AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon

  • The Agamemnon opens with a scene reminiscent of Hamlet. A lone watchman is on the roof of the house of Atreus in order to look for a signal fire that the Trojan War is over. The watchman considers the woe that hovers over the House of Atreus, and foreshadows the sorrow that will light upon those of the house.
  • The watchman sees the beacon and hastens to notify Clytemnestra, the queen and wife of Agamemnon, that the Trojan War is ended.
  • A chorus of old men enters the scene. They inform the audience that it has been 10 years since the thousand ships of the Achaeans set sail for Troy to redress the wrong done by Paris.
  • The chorus laments their old age, singing that men return to childishness – as they grow past maturity, they grow weaker and smaller.
  • The chorus marks that all of the city’s altars are aflame in preparation for sacrifice. This indicates good news.
  • The chorus recounts the propitious departure of the Greek fleet.  Two eagles flew on their right side with a pregnant hare in their talons. Calchas interpreted the spectacle as an indication that the Greeks would conquer the Trojans. But Artemis/Diana loathes the Greek expedition because she is fond of the Trojans; and therefore she prays to Zeus that though their expedition will be successful it should also be crossed with evil. She craves the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, which will cause a bitter resentment in Clytemnestra which will only be quenched by the blood of Agamemnon.
  • Men attain wisdom through affliction.
  • The Greeks were stranded in Aulis until Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to appease Diana and cause the favorable winds to take them to Ilius.
  • Agamemnon dwells between woe and woe – the woe of disobeying the goddess and oracle, and the woe of sacrificing his daughter. He decides not to disappoint his allies, and sacrifices his daughter, praying to Zeus that all will be well.
  • Lusting for war (a war waged for the sake of one woman, Helen), he stops his ears to his daughter’s pleas for pity. She bids the others to place a gag in her mouth so that she does not curse the Atreus’ home and seed.
  • The chorus prays that the fate of the House of Atreus will be well, and asks Clytemnestra the reason for lighting the shrines with fires.
  • Clytemnestra essentially ecstatic that the Greeks have won the war and are returning home because this affords her the opportunity to slake her desire for revenge on Agamemnon, though she does not reveal the source of her joy to the chorus, but implies that it is the result of her love for Agamemnon.
  • The chorus asks her how she knows that Troy has been taken, whether by dream or rumor. She is indignant at the chorus’ suggestions – discrediting dreams and not credulous to believe rumors – and tells them how the beacon signals travelled from Troy to Greece.
  • Clytemnestra imagines the scene in Troy at that moment – one in which the conquerors shout for joy and the vanquished wail for sorrow. She hopes that the Greeks do not spoil the altars and shrines of the gods lest the gods spoil their return.
  • The chorus sings a song of joy to the gods who bestowed upon them joy to counterpoise their pain. The song claims that men who sin cannot hide from vengeance and the abyss. Their power and wealth will not serve as a tower to protect them. Even if they avoid the gulf during their life, their children will suffer for their transgressions. Sin allures all men while the families of these sinners rue the burden which the fathers’ crimes impose upon them.
  • “Heaven sends the vengeful fiends of hell.”

    “Woes, by heaven ordained, must fall.”

    “As light and fleeting as a dream of night lost in the garish day.”

    “Men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled.”

    “In visions of the night, like dropping rain,

    Descend the many memories of pain

    Before the spirit’s sight: through tears and dole

    Comes wisdom o’er the unwilling soul

    Twixt woe and woe I dwell.”

    “Foreknowledge is fore-sorrow.”

    “From the womb of night springs forth, with promise fair, the young child Light.”

    Revenge is a major theme in the Agamemnon. The Greeks avenge Paris’ theft of Menelaus’ wife by conquering Troy, Clytemnestra wishes to avenge the death of her daughter by killing her husband, and Orestes and Electra will avenge their father’s murder by murdering their mother. This cycle of revenge seems inexorable, yet the tragedy will offer a solution to the bloodshed at the end. Hitherto however, humanity punished crimes through acts of vengeance, and that impulse to avenge past wrongs is still a very powerful drive in humans of the modern age.

    The Agamemnon argues that the human condition is one filled mostly with sorrow, misery, and pain. Yet there are instances in the tragedy where optimism is displayed by some of the characters – instances where light emits from the darkness; “from the womb of night springs forth, with promise fair, the young child Light.” This statement, uttered by Clytemnestra, is one of dramatic irony because she makes this statement because of the joy she feels at the expectation of murdering Agamemnon and satisfying her urge for revenge against him. Nevertheless the tragedy does have a happy and optimistic ending.

    Dreams are a significant motif in the first part of this tragedy. Their fleeting and ephemeral nature are similar to the satisfaction of revenge. The act is never as fulfilling as one expects it to be. Revenge never achieve the desired effect of justice or compensation for a past injury. Dreams also represent the transitory nature of life and the pleasures and sorrows of life.

