The Significance of the Parados of the Oresteia
Aeschylus’ Oresteia is undebatably one of antiquity’s greatest surviving tragedies. Driven by the universal struggles of justice versus injustice, fear versus obligation and parent versus child, the play follows one ill-fated family through the passion, hatred and destruction that, through ultimate pain and suffering, eventually purges the lineage and restores honor to their name. Preluded by generations of domestic homicide, adultery and brutality, the Oresteia shows the purification and redemption of the house of Arteus. The play directly takes place after the Trojan war. Helen has been kidnapped, Menelaus enraged, Ifigenia sacrificed, war waged, and Troy massacred. The first play in the series, Agamemnon, opens upon a lone sentry gazing out across the Greek countryside pining for the loss of his king and the rise of the queen Clytemnestra into absolute power. In her husband’s absence she had taken Argos into her embittered, power-starved hands, undermined his authority and driven her citizens to hate her and fear the future. The sentry sees a beacon in the distance, his sign that the Greeks have been triumphant and rejoices at the thought of his master’s return home.This brief but emotional prologue immediately establishes the period, setting and the emotional overtures of the tragedy. In a few short lines, the sentry conveys the anxieties and fears of an entire city. He at once shows the love the people hold for Agamemnon and the contempt the feel towards Clytemnestra who has usurped her husband and driven the city of Argos into the ground with her tyranny and hatred. The prologue quickly segues into the grand parados–choral entrance. The audience is now overcome by the beauty and spectacle of the whirling, dancing Chorus serenading them with over two hundred lines of lyrical verse. The dazzling display sweeps the audience into the action of the play with a highly effective but now completely lost convention that, while relaying the entire back story of the play within the context of exquisite, poetic song and intricate dance, gives a complicated social commentary on the characters of the play and the theological principals of the time.Fredrich Schiller discusses the importance of the choral segments of Greek tragedy such as the Oresteia’s parados in “On the Use of the Chorus in Tragedy.” He asserts that since the Chorus is a body within but above the dramatic action, “not an individual but a general conception,” (474) it has the ability to step outside of the plot to make a specific comment upon the society represented. “It forsakes the contracted sphere of incidents,” he explains “to dilate itself over the past and the future, over distant times and nations, and general humanity, to deduce the grand results of life, and pronounces the lessons of wisdom” (474). In bringing in the lyricism of the Chorus, the playwright heightens the poetry of the play and makes the action more credible. As Schiller describes, “with a bold lyrical freedom which ascends, as with a godlike step, to the topmost of worldly things; and it effects it in conjunction with the whole sensible influence of melody and rhythm, in tones and movements” (474). The Chorus transcends the plot and brings the audience out of the emotions of the play. As they are swept into the precise and poetic language, they are made conscious of the theatricalities they are witnessing and therefore more open to the underscored social reflection. “It is by holding asunder the different parts, and stepping between the passions with its composing views, that the Chorus restores us to our freedom, which would else be lost in the tempest” (474).Fredrich Nietzsche describes the Chorus in a slightly different manner. He looks more specifically at the Chorus’ historical roots and thus determines its notability. He sees Greek tragedy as a marriage between the gods Apollo and Dionysos; the chorus as the remnants of Dionysiac hedonism, and the episodes, language and themes as embodiments of Apollonian sensitivities. With its rigid structure and specific attributes, but freedom of beauty and artistic expression “tragedy is an Apollonian embodiment of Dionysiac insights and powers” (823). This especially pertains to Agamemnon since the typically Dionysiac chorus represents the old men or Argos left behind during the war. What was once the embodiment of freedom and pleasure, is in the case of the first play of the Oresteia, the epitome of Apollonian sense and linear logic. Although they are still performing the same songs and dances as the past epicurean Choruses, this group of impotent old men shows extreme mournfulness and sociopolitical sensibilities.Like Schiller, Nietzsche sees the Chorus as a vehicle to uplift the entire drama. Through their language and performance, the Chorus not only gives weight to the action, but serves to exalt the actors and characters. As Nietzsche explains, “it then became the task of the dithyrambic chorus so to excite the mood of the listeners that when the tragic hero appeared they would behold not the awkwardly masked man, but a figure born of their own rapt vision” (824). In contrast to Schiller, however, Nietzsche sees the Chorus as bringing the play up by sweeping the audience into their world through spectacle and language whereas Schiller sees these as means to opposite ends.In the case of Agamemnon’s Choral introduction, the extensive section elevates the play as it is more in depth than the average expositional passage. Within the finely crafted language and poeticism lies a commentary on the characters of the play and further all of society. The Chorus’ speech is predominately exposition retelling the history that has brought the play up to Clytemnestra’s power and Agamemnon’s success. However, imbedded within their narrative is their opinion on the matters they are discussing. In their description of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon and their tangled pasts and situations, the Chorus gives a subjective view on the story and presents a romanticized view of the monarchs that is resonant of Neitzsche’s later argument.Although the Chorus despises Clytemnestra and her power in the kingdom, they are equally as critical of Agamemnon and his escapades in Troy. They clearly disapprove of the war referring to it as a “quarrel over a woman of many men” (36). They see Helen as a common whore and pine for those who have lost their lives in such a futile and hollow struggle.This can be specifically seen in the use of animal imagery throughout the speech. The passage begins by referring to the brothers as eagles, screaming “in lonely agony of their nestlings, and all the watchful care they had spent guarding them” (36). This is referring to Menelaus’ loss of his wife, but the phrase is ironic when looked at from Agamemnon’s point of view. In his case, he has had to sacrifice his beloved daughter, his “nestling”, “like a young goat” (41), to retrieve Helen for his brother. The Chorus recognizes this, saying while describing Ifigenia’s sacrifice, “so [Agamemnon] dared to become his daughter’s sacrificer to aid the war waged for a woman–first rites of deliverance for the ships” (41).The eagle metaphor and the Chorus’ sympathy carries over to their description of the omen coordinated by the army’s prophet. Here they describe the sacrifice of a pregnant rabbit to a pair of raptors “one black eagle, one white-tail… near the palace where all could see them as they fed on the womb’d gravid load of leverets, mother and all, pulled down to the hare’s last course” (38). The unborn rabbits serve as a metaphor for the ill-fated Trojan people, massacred by the brutal eagles Agamemnon and Menelaus. This conflict then becomes a battle not only between the Greeks and Romans, but Zeus and Artemis. Since it was Zeus who prompted the brothers to take up arms against the Trojans, Artemis is embittered by “those winged hounds of her father who devour in sacrifice the unhappy cowering mother with her brood before they come to birth” (38). As Zeus is the “god of guest-friends” (36) who demands reparations for an ill-behaved house-guest, Artemis demands revenge as the goddess of baby animals and virgins for the rabbits and Ifigenia. Thus, Aeschylus creates a complex set of interweaving metaphors that eventually leads to a critique of the Hellenistic principals that hold Zeus as the God of gods.Although the text is constantly interrupted by prayers to Zeus, the summation of the speech actually reflects a critique of the king of the gods. If Zeus supports Agamemnon and his brother in their ill-conceived exploits and the destruction of all those they had to sacrifice along the way, and the Chorus deems the expedition immoral, they must be passing judgment on the god. They also seem to be criticizing the superstition that leads men to take the advise of the prophets. The last lines of the passage speak about the pain caused by the prophecy and Ifigenia’s sacrifice: “But Calcha’s divining art bore fruit; the scales of justice have come down and brought, with suffering, and understanding. You will learn the future when it happens. Till then, let it be. To otherwise is to have sorrow before you need. For it will come clear with the dawn’s light” (42). They are thus presenting a view of the religion that is based on uncovering and foiling fate for selfish ends and worshiping an unworthy supreme god.Throughout the parados of the first play of the Oresteia, Agamemnon, the chorus serves to, through beautiful, poetic language, uplift the play, draw the audience into the action, and make commentary on the action and society as a whole. As the passage runs its exposition through the story of Agamemnon and his disastrous past, it becomes much more than just a description, commenting on religion and the nature of leadership. The Chorus does not trust their monarchs or their gods and Aeschylus carefully shows this throughout their opening speech, embedding their true feelings within metaphors and poetry. The speech sets the overall tone for the play where no one can be trusted and the cycle of revenge and violence spins almost out of control.Works CitedAeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. David Greene and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1989Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism2E Ed, Bernard F. Dukore. US: Heinle and Heinle, 1974. 351-358Schiller, Friedrich. “On the Use of Chorus in Tragedy.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Ed, Bernard F. Dukore. US: Heinle and Heinle, 1974. 359-363
Cassandra’s Final Monologue
