Aeschylus' Agamemnon

Oesteia poster in Syracuse 2008Themes, plot and chorus


Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides) is Total Theatre using every resource open to the producer - language, metaphor, symbolism, verse, music, dance, gesture, costume, grouping, movement, scenery, visual effects, lighting.



[The golden mask of Agamemnon]Human action in its most violent and problematic aspects - lust for power and the violence that accompanies it; clash between male and female dominance; crime and punishment; emotion v. reason; tribalism v. democracy; pollution and purification. All are intensified because they occur within the family (oikos), ONE oikos ...

The Agamemnon

What to look out for as you read:

The watchman in AgamemnonWatchman
The theatrical effect of darkness becoming light, but perversion of the normal symbolism where light = joy (cf Antigone). Hints of trouble - the woman who thinks like a man. A warning that what is said isn't always what is meant.

Chorus 1
Origins of the Trojan War. Agamemnon and Menelaus = eagles robbed of their young, whom the gods avenge. Zeus is protector of sacred guest-host relationship (xenia). Paris's crime is to offend against xenia (not the rape of Helen in itself). Greek departure - eagles devour pregnant hare (i.e. Agamemnon and his men will brutally destroy innocent lives in Troy). Artemis therefore will try to stop the expedition. Decision is Agamemnon's - to fight or not to fight. If he wants to fight, he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. He is not compelled to do so, but "slipped his neck in the strap of fate." Why? The chorus disapprove of his decision, and describe the sacrifice in sickening detail, as a murder repugnant to any normal human being. Agamemnon's feelings are perverted from the norm, as are those of all the characters in the trilogy (esp Atreus, Thyestes, Clytemnestra, Orestes). The sacrifice is not only morally wrong, but futile: the sacrificer becomes the victim. Agamemnon is killed by Clytemnestra who is killed by Orestes. A more detailed analysis of the First Chorus is available here.

Clytemnestra Syracuse 2008Clytemnestra & Chorus
The beacons - Clytemnestra's early-warning system (why does she need it?). Evidence of her male-type planning ability. Note her sympathy for the victims of Greeks in Troy ( victims as her daughter Iphigeneia was). Note the irony of her wishes - she wants A.gamemnon home, so that she can kill him.

Chorus 2
Double meanings - Paris caused the destruction of his city - but much of this could apply to Agamemnon as well. Zeus destroyed Paris and Troy: are Agamemnon and Argos next?

The Herald
News of brutalities and inhuman behaviour by Greek conquerors: gods have punished the Greeks by shipwreck, but saved Agamemnon's ship. (Why?). Clytemnestra changes to femininity to "welcome" her husband: note ambiguities of her speech "just as the day he left her" / "dyeing bronze". Again we are reminded not to be satisfied with appearances.

Chorus 3
No 'conquering hero' songs - sinister implications of Helen's name (Greek root hel- means 'destroy'). Helenan - helenaus - helandros - heleptolis. Lion-cub: Chorus mean Paris, but we can see it is Agamemnon (or Aegisthus, or even Orestes?). 'Violence longs to breed' - reminds us of the doctrine of Chorus 1 - 'we suffer and we learn' (pathos-mathos) (p.111 - all page references are to Fagles' translation); 'from the gods there comes a violent love' (p109).

Agamemnon's entry
No flattery from chorus, who warn him of danger. Agamemnon's speech - 'dull and sententious' - confirms our fears about the treatment of Troy. Clytemnestra's crawling reply. 'Crimson tapestry' scene: note brilliant theatrical effect of 'river of blood' apparently flowing out of the palace (from Thyestes' children, Iphigeneia - soon to be joined by his own, Cassandra's and then Aegisthus' and Clytemnestra's). Agamemnon reveals his weakness, but she isn't persuading him to do anything he doesn't want to do. (Just as when he was persuaded to sacrifice Iphigeneia). Clytemnestra emerges as dominant (as if 'male' over 'female' Agamemnon!). Persuasion daughter of Ruin (in Greek Peitho daughter of Ate). But will Clytemnestra escape the sea (of blood) herself?

Chorus 4
Fear, foreboding, hopelessness, confusion

Cassandra Syracuse 2008Cassandra
Silent - until Clytemnestra gives up trying to communicate. Why? She is to be a sheep for sacrifice (like Agamemnon). But she can speak Greek: she is the prophetess who sees the past, present and future as one. Chorus can't understand. Themes - her own suffering at Apollo's hand; Thyestes' feast; Thyestes' adultery with Atreus' wife, Aerope; Aegisthus' adultery with Clytemnestra. She also sees Agamemnon's murder - worst crime of all is to kill the kyrios (like Oedipus) - but chorus just can't grasp that a woman can kill a king. Our sympathy begins to turn away from Clytemnestra towards Agamemnon: note Cassandra doesn't mention Iphigeneia. Clytemnestra's deed is a total inversion of all natural relationships: is her true motive for murder not that he killed Iphigeneia, not that she loves Aegisthus, not that she is jealous of Cassandra, but that she is jealous of Agamemnon and his status as a man? (lines 1384ff)

The murder
Note the almost comic helplessness of the chorus - this is so unnatural it can't be happening! Dramatic effect of having them speak as individuals (only time).

Clytemnestra's triumph
Note the 'brilliant, if sickening metaphor' (spring rains).

Final scenes
Horror of the chorus, and their failure to believe a woman capable of what she has done - undermining any remaining sympathy for her and Aegisthus. Wife killing kyrios is worse than Agamemnon's killing of Iphigeneia. Clytemnestra, who has controlled all the action up to now ('like a brilliant producer or stage-manager') now naïvely thinks they can all live happily ever after. But she is polluted, say the chorus (1426ff) - and for the first time in the play they know more than she does.

Continue to next page? Discussion of Agamemnon's guilt. Was he responsible for what he did and what was done to him?