1. Make the best case you can for Agamemnon as a man who does not deserve his fate.

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Nov 17, 2013 (3 years and 6 months ago)


NovelGuide: Essay Q&A on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

. Make the best case you can for Agamemnon as a man who does
not deserve his fate.

The first mention we hear of Agamemnon is
from the Watchman, who speaks of longing to take his master's loved
hand in his. The Chorus, even though they are ready to criticize the king
when they feel he deserves it, also clearly feel both love and loyalty
him. He must have ruled well before the war, or the simple fact that he
is the rightful king would not have generated such good will. As for the
sacrifice of Iphigeneia, no one questions that the war against Troy is a
just war, since the city by shelter
ing Paris and Helen shares the guilt of
the violation of the sacred bond between guest and host. Moreover, all
the Greek leaders had taken a solemn oath before Helen chose her
husband that they would all make war against anyone who took her
from him. Yet t
he war cannot be fought if the ships cannot sail, and it is
clear that the favorable winds will only blow if Iphigeneia is sacrificed.
Even though Aeschylus has the Chorus condemn Agamemnon, they
also repeat the words he spoke as he struggled with what to
do, faced
with such a choice of evils. They report him as having felt to the full the
horror of killing his daughter, yet as faced with a whole army demanding
that the sacrifice be made, and as recognizing that their demand is a
rightful one.

Some have cri
ticized him for yielding to Clytemnestra in walking on the
precious tapestries, but surely that criticism is too harsh. He feels to the
full the inappropriateness of a mere mortal taking an honor due only to
the gods, but he also seems to feel some affecti
on for his wife
if winning
the victory in this contest means so much to her, he is willing to let her
win. As for his entrusting Cassandra to her with the request that she be
kind, the right of a man to take concubines was not questioned at that
time, and
he was no more unreasonable than every other man in
expecting his wife to accept the presence of a concubine. Moreover, he
shows his humanity in requesting his wife to be gentle with Cassandra.
It is not surprising that Cassandra says no word against him,
and it
strengthens the case for him immensely that she feels only horror at the
prospect of his death at his wife's hand. Finally, the legitimacy of his
rule is underlined by the readiness of the Chorus to die rather than
accept a tyrant, and by their long
ing for the coming of Orestes, the
rightful heir.

2. Make the best case you can for Clytemnestra.

Clytemnestra is a
strong woman caught in a world in which people praise women for
being like men, yet are horrified when they show the strength and
courage o
f men to avenge their wrongs. Our sympathy is drawn to her
from the beginning, when the Watchman speaks of her as a woman
with a man's capacity for wisdom, yet the Chorus honor her only
because she is the king's wife, praise her for speaking like a sensibl
man, yet are ready to scorn her for believing the beacons
just like a
woman! How bitterly she feels such attitudes is revealed when she
constantly alludes ironically to herself as a mere woman again and
again. In portraying her this way, Aeschylus shows
that he understands
how hard it is to be a woman in a world where women are so

Homer only mentions Clytemnestra as a bad wife, one whose behavior
will make men distrust all women forever. Aeschylus, even though he
probably did not sympathize w
ith her as much as a modern audience
would, still does her far more justice, and gives us a sympathetic
enough portrayal that it is even possible to have more sympathy with
Clytemnestra than Agamemnon, whatever Aeschylus intended.

In the early part of the
play, it is Clytemnestra who sympathizes with the
common soldiers who, now that Troy is taken, will finally be able to eat
their fill and sleep peacefully in beds, with no watch set. It is
Clytemnestra who sees clearly that the Greeks will only return safe
ly if
they honor the altars and temples of the gods
neither the Herald nor
Agamemnon says a word that indicates that they understand that their
actions have brought on the storm that destroyed so much of the fleet.
Even the false words in which she speaks
of her longing for her
husband's return remind us of the real suffering of the woman who must
stay at home and wait while her husband fights, even if in this case
what she is waiting for is the chance to avenge her daughter's death.

It goes without saying
that the Chorus's vivid description of the suffering
of Iphigeneia rouses our sympathy for her mother. The story was that
Agamemnon told Clytemnestra to bring Iphigeneia so that she could
marry Achilles, and Aeschylus mentions garments that seem to have
en intended to be wedding garments, adding another drop of
bitterness to what Clytemnestra had to suffer. And Agamemnon's
arrogance and weakness make him seem an utterly inadequate
husband for so strong and intelligent a woman.

All these factors together m
ake it possible for a modern audience to feel
that, whatever Aeschylus does to shift our sympathy away from
Clytemnestra, we understand her and forgive her. Her moderation and
prevention of more bloodshed at the end complete the picture. We know
that she i
s hoping in vain for peace, that she will have to pay for what
she did, but that may be the most tragic aspect of the play for a modern

3. Describe the role of the Chorus.

The Elders of Argos who make
up the Chorus provide a voice for the wisdom o
f the city, which they
embody, as well as for its limitations. The limitations are clear in the way
they underrate Clytemnestra. The love they feel for Agamemnon and
their loyalty to him and to his son convince the audience that this
monarchy is indeed acc
epted by the city as the legitimate government.
The horror they feel at what Clytemnestra has done deepens the sense
that she has overturned the proper order of the world, and the courage
with which they stand up to Aegisthus, all the more remarkable becau
their age and frailty has been so emphasized, suggest the way the city
as a whole will oppose and suffer from this tyrant.

