Agamemnon: Novel Summary: Lines 1343-1577
Agamemnon calls out from inside the palace, as two blows strike him down. The Chorus in agitation, longing to do something, yet feeling their own utter weakness, old and infirm as they are, argue about what to do. Summon the citizens? Enter the palace and catch the slayers in the act? The slayers will become tyrants if they do nothing, yet what can they do? They finally agree to wait until they know for certain what has happened.
The doors of the palace open, and Clytemnestra is revealed standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. She speaks: She unsays all she said before, feeling no shame because it was the only way to make the nets too high for escape. She has planned it all for a long time; she threw around him a garment that trapped him, then stabbed him twice, and a third time as an offering for the god of the underworld. The blood that spurted from him struck her, and she rejoiced as crops rejoice in rain in the springtime. She calls on the Chorus to rejoice if they will-she exults. Justice has been done.
The Chorus Leader expresses the shock they all feel at such a speech uttered over her husband. Clytemnestra scorns their attempt to treat her like "a foolish woman" (1401). Whether they condemn her or not, she has killed her husband, and it was right. In answer all the members of the Chorus sing, asking what poison she has consumed to make her do this deed, which will make her an outcast from the city. She protests: They are ready to exile her, but when Agamemnon sacrificed her beloved daughter as though she were no more than an animal, shouldn't they have driven him out of the country? Yet her they judge harshly. Nevertheless, they can only rule if they can conquer her; if she wins, they will learn to be more careful.
The Chorus sing again: she is arrogant and maddened by her deed; friendless, she will have to pay for it. Clytemnestra answers that she has no fear as long as Aegisthus is with her. Agamemnon is dead, who outraged his wife by the concubine he had at Troy, and by bringing home Cassandra, whore that she was. They have both gotten the honor they deserved. When he brought her home, he increased my pleasure, she tells the Chorus.
Now the Chorus launch into a full choral ode, with Clytemnestra chanting her responses. They sing first of their longing for an easy death, now that the kind king they loved is dead. He suffered for a woman [Helen], and now a woman has killed him. O crazy Helen, who killed all those who died at Troy, and now this man. Clytemnestra tells them not to pray for death, not to call Helen destroyer of men. The Chorus call on the divinity, the curse on the house of Atreus, that through women has brought about all this evil. Here they are right, chants Clytemnestra-it is that divinity, the curse, that has done it all. The Chorus sing of the heaviness of the curse; they sing that all of the evil ultimately comes from Zeus, source of all that happens to mortals.
As a refrain, the Chorus sing to Agamemnon, asking how they shall mourn him. He has been trapped by a spider's web, killed shamefully and cunningly by his wife. Clytemnestra does not want to called his wife, and reiterates that it was the curse that killed him, taking her form. The Chorus sing, asking how anyone could say she wasn't guilty-yet she may have been helped by the man avenging the sin of Agamemnon's father. Then they repeat the refrain. Clytemnestra reiterates that Agamemnon was slain justly for what he did to Iphigeneia. The Chorus sing their despair, wish they had died before they saw Agamemnon dead. Now who will bury him, who lament him? Can you dare to? Not your problem, chants Clytemnestra; I will bury him, no one will weep, and Iphigeneia will embrace him in the underworld. Finally the Chorus sing how hard it is to judge. They cannot deny what Agamemnon did, and it is Zeus's law that the doer must suffer. Who can end the curse? The whole family of Atreus is doomed. Clytemnestra agrees, but offers to be content with a small part of the wealth of Agamemnon, if the curse of the house will leave, and her deed can be the end of this bloody madness.
It was a convention of Greek tragedy that violence was never shown on stage; Aeschylus brings us the violence to life perhaps all the more powerfully because of that convention. We do not have to see anything happen that our minds will remind us isn't really happening, and the poetry brings out the full horror of the deed more effectively than seeing it could. Nevertheless, the first thing that happens after Agamemnon's death cries has often bothered readers-the Chorus dithering about what to do. If not done well, this scene could easily seem ridiculous. Yet it underlines the helplessness of these aged leaders, their love of their king, and perhaps most important, their belief that what replaces him can only be a tyranny. As scholars point out, there were no tyrants in Homeric times; Aeschylus is introducing a phenomenon of his own day, when legitimate, constitutional rule that still to some extent favored the aristocracy could be overthrown by ambitious men who promised the people more power, but who in fact took all power for themselves. The last tyranny in Athens had only been overthrown in 510, when Aeschylus was about fifteen years old. Tyrants could and did rule well in many ways, but their bodyguards, almost always with them, proclaimed that they ruled by force, not law. In Homeric times, the king was the constitutional ruler, and those who loved the rule of law supported him. In many ways the Chorus have made clear their allegiance to Agamemnon as the rightful king, and now they fear the establishment of a tyranny-and clearly have no power to stop it.
Clytemnestra's boastful description of her deed, as she stands over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, brings home what has happened. The image of the net, used so often to describe the trapping of human beings like animals, now becomes more than an image-she has trapped him in a voluminous cloak. A loving wife would by tradition ceremoniously bathe her husband after his return from war and then presumably throw a cloak around him; Clytemnestra has bathed Agamemnon and trapped him for slaughter. Her third stroke she describes in a way that makes it a gruesome parody of the custom of offering the third libation at a banquet in honor of Zeus the Preserver. More horrible yet, she rejoices in the blood spurting over her in a way that parodies the coming of the rain in spring as the marriage of Earth and Sky. Clytemnestra has become a Fury, a willing agent of the curse on the house, and the insults she heaps on Cassandra, the pleasure she feels at having killed her, underline the horror of what she has become. It is a curious mixture: she glories in what she has done, and then denies responsibility-the curse did it.
She may beg that this deed will end the horror, but nothing in what she has said or done suggests that that is conceivable. True, Aeschylus does not allow us to forget that Agamemnon's deed in killing Iphigeneia was equally horrible, indeed more horrible, since Iphigeneia was utterly innocent-even the Chorus, much as they love the king, end by saying that the penalty is just. But if this is the nature of justice, they seem to be saying, the family of Atreus is doomed, and there is no hope. And if the audience feels any ray of hope in the moderation of Clytemnestra's last words, what happens next dispels that hope.