USU 1320
Ancient Literature and Language
©Damen, 2004

A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


Click here for a copy of the slides and notes presented during the lecture in class (Chapter 7.I)


Chapter 7: Aeschylus and Agamemnon

I. Introduction

A. Aeschylus

Whatever the early development of tragedy, in the burst of the confidence following the final defeat of the Persians in 479 BCE, tragedy grew more popular than ever with the Greek public, and the skill with which the dramatists effected their art increased to meet theatre-goers' demands for more and more sophisticated drama. The greatest writer of tragedy in this day was Aeschylus, only seven of whose plays—out of a total output of over eighty—still exist today. But from even just that, it's clear his work marks a watershed in the development of ancient drama. Among other things, he was the man responsible for giving Greek tragedy the basic form it would have throughout the rest of the fifth century.

Aeschylus was born in Athens around 525 BCE. According to historical sources, his tombstone recorded his service as a soldier during both Persian Wars but omitted all mention of his career in the theatre. Apparently, defending his city and fighting for liberty represented to Aeschylus and his contemporaries his most important achievements. Of the rest of his life, ancient sources say tragically little. For instance, we're not told when he first presented a drama at the Dionysia, though evidence suggests he won his first victory in 484 BCE. Because we know he died around 456, it seems safe to say he wrote and performed in Athenian tragedies for over thirty years.

Besides helping to popularize tragedy, Aeschylus introduced at least one very important change in Greek drama. According to the philosopher Aristotle, he's the first playwright to use a second speaking actor on stage. Sometime after this, the first actor came to be called the protagonist, literally the "first contender"—it's a term still used today to designate the hero of a story—and with two speaking actors appearing on stage together for the first time, dialogue, as we know it, was born. It's an invention we owe to Aeschylus.

He also made other significant contributions to Greek theatre. For instance, he shifted the focus of the stage action from the chorus to the actors. And, at the same time that he increased the number of actors, he decreased the size of the chorus, from as many as fifty to a mere twelve, still an impressive crowd but much more manageable. Thus, for all his ingenuity in the use of the chorus, he began a trend in Greek theatre toward reducing the chorus' role in the drama, a pattern which continued over the course of the fifth century.

Aeschylus' innovations were not, however, limited to production alone. He also brought to drama an immeasurable wealth of language and poetry. Indeed, Aeschylean verse seemed to the Greeks so wild and inspired at times that in antiquity the story arose he'd composed his plays drunk. Like Shakespeare's rich and compelling turns of phrase, Aeschylus' high-flown expression can make the study and comprehension of his plays quite a challenge. But also as with Shakespeare, the study of his drama pays dividends beyond compare.

B. The Mythological Background of Agamemnon: The Fall of the House of Atreus

To read and enjoy Aeschylus' Agamemnon, it's necessary to understand the mythological history of Argos, the city in which the title character ruled. The lineage of Agamemnon's family goes very far back into the mythic past. In fact, the oldest stories of this royal line are set in a time when Agamemnon's remote ancestors didn't even as yet live in Greece.

The family line originated in Lydia, a country in western central Asia Minor. There a king named Tantalus reigned, a favorite of the gods who loved him so much they even invited him to dine with them sometimes. This honor, however, filled him with hubris, which to the Greek way of thinking all too often incites pride leading to criminal behavior, and so it did with Tantalus. To return their many favors, he held a feast at his palace for all the gods and, lacking anything more suitable to feed them—in some versions of the myth he simply wanted to test the gods and see whether they were truly omniscient—he carved up his own son Pelops and served him as the main course.

When the gods realized what he'd done, they restored Pelops to life and consigned his father Tantalus to a terrible punishment in Hades. Eternally hungry and thirsty, he stands in water up to his chin, with boughs of fruits hanging nearby. But every time he bends to drink the water it rushes away, and whenever he reaches up for the fruit, the wind blows it out of his grasp. Thus, Tantalus is eternally "tantalized"—his name is, in fact, the source of our word—all in all, it seems a suitable punishment for someone who prepared such a horrific feast.

After his father's gross misdeed became public, Pelops fled Lydia and sought a new life abroad. He ended up in Elis, a country in the northwestern corner of the Peloponnese, where he vied for the hand of the beautiful princess Hippodameia whose dowry was the crown of the kingdom. However, Hippodameia's father Oenomaus for some reason wanted to prevent her marriage—in some versions of the myth he was in love with his own daughter and in other versions he had heard an oracle that her husband would kill him—so he established a chariot race of sorts in which he competed with all the young men who sought to marry Hippodameia. For this contest, he put each suitor into a chariot along with Hippodameia herself—it guaranteed Oenomaus wouldn't rig the chariot to fall apart or try to shoot down its occupant—and giving the would-be husband a head start, Oenomaus got in another chariot and chased the pair. If the suitor could beat Oenomaus to the finish line, he was allowed to keep the princess and thus rule the kingdom. If not, Oenomaus killed him. Needless to say, Oenomaus had the fastest chariot in Greece.