    • The chorus recount how Menelaus dreamt of Helen. He bade the vision stay, but it would slip away.
    • The chorus laments the Greek men who they sent to war never to return. Ares, War’s money changer, gives dust for gold.
    • The unjust may seem to prosper for a long period of time, but eventually the Furies will come and smite his fate with stern reversal.
    • A herald enters the scene. He is grateful to the gods that he has reached his homeland of Argos and escaped the spear during the Trojan War. He says that Agamemnon, who led the Greeks to victory over the Trojans, is coming like light out of the darkness.
    • The chorus welcomes the herald, and tells him that they longed for him and the other soldiers to return as he longed for his homeland.
    • Death is sweet. Fate smiles at the end of every life; for no man is so blessed by heaven that his entire life is unbroken by misery. But the herald refuses to discuss past woes because the remnant of the Greek force has won glory that counterpoises all sorrows by defeating the Trojans.
    • Clytemnestra enters the scene. She chides the chorus for disbelieving her last night when she proclaimed that the Greeks had taken Troy. She states that the longs to welcome Agamemnon home, where he will find his wife as he left her, unstained by adultery or dishonor. She exits.
    • The herald believes that Clytemnestra has been faithful to her husband during his absence, but the chorus tells the herald that what Clytemnestra spoke is specious.
    • The herald tells the chorus that Menelaus was lost in a storm during their return over the seas. He thinks that Menelaus is dead, but does not know with certainty.
    • The chorus considers that Zeus may tarry but wrongs are inevitably avenged by him. Woes spring from wrongs, and fortune springs from rectitude.
    • The chorus wonders how they will welcome Agamemnon home; for unjust men smile with the joyous though they feel no happiness and weep for the lost though they feel no sadness. How can the chorus distinguish themselves from these actors?  Let time discover who is faithful to Agamemnon.
    • Agamemnon enters the scene with Cassandra. He thanks the gods who aided his enterprise. Then he reiterates the chorus’ sentiments about deceiving men. He says that few men can love their superiors, who enjoy prosperity and happiness, without envy. Few men do not begrudge others of happiness. Only Odysseus was loyal to Agamemnon. He says that he will medicine any ills that have befallen the country in his absence and ensure that which is well shall remain so. Now, he will enter his palace.

    “The touch of bitter death is manifold!”

    “Familiar was each face, and dear as life,

    That went unto the war,

    But thither, whence a warrior went of old,

    Doth nought return—

    Only a spear and sword, and ashes in an urn!

    For Ares, lord of strife,

    Who doth the swaying scales of battle hold,

    War’s money-changer, giving dust for gold,

    Sends back, to hearts that held them dear,

    Scant ash of warriors, wept with many a tear,

    Light to the hand, but heavy to the soul;

    Yea, fills the light urn full

    With what survived the flame—

    Death’s dusty measure of a hero’s frame!

    And worse and hatefuller our woes on land;

    For where we couched, close by the foeman’s wall,

    The river-plain was ever dank with dews,

    Dropped from the sky, exuded from the earth,

    A curse that clung unto our sodden garb,

    And hair as horrent as a wild beast’s fell.

    Why tell the woes of winter, when the birds

    Lay stark and stiff, so stern was Ida’s snow?

    Or summer’s scorch, what time the stirless wave

    Sank to its sleep beneath the noon-day sun?

    Why mourn old woes? their pain has passed away;

    And passed away, from those who fell, all care,

    For evermore, to rise and live again.

    Woe springs from wrong, the plant is like the seed—

    While Right, in honour’s house, doth its own likeness breed.

    For few are they who have such inborn grace,

    As to look up with love, and envy not,

    When stands another on the height of weal.

    Deep in his heart, whom jealousy hath seized,

    Her poison lurking doth enhance his load;

    For now beneath his proper woes he chafes,

    And sighs withal to see another’s weal.”

    The theme of revenge is continued in this part of the Agamemnon. The chorus reiterates that Revenge may tarry, but wrongs will inevitably be redressed. A wicked man may prosper for a long period of time, perhaps even for his entire life, but the Furies will plagues him or his offspring for his transgressions. On the other hand, those men who are just and live a righteous life will be rewarded. This is similar to the concept of Karma.

    The herald also reiterates the theme that life is full of suffering and woe. He claims that life is never entirely composed of prosperity and unbroken happiness, but almost entirely filled with toil and hardships. However, Fate finally smiles at the end of every man’s life in the form of death – an alleviation from the suffering which is life itself. Although this is a pessimistic interpretation of life, it can also be considered an optimistic perspective since every life eventually receives the quittance of itself.

