirators who have no more motive than personal gain, they stand to take control of the country in the course of taking their revenge. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes returns to Argos to take revenge against his mother for the revenge she took against his father on behalf of her daughter, and then Orestes must defend himself and explain why he deserves revenge and when the cycle of revenge might be considered complete.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- The name Cassandra is often used to identify people who, like the character in Agamemnon, accurately foretell the future but are not believed. Make a list of five or more people from the news who you think qualify as Cassandras and explain in a class presentation how the public rationalized ignoring each one.
- At times, the Chorus dismisses Clytaemnestra's ideas because they think that as a woman, she is behaving emotionally instead of following reason. Have sexist attitudes changed within your lifetime? Using examples from personal experience or from the news, write an essay in which you argue that sexism is either becoming outdated or here to stay.
- In the play, Clytaemnestra devised a new method for bringing news of the war back from Troy before the official messenger arrived. Design a new method for sending communications from one room of your school to another, and create a poster explaining your idea.
- Comparisons have been made between the Chorus of ancient Greek plays and the newscasters of today. Choose one news story from television or radio that involves a complicated family like Agamemnon's. Record it and write a short drama based on the events of the story. Incorporate the newscaster into the events of your play as one of the characters.
Although it is not the major motivator in this play, jealousy is certainly a driving force that stimulates the bad feelings between Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon. Early in the play, Clytaemnestra notes that she has watched over Argos while all of the men of the country raced to Troy to fight for the honor of another man's woman, reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Unmentioned is the fact that Agamemnon was one of Helen's suitors before Helen married his brother Menelaus. Later, Clytaemnestra clearly expresses her jealousy about her husband's involvement
with other women—not just Cassandra, the Trojan princess Agamemnon has brought back from the war as his concubine, but all of the women he probably had relationships with during the decade-long siege. She refers to Agamemnon, whom she has recently murdered, as "the darling of all / the golden girls who spread the gates of Troy."
Agamemnon is not jealous because he does not know about his wife's involvement with his cousin, Aegisthus. Clytaemnestra keeps Aegisthus's involvement in the murder plot a secret until after she has killed her husband. In other versions of this story, Aegisthus is an active player in murdering Agamemnon and Cassandra, but Aeschylus makes it clear that, though Aegisthus believes himself to be a driving force, the killing is motivated by Clytaemnestra's anger at being wronged.
The traditional roles of men and women were clearly defined in ancient Greek society and are reflected in Agamemnon. This play is able to draw particular attention to those roles because of the situation in which it takes place. It is wartime and the king has been called away from the country, creating the unusual circumstance of the queen being left in charge for an extended length of time.
Clytaemnestra's rule of Argos is not popular with the Watchman or the old men in the Chorus. It is likely, though, that their dislike of her is caused by their own sexism, and not by any particular act of her own. They never mention anything that she may have done as their ruler that would have harmed or offended them, but they do complain, frequently, about her being a woman. Her plan to carry news across thousands of miles with a series of signal lights is ingenious, but after a while the Chorus comes to mock it as unreliable: "Just like a woman / to fill with thanks before the truth is clear. /—So gullible…. // rumours voiced by women come to nothing." Clytaemnestra, who is well aware that they dismiss her ideas because she is a woman, is defensive and more inclined to be a harsh leader because of it, showing that she has the same toughness as a man.
Sexist attitudes may be seen at the very heart of the play's action. Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra view the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, from different perspectives, and their perspectives coincide with traditional gender roles. Agamemnon views Iphigenia's death as a necessary loss in order to attain a military victory that will hopefully prevent further attacks, while Clytaemnestra sees it through the lens of her own immediate family, as a mother who has lost a child.
Aeschylus is credited with adding a second actor on stage in his dramas, a technique that allowed his dramas to present their situations through the characters' dialogue. Originally, staged dramas were presented as recitations by a chorus, or group of actors, which told the story but did not act it out. By Aeschylus's time, there was generally one actor. He might change masks throughout a performance, indicating that he was different characters, but still, the dramatic possibilities were limited.
With the addition of a second actor, the issues examined in a play could be dramatized through dialogue. Instead of telling audiences what each character felt, the character could either say what he or she felt or try to hide his or her feelings. The other character could then accept what he or she was told or challenge it. One example of this in Agamemnon occurs when Clytaemnestra, talking about how she "wavered between the living and the dead" while her husband was away, abruptly starts talking about their child who is "gone, not standing by our side," and only after a while reveals that she is talking about Orestes, the son in exile, and not the daughter that Agamemnon sacrificed on an altar. "You seem startled," she tells him, letting audiences know the emotions felt by the masked actor playing Agamemnon. Without dialogue, his suspicions of her would have to be voiced directly, which would undercut the nature of suspicion.
The use of dialogue diminished the part of the Chorus in Greek drama, though it was still many years before the Chorus fell away. In Agamemnon the Chorus is used, as choruses traditionally were, to convey background information. Many audience members would have been familiar with the tales that dramas were based on, but there were also many different versions of those tales. The recitation by the Chorus would serve to show which details were important to this playwright's telling. By the time that Agamemnon was written, the Chorus had ceased to function as an objective narrator and was identified as a character itself. Usually, as in this play, it represented a group of citizens who were familiar with the other characters and who had a vested interest in the events that were transpiring. The Chorus in Agamemnon is even more specific than a group of citizens because it represents the old men who have been excluded from the war and have a very particular view of the situation of the play. They are resentful about being told that they are not good enough to fight and resentful about being left to take orders from Clytaemnestra, a woman.
