Aeschylus,  The Oresteia, Agamemnon

 Genre:  tragic drama, with multiple actors and a chorus, acting parts which illustrate a known mythic event by giving motives to the event's actions to explain some important cultural phenomenon (in this case, relations between justice and revenge, duty and love, character and fate, etc.).  Click here for terms describing the five typical stages of Greek tragedy.

Era: Classical Athens, performed in the Theater of Dionysus during the annual Dionysia festival, sometime before 456 B.C.E.


Characters: the Watchman, the Chorus (elders of Argos), Clytemnestra (Agamemnon's wife and half-sister of Helen), Agamemnon (brother of Menalaos), Cassandra (Agamemnon's slave, youngest daughter of Priam, king of Troy), Aethisthos (sole surviving son of Thyestes, Agamemnon's uncle).


Plot: Having destroyed Troy and recovered Helen, wife of his brother, Menalaos, Agamemnon returns home to Argos after ten years of war with his plunder, including the slave, Cassandra.  Clytemnestra, with the aid of Aegisthos, plans Agamemnon's murder, and they apparently have made no secret of their plans from the old men and women who now populate Argos when the army has taken all the young husbands, sons, and brothers to die at Troy.  Clytemnestra desires revenge for Agamemnon's sacrifice of her daughter, Iphegenia, to the gods in return for fair winds to carry the invasion fleet to Troy, and by her jealousy of her husband's new young slave, whom she also will kill.  Aegisthos desires revenge for his brother's murder and his father Thyestes' unconscious cannibalistic self-pollution with their flesh by the hand of his uncle, Agamemnon's father, Atreus. Clytemnestra lures her victims, one at a time, into the palace where she kills them with an ax.  Joined by Aegisthos, she triumphantly asserts her rights to revenge against the Chorus' accusations, and the play ends.


Study Questions

1) How does the form of the watchman's speech tell you there is something wrong in Agamemnon's kingdom?  As usual in poetry, emotion is depicted by violations of normal speech, which is orderly, clear, and succinct.  Look for his emotional "tells."  Compare them with the play's other uses of dialog to show, as well as describe, emotion.


2)  What is the  difference between the way Aeschylus  characterizes the watchman and the chorus, and the way he  characterizes Clytemnestra?  Note that the former two are both males, a privileged status in Athenian society, even perhaps when compared with the wife of a king.  What tensions might this cause between various sources of social status?


3)  Why recall the eagle and hare omen this early in the  play?  Take for granted that Athenians grew up knowing this story, as well as its background context (see link at top of page!).  Drama uses foreshadowing to communicate plot information that is unknown, but it also can use it to bring together distant past and future events with the play's "now."  What is the effect of this simultaneity of vision?  Remember that this is a culture which firmly believed that some human beings could foresee the future as well as remember the past, and Cassandra will shortly give us a verbal illustration of what that does to vision in the "now."


4)  Why recall the death of Iphegenia in such detail and why take  so long before letting Clytemnestra speak?  As in the case of the foreshadowing recollection of the omen, recalling Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter and keeping Clytemnestra offstage creates a source of tension, like building a static charge in viewers' minds.  Do you believe in the justice of revenge?  Have you ever desired it?  Turn that insight upon the play's strategy.


5)  Whose tragedy is this?  To whom do the tragic events happen?  Though the trilogy is named Orestia and the play is named Agamemnon, these may be no more than labeling conveniences for scholars and librarians.  On a similar basis, pre-modern short lyric poems that never had titles have been given titles based on their first lines, and master medieval composers have been given names like "Anonymous 4," though the titles and names played no role in their original existence.  If we look beyond the "title character," how might that expand one's sense of what "tragedy" is to encompass something larger than Aristotle's "fall of a great man due to a character flaw."


6)  How do you read the effect of the watchman's reference to Clytemnestra as manlike (also compare the leader of the Chorus).   What is "manly" action according to these characters?   Compare that code of action with what you see Agamemnon and Aegisthos doing in this play.  Are the men "manly"? 


7)  How do you interpret Clytemnestra's speech of triumph when she boasts of her loyalty?  In warrior-based tribal cultures around the world, women often play the role of public celebrant and mourner of their male relatives' fortunes in battle.  


8)  Is it Helen who caused the war?  According to the male chorus, why does evil happen?


9)  Would a modern playwright or screen writer let Clytemnestra  reveal more of her thoughts?  How much can you see through her  words when you know what is coming?


10)  Why does Cassandra speak her prophesies as she does?  Why  say them, and why in that manner?


11)  Why should Cassandra envy Procne's metamorphosis?  What is  the analogy this draws implicitly between their situations?


12)  How is Cassandra a fitting witness to Agamemnon's fall, and  her own?


13)  Why can't Cassandra's prophecies be understood and the  tragedy averted?  What is her last lament's theme?


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


15)  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.

16)  Click here to see a 1942 syllabus for a course taught by Arno Bader and his teaching assistant, W. H. Auden (later a famous poet), and notice the position of Aeschylus' Agamemnon in this University of Michigan course's investigation of "Fate and the Individual in European Literature."  Think about what was going on in the world in 1942.  Why was this course's readings relevant, and how might students in 1942 have related to the characters in this play?