    • Clytemnestra enters the scene followed by maidens carrying purple robes. She says that to be sundered from Agamemnon during the war was bitter woe, and to hear rumor bode ill for her husband was woe too. She prepared a noose several times to kill herself upon hearing these rumors, but someone would always wrench it from her.
    • She sent her and Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, to the Phocis King, Strophius, because her counselors advised her that it wasn’t safe for the heir to the throne to be in the country while there was a possibility of insurrection.
    • Clytemnestra states that she is as happy as a ship’s crew beholding land after losing all hope. She entreats her husband to walk upon the purple robes into the palace as a returning victor of war. She also promises to fulfill the ‘duties’ which remain as a wife.
    • Agamemnon declines to walk on the rich dyes. He considers such an act to be one of excessive pride and only worthy of honoring the gods. Agamemnon recognizes that he is only a man, and does not wish to anger the gods by displaying pride in spite of the gods’ superiority.
    • Clytemnestra asks if Agamemnon is meek because of fear. He responds that he is fearful of how others would construe the act. She then asks him to consider what Priam would have done in this situation. He responds that Priam would have walked on the robes. Then why fear the opinion of the crowd? The murmur of the crowd is mighty. Shrink not from envy, which is a consequence of bliss. War is not woman’s part, nor war of words. She finally convinces him to walk on the robes through persistence. Agamemnon essentially states “well, if you insist…”
    • He also asks Clytemnestra to lead Cassandra into the palace and treat her with kindness; for the gods look graciously on those who are merciful in the hour of triumph.
    • Exeunt all but Cassandra and the chorus. Cassandra prophesies pain and sorrow in the near future because things are too good now. The winds of Fate blow fair, swiftly we sail, the sooner to drive upon the hidden rock, the reef of woe. Once blood is shed it cannot be recalled again by charm or prayer.
    • Clytemnestra renters the scene and tells Cassandra to go inside the palace, and to consider herself blest that she bares the yoke of slavery in a house of ancient wealth and power where the master rules graciously and not cruelly as masters to whom wealth came beyond hope.
    • Cassandra remains in the chariot and does not heed Clytemnestra’s command. Clytemnestra thinks that Cassandra is either haughty or barbarian who is ignorant of the Greek language. She thinks that Cassandra is gripped by insanity because she has witnessed the ruin of her homeland. Clytemnestra exits, and orders the chorus to deal with her.
    •  Cassandra describes the visions of the future she receives. She wails that the House of Atreus is cursed because of the blood soaked hands of the ancient fathers of the House. She predicts that Clytemnestra will kill Agamemnon, and Orestes, the son who would prevent the crime is far away in a distant land unable to intervene. She describes the frantic splashing of Agamemnon in the bath tub while Clytemnestra smites him with an axe in his defenseless side. She also predicts her own murder at the hands of Clytemnestra.
    • The chorus does not precisely understand her utterances, but recognizes that it bodes sorrow and woe.
    • Cassandra tells the chorus how she deceived Apollo by promising to marry him in exchange for prophetic powers. Upon realizing her deceit, Apollo cursed her so that no one would believe her prophecies.
    • Cassandra foretells Orestes avenging his father’s death by murdering his mother. Cassandra ceases mourning for her own fate, considering that it must come to pass regardless of her protestations.

    “Call none blessed till peaceful death have crowned a life of weal.”

    “Mighty is the murmur of the crowd.”

    “Envy is a consequence of bliss.”

    “War is not woman’s part, nor war of words.”

    “The winds of Fate blow fair, swiftly we sail, the sooner to drive upon the hidden rock, the reef of woe.”

    “Blood of man once spilled, once at his feet shed forth, and darkening the plain – nor chant nor charm can call it back again.”

    “My soul is prophecy and flame.”

    “There is no avoidance in delay.”

    When Agamemnon returns to Argos, the chorus greets him with a warm welcome. But they are worried that their mirth is indistinguishable from the feigned joy of those who are Agamemnon’s enemies; for angels are still bright though the brightest fell. Agamemnon enhances this fear of the chorus by claiming that there are few men so gracious that they do not begrudge others’ happiness. Indeed one consequence of bliss and prosperity is the attraction of envy and spite from others.

    Another prevalent theme in this part of the tragedy is Fate. Cassandra can foresee the tragic events that will soon ensue. She initially laments her fate and the fate of the House of Atreus, but remembers that Fate is inexorable; and therefore she accepts her impending death, and ceases to mourn. This acceptance recalls Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati. Nietzsche believes that in order to obtain happiness, one must love one’s fate. An acceptance of the inevitable, regardless of the ghastly, appalling, and tragic nature of the future, is crucial for man to live well, and not be dragged down by despair and sorrow.

    • As Cassandra moves to enter the palace she withdraws because she smells the stench of blood. She asks the chorus to bear witness to her testimony. Then she enters the palace after stating that a life of misery is less pitiable than a life of prosperity because all will be wiped away; better to erase sorrow than to erase happiness.
    • The chorus sings that men are never content with bliss. The voice of Agamemnon is heard crying out that he is slain.
    • Clytemnestra enters the scene. The corpse of Agamemnon and Cassandra are in a silver bath tub. She does not deny that she killed them, but exults as if she had triumphed over an oppressor. She relishes the act of recounting the way she killed Agamemnon. She smote him three times, and as he lay dying, blood issued from his body and bedabbled her. To her, this rain of blood was more sweet than the rains of heaven on parched earth.
    • The chorus criticizes and curses Clytemnestra. She rebukes the chorus for cursing her and holding their peace when Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia. Clytemnestra says that she will not walk the palace halls in fear so long as the fire of love, her Aegisthus, dwells within. Aegisthus is faithful to her, unlike Agamemnon who was faithless while away at Troy. Thus she also killed Cassandra, the prophetess and harlot who was Agamemnon’s paramour.
    • The chorus describes Clytemnestra as a spider spinning a web which entangles and kills Agamemnon. Clytemnestra says that Agamemnon brought his death upon himself.
    • She peremptorily asserts that she will manage the funeral rites of Agamemnon and that no one will celebrate his obsequies within the palace.
    •  Aegisthus enters the scene and tells everyone that Agamemnon deserves his death because his father Atreus had fed his own brother’s children to his brother Thystes, who is Aegisthus father and grandfather, having sired Aegisthus with his own daughter.
    • The chorus rebukes Aegisthus, to which Aegisthus retorts that he will teach them to be obedient and deferential by imposing the prisoner’s chain and pangs of hunger upon them, which are both good teachers, even to the old. He explains that Clytemnestra performed the murder because Agamemnon’s suspicion of him would have prevented him from murdering him.
    • The chorus and Aegisthus stand ready to fight each other to the death. Clytemnestra intervenes between them. She states that there will be no more blood spilt, and urges cajoles Aegisthus, convincing him not to heed the insolent chorus, and to consider that she and he will rule Argos together. Exeunt all.