Cassandra’s final monologue in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon plays a transformative role in terms of the movement of the plot and, upon close examination, functions as a key for many of the tragedy’s larger themes. She begins by equating prophecy, be it the physical act or the emotional ramifications of foreknowledge of events, with intense pain. ³Oh, flame and pain that sweeps me once again!² she cries, then appeals to Apollo, the god at her prophecies’ origin, for help. Here, she names him ³King of Light² (ln 1256, ln 1257). This is an interesting paradox: Apollo, the source of the prophecy, is equated with light, which is a result not a source of fire. The metaphors are operating in reverse directions. Perhaps, then, Aeschylus is highlighting not only Apollo’s connection to the prophecy but also to the actual events, in that he observes them, ruler of the reflected light from the fire of Cassandra’s pain. This is illustrative of the role the gods play in the Oresteia in general. While at some level responsible for the events of the human sphere, they are also spectators and, by the conclusion, adjudicators. This tension between the active and passive roles of the gods is fundamental to the development of the tragedy. The actions of the humans are fated to some extent, and their roles are determined by dictation of the gods, for example, Orestes was ³born to slay his mother² (ln 1280-1). The gods at some point become spectators, allowing the mortals enough leeway to resist their fates, and even, in Orestes’s case, participate in their own trials.There is also an implicit dichotomy between the divine and the mortal expressed in Cassandra’s initial exclamation. This is problematized in lines 1258 through 1259, when Cassandra introduces, by way of metaphor, a third classification. She names Clytaemestra a ³woman-lioness, who goes to bed with the wolf, when her proud lion ranges far away² (ln 1258-9). This initial characterization of Clytaemestra and description of her sins is instrumental in explaining them. When she is relegated to an animal position, below that of humans, her crime is drained of any art, and presented as simple, if vile. Similarly, Aeschylus posits that her relationship with Aegisthus is below her station, making him a wolf to Agamemnon’s ³proud lion² (ln 1259). Since the development of the entire trilogy depends on judging Clytaemestra’s deeds as wrong while simultaneously judging both Agamemnon and Orestes to be right Aeschylus moves her, through metaphor, to a more base level of existence. Portrayed as a lioness, her motives seem less pure, her reasoning clouded, and her urges seem to dictate her actions. This is but one of many ways Aeschylus denigrates Clytaemestra and her deeds; in The Libation Bearers, she is shown to be a trickster only, a crafter of ³sacrilegious handiwork² (LB ln 986).Having thus characterized her murderer, Cassandra goes on to briefly prophesy the coming events. She says that, ³as a wife mixing drugs, [Clytaemestra] wills to shred the virtue of my punishment² (ln 1260-1). The initial metaphor is interesting, since it varies so little from the actual situation. Clytaemestra is, naturally, Agamemnon’s wife, but Aeschylus chooses to invoke the more abstract, and potentially more ideal, image of ³a wife² mixing drugs, rather than to say that it was as if Clytaemestra herself were mixing drugs. Again it seems that Clytaemestra’s position as an ordinary mortal is put into jeopardy; the evil of her deeds appears to prevent herfrom fully representing the abstract notion of a ³wife². Furthermore, she puts into the mixing bowl goes not herbs and wine but ³the virtue of [Cassandra’s] punishment.² This is the first of a number of paradoxes in the passage; the notion of sin not virtue is intrinsic to punishment. The virtue in question, then, is not the virtue of the punishment itself, but rather the virtue with which Cassandra could undergo the punishment. Here, the center of tragic gravity begins to shift, since Cassandra names as the primary casualty of Clytaemestra’s plot not Agamemnon’s death but her own loss of an opportunity to behave nobly. This is not solely a shift of focus from Agamemnon as victim to Cassandra, but rather a more significant shift that begins to privilege adherence to ethical and virtuous behavior over life itself. It is in this context that a courtroom begins to have relevance; only with this assumption can we begin to allow a forum which determines the ethical legality of an act power over life and death. Cassandra is not entirely free from self-centered rationale, however, saying that the cause of Agamemnon’s murder is ³that he brought a mistress home² (ln 1263). Unless, of course, the death she references as resulting from this is her own, rendering Agamemnon irrelevant, and completing the gravitation shift in her favor.Cassandra’s attention then turns to the flashy prophet’s attire she is clothed in, and she begins to rip it from her body. This sort of melodrama is tragically effective, to be sure, but there seem to be two other ideas at work. The first is a seeming quest for purity of existence: if she is miserable, she wants to appear so. ³Make someone else, not me, luxurious in disaster!² she exclaims (ln 1268). This is the second of the paradoxes, since it is as unlikely to be luxurious in disaster as it is to be virtuous in punishment. Here, rather than subtly reconstructing the relationship between two concepts, Aeschylus seems to be vilifying the concept of ³luxuriousdisaster² as a whole. Later, in The Libation Bearers, the Chorus describes one properly attired for grief or disaster: clothed ³in my grief, with splitting weft of ragtorn linen across my heart’s brave show of robes² (LB ln 27-9). The text also names many luxurious disasters; Agamemnon took the fatal step onto the red tapestry he thought too rich, and the tapestry itself came to symbolize this notion, reappearing, in the hands of Orestes’s attendants, after the murders of Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. The irony in the presence of elegant indulgences on the scene only compounds the tragedic impact of a great disaster.The second of the notions at play is an apparent disappointment or anger with the gift of prophecy itself: Cassandra calls her staff and flowers ³mockeries² and throws them to the ground, saying, ³this for all that you have done to me² (ln 1264, ln 1267). She suffers at the hands of her own gift. Cassandra continues to harp on this through line 1276, recording her loved ones’ hatred of her and her status as a ³beggar, corrupt, [and] half-starved,² and yet, she says, ³I endured it all² (ln 1274). She seems to harbor a grudge against Apollo, saying that it was he who removed her ³prophetic robes² when in fact she tore them off with her own hands (ln 1270). ³And now,³ she says, ³the seer has done with me, his prophetess² (ln 1275). What begins to emerge from this muddle of resentment is a dualism between the god as the seer and the prophet (or mortal) as the ³endurer² as such, that is, the individual who experiences the ramifications of the knowledge the gods possess. This dualism begins to suggest a slightly new way to conceptualize fate. The sight and the judgment rests in the heavens, and the mortals below are left to passively experience or suffer through that which is seen. Here as elsewhere, the relationship between the human and the divine seems to foreshadow the emergence of a judicial system.The text then jumps to an entirely different issue: that of the impacts of intergenerational conflict and of fighting amidst family members. A classic element of the tragic form, these idea figures prominently in the Oresteia. ³Lost are my father’s altars,² mourns Cassandra, and, in the next play, she is echoed by Electra (ln 1277). Electra has lost not the physicality of her father’s tomb, but the meaning of it, and the words to access his spirit and her respect for her ancestry. ³How shall I say the good word,² she asks, ³how make my prayer to my father?² (LB ln 88-89). Interfamilial conflict destroys ancestral history, and the religious sensibility it appears to connect with, along with the family itself. This creates a vacuum that fate wishes to fill. If the altar of Cassandra’s father is gone, well, ³the block is there to reek with sacrificial blood, [her] own² (ln 1277-8). Aeschylus is engaging in a symbolic explanation of the way conflicts are reproduced between generations; when one can no longer access the tomb or altar of one’s father due to conflict and tragedy, new altars must be created by those who yet require vengeance. Cassandra explicates this readily, saying, ³we . . . die not vengeless by the gods. For there comes one to avenge us also² (ln 1278-80). She means, of course, Orestes. She then prophecies his homecoming and the other events of the Libation Bearers, including both the escalation of the interfamilial conflict and its resolution. It is fated that Orestes will return to ³cast men headlong for his father felled,² which implies that he will make the punishment more severe than the crime (ln 1285). At the same time, ³he will come back to cope these stones of inward hate,² which suggests that Orestes will simultaneously move the entire self-replicating disaster toward some sort of resolution (ln 1283). Aeschylus is employing this device to heighten the dramatic irony of the entire trilogy by giving his audience a vague and seemingly self-contradictory vision of things to come.Having dealt with both the near and distant future, Cassandra moves to her present. She begins to think about her own death, in the context of her prophetic abilities and her various experiences. She knows the sum of the events to come and asks, ³why am I then so pitiful? Why must I weep?² (ln 1286). Here there is some movement between the passive, objective state of being ³pitiful² and the action of ³weeping² that recalls the seeing/experiencing dichotomy of the divine and the mortal. The knowledge that accompanies Cassandra’s position as a prophet complicates the matter of death for her, and her movement toward a realization in lines 1287 through 1290 is slow. Initially, her foreknowledge leads to a confusion of tenses: she saw Ilium ³die as it died² and ³those who broke the city . . . fare as they have fared² (ln 1288-9). These juxtapositions of tense seem analogous to the more direct paradoxes posed by the phrases the ³virtue of punishment² and ³luxury in disaster.² Each of these paradoxical instances seem to hinge on some greater knowledge of the events taking place: a prophet can watch something ³die as it dies² and can also find the irony in luxury despite impending disaster. It is this prophetic distance a slight privilege over ordinary mortals that constitutes the perspective from which the paradoxes become visible. Cassandra’s prophetic uncertainty in terms of her temporal location in relation to certain events begins to clear in a series of declarative statements: ³I will go through with it. I too will take my fate² (ln 1290). With these, she abandons prophecy and pulls herself into her own present. Now thinking of the future with only hope and no certainty, she begins to pray that her death will be ³painless² and, later, that ³the avengers² will avenge her death as well (ln 1294, ln 1324). ³Painless death² is, potentially, among the many paradoxes that fill the passage, but now, in the context of a prayer, it comes into being through Cassandra’s desire for its truth, rather than through an ironic foreknowledge. Earlier, Apollo was named theseer, and sight became analogous with the divine. When Cassandra says ³I may close up these eyes, and rest² she is not only describing what she will do at the time of her death, but what she is doing at present. She is closing not only her literal but also her prophetic eyes, divorcing herself from the foreknowledge giver her by the gods, and resting at last.Cassandra’s monologue posits some belated answers to the question that the herald asks on line 566, ³why live such grief over again?² Because, it suggests, mortals have no choice in the matter; they inevitably experience that which the gods see. Because, in order to adjudicate the issues at hand, we must relieve the grief we feel over them. Because it is better to endure punishment than to escape it, if one can endure it with virtue. Because it is only in revisiting our grief that we attain the perspective of the gods and the prophets and are able to see the small paradoxes we create. Because interfamilial conflict inescapably revisits each generation, and we live and relive our grief until the conflict is resolved. Because, Aeschylus suggests, we, with Cassandra, will go through with it, will take our fates.
