The Oresteia Unplugged, Part 2: Agamemnon
You can see my introduction to Aeschylus’ Oresteia here. My hope is that this will inspire you to read the Oresteia on your own; for now here’s a summary with commentary of Aeschylus’ story about the cursed house of Atrius, as found in Agamemnon, the first part of the trilogy. The next part of the story is coming Monday.
The redemptive structure of the broad narrative of the trilogy is evident in the first play. It recounts the fall of Troy, the fall of the house of Atreus, and enacts the murder of Agamemnon, the “king of kings.” The play begins with a weary watchman in wait, as he has been for years, for the beacon lights to shine from Troy telling of a final capture. On his watch, fear replaces sleep; his singing always results in weeping for what has come upon the house of Atreus. He hopes for “redemption.” [Lattimore] When the watchmen notices a blaze of light in the darkness, he shouts for joy for the “day of grace” that has come upon Argos (line 24, Lattimore).
The Chorus, comprised of the old wise men of the city, then enters the stage and begins telling the story of Troy: “Ten years since the great contestants…put forth from this shore” ( Lattimore, 40-44). Like “eagles stricken in agony,” after losing their young, Agamemnon and Menelaus put forth a cry of war. The Olympian gods hear and they drive “the Fury upon the transgressors” ( Lattimore, 58). But this unleashed fury will come back and avenge the avenger as it always must; there is now fear for recompense. Will not this fury be driven upon Agamemnon in recompense for the brutality he showed to Troy? It will, and this is what now haunts afresh this house of Argos. With no city of justice, blood must avenge blood. The oikos will continue to turn upon itself. The gods avenged Tantalus, Atreus avenged Thyestes, and now we wait in terror to see what must come to Agamemnon now that he has murdered his own daughter and dealt savagely with Troy. And yet, punctuating the chorus’ worry is the repeated cry of assurance, “sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.” Fagle translates this passage as, “Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end” (Fagles, 25).
This article of faith rings hollow as the pages of this first play turn. The only god the Chorus knows to turn to is Zeus; however, Zeus is incomprehensible raw power: “bestower of power and beauty” (Lattimore, 356). Zeus is mere monolithic ‘source’ of all things. It was Zeus who destroyed Troy: “he acted as he had decreed.” (Lattimore, 369). Why will Zeus not also strike down those he empowered to strike down Troy? This is the question that looms in the dark throughout this first play. In the end, all the elders (chorus) can hope for is to “suffer into truth.” They assert that pain leads to wisdom, but at the end of the play it appears that pain only leads to more pain. As Fagles remarked, they were bound to the “harshness of their gods.” “From the gods who sit in grandeur, grace comes somehow violent” (Lattimore, 182).
Clytaemnestra is now on stage and begins declaring the fall of Troy. The elders mock her womanly naiveté, but she responds strongly and refers to her own weakness as a woman only in sarcasm. Clytaemnestra had planned the signal beacons in advance in order to prepare for the return of her husband, but the elders were unaware of this. When a messenger arrives to declare the downfall of Troy, the elders confess their error. When Agamemnon finally returns home, the situation is the same. With cunning and double-edged irony, Clytaemnestra forces Agamemnon to walk across his royal robes as he enters his house, something only fit for gods to do, and so even more wrath is now awaiting the king. With her words Clytaemnestra has already defeated her husband; now all she must do is take these robes and bind the king, trapping him for the slaughter.
Yet, first another character must enter the stage. Agamemnon has committed another sacrilege. Foolishly thinking it fitting and pious, the king brought back Troy’s holy prophetess, Cassandra, as a slave. But this merely increased Clytaemnestra’s jealous rage, and this unholy meddling will also bring more wrath from the gods. Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra leave. Empowered by Apollo, Cassandra begins retelling the events that have cursed the house of Atreus. The Chorus listens in amazement as her riddles become clear; they are forced to believe Cassandra once she begins informing them of what is now about to take place. Although Cassandra cleaves to her new master in Homeric fashion, she still cries out the sorrow, terror, and total desperation deep from within her soul. She speaks by the hand of Apollo, but this is not a hand of love—we learn that the god has raped her—and Cassandra has already turned from this god in deception; even the words she speaks cannot be trusted since Apollo does not claim to be trustworthy to her. Wearing Apollo’s glory, Cassandra has wandered door to door, “beggar, corrupt, half-starved.” (Lattimore, 1274). And now Apollo abandons her to a sacrificial death in the house of Atreus. Robbed of her prophetic robes, the truth of her words still bears their terrible weight. There is to be a murder soon. The wife will murder her king and the king’s slave, Cassandra.
Cassandra enters the house and the elders soon hear the cries of Agamemnon. They rush to the room and find Agamemnon and Cassandra dead, pierced through by the hand of Clytaemnestra. Clytaemnestra stands gloating over her victims. The elders are outraged. Aegisthus enters and is overjoyed at the bloody mess. While Agamemnon was away at war this exile came back to his house and seduced his uncle’s wife. Justice has been done. Aegisthus has avenged his sibling’s death and Clytaemnestra has avenged the death of her daughter Iphigeneia. Aeschylus makes it clear in the words of Aegisthus that Aegisthus is now the new tyrant of Argos. He has gained his rule by force and he will maintain his rule with brutality. At the end of the play, the vain hope is still ringing in the halls of Atreus: “Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.”
Throughout this first play, the ancient, demonic Furies, or Hags, loom in the background. They are rarely referenced as gods directly and lack a personal voice, but they are always present. The Furies produce the fury and the frenzy that drives the sorrow and violence. They drive Justice to drink its rightful blood; they empower Agamemnon as he rapes, tortures, and massacres in the streets of Troy, and they empower Clytaemnestra to lead Agamemnon to slaughter. The Furies are the moral zeal behind passive characters—an evil morality, an evil justice. Tracing the language of the Furies through this first play reveals the deep psychology of ancient man: their ancient demons still drive them, they still lurk in the darkness. If Zeus gives power to man, it will be through the ‘driving’ or ‘stabbing fury.’ (Lattimore, 1432) And ancient man feels his own guilt; this driving fury is “justice.” There is nothing that can relieve the Fury’s thirst for revenge and blood. This thirst is right. This is law.
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