The Trojan War
The events depicted in Agamemnon take place in the aftermath of the Trojan War, which is considered one of the most significant sources for Greek mythology. Aside from Greek descriptions, there is no direct historical evidence of when the war took place or who was involved. Archaeologists have found that the ancient city of Troy, in modern Turkey, overlooking the straits of Hellespont, was destroyed sometime around 1250 bce, presumably by violence, and many assume that the war that brought it down was the basis for the legends of the Trojan War. The Athenian scholar Erastosthenes calculated in the third century bce that the fall of Troy occurred around 1184 bce, which is so close that historians assume that each calculation is talking about the same event.
According to tradition, the Trojan War began as a direct result of a competition of the gods. Three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—asked Zeus to choose which was fairest, and Zeus put the task off to Paris, the prince of Troy. Each goddess offered Paris a bribe for his vote, and he accepted the one offered by Aphrodite. As goddess of love, Aphrodite was not the most beautiful one, but she could offer Paris the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Some sources say that Helen fell in love with Paris, and some say that he came to Sparta and took her forcibly, since Aphrodite had promised her to him. Menelaus called together all of the great men of Greece who had been Helen's suitors before she had married him, a list that included Odysseus, Ajax, Patroclus, and Menelaus's own brother, Agamemnon, who led the army that set out to invade Troy. The siege lasted ten years, ending when the Greeks snuck in to the city hidden inside of a hollow statue, the famed Trojan Horse, given as a false peace offering.
Many writers of the classic Greek period wrote tales about the Trojan War, and so there are many variations to each story, as well as intricate details available about the histories of each character. The most authoritative sources are The Iliad, concerning events in the final year of the war, and The Odyssey, concerning the ten-year journey home of Greek hero Odysseus and his crewmates. These works are credited to the epic poet Homer, though historians believe that the two books might have been written by several different authors between 900 and 700 bce. It is certain that Aeschylus, as well as many of the audience members who would have attended performances of his works, would have been familiar with Homer's accounts of the Trojan War and its aftermath.
Greek Dramatic Competitions
Of all of the examples of ancient Greek drama that exist today, all but one come from the springtime festivals of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Athens that began in the sixth century bce. The festival was originally a celebration of the god Dionysus, the god of wine and creativity. By the sixth century, however, the drama, which had been staged as a minor part of the festival, had grown in prominence to become an important focus each year. Three playwrights were allowed to submit three dramas each year, as well as a short, rowdy comedy, called a satyr play. Each year, three wealthy citizens were also chosen and assigned to provide financing for the staging of the competition plays, and ten judges were chosen, one from each of the city's "tribes," or phylai. Winners of the dramatic competitions were recognized with a crown of ivy. Eventually, as dramas evolved from poetic speeches recited by choruses to dramatizations of scenes by distinct characters, a class of professional actors evolved out of the festivals of Dionysus Eleuthereus, also called the Dionysia.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 458 bce: Women are not considered fit for public office; only in the case of an extraordinary event like a war would a woman like Clytaemnestra hold political power.
Today: Political offices across the globe are open to people of either gender. For example, in 2005 Angela Merkel becomes the first chancellor of Germany.
- 458 bce: Polytheism, or belief in many gods, is common in major civilizations. The gods of ancient Greece and Rome are thought to have been actively involved in human affairs, motivated by the same desires that compel human behavior.
Today: Polytheism still exists, but the three most prevalent religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are monotheistic, meaning they hold that there is only one god.
- 458 bce: One generation of a family might fight to take revenge for a wrong done to them in the generation before.
Today: In first-world nations where all citizens have access to the legal system, most wrongs are handled through the courts.
- 458 bce: The murder of a ruler might not be punished if the murderers have enough political power to take control of the country.
Today: Political coups still displace established governments, but there are international tribunals to prosecute the worst violations.
- 458 bce: Dramas like Agamemnon are attended by those who have citizenship—males of the upper class.
Today: Live theater is available to all, regardless of financial standing or interest; however, people most frequently watch drama in the form of movies or television.
As the competitions developed, the standards became more structured. Each poet's three competition works came to be linked by a
theme, and plays eventually constituted trilogies following the lives of the same characters. Aeschylus's trilogy The Oresteia, of which Agamemnon is the first play, is the one remaining intact trilogy to have survived to this day. It won first prize at the Athenian festival. Its corresponding satyr play, Proteus, concerns the travels of Menelaus as he returns from the Trojan War.
Aeschylus won the festival thirteen times over the course of his long lifetime. Sophocles, who competed against the much older Aeschylus, managed to beat him in competition and went on to win seventeen more times, including for his Oedipus trilogy, which exists today. The other major tragedian of the period was Euripides, who was born after Aeschylus's death. He won the Athenian dramatic festival only three times during his life (and once after his death), but he is considered one of the most important writers of the time, writing several works that survive today, including The Bacchae.
Aeschylus is considered the father of Greek tragedy, the first of the trio of writers, including Sophocles and Euripides, who have come to represent the golden age of Greek drama. Winning the Athens drama festival, his trilogy The Oresteia earned him recognition from the start and has been one of the most influential works of the Western canon ever since. He is credited with putting more than one character at a time on the stage and building his plays around complex moral dilemmas, setting standards for drama that remain in place today. Admiration for Aeschylus has been constant throughout the centuries, exemplified in the quote by Victorian poet Charles Algernon Swinburne, who Albin Lesky reports in A History of Greek Literature once referred to The Oresteia as "the greatest achievement of the human mind." Though not all critics praise the works with the exuberance that Swinburne lavished on it, there are none who would deny its importance to Western culture.
