Agamemnon

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Agamemnon, the first part of The Orestia, is a story of aristocracy, family, corruption, and a vicious cycle of violence which inevitably leads to tyranny.

As the first play of The Orestia opens, the Trojan war is ending. The watchman, straggling the Atreidae’s roof dogwise, sees the beacon signaling victory in Ilium. Agamemnon returns home with Cassandra, a prophetess and daughter of Priam, as a concubine. He has been gone for ten years, with the human sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia as his farewell. Once home he is greeted by the duplicitous Clytaemestra. She conspires with her lover Aegisthus to kill Agamemnon and seize the reins of power. The plot thickens knowing, from what the chorus has told the audience, that Agamemnon’s father served Aegisthus’ father, his brother, his own children for dinner. This play is the quintessential family blood feud.

The Watchman

I speak for those who understand, but if they fail, I have forgotten everything.

Watchman, Agamemnon L36

The Watchman, weary from his long service upon spotting the beacon speaks from atop the house. His location creates the illusion of the house of Atreus, or the nobility, speaking directly to the Chorus. He bemoans the time he has been waiting and subtly hints at the misrule of “a lady’s male strength of heart” and because of it he feels moved to “weep again the pity of this house no longer, as once, administered in the grand way”. This subtlety indicates his dependence on the rulers. His monologue indicates that he is on the side of the people against the aristocracy, should they have success, in an attempt to straddle the good graces of both sides.

The Chorus

From high good fortune in the blood blossoms the quenchless agony.

Antistrophe C, Agamemnon L755

The Chorus, who represent the people, play a passive role in Agamemnon. The represent the common man. They tell the audience the background story of the House of Atreus and it’s curse. They tell of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, at the outset of the Trojan war. They hint at a mistrust of Clytaemestra in the beginning. After the murder of Agamemnon they examine Clytaemestra and Aegisthus, the guilt of whom is apparent. They fault Aegisthus for the cowardly act of letting his lover kill his enemy in surprise, rather then facing him directly. Throughout the Chorus acts as an interrogative force and the conscience of the audience. Though the chorus sees the injustices, they are not empowered to act and allow the tyrants to “soil justice, while the power is [theirs]".

Clytaemestra

By my child's Justice driven to fulfillment, by her Wrath and Fury, to whom I sacrificed this man

Clytaemestra, Agamemnon L 1430
Clytaemestra and Aegisthus prepare to kill Agamemnon.

Clytaemestra is unfaithful, but can we fault her? Her husband murdered his own child for luck in a meaningless war. His nature and the brutal legacy of his father made it easy to recruit enemies against him. If he had not sacrificed their child in pursuit of a frivolous war, might she have remained true? Was she wrong to plot his demise? What suffering should a person accept from a spouse? Her revenge for her child may have been justified, but lead to the deposition of her son Orestes, long absent, and the utter betrayal of her household. Her primary crime in the eyes of the ancients may have been hinted at in his speech about the “lady’s male strength of heart” in crossing traditional gender role boundaries. She is neither Helen, nor Penelope, but does that make her wrong?

The Herald

The Herald announces the return of the pythian, or Apollo blessed, king. This is an appeal so that Apollo may show mercy on the Argives, now that the war has ended. An interchange occurs with the Chorus, where the Chorus Leader makes it apparent that the people have been oppressed under Clytaemestra’s rule. The interchange ends with the good news that the war in fact has ended. Clytaemestra’s tyranny and lies are seen to possibly be at an end. Unfortunately this hope remains unfulfilled. The herald further recalls the ruin of the Argive fleet, cementing the possibility of a coup.

Agamemnon

In few men is it part of nature to respect a friend's prosperity withou begruding him, as envy's wicket poison settling to the heart piles up the pain in one sick with unhappiness, who, staggered under sufferings that are all this own, winces again to the vision of a neighbor's bliss.

Agamemnon, Agamemnon L 830

Agamemnon returns home victorious, though he suspects that the body politic may have turned gangrenous. The people inform him that, though his crusade was ill recieved, in victory the war for Helen has become palatable. On his arrival he trusts his home to be secure in the hands of Clytaemestra. She twists him into committing pride and idolatry of self by entering the palace walking on a red tapestry, literature’s first red carpet. Ironically his role in his namesake play is limited and instead he is more of a backdrop character, killed soon after arrival by his wife.

Cassandra

And drugged to double fury on the wine of men's blood shed there lurks forever here a drunken rout of ingrown vengeful spirits never to be cast forth.

Cassandra, Agamemnon L 1180

Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, arrives in Argos as Agamemnon’s concubine. She is a prophetess, or oracle of Apollo. She prophecies of the death of Agamemnon at the hands of his wife, of her own death, and of the revenge which would befall Clytaemestra. She speaks truly of the vicious cycle of death which is the curse of the House of Atreus. Through her the audience learns of the coming retribution from the one who would kill his own mother. Shortly after revealing this, she dies at the hands of Clytaemestra without a threnoad.

Aegisthus

Aegisthus is legitimately grieved; why not seize the opportunity which presents itself? Revenge, a throne, even a queen are up for grabs. He has all the motive and no reason not to indulge it. Once he gains the throne he quickly shows himself to be the tyrant Antinous would have become. While this may be a tragic outcome for Agamemnon, presented by the playwright as the returning hero, I cannot say that Aegisthus’ actions were unjustifed. Just or unjust, the perpetuate the cycle of violence which plagues the house of Atreus, and the people suffer for it.

Takeaways

The House of Atreus the archtypical family fued. There is more to it than that though. It symbolizes the need for an impartial system of justice and the corruption that inherently occurs in powerful families. The common man sees the injustice here, but is not able to stop it. The cycle of violence continues, draining the land of it’s lifeblood. Where will it stop, what levels of depravity will be reached in it’s escalation?