Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, a Greek town near Athens, in 525 B.C. He was the first of the great Greek tragedians, preceding both Sophocles and Euripides, and is credited by many as having invented tragic drama. Prior to Aeschylus, plays were more rudimentary, consisting of a single actor and a chorus offering commentary. In his works, Aeschylus added a “second actor” (often more than one), creating a new range of dramatic possibilities. He lived until 456 B.C., fighting in the wars against Persia, and attaining great acclaim in the world of the Athenian theater.
Aeschylus wrote nearly ninety plays. However, only seven have survived to the modern era, including such famous works as Prometheus Bound and The Seven Against Thebes. Agamemnon is the first of a trilogy, the Oresteia, the other two parts of which are The Libation-Bearers and The Eumenides. The trilogy–the only such work to survive from Ancient Greece–is considered by many critics to be the greatest Athenian tragedy ever written, because of its poetry and the strength of its characters.
Agamemnon depicts the assassination of the title character by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. The Libation-Bearers continues the story with the return of Agamemnons son, Orestes, who kills his mother and avenges his father. In The Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the Furies in punishment for his matricide, and finally finds refuge in Athens, where the god Athena relieves him of his persecution.
The events of Agamemnon take place against a backdrop that would have been familiar to an Athenian audience. Agamemnon is returning from his victory at Troy, which has been besieged for ten years by Greek armies attempting to recover Helen, Agamemnons brothers wife, who was stolen by the treacherous Trojan Prince, Paris. (The events of the Trojan War are recounted in Homers Iliad.) The tragedies of the play occur as a result of the crimes committed by Agamemnons family. His father, Atreus, boiled the children of his own brother, Thyestes, and served them to him. Clytemnestras lover, Aegisthus (Thyestess only surviving son), seeks revenge for that crime. Moreover, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to gain a favorable wind to Troy, and Clytemnestra murders him to avenge her death. The weight of history and heritage becomes a major theme of the play, and indeed the entire trilogy, for the family it depicts cannot escape the cursed cycle of bloodshed propagated by its past.
Agamemnon begins with a Watchman on duty on the roof of the palace at Argos, waiting for a signal announcing the fall of Troy to the Greek armies. A beacon flashes, and he joyfully runs to tell the news to Queen Clytemnestra. When he is gone, the Chorus, made up of the old men of Argos, enters and tells the story of how the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus, leading to ten years of war between Greece and Troy. Then the Chorus recalls how Clytemnestras husband Agamemnon (Menelaus brother) sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the god Artemis to obtain a favorable wind for the Greek fleet.
The Queen appears, and the Chorus asks her why she has ordered sacrifices of thanksgiving. She tells them that a system of beacons has brought word that Troy fell the previous night. The Chorus give thanks to the gods, but wonder if her news is true; a Herald appears and confirms the tidings, describing the armys sufferings at Troy and giving thanks for a safe homecoming. Clytemnestra sends him back to Agamemnon, to tell her husband to come swiftly, but before he departs, the Chorus asks him for news of Menelaus. The Herald replies that a terrible storm seized the Greek fleet on the way home, leaving Menelaus and many others missing.
The Chorus sings of the terrible destructive power of Helens beauty. Agamemnon enters, riding in his chariot with Cassandra, a Trojan Princess whom he has taken as his slave and concubine. Clytemnestra welcomes him, professing her love, and orders a carpet of purple robes spread in front of him as he enters the palace. Agamemnon acts coldly toward her, and says that to walk on the carpet would be an act of hubris, or dangerous pride; she badgers him into walking on the robes, however, and he enters the palace.
The Chorus expresses a sense of foreboding, and Clytemnestra comes outside to order Cassandra inside. The Trojan Princess is silent, and the Queen leaves her in frustration. Then Cassandra begins to speak, uttering incoherent prophecies about a curse on the house of Agamemnon. She tells the Chorus that they will see their king dead, says that she will die as well, and then predicts that an avenger will come. After these bold predictions, she seems resigned to her fate, and enters the house. The Chorus fears grow, and they hear Agamemnon cry out in pain from inside. As they debate what to do, the doors open, and Clytemnestra appears, standing over the corpses of her husband and Cassandra. She declares that she has killed him to avenge Iphigenia, and then is joined by her lover Aegisthus, Agamemnons cousin, whose brothers were cooked and served to Aegisthus father by Agamemnons father. They take over the government, and the Chorus declares that Clytemnestras son Orestes will return from exile to avenge his father.