That, however, didn't stop adventuresome young bucks from taking their chances. Before Pelops showed up in Elis, several potential grooms had already bitten the dust. Seeing little opportunity of outrunning the king, Pelops decided to try outwitting the old man. By bribing Myrtilus, Oenomaus' chariot mechanic, to replace the wooden linchpins in the axle of the king's chariot with wax ones—linchpins secure the wheels to the axle—he hoped to disable the vehicle. But to win Myrtilus over, Pelops had to promise him not only half of Oenomaus' kingdom but also the right to bed the beautiful Hippodameia on their wedding night. It was the sort of offer most mechanics can't turn down.

On the day of the race, Pelops and Hippodameia rode off, with Oenomaus following close behind. As friction began to heat the axle of Oenomaus' chariot, the wax linchpins melted, and when the wheels eventually fell off, the whole thing broke apart. Because chariot-drivers in antiquity tied their horses' reins to their hands—if a driver accidentally dropped the reins, there was no way of getting them back and without having hold of the reins the driver couldn't steer or brake—thus in the end, Oenomaus' horses dragged him to his death. Just before he died, however, the old king realized what had happened and cursed Myrtilus.

Pelops had now won Hippodameia but couldn't have her. He'd promised her to Myrtilus on his wedding night, which galled him. He soon devised a way to solve this problem. One day before the nuptials, he went out driving with Myrtilus along a road that ran beside a high sea-cliff, and when the hapless mechanic wasn't looking, Pelops kicked him out of the chariot and over the edge of the precipice into the sea. As Oenomaus' curse came to bear on his treacherous driver, Myrtilus delivered one of his own. Seeing his watery death speeding toward him, he looked back up and with his last words damned his killer, a stain that would stick to Pelops' descendants for many generations down the line.

In the meantime, however, Pelops had at last won both a wedding and a honeymoon with Hippodameia, and along with her the kingdom of Elis. Later in life, he went on to conquer the rest of southern Greece which was eventually renamed the Peloponnese ("Pelops' Island") in his honor. So, in spite of Myrtilus' curse, he and Hippodameia appeared to thrive, their marriage producing two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. But as the old Greek saying goes, "Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first exalt."

The curse of Myrtilus eventually manifested itself a generation later in the form of sibling rivalry between Atreus and Thyestes. After Pelops' death, the brothers fought over which of them would control Argos, one of the many cities their father had conquered. First, Thyestes tricked Atreus out of the throne by seducing his wife. Then Atreus avenged himself by killing Thyestes' children and feeding them to their father at a feast. When he realized what he'd done, Thyestes fled Argos in horror, and Atreus became king for life.

When he died, his sons were determined to avoid the sort of family rivalry which had plagued their father's generation, so they agreed to share their inherited domain. Atreus' older son Agamemnon took Argos as his kingdom, and his younger son Menelaus assumed control of Sparta. But the curse wasn't to be denied so easily. It reappeared during their generation in the form of the women Agamemnon and Menelaus married.

Most of the next part of this story forms the mythic background underlying The Iliad (see Chapter 4, "The Plot of The Cypria"). Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, Helen's mortal sister, and fathered several children by her. To defend his brother Menelaus' honor after Paris abducted Helen, Agamemnon went off to fight the Trojan War, leaving his wife behind to rule Argos in his stead. Before he left, however, the goddess Artemis demanded the sacrifice of his oldest daughter Iphigenia, which he effected by tricking his wife. While he was at Troy, Clytemnestra's rage over her husband's treachery smouldered for the ten long years of the war—she blamed not the goddess but her husband for the slaughter of her beloved first-born child—which opened her up to the advances of another man, and indeed one stepped in.

Though in the previous generation he had consumed several of his children at his infamous banquet, Thyestes apparently didn't eat them all. Greek tradition records two very different versions of what happened. Either a baby boy was simply left behind, or in the madness following his exile from Argos Thyestes unknowingly raped one of his own daughters, engendering a son. In either case, he left behind one surviving boy named Aegisthus ("Goat"), Agamemnon's and Menelaus' cousin, who carried on his father Thyestes' hatred of Atreus and his family.

While Agamemnon was away in Troy, Aegisthus courted Clytemnestra. They shared much, after all, particularly their common detestation of Agamemnon. After some time, Clytemnestra took up with Aegisthus, even letting him move into the palace with her where he served only as her consort, never as king. She herself maintained control of Argos, so he was at most her puppet, a male facade whenever she needed one.

For ten long years, Clytemnestra waited to see when or whether her husband would come home from the war, biding her time as she plotted revenge for Iphigenia's sacrifice. Any day a message might arrive from Troy that Agamemnon had been killed in battle and, if so, the gods would have handed her righteous justice as far as she was concerned. She would then be free to marry Aegisthus and reign in Argos without the need for vengeance or any threat of interference.

But, of course, that didn't happen. Agamemnon lived to triumph over Troy. It's at this moment in the story that Aeschylus' Agamemnon begins, on the day the victorious general returns home to Argos and his resentful, revenge-minded wife Clytemnestra's patience is at long last rewarded with the opportunity she's hoped for all these many years, the chance to kill her lying, daughter-slaughtering husband.


