September 24, 2010

Review: "Agamemnon" from "The Oresteia" By Aeschylus

I am in the midst of participating in a group read and discussion of Aeschylus' extraordinary trilogy of plays known as The Oresteia with one of my on-line groups on Goodreads.  First of all, I need to acknowledge that I am pretty much a neophyte when it comes to any form of study of the great written works of antiquity, and this applies even more so to any of the surviving examples of ancient Greek drama.  I am currently in the process of remedying this woeful deficiency.  Sure, like most of us, I was required to read bits and pieces of The Iliad and The Odyssey in high school, but I don't recall ever having picked up any of the great classic plays of antiquity.

I also want to point out that with all of the reading that I have done over the course of my adult life I have encountered countless references and allusions to various ancient literary works, and I have always had to sheepishly read over that reference or allusion and therefore not fully comprehending the point.  Clearly, many of the authors of the great literature that we all read and love so much owe a great deal to these earlier poets and authors of antiquity for the classic essays, poems, and dramas that have survived.  One immediately thinks of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats, just to name a few, as representatives of those who've relied upon and embraced that ancient story-telling tradition in their own works.  I finally came to the realization that in order to fully understand and appreciate many of the world's great literary works, that I needed to spend some time studying these earlier classics, including the ancient Greek canon.  This was my rationale for joining my on-line group in the discussion and analysis of The Oresteia by Aeschylus.

It is generally believed that Aeschylus was born near Athens in 525 B.C. of a noble family.  It appears that Aeschylus fought with the Greek army in its classic battle against the invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon.  Over the course of his life, Aeschylus wrote more than seventy plays, of which only seven have survived in one form or another.  Three of those surviving seven plays make up The Oresteia and were written by Aeschylus in 458 B.C., two years before his death in 456 B.C., at the age of sixty-nine years old, at Gela in Sicily.

The Oresteia is unique in that it is the only surviving example of the ancient tradition of the usual trilogy of Greek tragic drama.  The fourth part of The Oresteia that Aeschylus would have originally presented as the normal Greek dramatic tetralogy, the satyr-play, was entitled Proteus; and would have presented the gods and heroes in comic situations that would have lightened the mood of the audience following its viewing of the preceding three tragedies.  Unfortunately, The Oresteia's satyr-play has not survived.  The three tragedies that comprise The Oresteia include:  Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.  Collectively, the three plays tell the story of a royal family, the House of Atreus of Argos, and its journey from a dark and bleak legacy of treachery and vengeance to the establishment of a process for formal determination and atonement of guilt through the use of a trial and jury--the process that we now know as Justice.  In essence, the three plays recount Aeschylus' allegorical telling of the history of the Athenian people's journey from the chaos of vendetta-law to that of an enlightened civilization establishing order through the fair application of justice.  As Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford say so eloquently in their introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Oresteia, that it " our rite of passage from savagery to civilization."

In a nutshell, Agamemnon is the story of the triumphant return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War and of his murder by his wife, Clytaemnestra.  The Trojan War, prosecuted by the Greeks with the help of the gods, resulted in the deaths of a great many Greek soldiers and the utter destruction of Troy and all of its peoples.  Homer's Iliad tells us that the Trojan War was initiated when the Trojan prince, Paris, wooed Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and spirited her off to Troy.  Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, then rallied the Greek army and set off in hot-pursuit to 'rescue' Helen and avenge the insult done to the Greek peoples' honor.  In order to obtain favorable winds for the Greek fleet to sail eastward to Troy, Agamemnon was compelled to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia; an act that Agamemnon's wife, Clytaemnestra, cannot forgive, and which she broods upon during the entire ten-year period that Agamemnon is gone fighting.  Are you seeing a theme emerging here?  There's a whole lot of killing going on, and most of it is associated with revenge--i.e., the application of vendetta-law.

Reading the Agamemnon turned out to be a truly amazing experience for me.  First, it is an absolutely riveting and horrifying tale that simply comes to life on the page.  Obviously, I read an English translation of the play, but it still just feels ancient.  Fagles' translation is incredibly lyrical and spare and very effectively conveys the emotions of the players and the sheer horror of the plot.  Secondly, the moral messages embedded as adages in the play almost leap out at the reader.  A few of the more well-known adages include the following: 'violence begets more violence,' and 'Helen--the face that launched a thousand ships,' or that 'the sins of the father are visited upon the son,' and so forth.

The play starts with the watchman notifying Queen Clytaemnestra that he has spied the signal that Agamemnon is finally returning to Argos.  She begins preparing the palace for his return.  In the meantime, the Chorus of elders comes in and provides us with the back-story of the House of Atreus and its bloody legacy, the reason for the Trojan War, and the sacrifice of Iphigeneia.  At this point a messenger arrives detailing the breadth and scope of the Greek victory over the Trojans as well as the great losses suffered by the Greek army.

Finally, Agamemnon arrives at the palace and is welcomed by the Chorus.  Clytaemnestra comes out, almost like a spider emerging from its lair, and cajoles her husband to step down from his chariot onto a broad tapestry of red cloth that she has placed on the ground from his chariot to the palace doors.  The symbolism is rich as she says,
"Quickly.  Let the red stream flow and bear him home
to the home he never hoped to see--Justice,
lead him in!"
The vision of the red tapestry reminded me of the elevator scene in the movie adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining when the elevator doors open and the blood spills out in a great gush across the floor!  Also, you need to know that only the gods can set foot on crimson tapestries, so Clytaemnestra is able to make Agamemnon commit an egregious offense by walking on it.  Symbolically, Agamemnon has turned his back on the audience watching and walks toward his doom as he enters the spider's lair, his wife also has the last word as she closely follows behind him.  The palace doors close.

