LIT 231/LIT 230
Prof. G. Steinberg

Response Paper:  Agamemnon

The Oresteia was written and first performed in 458 B.C.  At that time in Athenian history, things were looking up.  The Greeks, under the leadership of Athens and Sparta, had successfully repulsed three invasions by the Persians between 492 and 480 B.C.  For the Athenians, one of the most important battles of the Persian Wars was the battle at Marathon, in which the Athenians, essentially single-handedly, successfully turned back the second Persian invasion.  If youíve seen the movie 300, you know about Thermopylae, a battle in which the Spartans were outnumbered and massacred but successfully held up the third and final invasion of the Persians long enough to allow the evacuation of Athens and the gathering of Greek naval forces to defeat the Persians decisively at Salamis in 480.

Aeschylus himself personally fought at Marathon as a soldier and said that he wanted his participation in that battle to be noted on his tombstone (and not any mention of his many successful plays).  So, look for signs of optimism and Athenian pride in Aeschylusís plays.  Aeschylus was an Athenian patriot, and the Athens of his day was a major power in the Greek world with little reason to suspect that times were going to change for the worse before long.

Before you read the Agamemnon, the first part of the Oresteia, you may need to know some background on the story of Troy.

As you read the Agamemnon, keep in mind that ancient Greek plays marked the ends of scenes with the Chorus (since they didnít have a curtain to lower or lights to dim at the ends of scenes).  At the end of the first scene of the Agamemnon, which is very short, the Chorus comes in and begins to chant.  They are supposed to represent the old men of Argos (who were too old ten years before to go with Agamemnon to fight at Troy).  This first Chorus is very long and difficult (continuing until Clytaemnestra appears on stage), but itís also very important.  Donít worry if you donít understand every word of it.  Just keep in mind that theyíre having a divinely inspired vision (so that not everything is supposed to make sense or be realistic), and their vision lets them see into the past to know exactly what happened at Aulis ten years before, when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia (for a synopsis of her story, click here).  Pay close attention to what they say about Agamemnon (whom they call ďthe kingĒ and ďthe warlordĒ).  Their vision gives us a lot of insight into the way Agamemnon thinks and acts.

In the Agamemnon, there is considerable conflict between Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra.  She wants to kill him for what he did to their daughter at Aulis, and he wants to stay alive and enjoy his new concubine Cassandra.  But I think that we have to ask ourselves whether thereís more to this conflict than just revenge and survival instinct.  What is really at stake here?  Do Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra have conflicting values?  What do Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra really want?  What does each of them value most?  What principles underlie their values?  How and why are their values coming into conflict?

Choose one of the following areas as the focus of your response paper:

  1. What does the Chorus say about what happened at Aulis?  Why does Agamemnon decide to sacrifice his daughter?  What motivates his decision?  What does his decision tell us about what he thinks is important?  Look at a specific passage that seems to sum up his attitude.  Does Agamemnonís attitude seem consistent throughout the play?
  2. When Agamemnon arrives in Argos and is met by Clytaemnestra with the crimson tapestries, how does Agamemnon plan to run things in Argos?  Look at a specific speech that seems to sum up his plans and attitude.  Does he stick to those plans?  What values and principles underlie his plans?
  3. In the final scene, what does Clytaemnestra say to justify herself?  What does she plan to do next?  How do you feel about her actions, her justification, her plans?  What principles underlay her actions?  What is most important to her?  How do you feel toward Clytaemnestra and her values?
  4. In the interludes between scenes, what does the Chorus think?  How does the Chorus feel about everything that happens?  When the Chorus looks at Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, what lessons does it learn?  What principles and values does the Chorus conclude are best?

Click here to go to the syllabus.

Background Material: Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra

The Oresteia is a trilogy of three plays -- the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides.

A great deal has happened before the action of the Oresteia begins.  Ten years before the first play of the trilogy opens, Agamemnon, the king of Argos, was selected leader of the Greek armies that were going to Troy to fight the Trojan War in order to regain Helen (the wife of Agamemnonís brother Menelaus, king of Sparta, and, incidentally, the half-sister of Agamemnonís own wife, Clytaemnestra).  The Greek armies gathered in an armada of ships at Aulis in Thrace with the intention of sailing together for Troy, but they became stranded at Aulis by contrary winds.  Aulis was without much in the way of resources to feed the multitudes of men in the gathered armies, and the Greeks therefore began to get desperate.  Agamemnon consulted a priest of Artemis, goddess of the hunt and of virginity.  The priest told Agamemnon that he and Menelaus had offended the goddess by killing an animal sacred to her.  In recompense, Agamemnon was told to sacrifice a human virgin to the goddess.  As it happened, the only virgin available at Aulis was Iphigenia, Agamemnonís own daughter, who just happened to be a priestess in a nearby temple.  Agamemnon was therefore faced with a terrible decision:  he must either kill his own daughter in human sacrifice or condemn the Greek armies to remain stranded at Aulis.

He chose to kill his daughter, and the Greek armada sailed safely to Troy.

Clytaemnestra, Agamemnonís wife back home in Argos, was enraged when she heard that her husband had killed their daughter.  For the next ten years, she plotted to kill her husband when he returned from the war.  She even organized an elaborate relay system of bonfires to let her know when Troy falls (so that she could be totally ready for her husbandís return).  As soon as Troy is captured by the Greeks (called Argives or Danaans), a servant of the queen who is waiting on top of a mountain outside the city of Troy will light a bonfire that can be seen from another mountain further away.  There, another servant waits to light another bonfire that can be seen from a mountain even further away from Troy, and so on, and so on, and so on, until the last bonfire on the last mountain can be seen from the roof of the royal palace in Argos itself.  There a servant waits for the bonfire signal to light in order to be able to tell Clytaemnestra the news that Troy has fallen.

That is where the Agamemnon begins.

You may also need a few other bits of useful information.  Agamemnonís father was named Atreus, and Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus are therefore often referred to as the sons of Atreus.  Back in the even more distant past, Atreus had a feud with his brother Thyestes and eventually killed him.  Aegisthus, who has been having an affair with Clytaemnestra during the ten years that Agamemnon has been gone at Troy, is the son of Thyestes and, so, has his own reasons for hating the sons of Atreus.

Click here to go to the syllabus.