Terms, Places, People and Things to Know




II. Agamemnon (annotated)

A. Introduction

Agamemnon is the first play in Aeschylus' trilogy about the chain of murders which took place in the family of Agamemnon after the conclusion of the Trojan War. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra kills her husband, the title character. In the second play of the trilogy, The Libation-Bearers, their son Orestes returns home after many years abroad and slays his mother to avenge his father's death at her hands. In the third play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, the gods put Orestes on trial for murder and he's narrowly acquitted. These three plays comprise The Oresteia, the only trilogy of its sort preserved from classical Greek tragedy. Aeschylus composed The Oresteia only two years before he died. It is, without doubt, his consummate masterpiece.

From this trilogy emerges not only the playwright's genius for dramatic narrative but also an innovative theatrical mind skilled at the burgeoning art form. In Aeschylus' hands, tragedy will come to have all the elements which characterize its classical moment, paving the way for the brilliance of Sophocles and Euripides in the generation following. Among those elements is Aeschylus' utilization of three actors who performed all the speaking roles on stage, as shown in the diagram below.

While the exact distribution of roles used in Aeschylus' day is unknown, it's possible to make an informed guess at how the actors divided up the parts in Agamemnon. Bearing in mind that Aeschylus, no doubt, would have taken the most prominent role in the drama—it seems certain the central characters were always the protagonist's property—we can safely assume the playwright portrayed Clytemnestra who dominates the stage action throughout the majority of the play. The rest of the speaking parts, except Cassandra, appear to have been carefully disposed so that a single actor, the deuteragonist, can play them all. With only one scene in which all three speaking actors appear together on stage—but that moment alone shows for certain there were two other speaking actors besides the playwright—the tritagonist, no doubt, played only Cassandra, but to great effect as we'll see below.

The Division of Roles in Aeschylus' Agamemnon among Three Actors

(Protagonist) (Deuteragonist)



  WATCHMAN   The long wait for Agamemnon (1-39)



The "beacon" speech (258-350)



The news of Troy's fall (489-680)



Husband and wife finally meet (782-974)


CLYTEMNESTRA   (CASSANDRA)* Cassandra will not enter the palace but finally speaks (1035-1068)



Cassandra finally speaks (1069-1330)
CLYTEMNESTRA     Clytemnestra's Triumph (1399-1576)
CLYTEMNESTRA AEGISTHUS   Aegisthus quarrels with the Chorus (1577-1673))

*Cassandra is silent.

B. Notes on Agamemnon

Begin reading Aeschylus' Agamemnon with one eye on the notes below.

Line Numbers (in Aeschylus)

1-39 The play opens in the darkness just before dawn. An old, faithful Watchman sits on top of the roof of Agamemnon's palace. He's waiting for his master to return from Troy. It's interesting to note how Aeschylus endows even such a lowly figure with lofty expression.

"Triple sixes" is the best throw in the dice games which were popular in ancient Greece, especially among the lower classes.

"An ox stands huge upon my tongue" is an extravagant Aeschylean expression meaning something like our saying, "The cat's got your tongue."

40-257 The chorus consists of Argive elders, men who were either too old or infirm to join Agamemnon's expedition to Troy ten years before when the war broke out. It's a fine detail to add to the story, that the only males remaining in Argos during the Trojan War would have been the weak and the aged, making it all the easier for Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to take over the city. Aeschylus, therefore, plays up the chorus' geriatric impotence which will also be an important element in the plot later.

The first choral ode is quite long, recapitulating the story of Agamemnon and the sacrifice of Iphigenia. In many ways, this is the hardest section of the play to understand and enjoy, for several reasons. First, the words of this song now stand alone without the music which the playwright composed to accompany them, so it's hard to grasp fully the beauty of these lyrics all on their own. Second, Aeschylus' masterful interweaving of images, symbols and verbal cues makes for some elegant but dense poetry which at times makes hard reading. Finally, the Greek text, as it exists today, has been damaged in the process of transmission (i.e. copying across the ages), so that some parts of the ode are badly damaged, comprising only a distant echo of Aeschylus' original language. But even if the song resembles a badly scratched recording, that should still curb no one's joy in absorbing what remains of its subtle and intricate loveliness.

As if he were composing an epic, Aeschylus includes in this ode a simile, "as eagles stricken with agony . . ." (49ff.), comparing Agamemnon's furious war-spirit to the cry of angry eagles whose young have been stolen. In terms of what's going on the story, the simile is pertinent but, typical of Homer, also off-kilter. Appropriately, a child, Iphigenia, has been lost, but it's not Agamemnon who screams in anger and pain for his missing young—he's, in fact, the one who killed her—but Clytemnestra whose grief, or so she will claim, has driven her to despair. It's indeed quite like Homer to construct a simile which is apt but at the same time ironically eccentric. Aeschylus, ancient sources tell us, called his plays "morsels taken from the banquet of Homer." If so, this is one of his tasty tidbits.

At some point during this choral ode, probably before line 83, Clytemnestra enters the stage without speaking. She's preparing to make a sacrifice at the altar located on the stage and, as she will do through much of the play, ignores the crowd of decrepit dancing octogenarians in the orchestra. They, on the other hand, cannot afford to ignore her. Their song about Iphigenia's death is directed in large part at the queen, out of respect for her grief and perhaps to bait her a little since they know she still burns with anger at Agamemnon because of their daughter's death.