The Thematic Purpose of the Powerless Underclass in Agamemnon
Marx defines the “underclass” as a social group, conscious of itself, that is being oppressed and exploited by the ruling class and thus possesses a common hostility towards this higher class. This concept is reflected in various literature from throughout history and can also be seen in modern societies all around the world. In Greek drama the powerless underclass is, for the most part, disregarded and seen as a mass without individual identities. Yet, in both Greek literature and our contemporary society the lower classes serve very significant purposes. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon, upon his return from the battle of Troy, features an extremely important and meaningful underclass. Besides the simple function of narrating the background of the play, the powerless underclass in Agamemnon, represented by the chorus and the watchman, also serves several important thematic purposes, namely portraying both the disregarded individual and the oppressed masses, as well as emphasizing negative aspects of the main characters by offering a sharp contrast.One of the purposes of the underclass is that it reflects the situation of the disregarded individuals who lack the power to influence the course of action and who suffer from a lack of individual identity. This lack of individual identity is portrayed through the watchman at the beginning of the play, when he explains his elation about the victory in Troy by saying that his “master’s luck is [his]” (34). The watchman has no control over his personal desires. His happiness is dependent on the situation of his superiors and of the society in general. The suppression of the individuals who freely express their thoughts and thus attempt to actively take part in the action becomes apparent in a dialogue between the chorus leader and the herald. They are debating the glorious victory in Troy when the chorus leader starts hinting at certain suspicions about Clytemnestra and of how life has been since the departure of Agamemnon:”Leader: For years now only my silence kept me from harm.Herald: What, with the kings gone did someone threaten you?Leader: So much… now as you say, it would be good to die.” (538-541)He not only hints at his fears that the conflict about the sacrificing of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, hasn’t been resolved yet, but he also suggests that the freedom of the individual to express his opinion has been oppressed and that one must be careful with what one says. The climax of the disrespect towards the underclass, however, is reached after Agamemnon’s death, when the chorus is arguing against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In a mournful speech, they chant,All plans dashed, all hope! I cannot think […]”You can dare this?To kill your lord with your own hand.” (1560, 1571-1572)Because the chorus is using the first person singular, one can conclude that it is, in this case, speaking as an individual. This individual is expressing his worry and confusion about his king’s death and is verbally attacking his rulers. However, he is disrespected and oppressed by the ruling elite. The powerless individual thus has no say in the plot and illustrates the oppression of the underclass.What lends additional importance to the powerless underclass in Agamemnon, beyond the significance of representing disregarded individuals, is its role as a representation of the oppressed masses. A first indication that the people of Argos are being oppressed is the watchman’s complaint about the hash conditions that he has faced under Clytemnestra’s rule.”So she commands […]That woman -she manoeuvres like a man.” (12-13)By comparing her to a man, the watchman is indicating that she does not follow the stereotype of the loving woman, but that she is rather a strict and disciplined absolute ruler. The actual oppression doesn’t occur until after Agamemnon’s death and after Clytemnestra and Aegisthus claim the throne. After the masses have expressed their strong objection to all this, Aegisthus replies:”You slaves at the oars -while the master on the benches cracks the whip?You’ll learn, in your late ageHow much it hurts to teach old bones their place.” (1659-1663)It now becomes apparent that Aegisthus is willing to use severe physical punishments and other measures to threaten the people and to keep the masses in line. Furthermore, in later a dispute with the chorus leader about Agamemnon’s murder and the future of Argos, he expresses his intentions to become the ruler.”We’ll see if the world comes dancing to your song […]I’ll make you dance, I’ll bring you all to heel.” (1663, 1665)One can tell that the schism between the two parties, the masses and the rulers, has deepened. In this case, the chorus leader is trying to rally the masses against the newly self-proclaimed rulers but the oppressed passive underclass stands no chance against the tyrannous regime of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.Finally, the most important role of the underclass in Agamemnon is to offer a harsh contrast to the culprits and thus emphasize their evil characteristics. In order to accomplish this, the underclass is portrayed as being extremely kind, caring and loyal people. This can be seen in the watchman’s speech after he has realized that the king will soon be returning.”Just bring him home.My king, I’ll take your loving hand in mine and then… “(36, 37)Here one can not only detect the intimate bond that the king has to his subjects, but also the subjects’ loyalty and their dedication to the king’s well being. Unlike Clytemnestra, who is merely acting as if all were well in order to deceive Agamemnon and murder him, the underclass shows true devotion. When the king arrives, the chorus hints at the disloyalty of the rulers.”Search, my king, and learn at last who stayed at home and kept their faithAnd who betrayed the city.” (792-794)Though the chorus does not directly accuse anybody, it is apparent to the reader that those who remained loyal were the underclass and that those who betrayed the city were Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Without the good-hearted underclass to provide the contrast to these actions, however, the role of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus would appear significantly more human and understandable. This division between “good” and “bad” reaches its climax after Agamemnon’s death. The underclass takes on a course of direct confrontation with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and accuses them of having committed terrible acts.”Leader: You appal me, you, your brazen wordsexulting over your fallen king.” (1424-1425)Again, without the contrast that the chorus offers, the reader would be more inclined to accept Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ actions as a result of human emotions and perhaps even consider the revenge to be justified. Through the good example of the underclass in the play, however, the reader automatically identifies more with them and condemns the murder of Agamemnon as being unjust and inhumane. The powerless underclass thus presents a contrast to the murderers of Agamemnon and consequently acts to portray them as malevolent characters.Therefore, although the underclass serves no active role in the plot, they do have important thematic purposes, depicting both the disregarded individual and the oppressed masses, and presenting a positive contrast to the immoral main characters and thus helping to deliver the intended message to the reader. These characteristics of the lower classes in Greek drama have contributed to motivating historians, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers to intensely study Greek drama and draw comparisons to contemporary societies. For, indeed, many of these characteristics can be seen in today’s cultures, as well as in various pieces of literature and have therefore often been identified as basic human patterns. In large masses of people, the importance of the individual is often easily lost, especially when the mass consists of people of the lower classes of society, especially when the ruling class is additionally oppressing these people. Also, when the ruling class is acting against the needs and benefits of their population, the masses will automatically shift their views to represent a radical opposition to the ruling class and are thus often perceived as being more sympathetic. So, though interpretations of Agamemnon and other Greek plays may vary, one belief has been almost unanimously confirmed by literary analysts: the Greek drama offers an excellent reflection of true human nature.
