“Agamemnon” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

I beg the gods; release me from these sufferings …

Agamemnon is the first of the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus known as The Oresteia: it is the only trilogy of Athenian drama that has survived in its entirety, and, if only for that reason, appears to have a grander and wider scope than most of the other surviving plays. It begins (as, interestingly, does Hamlet, another mighty tragic drama that addresses the theme of revenge) with a soldier keeping watch at night upon the battlements. And (again, as in Hamlet) the soldier’s opening line introduces a motif that runs through the rest of the work. In Shakespeare’s play, this opening line is a seemingly innocuous “Who’s there?” – an appropriate opening for a play in which we find the protagonist wrestling with who and what he is. Here, we are introduced in the first line to several themes. There is, firstly, the suffering – although, comparing different translations, the Greek word that is rendered by Ewans as “suffering” possibly has no exact equivalent in English: Fagles translates it as “pain”, Lattimore as “weariness”, Lloyd-Jones as “toil”, etc.; and in the translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, the word, whatever it is, is simply replaced with the pronoun “it”, so the play begins with a startlingly simple “Gods, when will it end?” I am in no position to judge which is best, but since it is Ewans’ translation I have been reading, let us stick with that. We have here the theme of human suffering – or of something, at least, that we humans may wish would end. There is also the desire for release. And finally, there is the reference to the gods, to some sort of divinities who, presumably, have the power to grant that release.

The watchman’s opening speech is only some forty or so lines long, but it more than sets the scene for what is to come: it introduces some of the main themes and motifs, and, more importantly, I think, it sets the emotional temperature of what we are about to witness; and also, it seems, it sets a pattern that is repeated throughout, both in this play, and in the two other plays of this trilogy: an anxious hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, a profound apprehension. The watchman here is anxiously awaiting news that Troy is taken, and that the ten-year war is finally at an end; the news comes, with, quite literally, a flash of light; but the watchman’s joy is cut short almost immediately by a fear of what is to come next. The joy is never more than merely temporary – a point we should, I think, always bear in mind, even at the triumphant torchlit celebration with which the trilogy ends. But let us not anticipate.

We are in Argos, at the palace of Agamemnon, leader of the allied Greek troops that has been fighting in Troy for ten years. All is not well. As we find out later, there is much unrest at home occasioned by the war fought abroad; and the suffering is not restricted to the soldiers who were sent to Troy:

… and all through Greece a woman waits at home

with patient sorrow in her heart

for each of those who went to Troy.

Many things touch their feelings:

each one knows the person she sent out;

instead of him

a pot of ashes comes back home.

The end of this war, the news of victory, should indeed be a cause of rejoicing, but the rejoicing of the watchman is cut short for reasons that he, rather ominously, refuses to tell us:

I’ll say no more; upon my tongue

a great ox sits. The house itself, could it take voice,

would tell most clearly. I prefer to speak only for those

who’ll understand; to those who don’t, I haven’t said a word.

Only now does the chorus enter – a chorus of the elders of Argos, who had deemed too old and too decrepit to travel to Troy to fight. And there follows a chorus of some 220 lines – the longest in any of the existing Greek plays. This may, to the modern audience (or to the modern reader), seem undramatic: who, after all, wants to start a play with a long narration? Show, not tell, as any creative writing course will tell us. But if it does seem undramatic to us, that is, presumably, a measure of the extent to which our conception of drama differs from that of the ancient Greeks. Aeschylus obviously deemed it important, and it deserves close attention.

Much of this chorus (consisting of a long introductory section followed by six pairs of strophes and antistrophes, with the first of these pairs rounded off with an epode), is indeed narrative, but the narration embeds many symbols and images that we must bear in mind if the rest of the play is to make its proper impact. 

The long introductory passage of this chorus tells of the Zeus sending out Agamemnon and his brother Menelaos to avenge the outrage committed by the Trojan prince Paris: he had abducted Helen, wife of Menelaos, and this is a crime for the gods themselves demand retribution. But the image describing this is a curious one: the Greeks, wronged by Paris, are compared to vultures who have lost their chicks, and, with them, “the toil of nurturing their young”. And it is on hearing these vultures’ lament that the gods send out Agamemnon and Menelaos, as instruments of divine justice. But, at the same time, Agamemnon and Menelaos have agency as well: they and their men cry out “with all their hearts for mighty War”. The avenging armies are, simultaneously, both instruments of divine will, and also free, autonomous agents. Aeschylus isn’t much interested here in choosing between the two: he insists on both.

