Agamemnon: Novel Summary: Lines 783-1033
Agamemnon enters in his chariot, with Cassandra beside him. The Chorus chant a measured welcome. They don't want to go too far; some are insincere and only seem to rejoice for the good fortune of another, but a good judge will see their falseness. The Chorus chant, I did see you as wrong when you made that sacrifice at the beginning of the war, but now with full love I welcome your success. You'll see for yourself who has been righteous while you were away and who has not.
Agamemnon speaks first to the gods, thanking them; they helped to destroy Priam's city and to bring Agamemnon himself safe home. Troy's ruins still smoke; "the Argive monster," a "ravening lion," has destroyed it (all quotations not otherwise attributed are from the literal translation of the Oresteia by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, published by the University of California Press in 1979; here, from lines 824 and 828). Then Agamemnon tells the Chorus he agrees with them; few men are free of envy of success. Odysseus was the only one of the Greek kings who sailed under him who was always loyal. Now he will see who is loyal here, and will put things back in order if there are any problems. May the victory he has won stay with him!
Enter Clytemnestra. She speaks to the Chorus, declaring herself unashamed to speak of the love she has for her husband, the suffering she went through when he was away. If Agamemnon had suffered as many wounds as rumor told her of, he would be more full of holes than a net. Many times she heard rumors of his death, and often she was ready to kill herself, saved only by others. The dangerous situation explains why their son Orestes is not here to greet his father, she tells Agamemnon. An ally who warned her of the danger that Agamemnon might die and the people might rebel against the council has taken him in as a guest. I have no tears left, she says, after all my years of fear and longing. Now I hail my husband as the returning safety of the house. Now, dear husband, step down from your chariot and walk, not on the ground, but on these rich purple tapestries into the house, and may what is just come to pass, "as it is fated" (line 913).
Agamemnon greets her as the guardian of his house, and observes that her speech matches his absence-both long. It would be more fitting for others to praise him. He continues, And don't try to get me, a mortal, to walk on these precious tapestries, which should be reserved for the gods. I want only human honors, and to end my life in peace.
Clytemnestra wears away his objections: Wouldn't Priam have done this? Then why not you? Agamemnon fears what people would say, but since she seems to care so much, he says, he lets her win. He calls for a slave to take off his boots, and prays that envy may not strike him; he hates ruining these delicate tapestries by walking on them and wasting all the wealth that bought them. He bids Clytemnestra to please treat this stranger [meaning Cassandra] kindly: it's hard becoming a slave, and she was the army's choice gift to him out of the spoils of Troy. Now he goes in to the palace, forced by his wife, "treading upon purple" (957).
As Agamemnon slowly enters the palace, Clytemnestra speaks of the inexhaustible sea from which the precious purple dye comes, and of the plenty of garments dyed with it that they have in the house. She would, she says, have promised the trampling of much more purple raiment than this to get him home safe. He enters the palace, and her last words are to Zeus, asking him to accomplish what she prays for.
The Chorus sing and dance a brief choral ode of foreboding. Why are they full of terror? They have seen Agamemnon come home, yet "the dirge of the Erinys [Fury] is chanted by my mind" (991). May I be wrong! Sometimes evil can be staved off by moderation, but blood once spilled, death once undergone, these cannot be undone. My mind "murmurs in darkness" (1031).
Every word Agamemnon utters seems to bring his death closer, and to make the audience feel how much he has done to deserve it: The gods only "helped" bring down Troy-he and his army, whom he seems to take pride in speaking of as animals, did the deed. There is no sign of remorse over altars destroyed or the innocent suffering, even though the storm he has so narrowly escaped might have forced him to realize, as the Herald did, that the gods were angry. Those who in any way challenged him during the war were simply envious of his position as leader-and the arrogance and blindness of that remark would have been even more obvious to his original audience, who knew Homer's Iliad (many of them by heart), for there Agamemnon needlessly offends Achilles, his best fighter, because he thinks his prestige is threatened. The speech's ending is the heaviest irony of them all: he prays for his victory to continue, and Clytemnestra appears.
Every word Clytemnestra speaks is again dripping with irony. Her agony while Agamemnon was away has in fact been the agony of a woman who has seen her husband sacrifice their daughter and who wants him home so that she can finally take her revenge. The purple tapestries on which she wants him to walk are beautifully embroidered, enormously expensive, and delicate. They are meant for the service of the gods; to walk on them will ruin them. It will be an act of complete hubris, and Agamemnon knows this and resists. By conquering him as she does in persuading him to walk on the tapestries, she not only shows the strength of her will, she forces him to reveal his hubris openly, she deepens his guilt, and she foreshadows his death. It is an intensely dramatic moment. Then Agamemnon adds the finishing touch: he has arrived in his chariot with his concubine beside him, and now he asks his wife to treat her kindly. Yes, it was standard for men to have concubines while they were away fighting, and even to bring them home, but, as Homer points out, Odysseus's father never did such a thing to his wife, and neither did Odysseus.
Clytemnestra's words as Agamemnon slowly enters the palace are almost a chant of triumph. The purple dye of which the sea has such store suggests the blood that has been shed and will be shed. One might wonder why the Chorus ask themselves why they feel such terror, when the answer is so obvious. The audience certainly expects that after the choral ode they will hear Agamemnon's death cry-how can it be otherwise? But Aeschylus has not done yet with showing us why Agamemnon must die, and he also has more to do in showing us how horrible the murder is, no matter what its justification.