Analysis of Tragedy in Agamemnon
Historically, Greek tragedies have been used as a means to convey particular political and ethical testimonials about society, usually in order to convey certain morals or to ensure order. In such chronicles, a protagonist grapples with a particular conflict or sets of conflicts, usually pertaining to some universal moral code. Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, like many Greek tragedies, is no exception to the rule. The Oresteia, like many other Greek tragedies of its time, deals with issues of justice, honor, and kinship. However, the play itself does so in a way that even mystifies the audience. Unlike other Greek tragedies, it is difficult to ascertain whom exactly the protagonists and antagonists are. Moreover, The epic itself presents the audience with characters who are righteous in a sense, but very flawed morally. Agamemnon is such a character.From what we are told by the chorus in the beginning play of the trilogy, Agamemnon is first presented to us as a man of honor, bravely leading his troops into victory during the Trojan War. But then we are told that Agamemnon, in order to change the winds to win the battle of Troy, sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. The complexity of Agamemnon’s character leaves the audience spellbound- is the man cruel, ambitious, virtuous? Before examining Agamemnon’s acts, it is important to note the historical and political context for which the play was written. In the context of this particular story, the act of sacrificing one’s kin for the sake of the state could indeed be deemed as righteous. Because Greek plays were very political, the theme of family loyalty was oftentimes presented as a danger for society and order. Unlike the Romans who worshipped family, Grecians were more focused on the importance of the state. Like in Sophocles Antigone, going against the state for the sake of family loyalty is seen as a very dangerous thing to do, resulting in dire consequences for all. Because of the historical and political context of the play, Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter could be deemed as a logical decision, especially since the sacrifice was for the sack of Troy and the victory of the Greek army.However virtuous the act itself may have seemed given the context of the play, Agamemnon sacrifice of his daughter was faulted nonetheless, therefore making him a complex, multi-faceted character. It could be argued that out of sheer ambition, Agamemnon murdered his daughter. This is very important to note because the theme of ambition is what began the conflict of the trilogy in the first place. Remember, ambition is what originally sparked the ill-fated curse upon the house of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) when he maliciously murdered Thyestes and his children. Now, Agamemnon’s responsibility for the bloodshed of his daughter for the sake of ambition is another ill-fated curse that has come upon his household for which the consequence will be his own death.Despite the ill-fated decisions of Agamemnon’s ambition, he is depicted as virtuous nonetheless. The chorus presents Agamemnon as a moral character, facing a dilemma whether or not to kill his own daughter. This kind of dilemma is the kind of dilemma a protagonist would be faced with. Remember, Agamemnon fought the city of Troy for the sake of virtue, therefore making him a virtuous character. And like a protagonist, the heroic Agamemnon is faced with a conflict regarding whether or not to kill his daughter Iphigenia after he is commanded by the goddess Artemis to do so in order to spare the lives of his cavalry. Agamemnon contemplates this conflict with much grief:If I obey the goddess, and kill my daughter-What do I become?A monster to myself, to the whole world,And to all future time, a monsterWearing my daughter’s blood – .But if I deny the goddess, then what happens?Will it be worse?An utter defeatFor us all. And for me-Disaster. As if I deserted this army,Disguised, a traitor to my oath,Shorn of honour.Agamemnon p. 13This statement gives us some insight on Agamemnon’s psyche and hence, his character. Although we are told of his act against his daughter, Iphigenia, we are given insight on Agamemnon’s moral dilemma, therefore giving the audience the impression that this character does in fact have a sense of virtue and principles. In a sense, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter is somewhat justified in that if he did not obey the command of the goddess, Artemis, it would have led to utter destruction of his army and of the honor code he must follow in order to be a noble ruler. Like a classic protagonist of Greek tragedies, Agamemnon is faced with a trying conflict in which he must make an ill-fated decision.However virtuous and honorable a picture the chorus portrays of Agamemnon, it is not long before we see that Agamemnon is flawed yet again. When Agamemnon makes his victorious return from Troy he proudly parades Cassandra, his mistress, before his wife and the chorus. We now are presented with an Agamemnon who is very arrogant and disrespectful to his seemingly faithful wife (surprisingly even to the standards of the Greek Hellenistic period). When Agamemnon speaks to his wife, he does so with contempt and disrespect:Guardian of my name, of my home,Great-hearted woman that you are,Daughter of Leda-Your eulogies are like my absence:Too long, too muchAgamemnon, p. 43Yet again the audience is left questioning whether or not Agamemnon is the protagonist or the antagonist. Unlike classical tragic protagonists, Agamemnon’s flaws are dishonorable. Despite Agamemnon’s long absence from Argos, he does not greet his wife with words of delight as she does to him. Instead, he embarrasses her in front of the chorus and his new mistress, Cassandra.Agamemnon presents to us another dishonorable flaw in his character during this dialogue between he and his wife. Although he initially refuses to step on the carpet Clytamenstra has had prepared for him, she cunningly induces him to do so, thereby coercing him to go against his principles. This is a key scene in the play because originally Agamemnon refuses to walk the carpet because he does not want to be hailed as a god:Do not speak these purple clothsThat should be spread only for gods,Yes, only for the feet of gods,For the feet of descended gods.Do not spread them for me.Greet me as a man.Greet me as a god and the godsWill punish us all.Agamemnon p. 43However, through much badgering, Cytemnestra finally convinces Agamemnon to walk on the carpet. Because Agamemnon defies his principles we see another weakness of this arrogant king.Although Agamemnon’s physical presence in the Oresteia trilogy is very brief, his character’s moral dilemma sets the stage for the entire play. Each character in the play has some sort of dilemma that he/she must face for the sake of justice. Clytemnestra must face the dilemma of avenging her daughters death by murdering her husband, both Orestes and Electra must murder their own mother and her lover in order to avenge their father’s death, Aegisthus must avenge the death of his brother, and all the while the furies maintain responsibility for making sure no one kills their own blood relation. With this set up of the story, moral conflict for the sake of justice is inevitable and there is bound to be a blood bath.Because Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter for the sake of ambition and the curse of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father), both crimes ignited a spark in the trilogy that compels each character to seek a revenge that has no end. Appropriately enough for Greek drama, each of these characters feel some sort of moral and ethical responsibility to murder or torment for the sake of justice. But had not Agamemnon and Atreus sparked the initial flame to the curses, this vicious cycle would have been less likely to occur and such bloodshed would have not transpired.Ruler of Argos and wife to Clytemnestra, Agamemnon is quite a complicated character and it is very difficult to distinguish whether he is virtuous or immoral. Like a two-sided coin, we are given multi-facets of Agamemnon as a character. At times he is depicted as being very moral, and at other times, very immoral. Although presented very briefly in the play, his actions are the reasons for much of the conflict in the play regarding the other characters. Not only that, but Agamemnon’s hopeless dilemma to seek vengeance through the use of violence sets the stage for much of the dilemmas yet to come in the trilogy, thereby making Agamemnon an essential character in this Greek tragedy.
Misogyny in Ancient Texts
Misogyny tends to devastate the authority of woman by depriving her of equal treatment to her male counterpart. There are two conversations that seem to circle around ancient texts and misogyny. Did religious texts directly affect the perceptions of society on women or did the mentality of society play a role in cultivating what is written in these religious texts? As Dean Frisina states in his lecture, this subject matter can be associated with the renowned riddle, “who came first, the chicken or the egg?” Woman being created for man, from the rib of man, in ancient holy texts can be the origin of sexism in its various forms of patronizing physiognomies. Nonetheless, it may also simply be the reflection of an already existing mindset that has lingered among mankind from the era of hunters and gatherers where men were seen as the physically dominant sex and women, the tenuous caretakers. Along with ancient religious texts from the Hebrew, Christian and Islamic Bible, plays such as “Aeschylus II” whose writings present clear evidence to the misogynistic ideals that were (and very well may still be) believed. Misogyny is traceable through the story plots as well as the characteristics and personalities being depicted by the women in these texts.
The story of Adam and Eve, and the forbidden fruit, has frequently been placed in the center of a heated debate on whether or not sexism resided within these early writings. Biblical scholar Phyllis Bird suggests that the misogynistic ideas bound to biblical stories are misconceived. She states, “woman is, along with man, the direct and intentional creation of God and the crown of his creation. Man and woman were made for each other” (The Hebrew Bible Accounts). This side of the argument has a solid reasoning behind its claim of equality between the two, even though Adam was formed first and Eve from Adam. The two were made from the same rib, perhaps to show two halves of a whole. But it seems more as if Eve would not be complete without Adam whereas Adam was born whole. Later on, Eve was the one who was drawn to the serpent and the wisdom which would come from the forbidden fruit. She was portrayed as weak minded and foolish for giving into her temptation. On the other hand, Adam was merely a compliant husband who ate the fruit given to him by his wife.
Women in early writings were often vilified for the same actions that a man would be praised for. They would be disparaged for having the same personality traits that a man would be admired for. Clytemnestra, for example, was seen as duplicitous for killing her husband, although the reason behind it was to avenge her daughter’s murder. Her daughter and her son both despised her for her actions. However, when Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphigenia in order to win a war, his other two children, Orestes and Electra, commended their father’s heroic sacrifice. Electra mourned Agamemnon’s death stating, “To call you father is constraint of fact, and all the love I could have borne my mother turns your way, while she is loathed as she deserves; my love for a pitilessly slaughtered sister turns to you” (Aeschylus, 239-242). This quote illustrates the admiration of a man whose actions of killing his daughter is justified by his incentive to win a war. One may think that the sacrifice of Iphigenia for another woman (Helen of Troy) demonstrates that women were valued, but this is not the case. Helen was seen as stolen property; something that belonged to her husband Menelaus; a cause for which Menelaus and Agamemnon had to destroy Troy. Iphigenia, the slaughtered daughter, was a pawn in their nonsensical retaliation and symbolized how women are of only physical use to men. They are a currency, a piece of property.