Agamemnon? -? The King of Argos, the husband of Clytemnestra, and the commander of the Greek armies during the siege of Troy. Agamemnon is the older brother of Menelaus, whose wife Helen was stolen by a Trojan prince, thus igniting a decade-long war. A great warrior, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to obtain a favorable wind to carry the Greek fleet to Troy. During the ten-year conflict, his Queen has plotted his death in order to avenge the killing of their daughter. He appears on stage only briefly, and behaves arrogantly. He goes to his death unaware of his fate.
Clytemnestra? -? The plays protagonist, Clytemnestra is Agamemnons wife and has ruled Argos in his absence. She plans his murder with ruthless determination, and feels no guilt after his death; she is convinced of her own rectitude and of the justice of killing the man who killed her daughter. She is, a sympathetic character in many respects, but the righteousness of her crime is tainted by her entanglement with Aegisthus. Even so, Aeschylus makes it clear that Agamemnons death must be avenged.
Chorus ? -? The elder citizens of Argos, who were too old to fight in the Trojan War. They serve as advisors to Queen Clytemnestra during Agamemnons absence, and provide commentary on the action of the play. Their speeches provide the background for the action, for they foreshadow the Kings death when they describe the events of the Trojan War and discuss the dangers of human pride.
Cassandra? -? A Trojan priestess, captured by Agamemnon and carried to Argos as his slave and mistress. She was Apollos lover. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, but when she refused to bear him a child, he punished her by making all around her disbelieve her predictions. She sees the ancestral curse afflicting Agamemnons family, and predicts both his death and her own, as well as the vengeance brought by Orestes in the next play.
Aegisthus? -? Agamemnons cousin, and Clytemnestras lover. His father and Agamemnons father were rivals for the throne. Agamemnons father boiled two of his rivals children–Aegisthus brothers–and served them to him for dinner. Since that time, Aegisthus has been in exile awaiting a chance to seek revenge for the terrible crime.
The Watchman ? -? The man assigned to watch for the signal of Troys fall from the roof of the palace. He is joyful at his kings return, but also is gripped with a sense of foreboding.
The Herald ? -? He brings the Chorus news of Agamemnons safe homecoming. An ardent patriot, he is ecstatic to see the home he thought he had left forever and provides vivid descriptions of the horrors of the war against Troy.
A Watchman, atop the roof of the palace in the Greek city of Argos, complains that he has spent so much time in this perch that he knows the night sky by heart. He is waiting for a beacon that will signal the fall of Troy, which has been besieged for ten years by a Greek army led by Agamemnon, the king of Argos. Agamemnons wife, Clytemnestra, governs Argos in her husbands absence, and, while the Watchman says that she has “male strength of heart,” (11) the absence of the king makes him fearful. “I sing,” he declares, “only to weep again the pity of this house / no longer, as once, administered in the grand way” (16-18).
The beacon flares, signaling Troys fall, and the Watchman leaps up and cries out with joy at the news, and rushes inside to tell the Queen. The Chorus, an assembly of Argos oldest and wisest male citizens, comes onstage and discusses the history of the Trojan War. They recount how Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus, the king of Sparta, gathered a huge fleet and army to recapture Helen, Menelaus wife, who was stolen by Paris, a Prince of Troy; and they discuss how the Greeks and Trojans have spent ten years wearing themselves out in battle. Meanwhile, the old men of Argos (the men too old to fight) are growing weaker and weaker in their old age.
Clytemnestra joins them, and the Chorus demands to know why she has ordered sacrifices to all the gods and celebrations throughout the city. Before she answers, they recall the terrible story of how the Greek fleet, on its way to Troy, was trapped in Aulis by unfavorable winds, and how Agamemnon learned that the winds were sent by Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. In order to appease her and sail on to Troy, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia; the Chorus describes in detail her pitiful cries for mercy as her fathers men cut her throat.