The chorus now turns its attention to Klytaimnestra, sister of Helen and wife of Agamemnon, asking her what news she has received from Troy. Since the Greek dramas have come to us with no stage directions, directors (and translators) must provide their own. In some versions, as the chorus asks these questions of their queen, she comes out and, in silence, offers sacrifices to the sacred fire; in others (as in Ewans’ translation), the questions are directed towards the palace, but its doors remain shut, and no answer is given. Either, I think, can be theatrically effective.

Now the sequence of six strophes and antistrophes begins. In the first pair (which is followed by an epode), we are told of an omen that had appeared: two eagles had been seen swooping down and devouring a pregnant hare. The priest Kalchas interprets: the eagles are obviously Agamemnon and Menalaos, and the hare is Troy. However, the omens are “part good for us, part bad”: the hare had been pregnant, and the unborn are devoured too. And in the course of this narration, a refrain develops:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail.

The next pair of strophe and antistrophe, somewhat surprisingly, interrupts the narration with a meditation on the nature of Zeus: “… there’s nothing to refer to except Zeus”. Zeus is all there is, and all that is is Zeus. Zeus, we are reminded, had overcome his own father,

The one who once was great

and bursting with never-conquered might.

But that never-conquered might has now been conquered, and the conqueror, Zeus, is omnipotent: he is all that is. We need to remember this in what follows: Aeschylus would hardly have placed this seeming diversion at this point had he intended otherwise.

The second antistrophe runs into the third strophe mid-sentence, and continues the meditation on the nature of Zeus, who has ordained that “men learn from experience”. Ewans, in a footnote here, says that the original words, “pathei mathos”, literally means “learn from experience”, and that the traditional rendition of these words as “learn by suffering” is a mistranslation “with full Christian (and Wagnerian) overtones of redemption through repentance”. I have, however, also seen criticisms of Ewans’ criticism, claiming that Ewans makes too much of this, and that, given the lack of exact correspondence between Greek words and English, “learn by suffering” is not a mistranslation. As ever in these matters, I will leave the scholars to argue this one out (I have no choice really!), but will note that anything with Christian overtones is, perhaps, best avoided here, as the view Aeschylus gives of the nature of divinity is very far from Christian theology.

But no matter how we learn, whether from suffering or from experience, the pain is not dispelled:

But still, in sleep the pain

of memory drips down inside the heart; the calm

of reason comes even to those who do not want it.

I think the favour of the gods who sit on sacred thrones

are gifts that hurt.

The third antistrophe returns to the narrative. Agamemnon and Menelaos are the instruments of divine will, and the gods will grant them victory, but it is a gift that hurts: to achieve this victory, Agamemnon will have to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. The eagles had devoured also the innocent unborn: in order to revenge the crime of Paris, the innocents of Troy must also be put to the sword. And Artemis, who “hates the eagle’s feast”, demands that if the Greeks are to spill the innocent blood of Troy, they must first spill innocent blood of their own.

How much choice Agamemnon has in this matter is not clear. He is, after all, both the instrument of divine justice, and also an autonomous agent. And in this perplexing paradox lies the horror: to avenge a crime, Agamemnon must himself commit a crime; and he is both not responsible for it, and responsible for it, at the same time.

We may wish to put this down to civil war between the gods – of Artemis rebelling against the will of Zeus; but that is too easy an answer. Aeschylus had gone out of his way to tell us, just a few lines earlier, that Zeus is all there is. Zeus could easily have overruled Artemis, but he hadn’t. This is the collective divine will: Agamemnon must revenge the crime of Paris, and, in so doing, must himself be guilty of a monstrous crime. He is caught in an infernal machine from which there is escape. He may learn through experience: this ability to learn is the gods’ gift. But it is a gift that hurts.