Sarah, Abram’s wife in the Hebrew Genesis, was also a woman whose actions were pejoratively scrutinized and assumed the worst of. As professor Keller states in her lecture, Sarah was narrated as villainously going back on her own decisions and casting out her surrogate maid out of jealousy. Sarah, distraught, claimed “I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem” (Genesis 16.2). She indicates, to Abram, that she could not stand feeling inferior to Hagar and for that, Sarah treated her harshly. However, Sarah’s actions can be justified as, in Professor Keller’s lecture, we learn that Sarah was merely doing what she believed to be religiously legal. Codes of law of the time state that the surrogate is of no relevance after birthing the father’s child, and that child will grow to care for his birth father and his wife. The Hebrew Genesis, nevertheless, depicts Sarah as not only physically incapable (at first) but also, emotionally unstable in her own decisions. Sarah also questions God’s ability in the bible and is shown to mock his power. She is portrayed as a cynical woman who did not believe that God could allow her to conceive a child in her old age. The Lord asks Abram “why did Sarah laugh saying ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is there anything too wondrous for the Lord?” (Genesis 18.9). God himself mentions Sarah’s lack of faith as a displeasing mention of his command. Although some women and men today may see Sarah as an intrepid woman of her time, she was, in fact, originally depicted in an unfavorable and misogynistic way.
It seems as if man and woman both have been assigned specific roles that each must play in order to remain inside an acceptable level of societal norms. Men must be bold and strong and women must be nurturing and unobtrusive. Of course there is no definitive interpretation of these writings and one can easily be understanding them as a reflection of his or her own judgments; what some may call, implicit bias. My own interpretation of these texts is instituted from the misogyny I see today. Society today still glorifies mothers and wives but objectifies independent women, much like Clytemnestra. Society still values a woman but only up until she is of physical value.
Metaphors as Euphemistic Action in Tragedy: Indirection, Staging, and Bloodshed in Agamemnon and Antigone
There is no shortage of violence and death in the stories and myths adapted to the stage by the Ancient Greek tragedians. However, these actions are almost never depicted explicitly onstage: murders play out offstage while the audience is only privy to the sound of the victim’s last cries, characters onstage recount violent events in words after they have already occurred unseen by the audience. Typically, the audience only views the aftermath of such an event, if that at all. In lieu of actually reenacting such fatal encounters onstage, Greek tragedians of Classical antiquity (such as the fifth century Aeschylus and Sophocles) perhaps opted to communicate these events through vivid metaphors. The enactment, or reification, of these metaphors can be done in an entirely bloodless way while still evoking powerful, emotionally resonant images of real violence and death. In this way, metaphors in tragedy—such as the carpet scene in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the “marriage” of Antigone to Death in Sophocles’ Antigone—allow a tragic poet working under the constraints of Ancient Greek staging to depict violence onstage in a way that more effectively informs the audience about the characters or themes of their work.
In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the Argive king, recently returned from a ten-year battle with Troy, is killed by his wife Clytemnestra for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia at the outset of the war. Despite being a defining moment of the Greek myth surrounding Agamemnon’s return to Argos, this act happens out of view. The true climactic scene of the play comes, instead, when Clytemnestra brings out a red carpet for Agamemnon to step onto from his chariot. Ostensibly, this is an act of love and reverence for her dear husband who valiantly fought and conquered the Trojans in battle, and clearly this is how Clytemnestra wishes Agamemnon to receive her gift: “Such is my greeting to him, that he well deserves” (Aeschylus l. 903). However, like much of Clytemnestra’s speech in this play, her words here are expertly double-edged. She counts on her husband’s pride to infer that she thinks so highly of him that he could rightly walk on (and in so doing ruin) expensive, luxurious red robes. Indeed, such a presumptuous action is acknowledged by Agamemnon as “befit[ting] the gods, and none beside,” so he initially refuses his wife’s request (l. 922). On the other hand, from Clytemnestra’s point of view, Agamemnon is the wretched killer of her beloved daughter; these red robes thus represent the innocent blood he shed and the life so rashly tread upon in the pursuit of glory in the Trojan War.
The sacrifice of Iphigeneia is of course never shown in Agamemnon, but this scene offers the audience something of a metaphorical reenactment of Agamemnon’s commitment of the act that also serves to illustrate vividly Clytemnestra’s own stance on the matter. While Agamemnon initially turns down Clytemnestra’s offer to march upon the red carpet, her persistence eventually wins out, and his “feet crush crimson” as he walks with his wife toward their home (l. 957). This action has two layers of meaning. The first is that it demonstrates Agamemnon’s pride and aggrandized sense of self, a trait that Clytemnestra knows she can rely on. After a few lines of exchange between the husband and wife, he deigns to perform an act he has recently described as permissible only for the gods. This is not to say that he now believes himself a god, but rather that he had always thought himself worthy of it. Any prior objections were likely an attempt to save face in the eyes of his peers. This scene reveals his true character as perceived by Clytemnestra: prideful and shameless. The second layer of meaning is that of the metaphor for Iphigeneia’s death. Agamemnon’s feet destroy precious crimson fabric, much like how, in the eyes of Clytemnestra, he destroyed the life of her precious daughter. While subtextual, this reading is no doubt evoked within the audience by the blood-coloration of the carpet and the act of destruction. Agamemnon’s treading on the red carpet is an echo of his previous actions, and Clytemnestra sees it as yet more proof of the wretchedness of his character which condemns him to die at her hands. This metaphor for Iphigeneia’s death thusly acted out onstage serves dual purposes of providing a way to depict this violent action (while still adhering to the conventions of Ancient Greek tragic theatre) and of manifesting physically just how Clytemnestra views her husband’s misdeeds.
Likewise, in Sophocles’ Antigone, the metaphor of “marrying death” expresses more than just the action symbolized. In this play, the cursed daughter of Oedipus is sentenced to die for having performed the proper funeral rites for her brother Polynices against King Creon’s orders. Once again, the actual event of Antigone dying is not shown, but the imagery of her metaphorical death is repeatedly provided throughout the play preceding it. Once Antigone is convicted of this crime, other characters and even Antigone herself begin to talk as though her death will be more of a marriage. Upon interrogating her and discovering her motives for defying his decree, Creon responds, “Go down below and love, / if love you must—love the dead” (Sophocles ll. 591-592)! Antigone is a being made to love, in her own estimation, but the unfortunate circumstances of her birth and her family line preclude any possibilities of normal, non-incestual love. She cares deeply about her family, a sentiment that likely reflects her father’s relationship with their mother in being incestual. Her father and two brothers now dead, though, Antigone’s love can only be directed at the deceased. The metaphor continues with references to her eventual tomb, a place described by the sympathetic chorus as a “bridal vault where all are laid to rest” (l. 899). This combining of marriage and death in one image is reinforced with Antigone’s words as she faces the reality her fate: “O tomb, my bridal-bed” (l. 977). Here, no husband is explicitly provided for Antigone to wed, but it is clear enough through the repeated pairing of these two major life events that the very act of dying will be a “marriage” of sorts to death.
Although Antigone later describes herself as going to “wed the lord of the dark waters” and a messenger designates her as “the bride of Death,” this metaphor of marrying death is more about Antigone’s unwavering love for her late relatives than it is about a suicidal infatuation with the concept of dying itself (ll. 908, 1238). Discussing Antigone’s death in such terms is somewhat euphemistic, but the real aim in employing this imagery is to highlight her feelings of love that go beyond the grave. Again, her death is not displayed onstage, but the realization of this metaphor is shown in its aftermath: the messenger’s narration of the discovery of Antigone’s body hung by her wedding veils corporealizes this hitherto only alluded to imagery. Even though it occurs out of sight, her passing can be vividly imagined, and the presence of this metaphor throughout the play allows for it to be so striking and to mean something more to the audience. Instead of simply taking her life to avoid dying a slow death in her tomb, Antigone’s suicide comes to embody her undying, incestual love for her family. This exhibits the tragic poet’s adeptness at finding ways to best utilize the conventional constraints of staging of the time to enhance his work.
Although Ancient Greek tragic theatre typically did not allow for much show of physical violence onstage, poets like Aeschylus and Sophocles found ways to work around or even use this constraint to their advantage when crafting their works. As can be seen in the carpet scene of Agamemnon and the marriage of Antigone and Death in Antigone, metaphors made real can present visually descriptive scenes and pregnant events that communicate more to the audience than if the violence or death itself had been enacted onstage. Such metaphors allow the poet to express more information and in a more visually or conceptually compelling manner.