Some critics have identified Agamemnon as being the weakest of the three plays in the trilogy. It introduces themes that are not developed until the later plays and is uneven in its presentation of characters, as when the title character merely passes through for a few pages. Most critics, however, do not find this to be a problem of the play so much as a conceptual problem on the part of those who would try to stage it on its own, out of the context of The Oresteia. As John Herington notes in his essay "No-Man's-Land of Dark and Light" in Aeschylus's The Oresteia: Modern Critical Interpretations,
To stage Agamemnon on its own makes rather less sense than to perform the first movement of a Beethoven symphony on its own. The leading themes of the Oresteia are, it is true, introduced in Agamemnon, but in a confused and confusing way, for this play depicts a world in moral chaos, a world in which there seem to be no fixed principles left to hold on to.
The few weaknesses of Agamemnon are therefore not considered the fault of the playwright; rather, they are integral to the themes of the complete work.
Kelly is a writer and an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, he looks at the ways in which Aeschylus builds believable characters in Agamemnon.
Agamemnon, the first play in Aeschylus's Oresteian trilogy, is a mature work, written in the final years of the life of one of the most skillful dramatists who ever lived. The trilogy examines critical issues of what it means to exist in society, pitting rules against emotions and individual rights against collective rights in ways that have had a broad impact on the development of legal theory throughout Western civilization. In Agamemnon, people do terrible things to other people, who then hold onto their grievances, nurturing them until almost everyone has forgotten the original offense. The offended then strike in retribution, and a new generation, knowing only the latest attack, starts planning a reciprocal retribution. This cycle twists its way through The Libation Bearers to The Eumenides, where the gods hold a trial to decide that the string of retribution, which could conceivably extend forever, must be cut short somewhere.
Agamemnon handles these social issues with a free-flowing grace that was not common at the time. For modern audiences, it might seem a little too verbal, with long speeches giving background that does not seem necessary. Parts that may bore modern audiences, though, become more interesting if readers and viewers remember that the play was written at a time when the custom was to direct all of the language and action to the audience, not to the other characters on the stage. Showing instead of telling, which is the standard for the modern era, was unheard of in Aeschylus's day. Making minor allowances for the different dramatic customs of the time, one can find much of interest in Aeschylus's characters. They are believable, rounded characters who exist beyond their symbolic functions.
The play opens with the Watchman standing atop the house of Atreus, the palace, looking down on the square below while lazily reminding himself that his attention should be on the horizon in case there are any developments in the ten-year-old Trojan War. The Watchman is poised to open up the new, post-war world to Greece, and he is … well, bored. Like any other low-paid functionary who has been at an unexciting, repetitious job for a year, he is not thinking of his place in history but instead is praying that the gods might relieve his cramps and keep him awake. Another playwright might have used this character just to shout out the news that the signal fires have announced the end of the war, but this Watchman does not even think that the grand scope of things can be more important than his own nagging complaints. Aeschylus has made him human.
His counterpart is, of course, the Herald who arrives later, bringing the actual, verifiable news that the war in Troy is indeed over. The Herald, more than the Watchman, is used to deliver background information to the audience, though Aeschylus does not sacrifice much in the way of character to achieve this. The Herald is a soldier, and as the old men of the Chorus make clear when they complain about being left behind during the invasion, this culture honors military involvement, and soldiers claim the right to walk with pride. He has also probably done this before—brought people news and seen their reactions to him, merging the messenger with the message. It would be natural that a person in his position would have an inflated sense of his own significance. And since his character would credibly be this way, Aeschylus only stretches the boundaries of credibility a little when he has the Herald talk at length about facts that are only slightly related to the plot of the drama, such as the storm that took the Greek fleet and his own personal confidence that Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, will show up again some day. Even for one who is used to holding his listeners' attention with the news he brings, the Herald comes off a little more like a source of background information than a person invested in the actions onstage. Aeschylus uses him primarily as a vehicle for delivering information to the audience, but that use is perfectly suited to who this character is.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Readers who have started the story of the house of Atreus in Agamemnon will want to read the rest of The Oresteia (458 bce). In The Libation Bearers, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, returns to slay his mother and her new husband Aegisthus in retribution for his father's death. In The Eumenides, Orestes stands before a tribunal of the gods, who are charged with passing judgment on the whole concept of vengeance. All three books can be found in a new translation by poet Ted Hughes, commissioned by the Royal National Theater and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1999.
- Agamemnon and Cassandra are supporting characters in William Shakespeare's 1602 play Troilus and Cressida. Many editions are available, including the 2007 Folger Shakespeare Library version from Washington Square Press.
- The Living Art of Greek Tragedy (2003), by Marianne McDonald, examines three ancient Greek playwrights whose works are known and influential to this day: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Her discussion of these writers and their works shows the relevance of each in the modern world.
- Like Agamemnon, Shakespeare's Hamlet (written c. 1601) begins with a sentry keeping watch at night and follows a series of actions and counter-actions that are taken in the name of revenge. It too is available from the Folger Shakespeare Library from Washington Square Press, in an edition published in 2003.
- In his comedy The Frogs, first performed at the Festival of Dionysus in 405 bce, Aristophanes dramatizes a scene with Euripides and Aeschylus competing in Hades for the title of "Best Tragic Poet" before the god Dionysus, who, despairing of the state of modern tragedy, can take one of the playwrights back to the surface to revive his festival. The Frogs is available in Aristophanes: The Complete Plays, published in 2005 by NAL Trade.