The narrative continues, but all hint of triumph or glory is now lost: the chorus tells of the sacrifice, of how Iphigenia was led to the altar “with a bridle to silence her”, how she was lifted up “like a goat, with her head inclined”. But they stop short of the point where she has her throat slit by her own father: it is too horrible even to narrate.

What happened after that I did not see, nor will I speak of it.

And only now does Klytaimnestra make her long delayed first entrance (at least, her first speaking entrance).

The chorus’ narration should not, I think, be taken merely as exposition: if seen as such, it would appear merely cumbersome. But if it is seen as a drama in its own right, then the effect is electric. As in The Persians, the drama we see on stage is not that of the events being narrated, but of the people on stage – in this instance, the chorus of old men – trying to understand the significance of these events, trying to understand what these events tell us about the gods, about the nature of human free will, and the nature of divine will. And what they understand brings little comfort.

Klytaimnestra has news. Troy has fallen, and their absent king will now return. In a long speech, she describes how the news had travelled so quickly. She had arranged for a series of beacons, from mountain-top to mountain-top, to be lit to signal the fall of the city, so the news can be relayed by light across the continents. And that night, the night-watchman had seen the last light of that series of beacons bursting into light. Klytaimnestra it was who had arranged this: the watchman in the play’s opening scene had spoken scoffingly and yet fearfully of the “waiting, hopeful woman who plans like a man” – such gender confusion being, for this watchman and, one suspects, for the Greeks in general, abhorrent. Klytaimnestra describes the travel of the news by fire in a speech that appears to be more than mere boasting of her organisational powers: there seems something almost elemental to it: even fire obeys her bidding, and “Haephistos was my courier”. But then, her second speech takes an unexpected turn. Instead of triumph, or of joy, she speaks of the bloodbath that, even as she speaks, is being visited upon the people of Troy; and she expresses her hope that the Greeks reverence the city’s gods and not desecrate their shrines, so they may return safely. Once again, we see that pattern repeated: hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, apprehension. And finally, in a short coda to her speech, she echoes the refrain that had earlier appeared in the chorus: “Yet may the good prevail.” On the surface, this means “May our men return safely”, but the original audience, who knew the myth, would, most likely, have looked beyond the surface: Klytaimnestra may well have a very different idea of what constitutes the “good”.

Klytaimnestra now returns into the palace, leaving the chorus again on their own. And again, they ruminate on Zeus, on the punishment he had meted out to Troy for having broken his law; and this drifts into apprehension of the punishment Zeus might yet mete out to the Argives, should they also – as Klytaimnestra has more than hinted – have similarly broken his law. They speak also of the deep unrest among the people of Argos at the absence of their king, and of their anger at the devastation brought home to them by a war that was being fought merely for the sake of another man’s wife. As always, fulfilment of hopes does not bring joy: it brings merely apprehension.

Now the herald enters with news of the fall of Troy. Time is very elastic here: in a naturalistic play, there would be a gap of a few days, at least, between Klytaimnestra receiving the news through a relay of fire, and the arrival of the herald, but here, that time is compressed to but a few minutes. The herald’s speech is initially triumphant, telling as it does of victory at Troy, but, with Klytemnaistra’s last speech still ringing in our ears, even that triumph contains within it the seeds of terror:

Nothing stands upon the plain of Troy;

the altars and the shrines of gods are all destroyed…

Klytaimnestra enters again, but she has no desire to listen: she knows about the fall of Troy already. She has come to talk. She boasts about her knowing when others had doubted her knowledge; and she asks the herald to tell her husband to come quickly, for she is waiting for him, like a faithful wife. And, having said this, without waiting to hear another single word, she returns into her palace, leaving the scene as abruptly as she had entered.

The chorus then questions the herald further, and his initial note of triumph now dissipates: the Greeks, on returning, had met with a fearful storm; the other fleets had separated, and of Agamemnon’s own fleet, only his ship had survived: the others are all drowned. Zeus is meting out retribution already on those who had committed crimes – even those crimes that had been committed to fulfil his own purpose.