    “When a man is slain, I have no words to bring his life again.”

    “Death is a gentler lord than tyranny.”

    “And thus he fell, and as he passed away,

    Spirit with body chafed; each dying breath

    Flung from his breast swift bubbling jets of gore,

    And the dark sprinklings of the rain of blood

    Fell upon me; and I was fain to feel

    That dew—not sweeter is the rain of heaven

    To cornland, when the green sheath teems with grain.”

    “The slayer of today shall die tomorrow. The wage of wrong is woe.”

    Lady Macbeth and Clytemnestra are very similar. Both describe their potential to perform cruel deeds as contrary to their sex. They have effectively unsexed themselves, and donned the essence of savage cold-hearted killers. Also, they both seem to be capable manipulators, especially of their husbands, and in Clytemnestra’s case, her paramour too. Lady Macbeth strengthens Macbeth’s resolve to kill Duncan when he begins to have doubts. Clytemnestra cajoles Agamemnon to his death, and also assuages Aegisthus’ anger and resentment toward the chorus, thus avoiding more bloodshed and incurring the wrath of the gods and furies.

    There is justice in this world. Those who do wrong will be punished, or their children and posterity will be punished. In the end Justice prevails over Injustice. This is usually accomplished in the era of Agamemnon by violent and bloody revenge. Yet at the end of this trilogy a new system will replace the bloodshed, a system of unbiased judgment. This new process will end the ceaseless cycle of revenge, which the people of the ancient society desperately longed for. Clytemnestra believed that her deed had ended the cycle of revenge, but only an external force that is impartial to the parties involved can effectively end a feud, and only if the parties involved agree to yield their right to revenge to the judgment of the unbiased arbiters.

    Themes: Justice and Judgment, Fate and Free Will, Revenge, Wisdom and Knowledge, Family, Politics, Fear, Lies and Deceit, Gender, Memory and the Past.