At this point we realize that there has been another person in the chariot with Agamemnon.  It is Cassandra, one of the daughters of the late King of Troy, Priam.  Cassandra is an oracle, a prophet, whose powers were bestowed by the god Apollo, but he also made it such that she wouldn't be believed.  Standing in the chariot she immediately begins to foretell the bloody murder that is about to occur inside the palace.  [The photograph, at left, is of Ms. Lilo Baur in the role of Cassandra in the Royal National Theatre's production of The Oresteia in November 1999.  Awesome, huh?]  Cassandra tells the Chorus,
"Murder.  The house breathes with murder--bloody shambles!"
She sees that with the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, that the curse on the House of Atreus continues; nothing changes, and chaos and the Furies still rule.  The Chorus listens to her with mounting horror; as they too now have a sense of impending doom.  Cassandra tells the Chorus that she too must die at the hands of Clytaemnestra, but that she will go to her death with honor and dignity--a daughter of a King--and not a slave as the booty of war.  Before Cassandra enters the palace to meet her own death, she leaves the chorus with an important prophecy,
"There will come another to avenge us,
born to kill his mother, born
his father's champion."
This entire scene between Cassandra and the Chorus is absolutely spellbinding, and the pathos and drama is palpable.  Some of the most powerful dialog I've ever read.

I can almost hear Colonel Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now,
"Oh, the horror...the horror..."
The play now essentially comes to its terrible conclusion with the opening of the palace doors and the Chorus then witnesses the wrathful Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus standing over the bloodied and butchered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.  Clytaemnestra has exacted her bloody revenge upon Agamemnon for his killing of their daughter.  Violence begets more violence.  Chaos rules!

The Agamemnon is Aeschylus' portrayal of why vendetta-law cannot work for a civilized society.  He has now set the stage for the profound moral questions that Orestes and Electra, the surviving children of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, must answer in the next play in the trilogy, The Libation Bearers

Stay tuned for my review of The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.

[This review is based upon the Agamemnon, the first play included in the Penguin Classics softcover edition of The Oresteia, translated by Robert Fagles, 1979, 335 pp.]


  1. Fascinating post Chris. I have to admit my reading of classic tragedy only goes back as far as Shakespeare which I love. I guess I have always thought that this classic Greek stuff would be too inaccessible. Your post certainly brings Aeschylus to life. Many thanks, again very interesting, especially by providing context in relation to the history, relationship with other ancient classics and relevance to nineteenth century literary works.

  2. That is a really great review. I had to read Agamemnon for a Greek history class I took in college and remember really enjoying it. I was laughing as I read your review because I see so many antiquated references in the books I read all the time, and always feel at a disadvantage because you know the author is trying to say something that most of his audience at the time would get. It seems like all of the Greek tragedies were required reading at some point back in the day. :)

    I may have to rent Apocalypse Now since Heart of Darkness made little or no sense to me. Looks like there are some good people in it too.

  3. I've been flirting with a few of the books on my reading list for next year, and Agamemnon is one that totally captivated me--especially that embodied symbol of the flow of crimson. Stunning. (And I read something somewhere that basically said, "Why would anyone ever watch Jerry Springer when there is Aeschylus to entertain us?")

    I'm eager to see what you do next. Will you continue with Sophocles? I read Antigone immediately after reading Jane Eyre back when I was in high school--and they are fascinatingly similar characters who have dramatically (so to speak) shaped how I think of myself. Probably more than you need to know--but I suspect you'll enjoy Sophocles all the same.

  4. Darn you, Chris! Now I have to add Aeschylus to my alread over-burdened bookshelf. I have a fair amount of knowledge of the ancient Greek stories (Agammenon and Clytemnestra being one of my favorites, largely because of the drama surrounding their other two children, Electra and Orestes - see the opera Electra) but confess I've never read Aeschylus. And isn't it interesting that he is believed to have been among those fighting at the Battle of Marathon? I couldn't find a hard source that really confirmed that but it's definitely a belief in internet-land and my guess is that is based on some true source.

    Wonderful post, as always! Looking forward to Eumenides.

  5. Nuts. Saw the typo ("alread" vs "already") as the darned thing was posting. Hate that.

  6. I read the Oresteian a couple years ago for a class and loved it. Overall, I enjoyed the ancient Greek plays much more than Homer. I think Agamemnon is my favorite from this trilogy. The scene where Clytaemnestra kills Agamemnon is awesome. I love the quote you chose - how it has duplicate meanings. Good stuff. Nice post!

  7. Wonderful post! When I was little my dad got me children's versions of Greek mythology and the Bible and said if you understand these you can understand all western lit. If you don't know they, you just scratch the surface of everything else you read.

    I haven't read any Greek tragedies in awhile and I should remedy that. I remember enjoying the Agamemnon the last time I read it. Perhaps I'll start there. I loved the character Cassandra.

  8. Which group is discussing Oresteia on goodreads? I can't seem to find it? can you link me pls?


    1. Unfortunately, that group read and discussion was two years ago in September 2010. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

    2. that's alright. I'd love to just read through the archives. Is that group inaccessible?

    3. My friend, here's the link to the group discussion of The Oresteia.

      I have to tell you that reading those three plays was truly a special event in my reading life. I have since acquired a number of other translations, besides my beloved Fagles, and have enjoyed each and every one of them. I think it is an incredibly important work, and one that every committed reader should delve into at some point. Best wishes! Cheers! Chris