The herald now leaves, but not before he, too, has echoed the chorus’ apprehensive refrain: “May all turn out as best it can.” The chorus is left once again to ponder on events, and, once again, these ponderings are themselves the substance of the drama: what do these events signify? Paris had transgressed, and Troy had transgressed by condoning Paris’ transgression; so they paid a terrible price, and the terrible price they paid is the judgement of Zeus. But there is now an obvious parallel to be drawn between Troy and Argos, for Argos too has transgressed. These ponderings are not comments on the drama: they are the drama. The drama consists of us humans trying to make some kind of sense of a world that is, to human understanding at any rate, unintelligible.

Only now, almost half way through the play, does the eponymous Agamemnon enter. He enters magnificently in a chariot, and at the back of his chariot is his “conquest”, the Trojan princess Kassandra, now a captive slave, and chosen by Agamemnon to be his concubine.

Agamemnon speaks in triumph, but we know the pattern by now. Klytaimnestra enters, and, like a dutiful wife, greets her husband. We do not need to know the myth to be fearful. She then instructs her maidservants to lay between the chariot and the door of the palace tapestries of crimson and of blood red, so Agamemnon may tread upon them, as the victor he is, and enter again his home. So a river of the most vivid red appears before Agamemnon, representing both his triumph and – as we can now be certain – his destruction. Agamemnon himself is doubtful: even as a victor returning in triumph, would not this be sacrilegious, and, somehow, obscene? – an affront to all that is holy? It would indeed. But Klytaimnestra convinces him. And so the man who had trodden on real blood before – on innocent blood, including that of his own daughter – now treads the symbol of that blood towards his own bloody end. Zeus, had delivered justice on the Trojans, with Agamemnon his instrument for that justice; now, justice is to be delivered on Agamemnon, and the instrument this time will be Klytaimnestra. Link by link, the chain is forged.

All this time, Kassandra, sitting at the back of the chariot, has remained tantalisingly silent. Agamemnon’s instruction concerning her was to treat her well, for “the gods look kindly from afar on those who conquer, but do not abuse their power”. So, after Agamemnon has entered the palace, Klytaimnestra, with a kindness that we can be sure by now is assumed, asks her to follow. But Kassandra keeps still, unresponding. Whatever power Klytaimnestra was able to exert over her husband, she cannot over her husband’s slave. In frustration, she enters the palace, without Kassandra.

One shouldn’t, I am told, sully literary criticism with subjective impressions, but since this is merely a blog post rather than a learned essay, I don’t see why I shouldn’t: the scene that now follows is, to me, among the most extraordinary I have encountered in any play: one has to go to the storm scenes in King Lear, or to the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester on the heath, to come across anything of comparable tragic intensity.

Kassandra now breaks her silence – but not, at first, with words, but instead with inarticulate screams. She then calls out – not to Agamemnon, nor to Klytaimnestra, nor even to the ghosts of her slaughtered family, but to Apollo, whom she calls her “destroyer”:

Ah! Where have you led me? To what house?

For nothing is secret to Kassandra. She knows – she knows all. She has the gift of prophecy. Apollo had given her this gift for he had desired her, and she had, in her own words, “pledged [her] body to him, and then broken [her] word”. Apollo, unable to revoke his gift of prophecy, had then deemed that her prophetic visions would never be believed; and now, as she faces her own imminent extinction, she knows that it is he, the god, who has brought her to this end. She knows the hideous bloody future she is to face inside the house, and also its hideous bloody past. She knows that inside the house, she, now a mere slave and thus of no real consequence, will be ripped apart by Klytaimnestra’s sword.

The chorus cannot quite believe her: her prophecies are doomed not to be believed, after all. But they can’t quite disbelieve her either, as she sings an agonised threnody to her own death. No matter how we may choose to interpret the ways of the gods, this is the reality for humans, who have no option but to suffer.