Though the Herald is primarily important for delivering information, Cassandra is, oddly, the opposite. In theory, a character who can see the future would seem to be an ideal contrivance for a playwright to foreshadow what is coming up next to the audience, but in Aeschylus's situation, there was no need for that because he was dealing with old, familiar tales that most members of his audience would know. Instead of using Cassandra to tell the audience new information, then, he uses her in Agamemnon for emotional effect. She is barely coherent, raving, driven mad by her knowledge of the horrible death that awaits her. Since dramatic convention would not allow Aeschylus to put the actual massacre of Cassandra and Agamemnon on the stage, Cassandra experiences it moments before it happens, a powerful dramatic substitution. As fans of horror movies will attest, the anticipation of a gruesome deed is generally much more gripping than witnessing it would be because it forces the audience to participate with their imaginations. From the moment she steps out of the shadows to talk, Cassandra is a character in the process of dying. Aeschylus could hardly have conjured up a character more worthy of his audience's attention.
About Clytaemnestra as a character little needs to be said. She is one of the world's great protagonists, a woman whose complexity far exceeds her function in the story. The unwillingness to accept the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia has burned for a decade because it has been fueled by more than just her sense of justice, but by the obstinacy that is embedded deeply in her personality. In her idea of having signal fires transmit information across miles in a second, one can see her genius; in her anger at those who doubted it would work, one can see the pride that drives her. Clytaemnestra stands alone against the forces that disapprove of her, including the basic sexism of her society (which Aeschylus shows to be a useless, blinding affectation) and the populace's outrage at having their king murdered. She is only a credible character because Aeschylus has made her a person who might be able to stand up to such pressures and dismiss them. Even readers who approach Agamemnon as an example of Greek theater must admit that Clytaemnestra might stand for one thing or another, but she would not be a credible representative of those traits if Aeschylus had not made a credible human being out of her.
While Clytaemnestra is a thoroughly memorable, believable character, the same can hardly be said about her husband, Agamemnon, the king of Argos, the leader of the victorious army, who comes off as the vaguest, most ill-defined character onstage. Again, this is not really a sign that Aeschylus did not know what to do with this character, but is in fact a sign that he knew exactly what he was doing. Agamemnon only passes through onstage briefly, yet given the brief time he is in the drama that bears his name, he makes a distinct impression as a humble man, ready to settle down to the business of ruling just minutes after returning from a ten-year siege. Some critics have pointed out the fact that he does, at his wife's urging, consent to walk into his palace on a beautiful set of tapestries that would be more fitting for a god than a mortal, claiming that this is meant to be the evidence that Agamemnon has abandoned his humility to hubris, and therefore has earned the death brought down on him. But hubris, the inflated sense of self-importance, is a character trait, not a solitary act. Given the brevity of Agamemnon's appearance here, there is just no way of telling whether he is swept up by Clytaemnestra's persuasiveness or by the thrill of his triumphant return home, or if he really believes himself on level with the gods. Agamemnon appears, is flattered, resists flattery, and then gives in to it. For such a brief walk-through appearance, he establishes himself as a credible person.
The only character in Agamemnon to come off as hollow is Aegisthus. He is a cartoonish representative of evil who is not brave enough to kill his enemy himself but lets a woman do it instead; not honest enough to admit that the murder is Clytaemnestra's achievement, he takes credit for it; not sympathetic enough to make others see that the massacre of his brothers and sisters and the humiliation and befouling of his father gives him a right to strike against Agamemnon; and not regal enough to take control of Argos without brute power. He does not have the conflicting morals that fill out a well-drawn, human character—not even a minor character like the Watchman, torn between duty and boredom—but Aegisthus does provide the template for generations of villains to come. In putting Aegisthus in this play, Aeschylus has siphoned off much of the hatred that might otherwise be directed toward Clytaemnestra, allowing audiences to see her more clearly, in all of her human weakness.
Agamemnon is usually read in a school situation, as a text for learning about Greek morals and the development of the standards of Western civilization. Ancient texts probably need to be viewed that way, at least some of the time. But looking at the drama as a drama, appreciating Aeschylus as a playwright and not as a poet or philosopher, it turns out that his works stand up on their own. In particular, the characters that he develops to populate this play, using traditional, familiar materials, are as fresh and real as any characters written in the twentieth or twenty-first century. They are not primitive at all. They are rounded and multifaceted. They are real.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Agamemnon, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following essay, Normey provides biographical information on Aeschylus and discusses the modern relevance of The Oresteia.
The terrorist attacks on September 11 and its aftermath have astounded and altered all of us in ways impossible to measure. The enormity of the tragedy in New York and Washington may be beyond the ability of works of literature to encompass in any truly meaningful way. Nonetheless, I was most interested in a discussion the superb Eleanor Wachtel had with a panel on Writers and Company (CBC Radio for those of you out of the loop) after the attacks. Roger Shattuck, the distinguished academic critic (Proust, Forbidden Knowledge) offered the observation that we would do well to read Aeschylus' Oresteia.
I can report that I have taken him at his word and worked my way through the trilogy in Robert Fagles' translation. The Oresteia is made up of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Euminides. Aeschylus also wrote a satyr play with comic elements which was performed with the tragedies, but this has been lost. I won't try to draw links between the Oresteia and the recent acts of carnage but assure you that the trilogy has an abundance of political and moral meanings.
Aeschylus has been called the father of tragedy and is the first great writer in this genre. He staged and acted in his plays and was responsible for great innovations such as the introduction of two speaking actors performing on stage together. Previously, the practice was to limit the interaction to one speaking actor and the chorus. Aeschylus was a formidable presence in Athenian society in the golden age of that remarkable city-state.
