"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

20 January 2014

Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

AeschylusAgamemnon is the first play of The Oresteia, the only extant trilogy from ancient Greek drama. Unlike the Theban cycle by Sophocles, which was written over several decades, The Oresteia was written to be performed together as a cycle telling the story of the house of Atreus. In the City Dionysia, tragic playwrights would enter three tragedies and a satyr play (The Cyclops by Euripides is the only surviving example) which would be performed together and judged both individually and as a group. Most of the extant plays are single plays that would have been performed with two other plays, but The Oresteia is the only example of a full trilogy we have.

Over the arc of The Oresteia, Aeschylus moves us from the primitive foundational rules of the vendetta and the blood feud to the rule of law upon which a civilization can be built. As the first in this cycle, Agamemnon is rooted in the rule of vengeance. The play tells the story of the Agamemnon’s murder by Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, both of whom seek vengeance against the king who has just conquered Troy. Clytaemnestra seeks vengeance because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia at the outset of the Trojan War (ten years before Aeschylus’ play is set) so that the gods would grant him winds to sail to Troy. Aegisthus seeks revenge for the barbaric treatment his father Thyestes by Agamemnon’s father Atreus, who killed Thyestes’ children and served them to him to eat at a feast. Clytaemnestra is further insulted when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War with his new slave/lover Cassandra, who had been Apollo’s priestess in Troy.
Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus become lovers while Agamemnon is away fighting and the two of them plot to murder the king when/if he returns from the war. The plot of this play focuses on the king’s return and the murder by the two vengeful lovers. While Aegisthus just seems weak—particularly in contrast to Agamemnon’s feats in the Trojan War—because he lets Clytaemnestra murder her husband, she comes across as both deviously cunning and brutally ruthless. In addition to the cold brutality with which she commits the murder, Clytaemnestra has a unique command of language, using it to manipulate people and to simultaneously conceal and reveal her true intentions and feelings.