The strength of the minor characters in Agamemnon distinguishes this play from a number of Aeschylus other works. The Watchman, whose speech opens the play, is particularly noteworthy. His complaints about his tiresome duty and his worries over the state of the city–together with his obvious, sincere joy at the news of his kings victory–make him a realistic, multifaceted, human character. His combination of anticipation and foreboding, meanwhile, establishes the mood of the play; the Kings return is an occasion for celebration, and yet a sense of fear looms over Argos, a premonition of terrible events waiting to happen.
The events in Agamemnon are only a small part of a much larger story, as the Chorus makes clear in its lengthy speech. Two women who do not appear in the play have a profound effect upon the events in Argos: Helen, Menelaus wife, and Iphigenia. Helens eloping with Paris catalyzes the entire Trojan conflict and its aftermath; throughout the play, the Chorus comments on how much suffering has occurred “for one womans promiscuous sake” (62). Meanwhile, the sacrifice of Iphigenia is a cloud over the marriage of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and ultimately leads to his murder.
The description of Iphigenias murder undermines the audiences sympathy for Agamemnon. The killing offends our sense of proportion. While it is true that Artemis demanded her death if the fleet was to sail to Troy, did Agamemnon really have to kill his daughter to win a war to recover a single woman Aeschylus paints a pathetic portrait of Iphigenias violated innocence: “her supplications and her cries of father / were nothing, nor the childs lamentation / to kings passioned for battle . . . Pouring then to the ground her saffron mantle / she struck the sacrificers with / the eyes arrows of pity . . .” (228-30; 239-41) Thus, even before Clytemnestra speaks, Aeschylus provides a reason for her to hate her husband.
When the Chorus finishes recounting the story of Iphigenia, they again ask Clytemnestra to explain her sacrifices. She tells them that Troy has fallen to the Greeks. They wonder whether she has dreamed this, or perhaps heard a rumor. The Queen dismisses these suggestions with contempt, saying that she is not foolish enough to believe dreams or hearsay, and tells the Chorus how a system of beacons, stretching across the Greek islands, has carried the news from Troy to Argos. She pictures the slaughter inside the walls of Troy, and hopes that the Greeks will commit no offenses against the gods that would hinder a safe journey home.
The Chorus gives thanks to Zeus for the victory and says that Troy deserved destruction as punishment for the crime of Paris; Helens eloping with the Trojan prince brought doom upon his city. Then they think of the terrible cost of the war: “The god of war, money changer of dead bodies, / held the balance of his spear in the fighting, / and from the corpse-fires at Ilium / sent their dearest the dust / heavy and bitter with tears shed / packing smooth the urns with / ashes that once were men” (438-44). Meanwhile, all is not well at home; the losses suffered in the war have made the citizens of Argos grumble, and the Chorus worries that the heroes of the battles outside Troy may be made to pay for their triumph: “the gods fail not to mark / those who have killed many” (461-62). They wonder whether it is better not to be humble since the gods often punish mortals who rise too high.
The Chorus debates whether to believe the news that the beacons have transmitted. “Perhaps the gods have sent some lie to us,” some worry, while others argue that Clytemnesta is celebrating too soon (478). One of the Chorus members sees a Herald arriving from the beach, and they agree that this mans news will reveal what has truly transpired in Troy.
Aeschylus instills in Clytemnestra a sense of self-assurance. The Chorus is made up of the most respected men in Argos, but the Queen shows them no deference. When they question the news from Troy, she offers a spirited defense of her powers of discernment and delivers a lengthy and convincing explanation of the system of beacons that brought the good news in less than one day. The geographical location of these beacons presents problems, however, as more than one critic has pointed out. The second beacon, lit on Mount Athos, could not have been seen across the one hundred leagues of sea that separate the mountain from the next signal, on “Macistus sentinel cliffs” (289).
The problem with the beacons forms part of the broader question of time in the play. We are told that Troy fell only the night before, yet Agamemnon arrives in Argos the next day–an impossibility, given the distance involved and the storm that supposedly struck the fleet. Aeschylus compressed events of many months into a single day in order to create dramatic unity (a technique often used in Shakespeares plays), but the key events of the play do occur during a single day.