Aigisthos: Insight on a Fool
The Oresteia by Aeschylus is a trilogy of tragedies expressing the strength women possess, but, on the flip side, it also expresses the cowardice of some men—one man in particular. This man’s name was Aigisthos. Aigisthos is only present in the first and second plays of the trilogy, and he barely shows up for the majority of each tragedy. Despite this, Aigisthos’ seemingly minor role, has a clandestinely powerful contribution in the shaming and demise of Agamemnon. With his cunning trickery, his power-hungry cowardice, and his dimwitted blunder, Aigisthos does more than simply avenge his father. He induces his own annihilation. Aigisthos, a man defending his honor as many men do during this time, goes about his scheme in an unexpected way. Like the serpent from Genesis, Aigisthos cunningly deceives the woman and the household without raising a weapon—unless his lustful thinking and sharp mind are categorized in the archives as artillery.
During this era, the men were superior, so, in relation, men were allowed to have many wives, concubines, and mistresses without raising reproof. In correlation to this, it was humiliating for men to have their wives stolen from them. Klytemestra is mentioned twice as “Agamemnon’s queen,” thus proving her position as the one and crucial wife of Agamemnon (Agamemnon ln 25, 83). Aigisthos lustfully weasels his way into Klytemestra’s bed in Agamemnon’s absence, however, and in doing so he is not only taking over the household, but is also disgracing Agamemnon’s family name. Along the same path, Aigisthos is never mentioned to have loved Klytemestra, though Klytemestra, herself, acknowledges her love for Aigisthos numerous times. She says, “Aigisthos makes the fire shine on my hearth, my good friend, now as always, who shall be for us the shield of our defiance…” (Agamemnon ln 1402-1404) Orestes also, while conversing with Klytemestra after murdering Aigisthos states, “While [Aigisthos] was alive you thought him better than my father…. You love him, and hate the man you should have loved” thus noticing himself how she truly loved Aigisthos (The Libation Bearers ln 896-898). Aigisthos, in contrast, rarely ever refers to the woman, and when he does do so, he quickly speaks about his own intentions. The chorus plainly states Aigisthos’ relationship with Klytemestra by saying, “…you… waited the war out, shaming the master’s bed with lust” (Agamemnon ln 1590-1591). Strictly speaking, the chorus refrains from expressing the word “love” when referring to Aigisthos’ relationship with Klytemestra.
Though Aigisthos was a cunning trickster, he was also a dastardly tyrant, hiding behind his woman, his guards, and his words. Aigisthos is not present for the majority of the first play in the trilogy; he is not even mentioned until Cassandra speaks of him in riddles as a “Strengthless lion rolling in his master’s bed” (Agamemnon ln 1190), and he finally turns up with bodyguards after Agamemnon’s death to praise himself for the murder. Clearly, Aigisthos is a tyrant without the bravery tyrants stereotypically display. He is never present without this guards, and he proudly claims the rights to the murder of Agamemnon. Aigisthos’ words are sharp and threatening when he is speaking with the chorus after Agamemnon’s death, but he still must have his “henchmen” on hand when a battle is about to break out. He first admonishes the chorus of elders by saying that they “are old men” and “shall learn how hard it is at [their] age, to be taught how to behave…” (Agamemnon ln 1584). He then ignores the questions of why it was Klytemestra that killed Agamemnon instead of Aigisthos (the man), and finally answers it by passively plotting his own plans. “…The deception was the woman’s part… still with [Agamemnon’s] money I shall endeavor to control the citizens” (Agamemnon ln 1601-1603). With this statement, Aigisthos is not only desperately trying to prove that he is the mastermind, but he is also expressing his true intentions that have absolutely nothing to do with avenging his father. The only one to calm Aigisthos and keep the brawl from commencing is Klytemestra. Aigisthos seeks cover behind her like a child shyly crouching behind his mother’s skirts. When he is threatening the chorus near the end of Agamemnon, the chorus states, “Crow and strut, brave cockerel by your hen; you have no threats to fear” (Agamemnon ln 1638). This indicates Aigisthos’ cowardice and requirement for Klytemestra’s presence. It also proves Klytemestra’s power over his own.
Aigisthos can speak and appear as a tyrant with his many armed guards and flying tongue, but, despite all this, the chorus sees him for what he truly is: an oppressive weakling. Aigisthos may simply be cunning and dastardly, but to add to his hated character, he is also a blundering buffoon. With a weakened sense of fear after Agamemnon’s death, Aigisthos seems to allow his pride to take over. He threatens the chorus of elders in Agamemnon, as stated earlier, and later on, in The Libation Bearers, he is looked at as a despised man by the slaves of the household. Though the chorus of slaves does not say it directly, the slaves do tell Electra to wish those that hate Aigisthos good tidings, and Electra responds by adding the Chorus to this group (The Libation Bearers ln 103). Oppressing the citizens and slaves of the house he conquered shows how Aigisthos did not think about outside threats to his reign. Along with the hatred searing from the household and town, Aigisthos appears to ignore the most important foreshadowing in the second play: Klytemestra’s dream followed by the sudden appearance of a strange man claiming Orestes’ death.
Aigisthos is not present in The Libation Bearers very often, but, in bringing him to the same level as Klytemestra, it is evident that he is did not put two and two together. Klytemestra dreams about giving birth to a snake and being struck down by that very creature. She knows this serpent must be Orestes, for she would not have sent libations to Agamemnon’s tomb if she had no fear of her son coming to avenge his father (The Libation Bearers ln 510-535). Yet, despite this, Klytemestra and Aigisthos both seem indifferent to the stranger bringing the news of Orestes’ death the very morning after Klytemestra has this dream. They do not take the proper precautions (Aigisthos does not bring his guards when consulting with the stranger), and they both are struck down because of this. Aigisthos is also foolishly prideful about his leadership in the household. The mention of “speaking man to man” is a reoccurring theme in The Libation Bearers, happening four different times in the text. Orestes starts this idea by first speaking to the chorus about it (The Libation Bearers ln 555), then by calling at the house, begging to speak to the man of the house instead of the woman so he can get right to the point (ln 651-653). Next, the Nurse relays to the chorus what Klytemestra said about needing Aigisthos to speak to the stranger directly (ln 795). And, finally, taking the idea from Klytemestra, Aigisthos steps up, relaying his intentions in speaking with the stranger so the man “…won’t steal away [Aigisthos’] clear-sighted mind” (ln 844). Ironically, Orestes takes more than Aigisthos’ mind. He takes his life.
Aigisthos may seem like a minor character with little significance in The Oresteia, but he plays a major role in the murder of Agamemnon and the demise of his own soul. He is a trickster that fools the household and his mistress, a coward according to many, and a fool in his actions—all attributes leading to his own destruction. Aigisthos is no more than a stereotypical antagonist, but, as with many villains like himself, he utterly fails.
Orestes’ Sun: Apollo’s Importance to the Oresteia
Spanning an elemental and violent family conflict, The Oresteia by Aeschylus is a trilogy containing the plays Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. As a whole, the trilogy deals with Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra, Orestes’ revenge on his father’s killers, and his ultimate trial for matricide. Although not present throughout the whole trilogy and only a supporting character in The Eumenides, Apollo is the character that prompts Orestes to kill his mother and he also tries to save him at the trial by claiming half of the blame. In examining Apollo’s contribution throughout the play, it can be inferred that Aeschylus uses Apollo as a narrative instrument in order to move the plot towards his desired end. This is why Apollo, though only a peripheral character, has such a substantial impact on the storyline.
In The Libation Bearers, Apollo is present only through the words of Orestes, making him an enigmatic character. “The big strength of Apollo’s oracle will not forsake me,” Orestes proudly proclaims as he explains his plans of revenge to his sister Electra. He continues to explain that “the god’s urgency” drives him on. Apollo is used here as a background force that makes Orestes to go on with his revenge and kill his mother. As a god that has the power of prophecy, Apollo is an important instrument in the fulfillment of Orestes’ destiny and the author’s aim of the text. In order to make Orestes heed his prophecy, Apollo also foresees great hardship and punishment for Orestes if he decides not to kill his mother and avenge his father’s death: “He said that else I must myself pay penalty/ with my own life, and suffer grim punishment.” Both the danger of such repercussions and his own desire for revenge then prompt Orestes to kill Clytemnestra. Though Apollo’s words are not heard directly, but are reconstituted through Orestes’ speech, they are powerful and threatening enough to make Orestes commit the ultimate act – matricide. It is surprising for the reader when Apollo makes his physical appearance in The Eumenides, where his first words are directed to Orestes: “I will not give you up.” It is very unusual for a god to be this involved in the humans’ lives and take such a responsibility for a mortal. His words are extremely powerful in this instance and they anticipate his complete involvement in Orestes’ fate and ultimate trial. Apollo continues to reinforce his steadfastness with the following lines: “Through to the end standing/ your guardian, whether by your side or far away, / I shall not weaken towards your enemies.” He is appointing himself as Orestes guardian and he manages to go through with his promise by keeping him safe.