So far, Aeschylus has given us two strands of causality heading towards a single event: there are the outrages in Troy, crying out for revenge; and there is the outrage on Agamemnon’s own daughter, Iphigenia. Both point to the killing of Agamemnon. But now, a third strand is introduced – this one spanning generations. Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, had been betrayed by his own brother: Thyestes had seduced Atreus’ wife. And, in revenge, Atreus had, under the guise of friendship, invited his brother to a feast, but had feasted his brother on the roast flesh of his brother’s own children. Thyestes, on realising the horror, had left with his surviving son, and had cursed Atreus and his house. This curse too must have its fulfilment. All these strands are converging fast upon what appears now an inevitable focal point: the killing of Agamemnon.

And what value can the life of a mere slave, a mere captive concubine, have in the context of such matters? Yet, it is to this seemingly insignificant figure to whom Aeschylus gives the most potent and powerful expression of grief and of terror. And, as she walks into the house in which she knows she will be butchered, she asks that she, a foreigner and a mere female slave, be remembered alongside the more powerful who will fall with her:

… in the house I will lament

my own and Agamemnon’s fate; I’ve had enough of life.

Oh strangers,

do not think I am trembling, like a bird scared of the trap;

I simply beg you to be my witness after my death,

when one more woman dies in recompense for me,

and for the man so badly married yet another falls in turn.

I ask this of you as a stranger who is about to die.

The various strands, the various chains of causality, may meet at a focal point here, but, Kassandra knows, this is not by any means the last link of the chain. And that she, Kassandra, a mere dispensable slave girl, is also part of that chain.

Once again, the chorus is left on its own, and soon, they hear the death cries of Agamemnon from inside the palace, and they are in turmoil. This turmoil seems to me to be depicted in comic terms. I realise that our modern responses are likely to be quite different from those of ancient Athenians; and I realise also the very stylised nature of the representation of events. But it is hard to see how, given the extreme seriousness of the context, lines such as these can be seen as anything other than comic:

  • Let us take common counsel; is there some safe plan?
  • … I vote that we do something; it’s a time for no delay.
  • Yes, we are wasting time…
  • I haven’t got a plan to offer; and no-one should act unless he has already planned.

We should not be surprised by such an incursion of the comic at such a moment: sending in the clowns at moments of the greatest seriousness would have been as effective in Greek times as it had been in Shakespeare’s (the gravediggers in Hamlet, say, or the man who brings in the asp to Cleopatra), or, indeed, still is in our own. But whatever humour there is here is cut short by the opening of the palace doors, to reveal a now triumphant Klytaimnestra, and the butchered bodies of Agamemnon and of Kassandra.

Klytaimnestra now has no reason to dissemble:

Much I have said before to suit the moment, and

I’m not ashamed to contradict it all

She describes in some detail how she killed Agamemnon, how she struck her blows, and how Agamemnon

blowing out rapid spurt of blood

… strikes me with black showers of murderous dew

The chorus is, naturally, horrified, but this is Klytemnaestra triumphant. All she had planned for – planned “like a man”, as the watchman had so scornfully put it – is now fulfilled. What outrage, she now asks, had this chorus of elders shown

when he, not caring much about it, just as if an animal was dead

out of abundant flocks of fleecy sheep,

killed his own daughter, dearest fruit sprung from

my labour-pangs, to charm away the winds from Thrace? 

The elders weep for their murdered king, but Klytaimestra offers us instead an unforgettable and resonant image of their dead king in Hades: traditionally, the dead are greeted in the underworld by those who had loved them, and here, Klytaimnestra imagines Agamemnon

…at the swiftly flowing crossing

of the stream of tears

And at this crossing,

His daughter, as is right,

Iphigenia, will

Embrace and kiss her father lovingly.

One might have expected the play to have ended here, but Aeschylus adds another scene which may, to the modern audience, seem a bit strange: at this late stage of the play, when the climactic point has already passed and we are, in effect, winding down, he introduces a new character, Aigisthos, the lover of Klytaimnestra, and a surviving son of Thyestes, who had been feasted on his own sons’ flesh. He, of course, has his own reasons for revenge on the House of Atreus, and he re-tells the story we have already heard from Kassandra of the hideous feast to which his father had been treated (though conveniently omitting his father’s adultery, the original cause of this particular chain of crimes).