Why would he add the unnecessary detail of the beacon system Another, more controversial answer has been proposed by a number of critics: Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have had advance word of Troys fall, but have kept it from the people of Argos until the day before Agamemnons return. There is only one beacon, not a system stretching across the Aegean Sea, and Aegisthus lights it to deceive the people of Argos. This explanation accounts for part of the problem of time, but it leads us to question why no one else (i.e. the Chorus) wonders why Agamemnon arrives in his city so soon.
After further discourse on Helens guilt, the Chorus focuses on what will become a recurring theme in the play: the danger of hubris. Hubris refers to mortal pride or arrogance; a human guilty of hubris aspires to be and do more than the gods allow, and so must be thwarted and punished. When the Chorus says “the vaunt of high glory / is bitterness; for Gods thunderbolts . . .” (468-72), they refer to the idea that too much success leads inevitably to a fall which, of course, is Agamemnons fate.
The Herald expresses his relief at returning to Argos after ten years abroad, saying that he never dared to hope that he would see his home again. He greets the Chorus and hails all the gods and monuments of his native city, announcing that Agamemnon is returning in triumph, after defeating Troy and avenging Paris crime. The Chorus tells him to rejoice, and adds that the city has grown fearful in the absence of its young warriors. The Herald insists that however much they have suffered, the warriors suffered more. He goes on to describe the trials they endured during the siege of Troy: the cramped ships that carried them there, the terrible weather, the deaths of countless men. Now they have triumphed, and their deeds will be heralded forever. Both the army and the city are eternally blessed.
Clytemnestra steps forward, and notes that she heard the news first and ordered sacrifices in spite of old mens doubts. Now she orders the Herald to return to Agamemnon and to tell him to return quickly because she (who has been faithful all these years) yearns for his strong presence in their house. The Herald notes that her speech sounds noble and fitting for the wife of the King. Before he leaves, the Chorus asks about the fate of Menelaus, Agamemnons brother, and the Herald becomes displeased: “It is not well to stain the blessing of this day / with such evil speech,” he says (636-37). He proceeds to tell them how the Greek fleet endured a powerful storm when they departed Troy that battered their fleet and sank many ships. Somehow, Agamemnons ship escaped harm, but when the storm had passed Menelaus had disappeared. He may have survived, and may even be safe somewhere, believing Agamemnon to be lost–“if any of them come back he (Menelaus) will be the first” (675)–but for now his fate remains unknown.
The Herald is another of Aeschylus carefully depicted minor characters. In terms of the plot, he exists only to bring news of Agamemnons impending arrival, but his passionate delight in returning home and his bitter account of the horrors of the Trojan War make him a sympathetic character. His description of the armys sufferings outside Troy is vivid and powerful: “Were I to tell you of the hard work done, the nights / exposed, the cramped sea-quarters, the foul beds / . . . why must a live man count the numbers of the slain” (555-569) The Heralds words undermine the notion of wartime glory and heroism, yet the Herald immediately puts the horrors of battle behind him and embraces the glory of victory: “I call a long farewell to all our unhappiness. / For us, survivors of the Argive armament, / the pleasure wins, pain casts no weight in the opposite scale” (571-73).
This celebration of homecoming seems ironic in the context of the tragic events to come. Even in his joyous account of the victory at Troy, the Herald must recount the storm that claimed much of the Greek fleet. The audience has just heard the Chorus speech about the dangers of hubris, and so the possible death of Menelaus (he does escape the storm, although that is not revealed in this play) can be interpreted as the onset of divine vengeance against the Greek heroes, whose triumph over Troy has made them too successful, too god-like. Their victory over the Trojans can be reversed at the gods whim, and what happened to Menelaus may also befall Agamemnon.
After delivering the unhappy news about Menelaus, the Herald departs. The Chorus speaks of Helen again, discussing how appropriate her name (which means “death”) is, since she has brought so much destruction and suffering on those around her- -in Greece, which lost so many lives attempting to recapture her, and in Troy, which was destroyed in fighting to keep her. They reflect on the idea that virtuous families often suffer despite their goodness, but conclude that the opposite is true: “only the act of evil / breeds others to follow . . . houses clear in their right are given children in all loveliness” (758-62). Inflated human pride leads to suffering and death, not righteousness.