He valiantly fought at Marathon in the famous victory over the expansionist Persians in 490 bc. This soldier citizen also fought at Salamis. Indeed, despite his prowess as a playwright, it is his contributions as a warrior that are identified in his epitaph on a tombstone in Sicily:
Aeschylus of Athens, Euphorion's son, this tomb covers,
Who died at wheat-bearing Gela;
His valour of high repute the grove of Marathon would attest
And the long-haired Mede who came to know it well.
Aeschylus wrote over 90 plays, of which 7 have survived complete along with a number of fragments. His plays, including the Oresteia, were awarded a number of prizes in the fiercely competitive society of fifth century Athens. Nonetheless, in the years after his death his tragedies appear to have been far less popular with Greek audiences than the more accessible plays of his younger contemporaries, Sophocles and Euripides. Referring to Aeschylus' inspired interweaving of extended metaphors and his grand manner, Sophocles commented that the first tragedian must have composed while under some form of Dionysian intoxication.
Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia in 458 bc at the age of 67, two years before his death. It is believed that he was producing the work in Sicily at the time of his death. It was first performed at the famous Great Dionysia Festival, an annual festival of immense religious significance. The festival took place in the ninth month of the Greek calendar, roughly corresponding to our March. Tribute was offered to Dionysus, god of fertility and celebration.
The trilogy weaves myths concerning the cursed House of Atreus with incidents from the Trojan War into a gripping revenge saga. The House of Atreus is shot through with hubris and savagery. One of the ancient patriarchs, Pelops, won the hand of his bride through a ruse which killed her father—a reckless, deathly chariot ride which may have been the origin of the Olympic Games. Pelops had two sons who feuded with one another. Atreus is reported to have lured his brother Thyestes to his banquet hall for a reconciliation. Atreus then proceeded to serve Thyestes his own children's flesh. Aghast at this barbaric act, Thyestes cursed Atreus and his descendants and fled into exile with his remaining son Aegisthus.
Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, who jointly ruled the kingdom of Argos and married two sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen. Menelaus we will recall was dismayed to learn that his beautiful wife Helen had committed infidelity with the dashing Paris and fled with her lover to Troy. This was the famous event triggering the Trojan War. Agamemnon is established as commander-in-chief of the Greek forces. Before he can lead his troops across the sea, he is given an omen. He considers it necessary in light of the message he receives to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in order to set sail for Troy.
Agamemnon takes the story up as a watchman awaits the long-anticipated return of the king and his troops. Peering into the night, he makes out the light from torches which have been stationed along the route to the palace. The lighting of the torches signals that Agamemnon has returned after ten long years! This play of light and dark, together with a sequence of other key images and metaphors will be woven throughout the trilogy with powerful dramatic intensity.
This first play is at root a domestic tragedy. It asks its original audience in the severely patriarchal society of ancient Greece to contemplate the disruptive and frightening presence of a woman plotting to murder her husband, the leader of the entire community. Given Agamemnon's exalted status, the play is a political tragedy as well. Clytemnestra intends to punish her husband for the callous sacrifice of their daughter. We are made to experience the fear pervading the community, represented by the Chorus, as this formidable woman meticulously carries out her bloody deed, with the assistance of her lover, Aegisthus.
First she orchestrates a deeply ironic home-coming ceremony, convincing Agamemnon that he should overcome his scruples and accept the dangerous honour of treading on blood-red tapestries she has laid out for him. Her ability to play on his overweening pride tells us much about the flawed nature of the king.
Clytemnestra is less successful in manipulating the king's consort, Cassandra, a Trojan princess. Agamemnon has taken her as war booty. Cassandra is left on stage with the Chorus and gradually reveals to it her amazing powers of prophecy as an initiate of Apollo. She foretells in vivid and despairing detail the sorry end that awaits both herself and Agamemnon. She further foretells the appearance of a stranger who will avenge their deaths.
In The Libation Bearers, a similar pattern of extended preparation for the central confrontation of protagonists is developed in lines of sombre beauty and grandeur. Piercing oratory is exchanged between Orestes (son of Agamemnon) who returns to Argos in disguise, and his mother, from whom he has been separated for many years. The debate crashes to a close with the reminder that Orestes is under an injunction from Apollo to avenge his father's death. As the Chorus laments:
It is the law, when the blood of slaughter wets the ground
It wants more blood/
Slaughter cries for the fury
Of those long dead to bring destruction
On destruction churning in its wake.
The cycle of bloody revenge thus appears to exemplify Nietzsche's aphorism: "All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both."
The Eumenides opens with Orestes being pursued by the Furies, primordial beings who rise up from the earth to demand his blood. They are hastened on by Clytemnestra's wandering spirit. Orestes has fled to the shrine of Apollo at Delphi in order to pray and seek purification. The young prince attempts to justify his deed, but the Furies adamantly refuse to exonerate him. They begin to sing a "binding song" which will cast a spell that will lead to a painful death. The goddess Athena arrives in time to protect him. She seeks to arbitrate the seemingly insoluble conflict.
The scene shifts to Athens. After praying at Athena's shrine on the Acropolis, Orestes makes his way to the Areopagus, the Athenian court. In a magnificent foundation myth, Aeschylus imagines a brilliant and auspicious beginning for the real court that played such a part in the polis of his time. Athena with her wisdom and reputation for fairness persuades both sides to agree on a trial in which "the first men of Athens" will sit as jurors and will cast their ballot stones after hearing all of the evidence. The trial scenes must be experienced directly. Modern readers will no doubt find it difficult to fathom Apollo's argument to the effect that Orestes should be acquitted because a woman is not really a parent of a child, just a "nurse to the seed." For good measure, he adds that it is man who is the source of life. At the very least, some may be mollified to note that it is not he, but Athena, displaying her wisdom as a goddess, who presides over the trial. By a close margin, Orestes is acquitted. Athena then respectfully persuades the Furies to forego their lust for vengeance and become respected guardians of Athens. She thus brings about a remarkable reconciliation. The Furies are transformed into the Euminides or kindly ones and will now channel their energies for good.
In dramatizing the transformation from a society governed by tribal laws of revenge to a society governed by the rule of law, fulfilled by independent judges and jurors, Aeschylus also entered the debate, which absorbed Athenians in 458, over the exact role of the Areopagus. Critics differ on where precisely Aeschylus stood on certain reforms proposed by the radical Pericles. It seems evident to me that he supported moderate democratic reforms to the degree that they would not seriously impair the basic functions of the court. In any event, on a deeper level, it is rare to experience a drama that so powerfully dramatizes the contribution that a fair and impartial court system makes to democratic civilization.
Source: Rob Normey, "Oresteia: A Bright New Day for Civilization," in LawNow, Vol. 26, No. 3, December-January 2001, pp. 44-45.
Harry L. Levy
In the following excerpt, Levy identifies the central theme in Agamemnon: the problem of good and evil.
The unending fascination of Greek drama, both in its original form and in modern adaptations, is constantly confirmed here in the United States and abroad by stage presentations. As countless lectures, symposia, and articles attest, the ancient Greek drama off-stage serves as a plentiful source of serious discourse for scholars and thinkers of our own time. The reason is obvious: the great Greek dramaturgists discerned and presented in striking form some of the most crucial problems with which thoughtful human beings of all ages and all cultures must perforce concern themselves. And so it is with the Oresteia, the great trilogy of Aeschylus: the Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers, and the Eumenides.
The Oresteia commences with the return of Agamemnon from Troy and his slaughter by his queen and her paramour, tells us in the Libation-Bearers of the vengeance taken by Agamemnon's son Orestes, now grown to manhood, and ends with Orestes' persecution by the Furies of his mother, and his final release from the hounding of these monsters, who, changed to Eumenides, "The Kindly Ones," become a pillar of the Athenian polity. That, in brief, is the story: but what is the meaning of it as Aeschylus presents it? Richmond Lattimore, a superb translator and interpreter of Greek drama, thinks that he finds the answer, at least so far as the first two plays are concerned, in the dynamic contradiction between hate and love—he speaks of hate-in-love in the Agamemnon, and love-in-hate in the Libation-Bearers. For a full explication of his provocative theory, I refer you to his own writings.
But I should like to suggest to you that the problem which is central to the Oresteia is, if not altogether different from love and hate, at least more general: the problem of good and evil. The Greek dramatists boldly confront the fact that evil exists: they hold that it springs, sometimes from the machinations of the gods, sometimes from the faults of men. When evil comes into being, and harms or threatens to harm the lives of men, how are they to meet it? Shall they return evil for evil? This is the ancient law of the Near East, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Our trilogy is a study of the actual operation of this law in the first two plays, and of its partial setting-aside in the third.
The first play, the Agamemnon, centers upon a double retaliation: a single act of violence intended by each of its two perpetrators to avenge a different wrong. Clytemnestra, Queen of Argos, and her lover Aegisthus, as we have seen, murder Agamemnon, returning victorious from the Trojan war. The murderer-in-chief is not the man Aegisthus, but the woman Clytemnestra. Aeschylus makes much of this point, and it bears upon the problem of the relative position of man and woman in the structure of the Greek family, a topic to which we shall return.
Let us dispose at once of the minor retaliator, Aegisthus. He was avenging the horrible murder of his own brothers by Agamemnon's father, Atreus: one explosion in what we may call in modern terms a chain-reaction of evil, into the details of which it would be beside our point to go.
But what of Clytemnestra? What does she avenge by the killing of Agamemnon? It is the ritual slaughter of her and Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon had killed at Aulis as a sacrifice to angered divinities. The sacrifice was performed in order that the Greek fleet might have safe passage to Troy. Now let us break into the chain at this point and consider this single link. Had Agamemnon not killed Iphigenia, he would not have been slain in turn by Clytemnestra. Then the specific chain-reaction of which we are speaking would not have occurred. Could Agamemnon have avoided the killing of his daughter, when the prophet had told him that this was the only way to secure the safe-conduct of the fleet to Troy? Yes, he could: but it would have meant renouncing the lex talionis at this point; he would have had to forego the revenge which he felt he and the other Greek princes were in duty bound to exact from Paris, the seducer of Helen.
Here, then, we have in this chain of events what seems to me the first clear instance of the decision of human will in the face of evil. That Paris' act had been evil, a breaking of the laws of gods and men, those primary laws governing the sanctity of the family and of the host-guest relationship, none could deny. That Paris' crime deserved punishment none could gainsay. But who was to punish him? The wronged one, says old Near-East tradition, the wronged one, if he is still alive; the wronged one, supported if he is alive, and replaced if he is not, by his kinsmen. Had it been simply a matter of exacting penalty for an abominable crime, who, according to the morality of that early time, would have raised an objection? But here the gods intervene: to accomplish his mission of retaliation, Agamemnon must sacrifice one of his own blood, his beloved daughter, who had often joined with her clear maiden voice in his sacrifices to the gods. Agamemnon's anguish at the need for the choice is narrated by the Chorus. But anguished or not, he made his choice between his duty as a father and his duty as a ruler and warrior; he killed his daughter.
