Agamemnon: Theme Analysis

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Justice and Vengeance
The main theme of the Agamemnon is rather a dilemma than any positive message. The short version is, Justice will be done, those who transgress will suffer, but woe be to those who carry out that justice by taking vengeance-they will, almost inevitably, transgress in their turn, and so they will have to suffer. Yet the taking of vengeance seems to be the only way that justice can be done. The dilemma seems hopeless. The Chorus sang early in the play, in what is known as the Hymn to Zeus, that Zeus is somehow the answer, that he has ordained that men shall learn from suffering (lines 176-178), but there is no indication in this play that they have learned anything.

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
Finally, there is the theme of the fragility of human life and the universality of suffering. This is perhaps the most universal of the themes we have discussed, and its prominence in the Agamemnon may help to explain why this is the most performed play of the trilogy. Cassandra's last words before she goes to her death sum up this theme most powerfully. This is how they appear in Robert Fagles's translation, in which the meaning comes out more strongly than in a literal translation:

Oh men, your destiny.
When all is well a shadow can overturn it.
When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,
And the picture's blotted out. And that,
I think that breaks the heart.

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