Now Agamemnon arrives, riding in a chariot with Cassandra beside him. The Chorus hails him, and confesses to having doubted his wisdom in making war on Troy; now he has triumphed and they owe him praise. Agamemnon gives thanks to the gods for their part in his victory at Troy, and tells the Chorus that he hears their words–that the most loyal man serves obediently even if he disagrees with the ruler. He promises to see to “the business of the city and the gods” by keeping honest leaders in power and ending corruption (844).
Clytemnestra comes forward, now, and greets the King, declaring her passionate love for him and describing the sufferings of a wife who waits at home while her husband wages war. Every day brought a new rumor of his death or injury: “Had Agamemnon taken all / the wounds the tale whereof was carried home to me, / he had been cut full of gashes like a fishing net” (866-68). Meanwhile, fearing revolution at home, she sent their son Orestes away to stay with friends in another city. Now her suffering and solitude are over, and she can rejoice in his homecoming. She has asked her maidens to prepare a bright purple carpet for Agamemnon so that his feet need not touch the earth as he enters the palace.
To understand the events in Agamemnon, we must have some knowledge first of the Trojan War and the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and of the ancestral curse on Agamemnons family, the House of Atreus. In the play, the terrible legacy that leads each successive generation to vengeful murder is not fully revealed until Aegisthus tells the story of how his father, Agamemnons uncle, was fed his own boiled children. Even so, we can sense a “curse” on the house much earlier in the text. When the Chorus says “the act of evil / breeds others to follow, / young sins in its own likeness,” it is an obvious reference to the fate of Agamemnons family whose sufferings pass down from generation to generation (844). Here we should remember that Agamemnon is only the first of three plays and that, just as past crimes lead to murder in this play, the Kings death will lead to more violence in the next two dramas.
Although he is the title character, Agamemnon makes only a brief appearance in the play. His entrance gives Clytemnestra and the Chorus the opportunity to suggest that all may not be well in his city. “Ask all men,” the loyal Chorus tells him, “you will learn in time / which of your citizens have been just / in the citys sway, which were reckless” (808-10). The Queen, meanwhile, suggests that the citys dangerous conditions forced her to send away Orestes, their son, for his protection. (In fact, Clytemnestra sent Orestes away to facilitate her involvement with Aegisthus.) Her speech is the first mention of Orestes, who will avenge his fathers murder in the next play of the trilogy.
Agamemnon, in his short time on stage, does not make a heroic impression: the play belongs to Clytemnestra, his fierce, intelligent and daring wife. Although the King is a mighty warrior, the story of Iphigenias death has biased the audience against him. His arrogant account of his triumph at Troy re-enforces this, as does his dismissive attitude toward his wife. He flaunts Cassandra (his mistress) before Clytemnestra, and after the Queens lengthy welcome speech, his reply seems brusque and disrespectful. It is important to consider, though, that Agamemnons coarse treatment of his wife may result from rumors of her infidelity.
Agamemnon rebukes his wife for laying the carpet before him saying that, were he to walk on it, he would display unseemly pride and incur the wrath of the gods: “Such state becomes the gods,” he tells her, “and none beside. / I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon / these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path” (922-24). Clytemnestra goads him by accusing him of being fearful and pointing out that had Priam, Troys king, defeated the Greeks, he would have walked on purple. Agamemnon finally consents and enters his palace on the carpet, demanding proper care and attention for Cassandra, the Trojan princess he has taken as his slave and concubine. Clytemnestra comments that the purple dye with which the carpet is colored comes from the sea, “ever of itself renewed” (959). She follows Agamemnon inside, expressing her joy at having him home again (959).
Outside the palace, the Chorus senses a sudden foreboding, despite Agamemnons homecoming and the apparent restoration of order to Argos. For some reason, they are unable to articulate their fears: “I murmur deep in darkness / sore at heart; my hope is gone now,” they lament (1030-32). Clytemnestra re-emerges and orders Cassandra to participate in the sacrifices of thanksgiving, telling her that she should not be too unhappy with her fate since she will have kind masters. Cassandra offers no reply, and the Chorus echoes the Queens orders. When the Trojan princess remains silent, the Chorus suggests that perhaps she does not speak the language, but Clytemnestra declares that she is merely lost in “the passion of her own wild thoughts,” and adds that she will waste no more time with the girl (1064). She retires within, leaving Cassandra alone with the Chorus. They express pity for the girl, and tell her gently to leave the chariot to “take up the yoke that shall be yours” (1071).