He had, he claims, helped Klytaimnestra with the planning of the deed, but when asked why he had not done the deed himself, he claims simply, and somewhat unconvincingly, that the deceit required was “clearly woman’s work”, and that, further, he was already known as an enemy of the house. The roles of the Macbeths seem here reversed: it is now the woman who commits the deed, and the man merely helps urge her on. The reversal of traditional gender roles that the watchman had seemed to fear in the opening scene, and which no doubt would have been emblematic to the original audiences as a sign of confusion, of the overturning of the natural order of things, appears here, at the end of the play, to be a fact. Nonetheless, it is he who walks in when everything has already been done, and assumes power.

The chorus objects, and Aigisthos, who was happy to be away from the scene to leave the woman to do the dirty work, appears quite willing to put down this much lesser opposition of old men – men who, even ten years earlier, had been deemed unfit for war. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is Klytaimnestra who stops him.

No, dearest man; let us do no more harm.

So many things have now been done that they will be a bitter harvest.

There has been enough torment already; let us not be stained with blood.

The desire not to be stained with blood must sound very strange, coming as it does from a woman who, from her own account of the killing, has been stained with the spurting blood of Agamemnon.

She tells the old men to return to their homes, which they do: it seems a surprisingly weak and anti-climactic end to their part, given their prominence in the rest of the play. But if there is a sense of bathos in the departure of the chorus, then that is clearly what Aeschylus had wanted; the chorus’ part in the drama has ended, but the drama itself is much larger than them. The chorus now departed, we are left at the very end of the play with the weak and cowardly figure of Aigisthos, with the blood-spattered Klytaimnestra, and with the two butchered and mangled bodies.

How are we to interpret Klytaimnestra’s final words? Up to this point, she had been dominant, triumphant. Has the strain of it all now brought her down? Is all that strength that we had witnessed on the point of collapse here, at the very end? Ewans, in his footnotes, certainly seems to think so, but I can’t say I am convinced. She is certainly still strong enough to prevent Aigisthos from killing the old men of the chorus, as he had threatened to do. But as well as being strong, she is also, I think, a tremendously intelligent character – certainly more so than Aigisthos – and she knows that if Agamemnon’s deed had terrible consequences, so, by the same logic, must hers. She wishes not to be “stained with blood”, and yet she knows that she already is.

If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’;

we have been mangled terribly by the god’s heavy claw.

It is not that she feels remorse: at no point does she express that. But what we see here is the same pattern that we had observed from the very beginning of the play: anxious hope, fulfilment of that hope, and, almost immediately, apprehension – fear of what comes next for us humans mangled so terribly by god’s heavy claw. For, as the chorus has told us, there is nothing that is not Zeus, no event that has not been destined by him. We do what Zeus has destined us to do; but – and here is the terrible, inexplicable paradox – we do it also as free agents, and bear the responsibility.

And Klytaimnestra knows all this. Or she has come, through experience, to know it.  And she fears what comes next. As we all do: we all know the pattern by now. And there are two more plays still to come.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Agamemnon.]

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Di (Yee) on March 6, 2022 at 8:47 pm

    That makes me want to read the play. Not right now, you know, but sooner than I previously thought I would.

    Reply

  2. Yes, you make Agamemnon sound quite appealing. It is one of the all-time greats. Astounding from the first lines onward.

    I like the idea of the chorus giving us a little comic interlude in the midst of the horror. I’ll bet you are right, that it was taken that way.

    I do have doubts about the modernity of this “modern audience.” Does it not know about Ubu Roi and Happy Days and Pina Bausch? Travesties and anti-plays and abstraction should be “oh, that old stuff” to the modern audience.

    Reply

    • I guess modernity *should* appear old stuff to modern audiences, but going by the conservative programming that still brings in the audiences, I’m not sure it does. We live in a curious age where even works published 100 years ago (Ulysses, say, or The Waste Land) appears to a large proportion of readers as “uncomfortably modern”. But you’re right: I should stop making assumptions about expectations of the “modern” audiences as if they were a homogeneous bunch. Modernost drama should certainly have expanded our awareness of what drama may be.

      I find “Agamemnon” an extraordinary work, no matter what translation I read. We’re on a short holiday at the moment, but I look forward to sinking my teeth into the other two plays as soon as I get back.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: