Agamemnon: Novel Summary: Lines 503-781
The Herald first expresses his joy that, against all the odds, he has survived to come home, that he will be buried in the earth he loves. He hails the land, the sun that shines there, the gods, the palace of the land's kings, and tells all to welcome the king who comes bringing light in darkness. Agamemnon has done the work of Zeus's justice, utterly destroying Troy and the altars and temples of Troy and all that could bring new life to that land. He is most worthy of honor for paying Paris and his equally guilty city twice over for their crimes.
The Chorus Leader welcomes him, and tells him that those he left have longed for the army as much as it has longed for them. The Leader will not answer when he asks why they have been troubled, and the Herald assumes that the trouble is over, now that the army has returned. All is well-though there has certainly been a lot of pain. And the Herald goes on to tell about the hard living the army endured, first on the ships, then worse on land, clothing rotted by rain, lice, the cold of winter, the heat of summer, so many dead. But now we can rejoice; we are famous all over Greece for what we have done, and all will praise us and our leaders, and Zeus who brought it all about.
The Chorus Leader is completely persuaded by the Herald's words, and speaks of sharing the news with Clytemnestra. She enters as the Leader speaks, and points out that she knew the good news and celebrated it long ago, though some dismissed her belief in the message brought by the beacons as the folly of a woman governed by her feelings. Now she does not need any more details, for soon she will hear them from her husband the king. How sweet the dawn of the day that brings a husband home safe! Tell my husband, she says, to come as quickly as possible and find a wife who has been completely faithful to him. After these words, she leaves.
The Chorus Leader observes that her words may need some interpretation, then asks the Herald whether Menelaus is with Agamemnon. The Herald is reluctant to tell bad news on a day of rejoicing, but he tells of the storm that hit the fleet on the way home, not without the anger of the gods, destroying many ships but leaving theirs, and perhaps other ships that were blown far off course, intact. Menelaus may yet come home, if Zeus does not wish to exterminate the house of Atreus.
The Herald leaves, and the Chorus sings and dances; their choral ode meditates on Helen, the cause of all this woe. How did she come to be named so aptly [Helen is close to the Greek word for destroyer], she who was destroyer of ships, men, and cities? Her coming was the destruction of Troy. A man took a lion cub into his house, and at first it was a delight to everyone, but once it had grown it destroyed everyone. Thus at first Helen brought to Troy calm, beauty, and love, but over the wedding of Paris and Helen a Fury presided. Then the Chorus turn to the ancient belief that it is great prosperity that brings disaster on a family. They sing, I don't share that belief; I believe that evil deeds bring disaster on a house, that those families that are just prosper. Old hubris leads to more hubris, to recklessness and ruin. Justice shines in poor homes and honors the righteous; she scorns unrighteous wealth.
This scene makes explicit that the Greek army has indeed destroyed the altars of the gods, and to double the ominousness of that news, the Herald who tells it actually boasts of it. Soon, however, he will tell of the storm that the anger of the gods brought on the returning army. First, much as he would like to dwell only on the good news, he also gives a realistic picture of the discomforts of the soldiers' lives and mentions the dead. Then Clytemnestra speaks scornfully of those who did not believe her because she was a woman. She knew the beacons told the truth. Her boast of fidelity to Agamemnon is so palpably false that even the timid Chorus Leader hints that it may not be true. The anxiety with which the Leader asks after Menelaus seems to reflect his knowledge that Agamemnon will need the support of his brother, but of course the Herald has to tell him that no such support will be there. He must leave his boasting behind and tell of overwhelming destruction-their ship may well be the only one left of all that sailed from Troy. (The audience knew that Menelaus did in fact eventually return, but too late to save his brother.)
The Chorus seem to shrink from singing of the real cause of the destruction of the homeward-bound fleet; their whole attention goes to Helen as the cause of all the woe. But the last part of the choral ode has wider application-they have already suggested that
Agamemnon has been guilty of hubris, first in sacrificing his daughter, second in waging total war over one woman, and the destruction of the altars is obviously another case of hubris. The net being woven around Agamemnon grows stronger and stronger. At the same time, the theme of the problematic relationship between men and women grows stronger: in seeing weak understanding in Clytemnestra and in blaming Helen so bitterly the Chorus show the limitations of the prevalent view of women, and Clytemnestra expresses the resentment of a strong woman undervalued.