At the climax of the chorus' story, they narrate Iphigenia's slaughter (227-247), recalling how she was carried to the altar and stripped, her eyes silently imploring the men about to kill her not to perform the terrible deed. It includes a series of moving and vivid images.

258-350 After some time, the chorus finally stops singing and speaks to Clytemnestra who is curt, almost rude to them. Indeed, her first line of stichomythia does little to hide her impatience, "Is that not clear enough?" (269). The chorus members, as anyone would, expect a wife to rejoice at her husband's safe homecoming from war, but not Clytemnestra. Her clipped answers hide—and not at all well—her bitterness that Agamemnon is returning to Argos safe and sound. Throughout this scene, her words drip with anger and sarcasm.

At 281 Clytemnestra begins her famous Beacon Speech, in which she recounts how the relay of torches, bearing the message that the Greeks had conquered Troy, crossed the Aegean Sea and reached Argos.

In her next long speech (320-350) Clytemnestra, already in a foul mood because of the good news rolling in from the Greek army abroad, imagines the sorrowful scene of destruction and desolation at Troy. The real reason for her unhappiness is that she's depressed about Agamemnon's potential safe return. Aeschylus builds skillfully to the end of her speech:

Yet, though the host come home without offence to high
gods, even so the anger of these slaughtered men
may never sleep. Oh, let there be no fresh wrong done! (345-47)

Her real meaning is hard to miss. "These slaughtered men"—is she perhaps thinking about Iphigenia? "Let there be no fresh wrong done!"—there is indeed someone contemplating some "fresh wrong," isn't there? Although on the surface her words are a prayer for Agamemnon's nostos, the subtext of her speech amounts to a plea that some angry god sink his ship or kill him somehow, which, of course, would save her the trouble of having to murder him herself.

351-488 Hearing the good news of victory at Troy, the chorus sings an ode of joy, with a remarkable image of Menelaus abandoned by Helen and haunted by longing for his beautiful wife (413-419).

489-680 A Herald arrives with news of the Greeks' victory and their return home.

"Dust, dry sister of the mire" (495) must be counted among Aeschylus' more extravagant turns of phrase.

The Herald's reaction to returning home (505ff.)—he's happy he can die in his homeland—is ironic since Agamemnon will do just that, and sooner than he thinks. It's doubly ironic if the actor portraying the Herald plays Agamemnon in the next scene. That is, the actor prays for his character's death. The gods, it appears, will be only too happy to comply.

Because Aeschylus fought in war more than once, it's possible the grim lines about its horrors at 555ff. stem from his personal recollections of battle.

In ways unprecedented in Greek drama, Clytemnestra tends to sneak on and off the stage which is unusual in Greek tragedy where characters' entrances and exits are more often than not announced and explicit. Clytemnestra's atypical behavior makes it difficult to track her movements in this play. For instance, it's not clear when she enters this scene. It's possible she never exited after the last scene, though 348-50 sound like exit lines. Even so, the Herald doesn't acknowledge her when he enters, which is peculiar of a vassal confronting his queen for the first time in a decade. Of course, she could be standing at the back of the stage so he doesn't see her, but why would she hide from a Herald? All in all, Clytemnestra's proclivity for lurking in the background is an excellent way to demonstrate her character through theatre. She stands silently in the background, waiting and watching for the right moment to . . . come forward.

When at 598ff. Clytemnestra tells the Herald to go off and bring back Agamemnon, it's almost as if one actor were requesting the other to go off stage, change mask and costume and become Agamemnon. In other words, the protagonist (Clytemnestra) encourages the deuteragonist (Herald) to turn into Agamemnon so the murder can happen all the sooner. If so, this metatheatre—metatheatre is a term for when a drama acknowledges in some way that it's happening in a theatre—is highly sophisticated.

At the end of Clytemnestra's speech (604-612) comes another spate of double meaning. For instance, she asks the messenger to tell Agamemnon that she's as loyal to her husband now as on the day he left for Troy—that much is true!—and that she has no more been unfaithful to him than she, a mere woman, knows how to "dip bronze." To "dip bronze" implies in Greek to "temper metal," that is, to strengthen it by plunging it, while hot, into cold water, and since no woman in ancient Greece ever served as a blacksmith, the phrase suggests that it's impossible she's been untrue to her husband.. But all she actually says is "dip bronze.". In that case, her words could also mean dipping a bronze sword in anything, for instance, a man's blood. On another level, then, Clytemnestra says that she's no more slept around on her husband than she could stab a man. It's another truth that's hard to argue with.

After this speech (615ff.) Clytemnestra fades into the background again, as the chorus questions the Herald about Menelaus. The Herald says that a storm swept Menelaus' ship away from the main fleet and no one's seen him since. Clytemnestra must still be on stage, because this is crucial information for her to know, that Agamemnon is returning home without his brother to protect him.

