Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Agamemnon, Study Questions

1) How does the form of the watchman's speech (31-2)  tell you there is something wrong in Agamemnon's kingdom?                                                                    

2) What is the difference between the way Aeschylus characterizes the watchman and the chorus, and the way he characterizes Clytemnestra?  

3)  On 35, the Chorus fuses a metaphoric description of the army's destruction of Troy with an omen witnessed by the generals when they first set sail.  An eagle soared over them, carrying in its beak a hare pregnant with ten young.  Prophets predicted this meant the war would last ten years, which it did.  Why recall the eagle and hare omen this early in the play?

4) On 36-9, the Chorus turns to the fury of Artemis, protector of motherhood and virginity, when the generals persisted in waging war.   She turned the winds against them and the fleet nearly was destroyed in the harbor at Aulis until Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphegenia, to change the winds.   Why recall the death of Iphegenia in such detail and why take so long before letting Clytemnestra speak?

5)  Strophe 3 (37) is perhaps the most often-quoted passage in Aeschylus.  What does it say about the relationship between pain and knowledge, and how does this reflect the poet's picture of the human spirit?

6)  Based on the terrible events the Chorus already has described, whose tragedy is this? To whom do the tragic events happen? Whom do they affect?

7) How do you read the effect of the watchman's reference to Clytemnestra as manlike (27; also compare the leader of the Chorus, 43, the chorus member on 47, and Clytemnestra, herself, on 39). What is "manly" action according to these characters?

8) How do you interpret Clytemnestra's speech of triumph in which she boasts of her loyalty? (51-2)

9) Is it Helen who caused the war? According to the men of the chorus (43-8 and 55-8), why does evil happen?

10) Would a modern playwrite or screen writer let Clytemnestra reveal more of her thoughts? She sometimes seems to be speaking ironically, saying two things at once (one to herself and the other to the Chorus).  For instance, she tells the Chorus and Herald to deliver a speech to Agamemnon (52), but she does not say it to him herself.  Notice what the Herald and Chorus say in response.   How much can you see through her words when you know what is coming?

11) When Cassandra first begins speaking, the translator falters a bit trying to render the sound "Ai!"  It's an exclamation of grief common in many Mediterranean countries to this day, often "ullulated," or repeated continuously with a high keening tremor on the second vowel.  Once she finds words to speak, why does Cassandra announce her prophesies as she does (69-81)? Why say them, and why in that manner?

12) Why should Cassandra envy Procne's metamorphosis (72)? What is the analogy this draws implicitly between their situations?  Make sure you consult the note on p. 72 for the background.  That story would have been as vivid in the Greek audience's mind as the presidential impeachment hearings in ours.

13) How is Cassandra a fitting witness to Agamemnon's fall, and her own?  What kind of connection or disconnection is there between her experience and her action?

14) Why can't Cassandra's prophecies be understood and the tragedy averted? What is her last lament's theme?  This is crucial to the Greek notion of moira or destiny, a thing "woven" of innumerable converging forces.

15) What is the effect of the breakup of the Chorus (83)? What did they represent as a unified body, and what are they in a diffuse group?

16)  After the killings are exposed, how do Clytemnestra's defense and the Chorus's counter-charges explain the deeds?   Especially, how is gender used to justify and to insult?

17) What is the relationship between destiny and free will in the plot of Aeschylus's Agamemnon? Consider the ways in which the three major characters--Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra--respond to their situations.

18)  What kinds of "poets" do we see in this play?  Consider the artful uses of language by the Watchman, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra.  What inspires them and what does Aeschylus appear to be telling us about the results of their inspired creativity?