Agamemnon: Theme Analysis
Justice and Vengeance
It is true that the Chorus, and presumably the audience, have had their faith confirmed that the gods do care about what mortals do, and that they strike men down, not because they are jealous of their prosperity, as was the common belief, but because they or their fathers have violated justice. The Chorus underline this message again and again (for example, in 367-372), most strikingly when they speak of themselves as "apart from others, alone in thought" (756) in tracing disaster, not to good fortune in a family, but to injustice in a family. (It was not actually a new message in Athens, but perhaps the older belief still had many adherents.) The difficulty is that they see this justice in the fall of Troy, yet in the way the war was carried out they see inhumanity and injustice. So strong is this theme that it would be quite possible to do the Agamemnon as an antiwar play, though probably Aeschylus intended no more than a warning that the excuse of a just war must not be used to justify the exacting of a double penalty by the victors. As the discussion of the imagery of the play makes clear, Aeschylus suggests again and again that Agamemnon has forgotten the need to treat other human beings with humanity and to reverence the gods; he has become a Fury in his quest for justice.
The same is true for Clytemnestra, as her delight in the killing of Cassandra makes clear even to a modern audience. But the discussion of Clytemnestra brings up another prominent theme of the play: the theme of the disastrous tension between men and women. Some scholars say that the Greeks were the first to question the role of women; certainly Aeschylus shows fully how bitterly Clytemnestra feels the death of her daughter, how much she resents those who will not believe her because she was a woman, and how strong a character she is-more admirable than Aegisthus, though perhaps that's not saying much. On the other hand, one aspect of this theme is perhaps hard for a modern audience to relate to, and that is the sense that it is not simply wrong but against nature and monstrous for the female to kill the male, for a wife to kill her husband. Cassandra expresses this feeling most strongly, and that in itself is interesting. It is as though Aeschylus is aware that the only way to bring the women in the audience (and women were allowed to attend tragedies in Athens) to accept that it could in any sense be acceptable for Orestes to kill his mother was to have another woman condemn Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon, and for Clytemnestra to have the savagery to hate and kill that woman, who is a completely innocent victim.
But whatever a modern audience might feel, it does seem clear that Aeschylus is at least suggesting that men should look carefully at the way they treat women, that if wives become Clytemnestras, it may be because their husbands have been Agamemnons. The order of the universe may demand that men should rule, but it is only asking for trouble if a woman as strong and intelligent as Clytemnestra is dismissed or undervalued, simply because she is a woman. One critic has suggested that Aeschylus was presenting Athens with two dilemmas in the Agamemnon, the problem of justice and the problem of the relationship between the sexes. One problem Athens had been able to solve, as the rest of the trilogy will show. The other remained.
Suffering and Human Fragility