HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 11 Cherry Fan
Agamemnon and the Nostoi
Aeschylus' Agamemnon is a difficult play for the modern reader. Like the Prometheus Bound, it shows
many signs of the origins of tragedy as a series of choral songs: the action is relatively static, the
speeches are long, and the language is highly metaphorical. There may be some solace for you in the
fact that the play is even more difficult when read in Greek.
The Agamemnon is the first play of the only surviving trilogy in Greek tragedy, the Oresteia. A complete
understanding of the play can thus only be achieved by reading the other two plays, Libations Bearers
and Eumenides, but that will have to wait for another course. In this reading, your situation is analogous
to the one everyone faces with Prometheus Bound. In that play, lie this one, there is an unflattering
picture of divine justice. In Prometheus Bound Zeus appears like a newly minted tyrant who overturns
traditional notions of justice. In this play, divine justice seems to amount simply to vengeance, in which
a cycle of killing continues and may go on without end. The resolution of the cycle is actually only
achieved in the Eumenides.
The Homeric Background
The events of the Agamemnon actually serves as a background to the Odyssey. As the gods discuss the
fate of Odysseus at the beginning of that epic, they contrast his behaviour with that of Aegisthus (Od.
1.35-43). "Beyond what was ordained," that is, despite the gods' warning, Aegisthus had an affair with
Clytemnestra and killed Agamemnon. Homer ascribes the act to Aegisthus primarily and describes how
Aegisthus feasted Agamemnon and his companions before killing him (Od. 5.529-38, 11.409-15),
something that is missing from this version. Homer also makes no mention of Agamemnon being
trapped in a net in the bath. That seems to be an invention of Aeschylus.
Themes of the Play
There several important themes running through this play. Remember that Aeschylus is writing in the
early/mid fifth century BC at a time when Athens' democracy is really flexing its muscles after the defeat
of the Persians in 480-79 and during an increasingly tense relationship with the oligarchic Spartans.
Athens democracy was a government by the demos, the body of Athenian male citizens in which each
man had a vote. Since most men were relatively poor, some could see it as government by the poor, or
by the rabble. But Aeschylus appears to have been a proponent of the democracy, so we should be
conscious of themes that serve to support the democratic viewpoint. How, for instance, can
Agamemnon be characterized as a democratic king?
One obvious theme is the tension between men and women. Clytemnestra, a woman, is portrayed as
the principal motivator of a sort of coup d'état. But she is no ordinary woman. The Watchman proclaims
why he is doing what he is doing: "thus commands a heart of a woman masculine-willed in strength of
purpose" (11). She is a woman who acts like a man, who has masculine motivations. Several other
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passages offer views of such gender-bending and tensions: 348, 483, 592, 917, 940, 1636. Another
theme that seems to be related to women is deception. What is the relation between the women and
Tyranny is another theme: "their opening act marks a plan to set up a tyranny in the state" (1354-5). It is
somewhat paradoxical that mythology should provide any precedent for democratic thinking, since
there are no democracies in mythology, only monarchies. But there are good and bad monarchies, and
tyranny is bad, especially in the eyes of the Athenians, who overthrew their tyrants in 511 BC. But the
threat to the established order (19, 1365) and the possibility of an eastern, "barbarian" sort of monarchy,
in which the ruler is equated with a god (920), were associated with tyrants. How could the imagery of
the carpet (909-50) symbolize this theme for the entire play?
The Chorus announces another important Aeschylean theme: "Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to
understanding, Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that "learning comes by suffering" (pathei
mathos) (176, cf. 250, 367). Perhaps this is part of Aeschylus' larger view of the function of tragedy, a
view akin to Aristotle's about the role of pity and fear. "Soundness of mind comes to those who are
unwilling" (181-2), and "sometimes the grace of gods is violent" (182-3). Since Agamemnon hardly learns
anything in this play because he is killed, can you explain what is meant by "learning through suffering"
Justice is a closely related theme, but it is crucial to this play, specifically the belief that the gods
guarantee the force of justice: "the doer must suffer; for it is law" (1564). Are there indications of the
limits of this kind of reasoning in the play?
Prophecy is a theme especially symbolized in the character of Cassandra. Can you explain the role of
Cassandra in the play and how prophecy contributes?
The Events of the Play
The Watchman's prologue (1-39) opens the play with a sense of foreboding. All is not well at the home
of Agamemnon. The Watchman has been watching a long time for a fire signal, the relays of which
Clytemnestra describes later (281-316). The signals appears. Troy has fallen.
The entrance of the Chorus, the Parodos, then gives background, starting with the events of the Trojan
War. Zeus' role as "the great guest god" (60, cf. 362) is cited as the reason Menelaus and Agamemnon
led the great campaign against Alexander and the Trojans. By abducing Helen, Alexander offended Zeus'
laws of hospitality.
Soon we come to the first event that bears directly on our play, the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The causes for
it are complicated, but Agamemnon's dilemma is not:
"It is a hard fate to refuse obedience, and hard, if I must slay my child, the beauty of my home, and at the
alter-side stain a father's hand with streams of virgin's blood. Which of these courses is not filled with
evil? How can I become a deserter to my fleet and fail my allies in arms? For that they should by anger
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over-angrily crave a sacrifice to lull the winds - even a virgin's blood - stands within their right. May be
for the best."
Agamemnon, however, accepted the yoke of necessity (ananké), at which point his mind became
sacrilegious and unholy (218-20). Later in the play, Clytemnestra will cite just this act as the cause for
her anger and retribution (1414-18, 1525-7). Watch out for characters who claim that they act because
of necessity; it is probably indicative of reasoning that is thought appropriate for a slave, not a free
In what must be a nod to some very recent technological innovation, the Chorus' incredulity at
Clytemnestra's news (268-80) gives occasion for Clytemnestra's description of the amazing signal system
that has let her know the news from Troy (281-316). She has further insight into the scene at Troy as the
victors overrun the city (320-50). She prays, ironically, that they do not let their passions get the best of