Besides his interaction with Orestes, Apollo is also seen engaging in dialogue with the furies, Athena and the judges. His defense of Orestes is visible throughout the play. When the furies come to make Orestes pay for his matricide, Apollo is very direct and concise in stating his allegiance: “Get out, I tell you, go and leave this house.” His defense of Orestes does not stem only from the fact that Orestes is his suppliant, but also from the fact that Apollo himself is indirectly guilty of the murder of Clytemnestra by urging Orestes to do the deed. The dialogue between Apollo and the furies also serves to show how each of them interpret justice. Apollo agrees that Orestes should have killed his mother to “exact the price for his father,” yet the furies consider Orestes’ murderous acts against his own blood to be even worse than Clytemnestra’s crime against Agamemnon, “Such murder would not be the shedding of kindred blood.” Apollo continues to defend Orestes and even promises repercussions for the furies if they continue with their pursuit: “Keep after him then, and make more trouble for yourselves.” Later, when the trial begins, Apollo makes a surprising appearance and claims half of the blame for the murder. “I come to testify. […] I have also come to help him win his case. I bear/ responsibility for his mother’s murder.” Just as Orestes follows up by directly stating his guilt, “Yes, I killed her,” so does Apollo, claiming a part of the blame for the murder. It is worthy to note the contrast between the fact that although Apollo indirectly urges Orestes to kill him mother, he comes and bears responsibility for the murder in a very direct way. In this instance Aeschylus uses the character of Apollo to give strength to Orestes’ case and to have him ultimately acquitted.
It is also curious to analyze exactly how just and unbiased the trial is, as it is led by Athena. Apollo tries to appeal to her by bringing into discussion her origins and lack of a mother. “There she stands, / the living witness, daughter of Olympian Zeus, / she who was never fostered in the dark of the womb.” Considering the fact that Athene’s vote was the one that changed the course of the trial, Apollo’s choice of words might have won him the favor of the goddess. Apollo also states his arguments in an eloquent manner, like a true lawyer, invoking the name of Zeus to reinforce his power as a prophet and implicitly to buttress the fact that Orestes did nothing wrong by following his prophecy. “This is justice,” Apollo proclaims in front of the judges. As soon as he sees that the judges aren’t moved by his account he resorts to insults “You foul animals,” which serve to show how much winning the case for Orestes means for Apollo. He goes on to use a threatening and somewhat ominous tone while talking with the judges “Watch.” This simple sentence comprised of the verb to watch in the imperative mood serves to show the confidence that Apollo has in the fact the he will win the trial. “I shall win this suit” he continues, which might suggest that as a prophet he has an idea of what the result of the votes is going to be and is playing his hand accordingly, just as he did with Athena, as mentioned above. The same can be inferred from the following lines: “Shake out the votes accurately, Athenian friends. / be careful as you pick them up. Make no mistake. / In the lapse of judgement great disaster comes. The cast / of a single ballot can restore a house entire.” His words are enigmatic and up for interpretation, exactly as a prophecy. There is an ominous undertone, almost like a threat that goes with these lines. As the god of prophecy, this may be interpreted as both a warning and a glimpse of the future that Apollo offers: the fact that Orestes is going to win the suit and his house is going to be restored.
Considering all of the above evidence, the reader can infer that Apollo is a narrative instrument employed by Aeschylus both in order to give Orestes a push to kill his mother and to conclude the trilogy with Orestes’ victory over the furies. Although he is a minor character, his actions mold and shape the whole narrative. Moreover the fact that he is a god gives him legitimacy to act and also to have a strong influence in the trial, which is very convenient for the plot. His intervention is not only physical but also spiritual in a way, having his words conveyed to the audience through Orestes. Also the fact that he has the power of prophecy makes him the perfect peripheral character to help with the direction of the action and to bring the whole narrative exactly where Aeschylus wanted. Looking closely at his interventions throughout both plays, either by being physically present or not, it is clear that he is used both to lead the action and to offer a “happy ending” to Orestes. Apollo also offers more insight into the character of Orestes, as he refers to him as a “noble man” multiple times. Moreover, his actions themselves speak for Orestes, for example, the fact that he goes to such great lengths to protect him and even appoint himself as Orestes’ guardian. This is very telling of Orestes’ value as a person for he manages to gain the favor of a god and not only that, he manages to have Apollo’s ultimate protection. Apollo has a minor yet a pivotal role not only in Orestes’ journey throughout the plays but also in the fact that his actions drive the plot on and bring forth the conclusion to the trilogy.
Subconcious Motivations and Conscious Triggers of Clytemnestra in Agamemnon
From its first performance in Ancient Greece several centuries ago to present day, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon remains a quintessential example of the definitive Greek tragedy, continually captivating audiences with its progressive depiction of feminine complexity. In the play, women are represented by the anti heroine, Queen Clytemnestra of Mycenae, who in the climax of the first act, vindictively murders the titular King Agamemnon. While psychoanalytical and archetypical criticisms differ in regards to what desire inherently drives the character to murder her husband (power and freedom, or revenge) both identify that Clytemnestra is driven primarily by pre-existing subconscious desires (centered on her identity) that are only ‘realised and awakened’ by conscious life events, specifically, the death of her daughter Iphigenia.
Although the term ‘femme fatale’ was not coined until the twentieth century, literary history has been continually blessed with images of strong women who use their sensuality to skillfully manipulate those around them. Clytemnestra, protagonist of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, is one such example. As Sneed writes, Aeschylus’s anti heroine ‘embodies every characteristic of a classic femme fatale’ by ‘avoiding traditional romance and domesticity.’ Even before her initial appearance, the watchman describes his queen as ‘a woman in passionate heart and man in strength of purpose’. The chorus also joins in, stating that the character ‘is a woman with no fear of the husband’ and who speaks ‘as wisely as a prudent man’. The awed, wary and even fearful tones in which supporting male characters describe the protagonist demonstrate the extent of which Clytemnestra disfigures typical ‘womanly behaviour’, with her cunning, intelligence and strength of purpose, thus justifying her femme fatalistic classification. By looking at other literary characters with the same archetype, the subconscious workings of Clytemnestra’s own character can be revealed. Femme fatale character arcs generally revolve around a pursuit of freedom, dominance and empowerment, achieved by eliminating figures that restrict them. Given this, Sneed concludes that Clytemnestra’s inherent motivation is her subconscious desire for power.
This is not the only motivation that has been brought forward by literary critics. Alsop paints Clytemnestra as a vindictive individual seeking retribution for the gradual destruction of her identity by her husband. Again, the expositional speech of the chorus provides evidence for this particular motivation. The old men of Argos are heard calling their queen an ‘architect of vengeance’, and a ‘mother’ of ‘child-avenging fury’. Clytemnestra herself also betrays her grief in her dialogue. In her return speech, she compares the king to a tyrannous ‘Zeus’ who ‘tramples the bitter virgin grape’, alluding to the daughter he trampled in his war conquest. Additionally, her own justification of the murder: ‘he sacrificed his own child, she whom I bore,’ evokes strong emotional images of a devastated, grieving mother robbed of her motherhood and maternal identity.
On a more psychosexually charged note, Alsop also suggests that Clytemnestra’s unconscious ‘male’ personality, also desires justice. This notion is also implied as she describes her husbands mistress Cassandra ,who lies dead beside him as someone who ‘… has brought for my bed an added relish of delight.’ For Clytemnestra, Cassandra represents the unfair double standards of men and women regarding infidelity. Despite being in the same position of power as her husband, Clytemnestra was condemned for taking a lover and forced to deny her affair, while he was celebrated and rewarded with an object to commit adultery with. Thus, it can be ultimately concluded that she was driven to murder both for the repression/theft of her subconscious and conscious identities.
Despite the obvious differences in what the two critiques believe to be Clytemnestra’s primary subconscious motives, both authors agree that without a conscious world event, these dormant desires would never have gained the ambition to reach action and cite the sacrifice of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s daughter by the latter, to be this igniting event. The name Iphigenia is never explicitly mentioned by any of the main characters. However, the brutal nature of her death is constantly alluded to leading up to the events of Agamemnon’s murder. The earliest occurrence of this is by the Chorus, who recounts the young girl’s final moments: ‘…the bridle chokes her voice…saffron robes pouring over the sand…glance like arrows showering/wounding every murderer through with pity.’. While the act of war sacrifice would be common in pre-democratic Greece, the vivid, melancholic passages strike the audience in the same way that they impact the anti heroine, causing them to better understand and sympathise with her subsequent action.
