By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Agamemnon is the first play in the Oresteia, the only trilogy of Greek tragedies that has survived intact from classical times. The trilogy is also Aeschylus’ masterpiece: more so than any of his other surviving plays, the Oresteia moves Greek drama into new directions. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that, with these plays, Aeschylus essentially invented classic Greek theatre.
Before we offer an analysis of Agamemnon, the first volume in the trilogy, it might be worth briefly recapping the plot of the play.
The action of Agamemnon takes place at the end of the ten-year Trojan War. The Greek hero Agamemnon has been heavily involved in the fighting against Troy, and back home his wife Clytemnestra eagerly awaits his return.
However, although she is making a show of welcoming her husband, in truth she plans to murder him when he returns to the marital home, in retribution for what Agamemnon did on his way out to war. In order to persuade the gods to provide him and his ship with fair winds on the way to Troy, Agamemnon had sacrificed Iphigenia, his own daughter by Clytemnestra. Now, Clytemnestra is out for revenge.
As if the killing of their own daughter wasn’t enough to make Clytemnestra out for her husband’s blood, when he arrives back at the palace, he has his concubine, Cassandra, in tow. When the god Apollo took a shine to her, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, in return for her virginity. But when she went back on the deal, Apollo was angry; he could not recall the gift he had given her, but he could ensure that nobody ever believed her prophecies.
Sure enough, when Clytemnestra greets her husband and his lover, Cassandra foretells that Clytemnestra will murder them both. And Clytemnestra duly does so, stabbing Agamemnon in the bath and then killing Cassandra.
Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, arrives and joins her. Aegisthus reveals that the plot to kill Agamemnon was his idea: he devised it as revenge for the death of his father, Thyestes, who was tricked into eating two of his sons by his brother Atreus. Atreus was the father of Agamemnon, so through Clytemnestra’s killing of Atreus’ son, Aegisthus believes that his father has been avenged.
One of the most prominent themes in Agamemnon is revenge. Agamemnon has killed Iphigenia, therefore Clytemnestra demands his life as payment. Aegisthus’ father was killed by Agamemnon’s father, therefore the son can avenge his father’s death by killing the son of his father’s killer.
The trilogy as a whole invites us to question whether such vengeance is just. Is Clytemnestra right to avenge her daughter’s death by killing Agamemnon herself? Should the law not have been followed? But are ‘law’ and ‘justice’ the same thing? Agamemnon, being a powerful lord, may well have been considered above the law. And besides, he had sacrificed Iphigenia to win a war, for gods’ sake (literally).
If that isn’t a noble reason for bumping off your own daughter, what is? (Answer: this is a terrible defence, even in the world of classical myth, and Agamemnon deserved justice; whether he deserved a knife in amongst his bubble bath with his rubber duck is quite another matter.)
Agamemnon represents a development in the history of classical theatre, at least as it’s represented by those plays which have survived and come down to us through the centuries.
In Aeschylus’ own earlier plays, such as The Suppliants and The Persians, the ‘action’ of the plays is hardly that at all: rather than dramatic dialogue between fully rounded characters with relatable emotions and motives, instead characters deliver long speeches which the Chorus of the play then responds to by filling in the ‘plot’. It’s all too orderly, as if people are delivering prepared speeches at a formal occasion, rather than acting upon the spur of the moment as they respond to real life and real events.
Agamemnon marks a shift towards this new way of writing a more vital kind of drama. The shifts between the Chorus and the speeches of the central characters, and the differences in tone between, for instance, Clytemnestra’s quiet fury and Cassandra’s raving fear at the fate she knows awaits her, as she realises the trap she and Agamemnon have walked right into, all make the play a rich and exciting piece of theatre.
And fear dominates the play, from the opening scenes in which Clytemnestra waits for the flame that will signal the end of the Trojan War (but with uncertainty over who will have triumphed, her husband’s army or the enemy) to Cassandra’s fear over the death she knows is coming to her.
The central characters of Agamemnon are morally complex. Clytemnestra murders her own husband, the hero of the Trojan War, but she does so to avenge Agamemnon’s killing of their daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon is a murderer for sacrificing his own daughter, but he did so in order to help win the war – a war which, if it had been lost, would have resulted in many more deaths. Whose ‘side’ do we take?
We cannot choose one easily, even if we don’t believe in gods commanding fair winds and the idea that human sacrifice can lead to divine intervention in our favour.
Agamemnon can be analysed as an example of a common trope found throughout various cultures and their myths: the killing of the king. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae in some versions of the story but Lord of Argos in Aeschylus’ play, must be slaughtered at the end of the war he had helped to win, to make way for the new.
Certainly, the Oresteia as a whole has been interpreted as the journey from barbarism to civilisation. In order for a new, better world to be born, the old must first die to make way for it. In the next two volumes of the trilogy, we will see what happens next in that long and bloody journey.