The girl is killed; the fleet sails; Agamemnon's host is victorious over the Trojans, and our heroic general returns in glory, to boast to the people of Mycenae that he has avenged the wrong done to Menelaus. In the vainglorious speech, there is no word of pity for the death of his innocent daughter; this is forgotten. So far is he from feeling any pity for one who must die so that his grand plans may advance, that he speaks with self-righteous assurance of using surgery to amputate any offending element in the state, all unconscious—a nice instance of dramatic irony—that the first victim of the knife is to be himself.
Well then, evil for evil: Paris has done wrong, Troy has been destroyed, Iphigenia has been cut down, to use Catullus' phrase, like a flower at the edge of the meadow, when it has been touched by the passing plowshare. Evil for evil, and there an end. But no: there is the seed of new evil here, for Clytemnestra, a woman with a man's will, does not accept Agamemnon's choice. He has killed her daughter; he must die in his turn. He dies, and Clytemnestra exults: "This is Agamemnon, my husband: he is dead; his death is the work of my own right hand, the work of a righteous craftsman. And that is that!" To the avenger, that is always that; the wrong is requited, the game is over. Nowhere does Clytemnestra show any wavering, any sense of a need for choice between slaying her king and husband, or leaving unavenged the evil of her daughter's death. Her womanliness comes out only in the fervor of her desire—vain hope—to have peace, now at last, to have an end of blood-shed. So ends the Agamemnon, the first great act of the trilogy: but just before the close, the Chorus foreshadow the next act. They speak of their longing for the return of Orestes, Agamemnon's young son, who has been sent away to stay with a prince in mainland Greece. Let him come back, they pray, to avenge his father's death. Upon whom? Upon the pair of murderers, they say. What of the fact that one of them is his mother? They take no note of that directly …
Source: Harry L. Levy, "The Oresteia of Aeschylus," in Drama Survey, Vol. 4, Summer 1965, pp. 149-58.
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in The Oresteia, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 120, 135-37, 163.
"Aeschylus and His Tragedies," http://www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/aeschylus001.html (accessed July 22, 2008); originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, Vol. 1, edited by Alfred Bates, Historical Publishing, 1906, pp. 53-9.
Herington, John, "No-Man's-Land of Dark and Light," in Aeschylus's The Oresteia: Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, p. 121.
Lesky, Albin, A History of Greek Literature, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966, p. 256.
Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, s.v. "Tragedy, Greek."
Sommerstein, Alan Herbert, "Aeschylus," in Who's Who in the Classical World.
Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, translated by Don Taylor, BiblioBazaar, 2008.
Originally published in 406 bce, about a half century after Aeschylus's death, this play concerns the events surrounding the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which is the basis for Clytaemnestra's revenge in Agamemnon.
Fagles, Robert, and W. B. Stanford, "The Serpent and the Eagle," in The Oresteia, Penguin Press, 1979, pp. 13-97.
This analysis of Aeschylus's trilogy, written by one of the most respected twentieth-century scholars of ancient Greek literature, gives readers an in-depth overview of the times, as well as of Aeschylus's innovative methods.
Gere, Cathy, The Tomb of Agamemnon, Profile Books, 2006.
This book considers the archaeological discovery of the city of Mycenae, where the story takes place, and the burial vault believed to be that of the real, historical Agamemnon. It includes much information about burial rites and beliefs of King Agamemnon's lifetime, which would have been about seven centuries before Aeschylus's.
Herington, John, Aeschylus, Yale University Press, 1996.
Herington is considered one of the great Greek scholars of the twentieth century. In this book, he offers a comprehensive examination of the playwright's life and career.
Ovid's Metamorphoses, Hyginus's Fabulae
Son of Atreus and Aerope, King and Queen of Mycenae
According to Greek mythology, Agamemnon (pronounced ag-uh-MEM-non) was the king of Mycenae (pronounced mye-SEE-nee), a kingdom of ancient Greece. The leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, he is one of the central figures in the Iliad, Homer's epic poem about the war. Greek writers generally portray Agamemnon as courageous but also as arrogant and overly proud, flaws that bring him misfortune and eventually lead to his death. The story of Agamemnon is often seen as a warning about the dangers of hubris, or too much self-confidence.
Agamemnon was one of two sons of Atreus (pronounced AY-tree-uhs), the king of Mycenae. While Agamemnon was still a youth, Atreus was murdered by his nephew Aegisthus (pronounced ee-JUS-thus). Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus (pronounced men-uh-LAY-uhs) fled to Sparta where King Tyndareus (pronounced tin-DAIR-ee-uhs) granted them refuge and protection. The king gave his daughters to the brothers as wives. One daughter, Clytemnestra (pronounced klye-tem-NES-truh), was already married, but Agamemnon killed her husband Tantalus and then married her. Menelaus took her beautiful sister Helen as his bride.
Agamemnon later returned to Mycenae, killed his uncle, and reclaimed his father's throne. He and Clytemnestra had four daughters, Chrysothemis (pronounced kry-so-THEEM-uhs), Electra, Iphianissa (pronounced if-ee-uh-NISS-uh), and Iphigenia (pronounced if-uh-juh-NYE-uh), and a son, Orestes (pronounced ohr-ES-teez). Meanwhile, Menelaus became king of Sparta after the death of Tyndareus.
Some time later, Paris, the second son of King Priam of Troy, visited Menelaus in Sparta. The goddess Aphrodite had promised Paris earlier that he would have the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. When Paris returned to Troy, he took Helen with him. At the time of Menelaus's marriage to Helen, all the rulers of the Greek city-states had promised to come to her defense if necessary. Menelaus reminded them of their promise, and they agreed to go to war against Troy to bring Helen back. Agamemnon was chosen to lead the Greeks in battle.