The resounding effects of Iphigenia’s demise are depicted in the entirety of The Oresteia’s first act, Agamemnon, which takes place ten years from the sacrifice. Clytemnestra is depicted to have shifted from an insignificant maternal figure to a hardened, independent woman, capable of running a kingdom in her husband’s absence. In addition to this, her vengeance has become intelligent—and she is able to recognise that patience is a necessary burden in exacting a perfect revenge. According to Sneed, this increased intelligence is awakened following the development of the protagonist’s animus (male identity), from one who simply craves physical power, to one that craves social power. This notion is indicated in her actions following the return of her husband to Argos, in which she utilises ‘Agamemnon’s patriarchal sense of value’ in her deception. By playing the part of the typical ‘submissive and modest’, ‘simpering’ ‘coy wife’, Clytemnestra demonstrates the patience required to exact the perfect revenge. In a similar way, Alsop also recognises that following the event, Clytemnestra exhibits a change in mentality. The murder of her daughter causes a ‘realisation’ of her identity’s continual repression, and also presents a means of which she can consciously, justify her later immoral action. This idea is demonstrated in her dialogue following the death of Agamemnon, in which she states that the late king was a ‘man who did her (me) wrong’. The quote presented highlights that while Iphigenia’s death causes the heroine grief, and allowed her to become the woman she was required to be, the event was not what she was truly avenging.
Regardless of what motives ultimately drove her to murder, Aeschylus’ brilliant characterization of the Clytemnestra as both an avenger and villain can be ambivalently interpreted in two ways. It is possible that he wrote the character of with misogynistic intent to reflect Athenian attitudes and horrify his audience, something he was renown for. This has been put forward by several scholars who cite that common Athenian attitudes of the time would have ‘shuddered’ at the homicidal tendencies of a woman and consider her mad. This is reflected in the chorus’ attitudes to the murder of their king. More radically, the author was an early feminist who believed that the complexity of such a woman could cause reflection of the traditional gender role of women in society. This is supported in her character’s unrepressed ambition and drive, and also in the admiration of the strength of her character by the male characters surrounding her . Given the admirable strength of the character, the latter seems more potent as a plausible explanation. The given evidence above demonstrate that Aeschylus did not wish to present women as perfect, angelic beings or submissive vassals of men as they were traditionally portrayed in art. Rather, he chooses to depict them as average humans— capable of possessing inherent flaws and intimate desires, and acting on them as their male counterparts do.
In the end, both critiques presented above are correct in their recognition and analysis of Clytemnestra’s possible motives for liberating action. However, to give one particular desire precedence over another then corrupts Aeschylus’ supposed intention. That is, to portray women as intrinsically complex human beings, equal to men. Given this, it is not possible to discern a single motive as the sole drive of Clytemnestra’s ambition without damaging her utter complexity. It is more fitting to say that the character was driven to murder by a myriad of reasons that cannot fully be comprehended by anyone other than Aeschylus himself.
Revenge and Violence in Agamemnon
Aeschylus’s play “Agamemnon” seeks to show his audience that revenge only leads to more violence. This is shown prominently through the character’s central beliefs and motives that are encouraged through the actions of others, which inevitably repeats itself over and over again. The play focuses predominantly around the house of Atreus, and the curse lay upon it that resulted in generations of misery and acts of revenge. The play uses a poetic and metaphorical style that emphasizes the true nature of each character, the background and settings.
All the events of the play could be linked to the very beginning when Tantalus, one of the sons of Zeus, chose to murder his son, Pelops, and serve his flesh to the gods- committing an act of ‘hubris’. This was the first act of violence that occurred. Pelops had been saved, but the sins of his father remained within the bloodline. Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, and Thyestes were two of Pelops’s children. They killed their half-brother, and as a result were banished. Again, this added to the curse and stemmed from the hatred and revenge that consumed them. Aegisthus, who’d been raised by Atreus, killed him, yet another act of revenge and thus his children, Agamemnon and Menelaus were exiled to Sparta, where the king accepted them as the royalty they were. The betrayal of those who they were closest to, begun a hatred toward one, and their lust for power and revenge became a pattern within the bloodline. Atreus had killed his brother to take the throne, and Aegisthus, who’d later been revealed to be Clytemnestra’s lover, had killed Agamemnon in the name of his father, Thyestes, the very man Agamemnon had killed. Perhaps it was a matter of Karma or just by coincidence, but this violent behavior was without question, derived from acts of revenge upon one another and formed a pattern, weaved in pursuit of creating a profound piece of story telling by non other than Aeschylus himself.
The lust for revenge was passed down the line furthermore- as it would be should they have continued to make the same mistakes as their ancestors before them. When the King of Troy’s son Paris took Helen to Troy with him (where she married his brother despite being wedded to Menelaus) Atreus’s sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, saw it fit to go to war with them- believing their actions were justified and an act of ‘dike’. Their revenge upon Troy blossomed from the pride they beheld, and made them delusional in that sense. When Artemis asked for an offering, specifically the carcass of his daughter, Iphigeneia, Agamemnon took little time to think it over, “Desert the fleets, fail the alliance?” however, despite the fact that his daughter’s life was on the line, Agamemnon was too possessed by his lust for revenge to rightly see how his actions would affect others, “Law is law!- Let all go well.” Aeschylus had purposely sculptured Agamemnon’s dialogue to show that pride had blinded him, and that, above all, Agamemnon was a foolishly arrogant man who’d go to any lengths to remain above everyone else- whether or not it took ten years and millions of innocent lives to do it.
The blood lust and raging violence served 10 years of deaths, and what for? But the small life of a woman who’d willingly wedded another man- not that she too deserved death’s fate, only that her life was not worthy of the millions Agamemnon had sacrificed. Aeschylus, in writing the play, had purposely written off any common sense one might use in these sorts of situations. Their emotions and religious views had full control of the direction the story was headed, and was clearly displayed within the play, as is evident in the moment when Iphigenia was sacrificed, “feed their lust, their fury? –feed their fury! –”. Agamemnon’s beliefs had been tempered with, and as he had his daughter killed, he asked his men to, “gag her hard, a sound will curse the house.” The irony of his words may have been purposely written this way by Aeschylus, as the gods knew of every action the humans dwelled upon. In reality however, the action itself would have been enough to add to the curse, but his heart had too long been set on receiving the justice he so wrongly believed that he deserved.
The question surrounding whether or not Agamemnon’s actions were justified is ambiguous. Aeschylus is forcing his audience to question the meaning of justice over revenge, or whether the two are one in the same. If in trying to save a life, you are forced to kill millions, are you truly acting justly? What is the true measure of justice? Do your emotions morph your beliefs or simply contradict the methods you choose to use against said beliefs? Agamemnon’s failure to see how his lust for revenge or ‘justice’, bestowed upon him the wavering of his people, “it kills our spirit, kills our hope”. However, he would not have failed to see the severity of his actions, had he not been blind sighted by his anger, therefore clarifying the notion that emotions do indeed have an impact in the way we go about ourselves. Agamemnon’s revenge was primarily driven by his emotional state and his renowned reputation, as such, when Helen was taken to Troy, his pride had over run any common sense.
The revenge Agamemnon had so greatly yearned for caused him to act out in violence, and in the process, it killed many. His revenge brought him to believe the life of his brother’s wife was far more important than that of his daughters. He did not even for a moment stop to think how the death would impact the woman who’d bore the child in the first place. In fact, had he not killed Iphigenia, perhaps his wife would not have been so eager to end him and thus further continue the pattern of betrayal through out the bloodline, “…but he sacrificed his own child, our daughter, the agony I laboured into love..”.
When Agamemnon came back from Troy bearing a woman sex slave, Cassandra, at his side (who also had, mind you, been cursed- furthering adding to the house’s misfortune) Clytemnestra fooled him into stepping on the god’s velvet carpet manipulating the situation and giving her reason for murder. She stabbed him as he bathe- killing Cassandra only shortly after (or before? I don’t believe it’s specified.) Whilst the audience had been given a reason to dislike Agamemnon, by having the main protagonist killed, the author had then given the audience a reason to dislike Clytemnestra also, or at least cause them to question the morality of what she’d done. None of the characters were created to be ‘perfect snowflakes’, and their actions often resorted in the murder of one another. It’s the whole, ‘eye for an eye’ perspective. But as Ghandi said, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. It’s these contrasting beliefs that highlight the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Aeschylus’s play.
Conclusively, ‘philos-aphilos’ is a vigorous force throughout the story, and is shown in Agamemnon’s killing of his daughter, and Clytemnestra’s killing Agamemnon. Iphigenia and Agamemnon’s death may have been prevented, however, and the author had purposely sorted these events the way he did as to illuminate the effect it can have on others. How one act of revenge might have an impact on many more, bringing insurmountable deaths and evidently more misery than its worth. Desire for revenge was passed down from generation to generation like an inevitably horrible heirloom, and in instilling that key element into his play, Aeschylus is able to create a kindling of tales and ideas that expand and reform from but a singular event.