    1. In Agamemnon, is there a difference between justice and revenge? If so, what is it? There is a difference between justice and revenge. Justice is what is right given a particular set of circumstances. Revenge is simply retaliation for a past injury. Revenge can be just in some circumstances, but not all. For example, it might be considered just for Clytemnestra to exact revenge upon Agamemnon because he killed their daughter. However, individuals will differ about whether an act of vengeance is right or wrong, but we may still conclude that some acts of vengeance are just while others are not.
    2. How is Agamemnon’s theme of “Justice and Judgment” related to that of “Wisdom and Knowledge”? The Justice and Judgment theme is related to the theme of Wisdom and Knowledge by the necessary link between the two. In order to gain wisdom and knowledge, according to the chorus, a man must suffer or gain wisdom by experience. Thu, man cannot obtain knowledge about justice unless one experiences it or suffers the punishment of one of their transgressions. Only then is a man capable of understanding justice.
    3. Many characters in the play say that Zeus and the other gods are in charge of justice. But if Zeus is in charge of absolutely everything, doesn’t that make him the cause of injustice as well? How can we resolve this contradiction? Is it possible? If Zeus is in charge of everything, then he is the cause of injustice as well as justice. However, the ancient Greeks and others might think that there is no injustice in the world because wrongs will inevitably be redressed. Thus, there is only justice, and the events and actions which men perceive as unjust are merely links in a chain of justice yet to be entirely fashioned. The death of Cassandra is sanctioned by the gods and also unjust. She was brought to Argos against her will. She was a slave of Agamemnon and had not lied with him of her own volition. She did not seduce Agamemnon into having sex with her, and therefore should not have been accountable for the affair, which is the primary motive behind Clytemnestra’s decision to kill her too.
    4. Who is the most unjust character in Agamemnon? According to modern values and morals, the most unjust character in Agamemnon is Agamemnon. He decided to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of war. He chose the glory of his people, and his brother’s desire for revenge upon Paris for stealing his wife, over his own daughter. However, from an ancient Greek perspective, although they do not consider Agamemnon’s decision one of a particularly admirable character, they are aware of the difficult situation in which Agamemnon found himself. The glory of war and necessity to exact revenge were powerful motivating forces at that time, and Agamemnon’s decision is more understandable from an ancient Greek’s perspective than ours. Having considered that, I believe the Greeks would have thought Clytemnestra was the most unjust character. She is a woman, and therefore aroused anger and resentment simply for that fact. The ancient Greeks seemed to be a very misogynistic culture. Furthermore, because the audience members were all men, they likely would have felt a sense of fear and anxiety when considering that their wives might be capable of something similar.
    1. Does Agamemnon portray fate and free will as complete opposites, or is there some wiggle-room between the two ideas? Aeschylus portrays characters in Agamemnon as possessing free will, but their life is ultimately governed by Fate. For example, Fate has ordained that Agamemnon will suffer because of his ancestors’ past transgressions. He has the free will to choose to sacrifice his daughter or abandon the Trojan War, but regardless of his decision he will ultimately suffer. If he had chosen to abandon the Trojan War, perhaps he would have been tortured and killed by his brother and the Greek troops. Furthermore, because there was no Just decision in this situation given the values and morals of ancient Greece, the decision not to sacrifice his daughter does not retain the sense of dignity and righteousness that it would have possessed in our society.
    2. Does Agamemnon have a choice when he sacrifices Iphigenia at Aulis? He can choose to abandon the Trojan war rather than sacrifice his daughter, but there are powerful motivations working against this decision. One motivation is the glory to be attained in the proceeding war, glory being highest value and virtue of ancient Greek society. Another motivation is to revenge the offense done to his brother. Men were considered superior to women in ancient Greek society, so I do not believe it is too farfetched to conclude that the relationship between brothers was stronger than the relationship between father and daughter. Lastly, Agamemnon and his family were fated to suffer. His decision to sacrifice his daughter smoothly leads to the ensuing misery and chaos which Aeschylus portrays in this trilogy. Fate seems to prefer the path of least resistance to achieving its aim, just like humans.
    3. According to Agamemnon, does knowing the future provide any sort of advantage? Does it provide a disadvantage? Does it matter at all? Knowing the future does not provide any sort of advantage, but rather provides a disadvantage. The chorus sings that to know the future is to know the suffering and misery that awaits us, foreknowledge is fore-sorrow. Cassandra does not benefit from her prophetic visions, but rather laments her fate until she accepts that it is inevitable, and that she should face it with courage.
    4. If Agamemnon did not have free choice over his actions, is it fair for him to be punished? If Agamemnon does not have free will, then it is still fair to punish him. I always like to use the decision to euthanize dogs that have exhibited violent tendencies, which is analogous to any situation that considers the justice of punishment in a situation where the actor clearly has no free will. We euthanize dangerous dogs simply because they are dangerous and will likely behave violently in the future, not because the dog has free will or the capacity to understand that biting humans and other animals is wrong. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, even if we presume that Agamemnon was compelled to sacrifice his daughter, Clytemnestra can eliminate future situations in which Agamemnon may be forced to sacrifice his daughter again.
    1. According to Aeschylus’s play, is revenge an effective way of solving problems? If the problem is one of an unrelenting desire to inflict pain upon someone who has wronged you, then revenge is an effective way of obtaining that aim. However, for one’s own sense of happiness and well-being, revenge is not conducive. Taking revenge upon someone may satisfy some intense need to cause pain to that other individual, but the satisfaction will fade and the avenger will be left to deal with the consequences of revenge, and the consequences are often adverse to the avenger. Someone will likely desire to exact revenge upon the original avenger because of their relationship with the original offender. Revenge is predisposed to engender a ceaseless cycle of revenge. Revenge begets revenge. There is no foreseeable end to a cycle of revenge unless some other process is used to allay the hatred, resentment, and vindictiveness of the injured parties.