Their wisdom seems apparent in their recognition of the justice inherent
in the world; all the more striking is their sense of alm
ost despair when
they see the carrying out of justice leading to more injustice, and see no
end to the problem. The effect of their musing was of course
strengthened for the original audience by the fact that they sang and
danced as they uttered their fait
h in Zeus as somehow the answer, yet
their bewilderment at the way things are actually working out. It is hard
for us to imagine the kind of song and dance it was
subtle and dignified
surely, yet intense, and all designed by Aeschylus himself to heighten
he effectiveness of the play.

The one scene in which they seem to lose their dignity is the scene just
after Agamemnon's death cries are heard. Somehow this scene must
be played so that their utter powerlessness is clear, making their
courage in the last s
cene of the play even more striking, yet at the same
time, the depth of their resolve not to endure tyranny already becomes
apparent. One translation suggests that the last member of the Chorus
to speak actually should move toward the doors to see for hims
elf what
has happened.

4. What does Cassandra add to the play?

Most obviously,
Aeschylus uses Cassandra to shift our attention and sympathy away
from Clytemnestra and toward Agamemnon and the son who will come
to avenge him. Cassandra is a woman and an in
nocent victim, and she
is ready to cry out against Apollo as her destroyer, yet she says not a
word of blame for Agamemnon, and she is horrified at the thought of a
woman killing a man, a wife killing her husband. She dwells on the
wrong done by Agamemnon'
s father as a reason for the killing, and on
the role of Aegisthus, emphasizing that Agamemnon is a victim of the
family curse and of an adulterous wife. And Agamemnon's words about
her and Clytemnestra's words to her show the king at his best, and the
en at her worst. Clytemnestra's brutality toward Cassandra reaches
its climax when Clytemnestra says that killing her gave her an exquisite
pleasure. When Cassandra calls on Orestes to avenge not only
Agamemnon but her wretched self, the audience must feel

sympathy with that call.

Perhaps even more important than this obvious role is what Cassandra
adds to the dramatic quality of the Agamemnon. In a play in which so
much of the crucial action has to be described, either because it
happened in the past
or because it is violent, Aeschylus uses
Cassandra's gift of prophecy to great effect. There is the dramatic effect
of her speech, coming after so long a silence, and seeming almost to be
forced out of her. When her gift of prophecy takes her over, it is
xperienced as an agony, making the mere fact that she is speaking a
dramatic action. As for the words themselves, they are the words of
someone who is seeing what she describes, thus making the deed that
is farthest in the past of all those that weave a ne
t around Agamemnon
come most vividly alive
the slaughter by Atreus of Thyestes's innocent
children and the tricking of the father into eating his children's flesh.
What is farthest away in time seems to be happening before her
eyes, and so does the

impending slaughter of Agamemnon and of
Cassandra herself.

Finally, Cassandra is the one person in the play who accepts her fate
and goes to meet it bravely. Sad though her death is, it thus is to some
extent redeemed, and so to some degree provides a rel
ief from the
horror of the rest of the play.

5. What role does Aegisthus play?

In introducing Aegisthus only in
the second half of the play and in giving him so large a role in the last
scene of the play, Aeschylus effectively prepares the way for the nex
play. In the early part of the play, the main emphasis is on the sacrifice
of Iphigeneia as the reason for Agamemnon's death and on
Clytemnestra as his killer, and the effect is to make us see that in some
sense that death is justified. Yet it is also ho
rrible, and the role of
Aegisthus is to strengthen our sense that another vengeful murder is
inevitable and even justified.

Cassandra is the first to allude to Aegisthus, though she never speaks
his name. First she sees in prophetic trance Aegisthus's moti
death of his brothers and the feeding of their flesh to his father. Then
she speaks of the one who plots revenge for these deeds, and refers to
him as cowardly and an adulterer. As the most innocent character in the
play, her words carry weight.

Even if the Chorus, and presumably
Aeschylus's audience, still see the whole family as implicated in the guilt
of its ancestors, that idea had probably not gone unquestioned, and the
pursuit of vengeance on the child of the guilty certainly seems to offer

weaker justification
and weaker yet, when we see that Aegisthus plans
to use Agamemnon's wealth to rule as a tyrant in Argos. He not only
shows no regret for what he did in planning the murder of Agamemnon,
using his wife as a tool, he plans to profit h
andsomely by it, enjoying his
victim's wealth, wife, and kingdom.

Clytemnestra is the first to mention Aegisthus's name, in line 1436
is not afraid of any punishment as long as she has him. And with the
mention of his name, other motives for her part i
n Agamemnon's death
than revenge for Iphigeneia come into prominence. She immediately
mentions the outrage Agamemnon did to her by the concubines he took
in Troy and by bringing Cassandra home, and the suggestion is that her
adultery with Aegisthus was jus
tified by Agamemnon's unfaithfulness
a world where the double standard was taken for granted, this would
have been a weak argument indeed.

Moreover, having taken Aegisthus as a lover, she also sees herself as
the agent of his vengeance.

In the last scen
e, Aegisthus appears as a contemptible bully, ready to
use extreme force even on weak old men if they speak against him.
True, Clytemnestra looks good by comparison, since she stops any
more bloodshed, but on the other hand she has chosen this man and
is planning to rule with

him. Such a rule begs to be overthrown.