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When the play starts, Agamemnon has been away from Argos, his home city, for ten years.
What's he been doing with all his time? He's been fighting the Trojans, who offended his brother, Menelaus, by stealing his wife Helen.
Then, in the opening scene of the play, the Watchman sees a signal fire, which informs him that Troy has been captured. That means that Agamemnon is on his way back.
The Watchman tells us that he can't wait to shake his master's hand. This, combined with his complaints about how Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra has been managing the household, suggests that Agamemnon is a pretty decent king.
We next learn about Agamemnon from the Chorus, when they sing about the origins of the Trojan War, and what happened when the Greeks were on their way there.
According to the Chorus, Menelaus and Agamemnon had justice on their side. You could tell this was true because, just when they were about to sail off, two eagles (one black and one white) flew by on the right-hand side. (This was a sign of good luck.)
Then the two eagles swooped down on a pregnant hare. In sight of the entire Greek fleet, they devoured it and its unborn young.
Among those watching this was Calchas, the Greek's official soothsayer. Calchas told everybody that this was clearly a sign from the gods: the two eagles represented the two sons of Atreus, Menelaus and Agamemnon; the hare with its young represented Troy, which they would capture and destroy.
That was the good news. The bad news, according to Calchas, was that the goddess Artemis might give the Greeks bad weather to keep them from traveling. Then, she might wait until she had received a horrible sacrifice before bringing blue skies round again.
She might do this, according to Calchas, because an evil lurked in the house of Agamemnon!
Sure enough, on their way to Troy, the Greeks encountered some bad weather, and got stuck at a place called Aulis.
There, according to the Chorus, Calchas told Agamemnon that the only way he could bring Artemis around to his side was by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia.
Agamemnon debated whether or not he should follow through on this. Eventually, though, the Chorus tells us, "he put on the yoke-strap of compulsion" (218) and decided to go through with the sacrifice.
Agamemnon's men tied Iphigenia up and gagged her so she couldn't curse them. Then, somebody killed her, though we don't know whether it was Agamemnon himself, because the Chorus doesn't tell us.
After this song by the Chorus, we still have to wait a while before we actually get to lay eyes on Agamemnon. This is when he finally rolls into town in his chariot. Beside him in the chariot is the Trojan princess Cassandra, whom he has taken home as a slave.
Immediately, the Chorus tells Agamemnon, "Hey Agamemnon! You rock! We used to be kind of skeptical about the whole war thing, but now we're cool with it. Seriously. You'll be able to tell who's loyal and whose not. And we are."
Agamemnon doesn't seem to care too much, however. In fact, his first words don't even acknowledge the Chorus's existence. Instead, he talks about how happy he is to be back in Argos, and how the Trojans got what was coming to them.
Finally, however, Agamemnon turns his attention back to the Chorus. He thanks them for their words and remarks how difficult it is for people not to be jealous of those who are successful.
Then he talks about what a good friend Odysseus was to him – but he doesn't know where Odysseus is. Next he announces that he will hold meetings to see what's going on in the city. (Clearly, Agamemnon is rambling.)
He rounds things off by announcing that he is about to go into his house. (Thanks for the info, Agamemnon.)
Then, all of a sudden, who should appear in front of the palace, but Clytemnestra!
Clytemnestra says to everyone, "I love my hubby so, so much, I'm not embarrassed to say it! The whole time he was gone, I kept getting reports that he was hurt, and I was so worried! Every day, I nearly killed myself!"
Then she turns to Agamemnon and says, "That's why our son Orestes isn't here; I sent him away to be brought up by your friend Strophius the Phocian. He'll be safer that way."
Clytemnestra rounds off her speech by saying how glad she is that Agamemnon is back. But then she does something unexpected. She tells him that he should get out of his chariot and head into the house without his feet touching the ground. Then she calls to her slave-women to roll out a purple fabric for him to walk on. (Think of it as rolling out the red carpet.)
In response, Agamemnon says, "No way, that would be acting like a god. I can't do that."
But Clytemnestra isn't satisfied with that. Instead, she indulges in the verbal equivalent of flapping her arms like a chicken and crowing "Buk-buk bu-kaaawk!"
Thus, she starts off by saying, "You're telling me that if you were ever really, really scared, you wouldn't swear an oath to walk on purple fabrics, so long as the gods got you off the hook?"
Agamemnon says, "Uhh, sure, I guess I would."
Then Clytemnestra says, "And what about Priam, the King of Troy. You're telling me that Priam wouldn't have walked on purple fabrics to celebrate a victory as big as yours?"
Agamemnon says, "Uhh, sure, I guess he would."
Clytemnestra says, "So what's the big deal? Walk on the freakin' fabrics!"
"But the people won't like it," says Agamemnon.
"They'll be cool with it," says Clytemnestra.
After enough of this back and forth, Agamemnon decides to do as he's told. Before heading into the palace, however, he turns and points to the Trojan princess Cassandra, who is standing in his chariot. Agamemnon has brought her back from Troy as a slave.
Then Agamemnon starts walking on the fabrics.
Clytemnestra makes a little speech about how the sea can generate as much more purple dye as they want. She boasts about how wealthy they are, and remarks on how great it is that Agamemnon has come home.
Agamemnon prays to Zeus that everything will be OK. Then he enters the palace, offstage.
Clytemnestra goes inside too, along with the slave-women, who gather up the carpet.
This leaves the Chorus alone with Cassandra. They have a creepy dialogue in which Cassandra prophesies that she and Agamemnon will soon be killed. She accepts her fate, and goes in to meet it. The Chorus still doesn't really know what's going on, however.
Then, while the Chorus is standing around not knowing what to do, they suddenly hear a cry from inside the palace (i.e., offstage). It's Agamemnon, saying (in Collard's translation), "O-oh! I have been struck deep, a fatal blow!"
The Chorus calls out, "What happened?" Then they hear Agamemnon say (in Collard's translation), "O-oh! Again! Struck a second blow!"
A little while later, Clytemnestra opens the doors of the palace and reveals the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. She has just killed them, and is very pleased with herself.