    2. Whose reason for getting revenge on Agamemnon makes more sense, that of Clytemnestra, or that of Aegisthus? Clytemnestra seeks revenge on Agamemnon because he killed their daughter. Aegisthus desires revenge because Agamemnon’s father killed the children of Aegisthus’ father and fed their entrails to Aegisthus’ father. Agamemnon’s father certainly performed a more heinous deed than Agamemnon, in my opinion, but that act was performed by Agamemnon’s father Atreus, not Agamemnon. Furthermore, Atreus wronged Aegisthus’ father, not Aegisthus. Thus, Aegisthus’ desire for revenge is based upon indirect harms and relationships rather than some direct act of ill will and injury toward Aegisthus. On the other hand, Agamemnon is responsible for the death of Clytemnestra’s daughter. Therefore, Clytemnestra’s reason for revenge is more reasonable than Aegisthus’.
    3. Does Aeschylus’s play portray revenge as ever justified? Aeschylus does portray revenge as justified in some circumstances. For example, in an apostrophe to Orestes, the chorus beseeches him to return to Argos and avenge his father’s death on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Aeschylus also portrays the gods as vindictive, which is very interesting. Apollo curses Cassandra so that no one will believe her prophecies because she reneged on her promise to marry him. One interpretation is that revenge is the correct way to administer justice. Another interpretation is that divine intervention and guidance is required to administer justice. And yet another interpretation is that Reason, which Apollo represents, must govern right and wrong rather than unrestrained emotion. However, this final interpretation is not convincing considering that Apollo was enraged at being spurned by Cassandra.
    4. Is there a difference between justice and revenge? If so, what is it? There is a difference between justice and revenge. Justice is an activity, sequence of events, or punishment that is right given the circumstances. Revenge is merely retaliation for a past injury. Revenge can be just or unjust depending upon the circumstances. However, individuals will always differ about whether a punishment or action is just because of the different moral and values individuals possess. For example, one may believe that Clytemnestra’s act of revenge is justified because Agamemnon killed her daughter, an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice, while others may conclude that her revenge was unjust because murder is never justified regardless of the situation.
    1. It is clear that the theme of “suffer and learn,” as the Chorus puts it in line 177, is central to this play. But what does “learn” mean in this context? Do we have to suffer to learn all things, or only some things? What does Aeschylus’s play tell us about these matters? I believe that ‘learn’ means to acquire wisdom, not knowledge. I believe that wisdom and knowledge are different. Wisdom is an understanding of reality and justice while knowledge is the mere acquiring of facts. For example, one may have knowledge that the Trojan War was fought at Troy a very long time ago. However, to obtain wisdom about the nature of the war, the causes of the war, one must have suffered through it or experienced it. I do believe that in order to truly learn something, in other words, in order to truly obtain wisdom, one must suffer or experience the thing itself. In order to learn what Justice is, one must experience Justice. Experience is closely associated with suffering because the ancient Greeks regarded experience and life itself as suffering. Aeschylus’ play reinforces this argument many times.
    2. The god Apollo has cursed Cassandra so that she can prophesy but will not be believed. And yet, the Chorus tells her that they believe her prophecy. Does this contradict the idea of Apollo’s curse, or does it fit in with it somehow? If it does fit in, how? I believe that Apollo meant to curse Cassandra so that regardless of her prophetic visions, no one would be able to take measures to prevent her prophesies from coming true. For example, she tried to convince the Trojans that the wooden horse concealed within itself Greek soldiers that would sack Troy and raze it to the ground. The Trojans did not believe her, and thus sealed their own doom. However, whether people believe Cassandra’s prophecies should have no effect on the fulfillment of those prophecies. Otherwise the visions would not be visions of the future, but mere fears and apprehensions about future possibilities.
    1. How would Agamemnon be different if its acts of murder and revenge had been committed by unrelated people, instead of members of the same family? Would the play even still make sense? The play would not have the same pathos. The acts of revenge and murder would not arouse the same pity and fear. There is another theme that is prevalent in Greek Tragedy and has particular relevance to this question; the theme is philos-aphilos, which roughly means hate in love. The most intense hatred often springs from the most intense love. If Clytemnestra was not related to Iphigenia, then she would not feel the same sorrow, anger, and resentment upon hearing of her death. Clytemnestra’s intense love for Iphigenia is replaced with an intense loathing for Agamemnon. The play would not make sense if Clytemnestra mourned the loss of an unrelated girl so much that she committed murder to avenge the dead girl.
    2. Clytemnestra appears to care deeply about her children; thus, her main motivation for killing Agamemnon appears to be because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. If this is true, why did Clytemnestra banish their son Orestes? Clytemnestra banished Orestes because she feared that he would avenge his father’s death. Furthermore, Orestes posed a threat to Aegisthus because he is the rightful heir to Agamemnon. The people of Argos would naturally support Orestes as the new king and not Aegisthus. Because Clytemnestra believes Orestes would be hostile to her, she rightly judges that the best decision is to banish him. Now she can wield power as a queen of Aegisthus whereas she would live in fear for her life if Orestes was king.
    3. Atreus kills Thyestes’s children because of what Thyestes did. Aegisthus is pleased with the death of Agamemnon because of what his father Atreus did. Based on the play, do you think Aeschylus considers it just to punish a child for its parent’s crimes? Based on this play, I think that Aeschylus considers it just to punish a child for its parent’s crimes. I interpret the chorus as a mouthpiece for Aeschylus to comment upon the action of the play. Many times the chorus sings that woe is the consequence of wrong. They also sing that though a bad man may escape justice in this world, justice will rectify his transgressions by punishing his posterity.
    4. If Agamemnon is guilty because his father was guilty, why does his brother Menelaus get off scot free? What does the fate of Menelaus say about the possibility that injustice is passed on from generation to generation? According to my recollection, Menelaus does not ‘get off scot free’. For one his wife was stolen from him. The resulting shame must have been unbearable. Furthermore, the herald states that Menelaus was lost in a tempest during the return voyage from Troy. I know that Menelaus did not die in the Tempest, and eventually returned to Sparta safely with Helen, but his life was certainly not one unbroken by misery and shame. But for the sake of argument, I will assume that Menelaus does ‘get off scot free’. Menelaus avoided the sorrow that accompanied the curse of his family because he was a righteous man who followed the path of justice. [But Agamemnon could have been a righteous man as well if he did not find himself in a situation which constrained him to act unjust].
    1.  Where does Aeschylus see political power as coming from: from the gods or from human beings? Aeschylus thinks political power is bestowed by the gods. The chorus sings that all things come to pass according to the will of Zeus. Kings ascend to the throne according to Zeus’ will. On the other hand, Aeschylus also presents arguments which advocate that political power comes from human beings. For example, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus seize the throne through their own will, not that of the gods though Aegisthus praises the gods as just upon discovering that Clytemnestra has slain Agamemnon. Furthermore, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra do not obtain the consent of the people to be ruled by them; and therefore Aeschylus implies that a revolt is imminent. Nevertheless the influence of the gods and fate is always just beneath the surface of human history. The revolt may be ordained by fate.
    2. The internal debate between the Chorus members after they hear Agamemnon’s death cries mimics the Athenian democratic assembly. What does Aeschylus see as the advantages and disadvantages of democracy? Aeschylus believes the advantages of democracy include allowing time for calm deliberation about the proper course of action to follow. Without this cooling off period, rash and bloody actions would likely ensue, which creates the undesirable cycle of revenge. One of the disadvantages of democracy is that the time used to deliberate upon the correct plan allows the society’s adversaries to fulfill their antagonistic aim. For example, the chorus considers the various actions they should take upon hearing Agamemnon in his death throes while Clytemnestra and Aegisthus secure their power and ensure Agamemnon and his friends cannot immediately retaliate.
    3. In Aeschylus’s view, who has more power, rulers or their subjects? Aeschylus’ opinion is ambiguous. There are instances in the play during which the rulers exhibit more power than the subjects and vice-versa. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus threaten imprisonment and hunger against the chorus that is impotent in the face of their power. Conversely, the will of Agamemnon’s subjects compel him to sacrifice Iphigenia at Aulis. In this instance, the ruler is compelled to action by the more powerful subjects.
    4. What does Aeschylus portray as the relationship between the family and the state? The relationship between the family and state is very complicated. Agamemnon sacrifices his family for the sake of the state when he sacrifices his daughter so that the Grecian fleet can sail to Troy. Clytemnestra banishes her son in order to retain political power. She also sacrifices the peace and weal of the State when she kills Agamemnon to satisfy her desire for revenge. In sum, the family is sometimes sacrificed for the good of the state and vice-versa.
    1. Who is the most fearful character in Agamemnon? The most fearful character in the play is Agamemnon. He is fearful of the opinion of his troops while at Aulis, so he gives into their will and sacrifices his daughter. He is fearful that the people of Argos will speak ill of him if he walks into the palace on the purple robes that Clytemnestra has laid before him. He is fearful that the gods will disapprove of him walking on the robes and consider it an act of hubris in defiance of the superiority of the gods.
    2. In the play, do characters most often fear for themselves or on behalf of others? Characters most often fear for themselves. Agamemnon’s fears are enumerated above and all are based upon fear for his honor and health. Clytemnestra fears for her life and political power because of the threat her son Orestes poses. Aegisthus fears for the opinions other hold of him and also his political power because of the threats made by the chorus. Cassandra fears for her life because she foresees her impending doom. The chorus fears for the safety of themselves and society because they believe that the House of Atreus is cursed and will bring ruin upon everyone in their proximity. Furthermore, they believe that life is full of suffering and misery and that a man who is happy should be the most fearful because death will come to all, and to lose a life of happiness is worse than to lose a life of suffering.
    3. In their big debate scene, who is more fearful, Cassandra or the Chorus? The chorus is more fearful than Cassandra during the debate between the two. Initially Cassandra fears for her life, but when she realizes that fate is inexorable, she accepts her fate and faces it with courage. On the other hand, the chorus continues to lament the miserable fate of themselves, everyone in the play, and humanity itself. They seem to long for a different way of life or order of the universe, but are quick to praise Zeus as just – and therefore all sorrow which befalls mankind is just – lest Zeus become infuriated and strike them with more affliction than was allotted to them.
    4. To what degree does Aeschylus’s play portray fear as inhibiting action? The play portrays fear as inhibiting action to a significant degree. Cassandra initially is so fearful of her impending doom that she can do nothing but stand and prophesy the fate of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and herself. She cannot bring herself to confront her fate by walking into the palace. Clytemnestra commands Cassandra to follow her within the palace, but she remains in the cart of war, paralyzed. Only when Cassandra overcomes her fear is she able to enter the palace and face her death.
    1. Which does Aeschylus portray as more dangerous: self-deception or being deceived by others? This question is nonsensical. There is no instance of self-deception in the play. All instances of deception are those in which a person deceives another: Agamemnon deceives his daughter to believe that she must come to Aulis to marry Achilles, Clytemnestra deceives Agamemnon to believe that she loves him, and Clytemnestra deceives the chorus to believe that she will welcome Agamemnon home as a loving wife, not kill him.
    2. Why does Agamemnon let himself be deceived by Clytemnestra? Agamemnon does not necessarily let himself be deceived by Clytemnestra. She is a very capable manipulator. However, he does yield to her demands to walk on the purple robes because there likely is some sense of pride in what he accomplished at Troy and a desire to be acknowledged for his greatness.
    3. Does Aeschylus’s play portray deception as ever justified? It certainly does if one considers that Clytemnestra was justified in killing Agamemnon to avenge her daughter’s death.
    4. Why does Aeschylus draw a connection between people’s unjust behavior and their inclination towards self-deception? Here is that self-deception term again. Who committed self-deception? Perhaps the questioner believes that Clytemnestra’s act of feigning love toward Agamemnon was an act of self-deception. In that case, one’s inclination to self-deception has a direct correlation to unjust behavior, if one considers the murder of Agamemnon to be unjust. These moral value questions are very frustrating because they assume that an act is just or unjust, and also presume that people can come to a unanimous consent regarding the nature of justice.
    1. Overall, does the play’s depiction of Clytemnestra question or reinforce gender stereotypes? The ancient Greeks considered women to be very untrustworthy, irrational, and prone to make factual mistakes. With this in mind, the play’s portrayal of Clytemnestra both challenges and reinforces the gender stereotypes of ancient Greece. Clytemnestra proves untrustworthy when she murders her own husband. Furthermore, individuals who believe she was unjustified in murdering Agamemnon to avenge Iphigenia’s death would also conclude that she is irrational. On the other hand, those who believe the murder was justified would conclude that the gender stereotype is refuted by Clytemnestra’s rational and just act, having premeditated it for ten years. Lastly, Clytemnestra is not prone to make factual mistakes. When the beacon reached Argos, signaling the fall of Troy, she correctly determined that the war was over and that the victors would return very soon.
    2. Who violates gender stereotypes more, Clytemnestra or Aegisthus? The ancient Greeks considered men to be courageous, strong, and violent. With this and the preceding analysis of Clytemnestra in mind, Aegisthus violates the accepted gender stereotypes more than Clytemnestra. Aegisthus is not courageous, for he did not fight in the war but hid himself while the other men set sail for Troy. Furthermore, he allowed Clytemnestra to kill Agamemnon rather than do the deed himself. He does, however, threaten violence against the chorus at the end of the play, but his wrath is stayed by the counsel of Clytemnestra, who rules him to let the chorus taunt them because they pose no threat to their lives and power. To be controlled and influenced by a woman reinforces the argument that Aegisthus violates the male gender role. [This also reinforces the opinion that Clytemnestra violates traditional gender roles because she is portrayed as a political leader capable of quelling petty instances of revolt. Thus, the answer as to who violates gender roles more is entirely arbitrary.]
    3. Why does the Chorus consider it especially bad to be ruled by a woman? The chorus considers it especially bad to be ruled by women because women are untrustworthy and weak. Both of these qualities are undesirable in a leader. Untrustworthy leaders are often motivated by self-interest rather than the good of the state. Furthermore, weak leaders are incapable of defending a city from foreign attack or quashing rebellions and maintaining civil peace.
    4. What does Agamemnon’s behavior say about his attitude towards women? Agamemnon considers women as means to obtain an end. He uses his daughter in order to appease the gods and gain favorable winds so that he can sail to Troy and win glory by defeating the Trojans. He considers Cassandra to be a prize of war that illustrates in physical form his glory obtained during the war. She serves as a reminder to everyone that Agamemnon conquered Troy. He does not consider women to be capable of anything, they are merely objects that can be used to obtain an end; and therefore, he does not foresee the danger posed by Clytemnestra.
    1. Why did Aeschylus choose to leave so many important elements of his story (such as the crime of Atreus and the sacrifice of Iphigenia) in flashback? He chose to leave these important elements of the story in flashbacks for the sake of unity of time, which is one of the rules outlined by Aristotle for a good drama in his Poetics. If I were to answer this in an abstract manner and assume that Aeschylus had a choice to present these moments on stage rather than in flashback, then I would answer that he made this decision to demonstrate that the past influences the present. Just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean that it is forgotten, or cannot have an effect on the present actions of people. History looms over our shoulders and whispers in our ears, guiding us through the unknown waters of the future.
    2. What does it say about human memory that it takes a prophet (Cassandra) to look into the past as well as into the future? That Cassandra, a prophetess, is the character who looks into the past proves that the memory of mankind is very selective. The past woes and afflictions are often deliberately forgotten, and for good reason. No one wishes to brood upon past ills and wrongs because it is painful to do so. However, Clytemnestra was engrossed with thoughts of revenge for nearly 10 years. This proves wither that mankind can withstand a tremendous amount of pain for a long period of time, or that mankind finds some relish of pleasure in pain and contemplation of misery and suffering.
    3. How does the theme of “Memory and the Past” relate to the themes of Revenge and Justice? Memory and the past are necessary to make sense of revenge and justice. Without the past, and the remembrance of it, there would be no vindictiveness. Justice therefore also is inextricably connected to memory and the past. Justice is dependent upon the past. Without the past, there are no events, values, or actions to which we can compare the deeds and values of the present in order to determine the justness of a particular thing.
    4. Many characters in the play seem to be living in the past. Are there any characters who seem eager to forget the past? If so, why? Agamemnon is eager to forget the past, especially the moment when he sacrificed his daughter. Perhaps this is an act of self-deception. He deceives himself into forgetting that he ever sacrificed his daughter; and therefore can foresee no reason that his wife Clytemnestra would not warmly welcome him home rather than slaughter him in a bath tub.

    The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides

    10 thoughts on “AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon”

    1. I seldom write responses, however i did a few searching and wound up here AESCHYLUS:
      Agamemnon | Great Books of the Western World. And I actually do have a few questions
      for you if you do not mind. Is it just me or does it seem like some of the comments look like
      they are left by brain dead visitors? 😛 And,
      if you are writing at other online sites, I would like to keep up with everything new you have to post.
      Would you make a list of every one of all
      your social pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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