Agamemnon prepared a fleet of ships to carry the Greeks to Troy. Just before the ships were ready to sail, however, he insulted the goddess Artemis (pronounced AHR-tuh-miss) by boasting that he was a better hunter than she and by killing a sacred stag. As punishment, Artemis caused the winds to die down so that the Greek fleet could not sail.
A seer, or person who can see the future, told Agamemnon that he could please Artemis and gain favorable winds by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess. The king tricked Clytemnestra into sending Iphigenia to him by saying that she was to marry the great warrior Achilles. When his daughter arrived, Agamemnon killed her. Although the sacrifice pleased Artemis, who allowed the Greek ships to sail, his actions would later result in terrible consequences for Agamemnon.
The Trojan War The Greeks fought the people of Troy for nine years and seized many of their cities; however, they failed to capture the city of Troy. This is the point at which the Iliad begins, and Agamemnon's arrogance and pride really come into play.
After winning a battle against the Trojans, Agamemnon was given a female prisoner named Chryseis (pronounced kry-SAY-is) as part of his reward for victory. She is the daughter of Chryses (pronounced KRY-sez), a priest of the god Apollo. Chryses begged for the return of his daughter, but Agamemnon refused. Angered, Apollo sent a plague to devastate the Greek forces.
The hero Achilles (pronounced uh-KILL-eez) demanded that Chryseis be returned to her father. Agamemnon still refused. He finally agreed on the condition that he be given Briseis (pronounced bry-SAY-is), a Trojan captive who was part of the reward given to Achilles. Achilles became so angry that he laid down his arms and refused to fight any longer. This proved to be a costly mistake, because without Achilles the Greeks began to lose ground.
Achilles returned to the battle only after learning of the death of his close friend Patroclus (pronounced pa-TROH-kluhs). When he rejoined the Greek forces, the tide of battle turned. The Greeks drove off the Trojans, killed the great Trojan warrior Prince Hector , and went on to defeat the people of Troy and destroy their city. After the war, Agamemnon took the Trojan princess Cassandra back home as a prize.
The Death of Agamemnon While Agamemnon was away fighting the Trojans, his wife Clytemnestra took his nephew Aegisthus as her lover. As Agamemnon sailed home from Troy, Clytemnestra was plotting to kill him in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. Cassandra, who had the power to foretell the future, warned Agamemnon that his wife would kill him. However, the gods had put a curse on Cassandra: although she would make accurate predictions, no one would believe them. True to the curse, Agamemnon ignored Cassandra's warning.
When Agamemnon returned home, Clytemnestra welcomed him by preparing a bath so that he might purify himself. As the king stepped out of the bath, Clytemnestra wrapped him in a garment that bound his arms so he could not move. Aegisthus then stabbed Agamemnon to death while Clytemnestra killed Cassandra. Another version of the story says that Clytemnestra herself slew Agamemnon with an ax. Agamemnon's son Orestes eventually avenged his father's murder by killing both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus with the help of his sister Electra.
Agamemnon in Context
Agamemnon was the leader of the Greek armies during the Trojan War, a nine-year battle between the Greeks and the Trojans. Although most ancient Greeks believed the Trojan War to be a historical fact, there is litde remaining evidence that the war actually happened. By the 1800s ce, many scholars were convinced that the war was not a real event, and that Troy itself was probably not even a real place. However, more recent archeological finds suggest that Troy was indeed a real city, located in present-day Turkey.
The ancient Greeks, like the people of most ancient cultures in which warfare was common, valued strength and bravery, and Agamemnon had both. His mission to Troy was successful. But he does not fare as well as the clever Odysseus (another key Greek leader during the war) who knew better when to fight, when to persuade, and when to lie low. Agamemnon was overly proud and blindly ambitious—both qualities that lead him to destruction. Ancient Greece was made up of independent city-states that often clashed. It is clear that, to the Greeks, an effective leader must be more than a brave and capable fighter—he must be diplomatic and clever, too. Agamemnon was not.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the basic themes of Greek mythology is that all humans have a fate that cannot be escaped and limits they should not try to exceed. The Greeks believed that individuals must face their fate with pride and dignity, gaining as much fame as possible. Agamemnon believed he could change fate by his own actions, and was therefore guilty of hubris. People guilty of hubris would eventually be punished by Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance. Agamemnon's tale also warns of the danger of pride. In ancient Greek mythology, most humans who boast that their beauty or skills surpass those of the gods are punished severely.
Agamemnon in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Agamemnon is a favorite character in many works of literature besides the Iliad. The ancient Greek playwrights Aeschylus (pronounced ES-kuh-lus), Euripides (pronounced yoo-RIP-i-deez), and Sophocles (pronounced SOF-uh-kleez) wrote a number of plays based on the life of Agamemnon. He was also a popular subject of ancient Roman authors such as Ovid and Seneca. Later writers, including William Shakespeare and French playwright Jean Racine, included Agamemnon as a character in their works. In modern times, Agamemnon has served as a model for characters in works by poet T. S. Eliot and playwright Eugene O'Neill. Agamemnon has also been portrayed in films, usually those that relate the events of the Trojan War. Actor Sean Connery appeared as Agamemnon in the 1981 time-travel comedy Time Bandits, directed by Terry Gilliam.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
How does Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia change the course of both the Trojan War and his own life? What choice would you have made if you were in his position? Why?
See also brave men lived before Agamemnon.