Agamemnon has enough good sense to refuse to walk the carpet of purple robes, but his weakness of character is revealed in Clytemnestras ability to degrade his resolve, to goad him into an act of ultimate hubris simply by saying “If Priam had won as you have, what would he have done” (935) As he walks on the cloth, he asks that “no gods eyes of hatred strike me from afar,” but this plea only foreshadows his quick death, which comes not from “afar” but from the one closest to him (1064).
Meanwhile, Agamemnons request for kind treatment of Cassandra contrasts sharply with his cold behavior toward his own wife. It was customary in ancient Greece for a conquering king to take captives as his concubines, but the audience cannot help feeling that Cassandras presence is extremely disrespectful to Clytemnestra, especially since during his absence she declared: “with no man else have I known delight” (611). Clytemnestras claim is false, of course; the Queen does have a lover of her own, so any sympathy she earns is baseless. This paradox comprises one of the plays central critical questions: should the audience support Agamemnons wife Is she a wronged woman exacting revenge, or a murdering adulteress
After the king enters his home, the Chorus delivers another ominous speech. Despite the apparent restoration of order and joy to Argos, “still the spirit sings, drawing deep . . . / Hope is gone utterly, / the sweet strength is far away.” (990- 93) Their somber tone reflects Agamemnons impending doom, but the murder is delayed as Clytemnestra reappears to tell Cassandra to enter the palace. Despite their conflicting interests, the Queen speaks kindly to the captive girl–“from us,” she says, “you shall have all you have the right to ask” (1046).
As Cassandras prophetic gift will reveal, she is inviting the Trojan princess in to die, but the audience remains unaware of her fate. Indeed, thus far we have no concrete evidence of what sort of disaster will overtake the city. The Watchman and the Chorus have both expressed grim uneasiness about the future, but only Cassandra will reveal the appropriateness of their dread.
Cassandra speaks for the first time, crying out to Apollo. She asks him why he torments her and to what city he has brought her. The Chorus tells her she is in the house of the Atreidae, the home of Agamemnons family. Cassandra calls it “a house that God hates . . . the shambles for mens butchery, the dripping floor” (1090-92). She recalls past crimes committed here, then prophecies vaguely about future acts of violence. The Chorus does not comprehend her message, but she continues to declare that destruction will fall upon this place, and bemoans the fate that destroyed Troy and brought her here.
The Chorus induces her to tell her story. Apollo fell in love with her and granted her the gift of prophecy; she promised to bear him a child. When she broke her word, he punished her by making it so that nobody would heed her warnings. After explaining this, she prophecies that she and Agamemnon will die at the hands of a woman, “a woman-lioness, who goes to bed / with the wolf” (1258-59). Eventually, a son will emerge to kill the murderess and avenge his fathers death.
After delivering this prophecy, Cassandra declares that she is resigned to die. Everyone else in her native city has perished, and it is time for her to join them. The Chorus praises her bravery, even as they fail to understand her prophecy, and she moves to enter the palace. Once there, she recoils, crying that “the room within reeks with blood like a slaughter house” (1309). Then, steeling herself, she enters, making a last prayer to Apollo that her son will come to avenge his mother and fathers deaths.
Cassandras fate–to be a prophetess whom no one believes–makes her a figure of terrible pity. She has the foresight that the Chorus and the rest of Argos lack, but her prophecy is wasted on ears that refuse to believe her; the Chorus fails to understand her simple visions. She sees the ancestral curse brought on the house by Agamemnons father when he roasted his brothers children and served them for dinner and understands that “there is one (Aegisthus) that plots vengeance for this” (1223). Even the details of Agamemnons impending murder are clear to her: “Caught in the folded webs / entanglement she pinions him and with the black horn / strikes. And he crumples in the watered bath” (1126-28). Finally, she prophecies the coming of Orestes, which will occur in the next play of the trilogy, The Libation-Bearers.
Prophets in Ancient Greece received their foresight from the god Apollo, just as Cassandra does. Throughout her speech, she curses Apollo, or “Loxias,” for bringing evil into her life. Before she goes to her death, she breaks her prophets staff and tears off her garland, saying “out, down, / break, damn you! This for all you have done to me” (1266-67).
