Agamemnon: Essay Q&A

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1. 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 to 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 sheltering 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 the 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 criticized 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 affection 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 longing 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 of 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 sensible 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 undervalued.

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 with 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 safely 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 been 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 make 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 is 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 reader.

3. Describe the role of the Chorus.
The Elders of Argos who make up the Chorus provide a voice for the wisdom of 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 accepted 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 because 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 almost 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 faith 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 the 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 scene 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 himself 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 innocent 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 queen 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 some 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 experienced 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 net 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-and our-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 relief 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 next 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 horrible, 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 motivation-the 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 a 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 handsomely by it, enjoying his victim's wealth, wife, and kingdom.

Clytemnestra is the first to mention Aegisthus's name, in line 1436-she is not afraid of any punishment as long as she has him. And with the mention of his name, other motives for her part in 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 justified by Agamemnon's unfaithfulness-in 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 scene, 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 she is planning to rule with him. Such a rule begs to be overthrown.

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