681-781 The chorus sings another ode, this one about Helen. Notable here is a metaphor comparing her to a lion's cub raised by humans (716-736). At first it's a delightful pet, but when it grows up, it kills their flocks of sheep. In much the same way, Helen in her youth had given the Greeks and Trojans great joy because of her beauty but, as an adult, she proved to be a "priest of destruction," causing untold carnage and mayhem.

782-974 Agamemnon at last enters in triumph, escorted by Cassandra, the prophetess of Apollo and daughter of Priam. Throughout this scene she remains on stage silent, but her presence is important. She's an open affront to Clytemnestra, the seemingly faithful wife waiting at home for her husband to return. But now that he's finally returned, he brings a spear-prize, a concubine into their house. Just like Zeus in the Dios Apate of The Iliad, Agamemnon boldly flaunts his infidelity in front of his wife. It's not like Clytemnestra needs another reason to kill him.

That Agamemnon doesn't greet his wife before anyone else upon his return isn't unusual in this context. As a king returning in triumph, he has other priorities: his country, his gods and his people. Thus, with regal propriety, he acknowledges his public domain before his private household.

Clytemnestra, on the other hand, operates under a different set of priorities and, overstepping the narrow boundaries which circumscribed a Greek wife's domestic role in antiquity, begins speaking without invitation (855ff.). Given what she's planning to do, she has little choice in the matter. When Agamemnon begins to announce his plans to convene a council of the people and learn what's happened in his city during his long absence (844-850)—which is important information because Clytemnestra now knows he's not heard about her affair with Aegisthus and thus probably doesn't suspect her desire to kill him—she must interrupt, because she can't let that meeting happen. He would undoubtedly learn there about her infidelity. So she steps forward, speaking in a cool, formal style, but beneath the calm facade her language seethes with rage. It's important to remember that these are the first words she's spoken to her husband in a decade. The last conversation they had was, no doubt, a terrible fight about Iphigenia's sacrifice ten years ago.

In a play full of speeches with double meaning, Clytemnestra's at 855-913 outdoes them all. Virtually every word of this speech can be understood in more than one way. First, she apologizes that she, a mere woman, would dare to stand up and mention in public the love she bears her husband. It seems all too clear exactly how much there is of that. "In the lapse of time, modesty fades . . ." (857-8), she claims. Very true, she's had an affair with her husband's cousin and is now plotting to kill Agamemnon, hardly modest behavior. Moreover, what she doesn't say is almost as ironic: "O poor dear husband, did you have a bad time in Troy? Let me soothe your wounds!" Instead, she laments her own fate, the problems she's endured at home. "It is evil and a thing of terror when a wife sits in the house forlorn with no man by. . ." But was there no man by? What about Aegisthus?

It's here that Aeschylus pulls out all the stops. In her man-killing passion and glee that she finally has the chance for revenge, Clytemnestra all but gives herself away. She says that, while he was at Troy, she constantly heard rumors of Agamemnon's death:

Had Agamemnon taken all
the wounds the tale whereof was carried home to me,
he had been cut full of gashes like a fishing net. (866-868)

What seems all too clear is that for ten agonizing years she's longed to hear such rumors, ached for a report of Agamemnon's death at Troy, which would have saved her the trouble of having to kill him now.
If he had died each time that rumor told his death,
he must have been some triple-bodied Geryon
back from the dead with threefold cloak of earth upon
his body, and killed once for every shape assumed. (869-872)

According to Greek myth, Geryon was a monster with three bodies killed by Heracles. Now Clytemnestra imagines Agamemnon is Geryon, the demon that keeps coming back to life in another body, forcing her to kill him over and over again, the way she's done, no doubt, repeatedly in her imagination. Later in the play (1384-88), she'll claim to have stabbed her husband no fewer than three times, but here she only fantasizes about it, envisioning her husband's body sliced to ribbons. This all but amounts to admitting to his face her desire for him to die, a confession of murderous passion thinly veiled behind a faithful wife's lament.

Having nearly revealed herself, Clytemnestra now puts to the test her husband's awareness of what she's planning to do to him. She has her servants roll out a purple tapestry and bids him not to set his Troy-conquering foot upon the filthy earth but like the Near Eastern king he is—a god of sorts—to permit only the finest fabric and artwork to touch his body. In Aeschylus' world, no Greek, not even royalty, would ever have dared to commit such an act of hubris, especially in public.

Clytemnestra needs to know if Agamemnon is as wrapped up in his own triumph and glory as she suspects he is. If so, he'll agree to step upon the tapestries. If, on the other hand, he has any inkling of what she's up to, he won't tempt fate by walking on them. The tension at this moment in the drama is magnificent, externalized through Agamemnon's choice, to tread or not to tread the rich stripe of purple running up the middle of the stage. The tapestry is a symbolic stream of blood pouring out the doors, the carnage of the countless murders that have occurred within its walls, including Agamemnon's about to happen. Visually, psychologically, dramatically, it's one of the finest moments in all theatre!

To highlight the tension, Aeschylus uses stichomythia between two characters—as opposed to a character and the chorus—for the first and only time in the play. When Agamemnon initially hesitates to step on the tapestries, Clytemnestra asks him, "If Priam had won as you have, what would he have done?" (935) Agamemnon acknowledges that his dead rival would have trod tapestries in splendor. "So, why don't you?," Clytemnestra baits him. Agamemnon still resists. In his heart, he knows it's wrong.