Cassandras unfortunate experience with prophecy is typical of Greek tragedy, wherein the prophetic gift is usually more a curse than a blessing. The prophet Teiresias, in the play Oedipus Rex, refuses to share his visions with Oedipus since nothing in the future can be changed. Cassandras words upon her death reveal that a prophet must bow to the necessity that she perceives, instead of railing fruitlessly against it: “I will go through with it. I too will take my fate,” she says.
Cassandras knowledge that Agamemnon, the destroyer of Troy, will die for his crimes eases her passing, as does her understanding and acceptance of her role. The time for pitiful weeping is over and so she welcomes death, greeting the end that will lead her to Clytemnestras sword. The last line embodies all the tragedy inherent in the life of a prophet, as she hopes that “I may close these eyes, and rest.” It is no blessing to see with god- gifted eyes if they behold only suffering and loss. Better, Cassandra realizes, to have those eyes closed forever.
Once Cassandra goes, the Chorus fears for the Kings safety. Suddenly, Agamemnon s voice is heard from inside, crying out in agony that he is mortally wounded. Another cry comes, followed by silence. The Chorus anxiously debates what to do. Some advocate sending messengers to rally the citizens of Argos, while others insist that they should enter immediately and take the murderers “with the blood still running from their blades” (1351). The doors fly open, revealing Clytemnestra standing triumphantly over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.
Without a hint of shame, the Queen describes how she killed Agamemnon with an ax, after using heavy robes to trap him in his bath. She tells the Chorus that he was evil and deserved to die. They declare that she will be driven out of Argos and shunned by all men for her crime. She rebuffs their reproach by pointing out their hypocrisy; none of them protested when Agamemnon killed her innocent daughter, Iphigenia. The murder of her husband is justified, she insists, because it avenges his crime. Now Agamemnon can lie dead alongside Cassandra, who shared his bed.
The Chorus laments the murder, blaming Agamemnons death on Helen of Troy. They wonder who will mourn for Agamemnon since his wife–supposedly his closest relation–has killed him. Clytemnestra tells them that Iphigenia, his child, will greet him next. The Chorus bemoans the stain left on the family and city by their ancestral curse, but the Queen insists that her murder has put an end to the cycle of vengeance and violence.
This section features Clytemnestras moment of triumph. She has been called Aeschylus greatest character, and as she chastises the Chorus after the murder, the audience can sense the inner strength and resolve that drove her to murder. Clytemnestra has been compared to Shakespeares Lady Macbeth, but where Lady Macbeth loses her nerve (and her mind) after she and her husband commit a string of murders, Clytemnestra remains grim and determined throughout. She shows no remorse; in her view, the act is justified.
Some critics have argued that the audience should applaud Clytemnestras crime, rather than condemn it. Aeschylus emphasizes Agamemnons abhorrent sacrifice of Iphigenia early in the play, and Clytemnestra recalls it immediately after the murder: “With the sword he struck, / with the sword he paid for his own act,” (1528-29) she says. As Edith Hamilton, author of the classic text Mythology, writes, “remorse will never touch her.”
When addressing the ethical legitimacy of Clytemnestras actions, we should remember that Aeschylus was building a three-part story, of which Agamemnon is only the first installment. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra becomes a heroine, and Aeschylus emphasizes the noble aspects of her act: vengeance for the death of her daughter. In the context of the trilogy, however, Clytemnestra has committed a crime that must be avenged by her son, Orestes, in The Libation- Bearer.
As the first play ends, the sordid aspects of Clytemnestras crime begin to surface. Her lover, Aegisthus, appears and Clytemnestra begins the transformation from vengeful mother to adulterous murderess, a role that she will carry-out fully in the next play. Indeed, we receive foreshadowing of her doom when she boasts about ending the ancestral curse: “I swept from these halls / the murder, the sin, and the fury” (1575-76). This arrogant declaration makes her guilty of the same deadly hubris that plagued her husband.
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Aegisthus, Clytemnestras lover, appears for the first time and is accompanied by his bodyguards. He is Agamemnons cousin, and as he rejoices over the murder, we learn the history of the ancestral curse that has led to the Kings death. Aegisthus father, Thyestes, tried unsuccessfully to seize the crown from Agamemnons father, Atreus, and was exiled from Argos. Eventually, Thyestes returned to the city and begged for mercy. Atreus pretended to welcome him, and then boiled two of Thyestes sons and served them to his brother, who ate his own children unwittingly. Since that horrible day, Thyestes (now dead) and his son have been exiles. Only now has the terrible crime against Aegisthus family been avenged.
The Chorus taunts Aegisthus, saying that he allowed a woman to do the deed for him, and tells him that he will be executed for the crime. “How shall you be lord of the men of Argos, you / who planned the murder . . . yet could not dare / to act it out” (1633-35). Aegisthus replies that because of his exile, he could not get close enough to Agamemnon to kill him. He claims that his henchmen and the treasury will enable him to control the city. He promises to have the Chorus killed.
As they trade threats, Clytemnestra acts as a peacemaker, telling the Chorus that she and Aegisthus could not have acted any other way, and that peace must now reign in Argos under her rule. The defeated Chorus accepts their authority, but declares that when Orestes returns, he will exact vengeance for his fathers murder. Aegisthus and Clytemnestra dismiss these words as empty threats, and together they take up the reins of the state.
Many versions of Agamemnons story circulated in Aeschylus time. In some, Aegisthus, not Clytemnestra, stabs the King. Aeschylus chose to celebrate the heroine at the expense of her lover, however, and so Aegisthus appears here as a strutting fool, a poor match for his bold mate. He has skulked in the shadows while she committed the murderous deed, and now he emerges only to bluster and threaten the Chorus. The terrible story of his family and his brothers miserable fate wins him some sympathy from the audience, but now that his years in exile have ended, it seems that the only thing he learned in the wilderness was how to bully others into submission. Indeed, Clytemnestra herself appears diminished by her connection to Aegisthus, and their affair is a necessary step in shifting the audiences sympathy from Clytemnestra to her son Orestes in the next play.
Several critics have questioned why Clytemnestras plot succeeded; why does the Chorus, and all of Argos, submit to a husband- murderer, a blustering braggart and his group of thugs The Chorus repeatedly threatens to exile or execute the adulterous couple. Why do they not carry out their threats In part, we can attribute their weakness to Clytemnestras powerful personality which allows her to mediate the dispute between her lover and the Chorus. The audience also must assume the truth of earlier rumors of discontent with Agamemnons rule, creating a base of support for his replacements. Argos and the Chorus cannot resist the couple: they must wait for Orestes to avenge his father and save the city. The final lines, appropriately enough, point toward his homecoming in the next part of the trilogy.
Agamemnon is the first play in a trilogy, the Oresteia, which is considered Aeschylus greatest work, and perhaps the greatest Greek tragedy. Of the plays in the trilogy, Agamemnon contains the strongest command of language and characterization. The poetry is magnificent and moving, with skillful portrayal of major and minor characters alike.
The plays mood carries a heavy sense of impending doom. From the Watchmans opening speech through the Chorus foreboding words and Cassandras prophesies, the drama prepares the audience for the Kings murder. The actual act of violence occurs off-stage, a traditional practice in Greek tragedy. Thematically, the murder of Agamemnon must be understood in the context of three other acts of violence, all of which precede the action of the play.
The first significant violent development in the play is the theft of Helen and the Trojan War that followed; again and again, the Chorus declares that even the deaths following the conflict should be dropped at Helens door. The second violent act is Agamemnons sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, which justifies Clytemnestras resolve to murder him. Perhaps the most vile display of violence is the terrible sin of Agamemnons father, Atreus, who cooked his own brothers children and served them to him. This act justifies Aegisthus role in the play. But in a broader sense, it is the source of the ancestral curse that pervades the trilogy, as one act of violence leads to another.
The title character, Agamemnon, appears only briefly, and comes across as a cold husband and arrogant king. Clytemnestra, with her icy determination and fierce sense of self-righteousness, is far more attractive to the audience; we sympathize with her for much of the play. However, her entanglement with the odious Aegisthus and her murder of the innocent hapless Cassandra remind us that, in the larger context of the trilogy, she is not an avenger but an adulteress and a murderer whose crime leads inexorably to Orestes vengeance in the next play.