Agamemnon opens with a watchman on the walls of Argos, he has watched there for a long time, waiting for the signal fires to be lit as a sign that the Hellenes have taken Troy. He begins by complaining of being tired from the long watch, but then he sees the signal fire and begins to celebrate. His celebration ends, however, as he asks that Agamemnon be brought safely home. The watchman goes into the palace to bring the news to Clytaemnestra, and the chorus of old men enters the stage. The chorus discusses the origins of the Trojan War, how the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus collected their forces for the fight. As the chorus speaks, Clyteamnestra comes out and begins to light sacrificial fires. The chorus explains that they are old men incapable of going to fight at Troy, but they have remained behind waiting for news—they ask Clytaemnestra why she is lighting the fires, what news she has gotten but she ignores them and continues silently lighting the sacrificial flames. After Clytaemneastra returns to her palace, the chorus recounts the visions of Calchas—the king’s seer—which led to the Trojan War, visions of eagles tearing apart a pregnant rabbit, and a lion cub that destroys the people who brought it into their home. After recounting these visions, the chorus calls upon Zeus, praising the king of the gods, before recounting the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which was done to assuage Artemis’ fury against Agamemnon’s arrogance. They tell how Agamemnon resisted sacrificing his daughter, but then he and his men were seized by a frenzy and killed her. At this point, Clytaemnestra returns and the leader of the chorus addresses her. She tells them that the Greeks have conquered Troy, and there is an exchange where the chorus expresses doubt that it could really be true. Clytaemnestra assures the chorus that the news is accurate, and when they ask how she could know so soon, the queen explains that there was a series of signal fires intended to announce the capture of the enemy city, and she describes the geographic journey the signal makes from Troy to Argos. Next, she describes a vision of the conquered city, with people weeping over the bodies of the dead and the soldiers getting their first restful sleep in 10 years. The chorus rejoices, praising Zeus for the victory and noting that worldly power and wealth cannot protect people from the will of the gods—this of course is directly referring to Paris, but foreshadows the demise of Agamemnon later. The chorus recounts the causes of the Trojan War, specifically Paris’ abduction/seduction of Helen, violating his role as a guest in Menelaus’ house; they blame Helen for the war as much as Paris, and commiserate with those who have lost loved ones in the fight. Soon the chorus begins to doubt whether Clytaemnestra’s news is reliable, and the leader reminds them that someone will come to confirm or reject the news soon enough. At that moment, a herald comes running in and falls to the ground proclaiming his joy at being back in Greece. He informs the chorus that the news is true, that the Greeks have taken Troy, and that Agamemnon is returning to Argos. After a quick discussion with the chorus, the herald recounts the various hardships of the Trojan War—the heat in summer, the cold in winter, being under constant bombardment from the city, and so on. Clytaemneatra returns and chastises the chorus for not believing her earlier, and in a speech that both obscures and reveals her murderous intent, she declares that she will welcome Agamemnon home. The chorus asks about Menelaus, and the herald informs them that his ship was separated from the fleet, and no one knows whether he is alive or dead. The chorus has a long section where they condemn Helen for betraying Greece, and they acknowledge that her presence has meant equal doom to Troy, and that justice has finally caught up with her. At this point Agamemnon enters and the chorus welcomes him back and tries to warn him to be cautious because some people in the city resent him for the losses in the war. Agamemnon declares his joy at being home and reminds us of the glorious victory over Troy. Clytaemnestra comes out of the palace and Agamemnon says he will take measures to find any traitors. She tells the chorus about the disheartening effect of rumors, and then informs Agamemnon that their son Orestes—for whom The Oresteia is named—is not in the city; this speech has a double meaning because it also calls to mind Iphigenia, their other absent child. Clytemnaestra tells about how she kept a dedicated and solitary watch for the return of Agamemnon, another speech with a double meaning—the official message is about her dedication to waiting for him, but the implied meaning is that she awaited her opportunity for revenge. After inviting Agamemnon to enter the palace, Clytaemnestra has her maids spread tapestries of the gods across the floor for Agamemnon to walk on—an arrogant decadence, which he initially refuses until Clytaemnestra’s clever arguments convince him that the gods won’t mind him walking on their tapestries in the moment of victory. After the royal couple go into the palace, the chorus asks why their sense of unease remains even after Agamemnon has returned victorious. Clytaemnestra comes back out and addresses Cassandra—a Trojan priestess of Apollo, whom Agamemnon has brought back as a slave/lover—asking her to come inside, but Cassandra remains motionless in Agamemnon’s chariot, even as Clytaemnestra and the chorus try to get her to speak. Clytaemnestra gives up and returns to the palace, and Cassandra begins to cry out as the spirit of Apollo fills her with prophecy. She describes first the murder of Thyestes’ children and the brutal feast, then in a stylized and oracular fashion she describes the upcoming murder of Agamemnon. The chorus listens in confusion and dread as she describes a bull being tied down and slaughtered. Then Cassandra tells the chorus how Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, but she pulled away from him and he cursed her to be rejected and ridiculed by her people in Troy, and finally to be killed. She describes Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus as loathsome beasts waiting in the darkness to murder Agamemnon, then she tells the chorus they will see the king and herself dead. Then Cassandra predicts that Orestes will return and kill his mother in revenge for the death of Agamemnon. She then says it is time for her to die and she enters the palace. We hear Agamemnon cry out as he is stabbed to death and the chorus panics and cannot decide whether to go seek help or run to the king’s aid themselves. They are spared the choice when Clytaemnestra enters with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra and announces that she has fulfilled the murderous plot that she has been planning for a decade. The chorus cries out and condemns Clytaemnestra as evil and a barbaric slayer of a brave man, to which she replies that Agamemnon has gotten what he deserved for sacrificing Iphigenia. The chorus condemns Clytaemnestra and she asks why they did not condemn Agamemnon for murdering his own child on the altar. After a long exchange, Aegisthus comes out celebrating his vengeance, and the chorus condemns him for murder and calls him a coward for letting a woman actually do the killing. Aegisthus threatens the chorus of old men with torture and being forced to row the ships, but they remain adamant about denouncing him. Finally Clytaemnestra steps in an reminds Aegisthus that they now rule Argos and there is nothing anyone can do about it, so there is no need to worry.

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