At the end of their brief stichomythia, Clytemnestra try a different tactic on her indecisive husband to induce him to walk on the carpet, a weapon her character rarely deploys in myth and only here in this drama. She uses her womanly charm, "Oh, come on! You can do it. Indulge yourself!" (943)

With that, Agamemnon caves in and agrees to tread the tapestries, but in a half-hearted concession to modesty, he kicks off his sandals—with typical extravagance, Aeschylus has him describe them as "slaves for my feet to tread on"—and adds one final blow to Clytemnestra's dignity. If she wants him to act like a Trojan king, then she, too, must act like an oriental queen and take care of her husband's concubine, Cassandra. Given any other circumstances, Clytemnestra would surely have recoiled in rage at such a proposition but, like Hera in the Dios Apate, she's so elated at having won him over that, rather than rejecting his insulting request, she ignores the slight and, instead, explodes with a cry of triumph:

There is the sea, and who shall drain its yield? It breeds
precious as silver, ever of itself renewed,
the purple ooze wherein our garments shall be dipped. (958-960)

To Clytemnestra, then, the boundless sea represents everything that's wrong and right in her life: the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon's return, the inspiration to murder him, the inventiveness of her plan, the purple of the carpet he treads, the wealth she'll take from him as his soul flutters off to Hades, the unending reciprocity of vengeance and glory that crowns them both. Unaware of all this, Agamemnon processes up the purple carpet and goes inside the palace, as the audience knows full well, to his death. Beaming with joy, Clytemnestra ends the scene with a prayer to Zeus the Fulfiller to fulfill her prayers, and then follows her hapless husband inside for the slaughter.

975-1034 Not the most waterproof pots in Argos, the chorus has a sense of foreboding that something's wrong. They sing a song of consternation, while the audience sits anxiously on the edge of their seats for what will happen next, surely the announcement of Agamemnon's murder. It was a convention in Greek tragedy that the act of murder—not all forms of death, as it's often misrepresented—takes place offstage and the audience only hears the cries of the person being slain. So Aeschylus' audience knew what they could soon expect to hear: Agamemnon's cries, as Clytemnestra stabs him.

Instead, the chorus sings on and on, through one pair of verses and then another, and still there is no death-cry from offstage. The viewers must have started wondering, "What's wrong? What's going on? Why isn't Agamemnon crying out that he's being killed? What's Aeschylus up to?"

Then suddenly, without warning, the palace doors fly open, and Clytemnestra emerges. Surely, many in the audience thought, "Okay, fine, now she's going to tell us that she's murdered her husband. But what happened to his death-cries?"

1035-1068 Aeschylus is, of course, leading his audience on by holding off the inevitable, Agamemnon's slaughter. Attentive viewers will remember that the doomed general had told his wife to take Cassandra inside (950-951), and in her delirious joy that her husband was foolish enough to tread the tapestries—a clear sign that he didn't know about her plan to murder him and so she could proceed with the act—Clytemnestra forgot to bring the Trojan girl in the palace with her.

Instead of bearing down on the audience with constant pressure about Agamemnon's fate, the playwright now relieves the tragic tension with a bit of humor. To wit, Alcmena's son (1040) is Heracles who in punishment for some crime served for several years as the slave of Queen Omphale ("Bellybutton"; cf. umbilical), the regent of Lydia. Appropriately for this humorous passage, Aeschylus makes reference to a myth associated more often with comedy than tragedy. For instance, Omphale made the great Heracles, among other things, wear women's clothes. Clytemnestra's reference to this myth would surely have inspired laughter from some of Aeschylus' audience.

Toward the end of the scene, Clytemnestra's impatience shows through in what would be comical, were it not so hideous: ". . . the flocks are standing, ready for the sacrifice we make to this glad day we never hoped to see." (1057-8) Irony drips like hot grease off these lines. "The flocks"?—or does she mean her husband Agamemnon? "This glad day we never hoped to see"—well, it's true she never hoped to see her husband again, nor did she ever dare dream she'd have such a good chance to kill him as now. The double meaning of the words is so thick here the play again verges on comedy.

Finally, envisioning the situation with vivid frankness, Aeschylus has Clytemnestra who speaks only Greek try to get Cassandra who presumably speaks only Trojan—as of this moment the girl's been in Greece for only about an hour—to come inside the palace. Cassandra stares in silence at Clytemnestra, who says at last in frustration what has to rank as the silliest thought in all Greek tragedy:

You: if you are obeying my commands at all, be quick
But if in ignorance you fail to comprehend,
speak not, but make with your barbarian hand some sign. (1059-61)

That is, "If you don't understand me, wave!" Think about it.

1069-1330 After Clytemnestra exits the stage, Aeschylus modulates rapidly from comedy back to tragedy, a contrast that intensifies both. Though she seemed speechless and stupid to Clytemnestra, Cassandra is a prophetess and knows far more than she lets on. In fact, she's the only one besides Clytemnestra who's aware of what's about to happen inside the palace.

It's that sad and lonely creature Aeschylus focuses on now, the tragic prophetess who knows the future but can't convince anyone to believe her (see Chapter 4.III.A). That's the reason she's been silent for so long. Speaking is nothing but agonizing frustration for her. Worse yet, as she stands before the gate of Agamemnon's palace, she sees what's going to happen, her own and Agamemnon's slaughter. And now that death is upon her, and she knows it, words burst forth of their own accord, words not meant so much for others—she gave up trying to communicate with people long ago—as a song sung for herself and Apollo, her god and her persecutor.

But with her silence Aeschylus has more up his sleeve than just characterizing the mad prophetess. He's playing a trick on his audience and has been ever since Cassandra's first entrance nearly three hundred lines before. His deception involves the three-actor rule and the conventions of performance in the day. In the first scene in which she appeared, there were two speaking actors on stage, one playing Agamemnon and one Clytemnestra. If the drama as a whole involves only two such performers, as had been the custom for many years in Greek theatre, then a mute actor must be portraying Cassandra. And so it would seem to be, since Cassandra remains silent throughout this scene.

After Clytemnestra and Agamemnon leave the stage, the chorus sings a song and still Cassandra is silent. When Clytemnestra reenters and addresses Cassandra directly (1035-1071)—the humorous scene where Clytemnestra asks Cassandra to wave her "barbarian hand"—still the prophetess remains silent, even though her new mistress has ordered her to speak. By this point, most of Aeschylus' audience would have convinced themselves that a mute actor was playing Cassandra.

Finally, the chorus offers to escort Cassandra inside the house, but all of a sudden she cries out loud! The Cassandra-actor is, in fact, not a mute player but a third speaking actor, the most the rules at the Dionysia ever allowed. And not only does this actor speak but he sings, engaging in a lengthy duet with the chorus (1072-1330). It was most likely a famous actor and singer hiding behind the mask of Cassandra, whose unexpected appearance and eruption into song surely surprised and delighted the audience at the premiere. This is Aeschylean showmanship at its finest.

Cassandra begins her long scene, a show-piece for a singer if ever there was, by chanting prophetic riddles in the wildest, most shapeless meter in Greek poetry, dochmiacs. The chorus is confused by her words, even though what she's saying is perfectly clear to anyone who knows the history of Agamemnon's family. It's Aeschylus' way of demonstrating Cassandra's curse, to be heard but never understood.

To judge from the play, his Cassandra sees all time happening at once, thus she knows what's to come but not where she herself is at any particular moment. The past, present and future blend together in her mind in such a way that she jumps around in time erratically. To someone standing beside her, she appears to be insane because she speaks about things which aren't there—but they were there once or will be there some day—but to anyone who understands what she's talking about, like the audience watching this play, her words are perfectly comprehensible. She's seeing the past or the future. It's, in fact, a brilliant way to stage a character like Cassandra because it shows clearly how a person can reveal the future without affecting the course of events because no one believes her.

As a good example of this, almost the first thing the prophetess envisions as she approaches the palace is a group of "small children (who) wail for their own death and the flesh roasted that their father fed upon." (1096-1097) Later in the scene she sees them again, this time even more vividly: "their hands filled with their own flesh, as food to eat . . . holding out the inward parts, the vitals, . . . that meat their father tasted of . . ." (1220-1222) The chorus, however, have no idea what she's talking about or who these children are, but almost every viewer in the Theatre of Dionysus would have. They are Thyestes' children, as we noted above, the victims of a horrific episode in the cycle of myths surrounding Agamemnon's family.

The chorus don't understand that she's seeing events which happened long ago. Thus, they dismiss what she says as the ramblings of a mad woman. When later in the scene she tells the chorus that murder is about to erupt anew in the palace, by then they've given up on trying to understand her. Instead, they pick up on her agitation, eventually joining in with her wild singing and dancing. As they do, their language modulates from a calm dialogue meter (iambs) to her frenzied dochmiacs.

Her tone, in contrast, changes the other way. As the scene progresses, Cassandra calms down—her verses move from dochmiacs to iambics—until she's finally speaking in a lucid and forthright manner. But by the time she says to them, "I tell you, you shall look on Agamemnon dead" (1246), they've worked themselves up into such a lather they hear nothing but panic in her words.

So she gives up talking to them and instead addresses Apollo directly: "My lord, Apollo, King of Light, the pain, aye me, the pain!" (1256-1257) His blessing of prophesy has turned out to be a terrible curse since no one ever believes her prophesies, and for that she hates him. In one of the most daring and dramatic gestures in Greek tragedy, she tears off the sacred garlands of a prophetess and throws down the god's holy staff, and tramples them in rage and disgust (1264ff.). The scene on stage embraces now a world turned upside-down, a universe perverted by passion and revenge, where priestesses crush the holy objects entrusted to them. Again a memorable moment, a monument in the history of theatre.

At the end of the scene—in the last breaths Cassandra will ever take and sadly she knows it—she sums up the plight of human life with terse poignance:

Alas poor men, their destiny. When all goes well,
a shadow will overthrow it. If it be unkind,
one stroke of a wet sponge wipes all the picture out;
and that is far the most unhappy thing of all. (1327-1330)

The chorus still doesn't understand her meaning—no one ever has!—and so Cassandra passes alone and unannounced inside her captors' palace to death's cruel embrace far from home and family in a distant enemy land.

1331-1398 The chorus hardly gets a chance to sing half a stanza, when cries of death erupt from inside the palace. Once Cassandra finally entered, Clytemnestra has wasted no time killing her husband and his pathetic spear-prize.

Now, Aeschylus' careful preparation early in the play comes to fruition. The chorus' feeble response to this crisis is natural, coming as it does from old, ineffectual men. Instead of rushing inside and defending their king the way young warriors might, they stand outside the palace in a dither, wondering what course of action to take. And, of course, they sing.

Before they can do anything else, the skene opens up to reveal the carnage inside the palace. Riding out on the ekkyklema (a rolling platform), Clytemnestra stands in triumph over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.

At last, here is the real Clytemnestra. Irony gone and deceptions aside, she rejoices in earnest at her murder of Agamemnon, stabbing him a "third blow, in thanks and reverence to Zeus" (1386-7) and pointing to his blood on her clothes—no doubt, the actor's costume was splattered with red paint—which made her glad, "as gardens stand among the showers of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds." (1391-2) Boldly comparing death with life-giving spring, Clytemnestra envisions the gods rejoicing in Agamemnon's murder, a world inverted and disordered.

1399-1576 The following lyrics are technically called in Greek a kommos, a"funeral lament," but, as the chorus sings of gloom and doom, at the same time Clytemnestra's words are full of joyful glee. Her triumph is, however, hollow because she knows, now that she's accomplished her life's mission, she's the next in line to fall. Her justification of her actions is equally hollow. She blames Thyestes, the gods, the house, everything but herself. Behind this desperate apology lurks her suspicion that, wherever the fault lies, she's the one who will pay the next penalty. Stripped of her customary irony, Clytemnestra seems suddenly small and helpless, and ever so mortal.

1577-1673 Aeschylus has one last card up his sleeve. Aegisthus appears on stage and gloats over his dead cousin, claiming vengeance for the wrongs that Agamemnon's father Atreus did Thyestes, Aegisthus' father. When he and the chorus get into a quarrel—truly a battle of mice—Clytemnestra tries to calm them down. When that fails, she takes Aegisthus inside the house. It's clear who's really in charge.

The citation of Pleisthenes (1602) represents another version of Agamemnon's family line which posits a son Pleisthenes in between Atreus and Agamemnon. Orpheus (1629) is the great poet of myth whose singing was so beautiful it moved stones and trees to follow him as he wept for the death of his beautiful wife Eurydice.

In the last scene of the play (1649ff.), the meter changes to trochaics—trochaics are lines of verse made up of trochees (a long or stressed syllable followed by a short or weak one, such as in the word "NEE-dle")—in ancient drama it was a type of verse associated with running and quick action on the stage. The trochaics here serve to increase the tempo of the action as the stage clears at the end of the play. Unlike in modern theatre where it's possible to turn off all the lights to signal the conclusion of the dramatic action, all the characters in Greek drama have to exit the stage at the end of a play.

Thus, Aeschylus' use of trochaics at the end of Agamemnon help sweep Aegisthus, Clytemnestra and the chorus from the stage. They also characterize the tone of the play's finale, an uncomfortable stalemate between the city's inhabitants and their rulers. That is, the trochaic meter with its rollicking pace suits well the insults which the characters exchange as they depart, a vigorous animosity that will characterize life in Argos for many years to come.

In the University of Chicago edition of the play, the translator Richmond Lattimore has quite brilliantly rendered the final lines of the play in the same meter in English. The verse is composed of four trochees, then a pause midway through the line, and then three and a half trochees, creating a line which runs like this: DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da (pause) DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM:

YOU shall LEARN then, SINCE you STICK to (pause) STUBbornNESS of MOUTH and HAND.
UP now FROM your COVer, my HENCHmen: HERE is WORK for YOU to DO.

Note that it's possible sometimes to substitute two short syllables ("da da") in place of one, as in the second line, "COVer my HENCHmen." Reading the last scene aloud in meter as quickly as possible helps the reader grasp the sense of the flurrying words and actions of the original as the play speeds toward its conclusion.

Yet, if this play is over, the story and the trilogy are far from it. In the next play, the second of the trilogy, Agamemnon's son Orestes returns and avenges his father's murder by killing Clytemnestra, his own mother. The Furies of his dead mother, then, rise from her blood and pursue him to Delphi, where he takes refuge at the altar of Apollo. In the third play he escapes her Furies with Apollo's help and flees to Athens.

There, in a trial Athena judges his case and acquits Orestes of murder, on the grounds that Apollo had ordered him to do it. At the end of the trilogy, she appeases the Furies by granting them a special place and function in her city Athens, and the day's drama culminates with a sense that divine intervention and reason have healed a shattered family and universe. This finale comes as close as anything to summing up the confidence that filled Athens during the Classical Age.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

The Libation-Bearers
The Eumenides
The Oresteia
Argive elders

purple tapestry



A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


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