The play begins with a Watchman sitting on the roof of King Agamemnon's palace, complaining about his life. This is the tenth year he has had to spend the night up on the roof, in the cold and the wet, waiting for a sign that the Trojan War is over.
Need a little context here? Never fear: Shmoop is here.
Before we go ahead and tell you everything though, a word of warning. Aeschylus's Agamemnon is kind of like a mystery; a lot of information about the back-story doesn't come out until later, and we don't want to spoil your fun in learning about it.
That said, there are some extremely basic things that every member of the play's original Ancient Greek audience member would have known, even before they went to the theater. Most basically of all, they would have known the facts of the Trojan War. So we're going to fill you in on that now, and let the play take its own course in revealing other stuff later.
If you want a really good summary of the deep causes of the Trojan War and some of its major events, we recommend that you check out this website, maintained by Stanford University.
That said, there are a couple of differences between Aeschylus's version of the story and the versions of Homer and the other authors featured on the Stanford site. So, even though you should definitely check out that timeline, we're still going to give you a few basic pointers to help navigate Aeschylus's version of the story in his Agamemnon.
Ten years before Agamemnon begins, two brothers, Agamemnon and Menelaus, were the most important Greek kings. Their father was a guy called Atreus. Atreus was a pretty nasty dude, but we'll learn more about him as the play progresses, so we don't have to deal with him right now.
According to Aeschylus, Menelaus and Agamemnon were both kings of a city called Argos. (Homer tells things slightly differently; check out our Shmoop guides on the Iliad and Odyssey or the Stanford site for more info.) If you want to know where Argos is, check out this map.
One day, a visitor arrived in Argos. It was Paris, the handsome young prince of Troy – a city in modern Turkey.
This visit had some unfortunate consequences. Paris seduced Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and took her back with him to Troy.
Determined to get her back, Agamemnon and Menelaus rounded up a fleet of a thousand Greek ships and sailed off to kick some Trojan butt.
Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as planned. First of all, there was some trouble on the way to Troy, which we'll learn about later. But the biggest trouble came when they got there. The city was definitely not easy to capture. Instead, they ended up besieging it for ten years.
This is where Aeschylus's Agamemnon begins: back home in Argos, in the tenth year of the war, where the guard is waiting for news that King Agamemnon will be coming home. Does this make sense now?
OK, so the Watchman starts off by saying how his life sucks because he's been stuck up on top of a roof every night for ten years. Can you blame him?
But that's not all that's the matter: he also says that the royal household is not being managed as well as it used to be, when Agamemnon was there. (Insert ominous music here.)
Then, all of a sudden, something amazing happens: far in the distance, the Watchman sees a signal fire burning. This is the sign he has been waiting for. Hardly able to contain his excitement, the Watchman passes the word along to Queen Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife.
Now the Watchman leaves the stage. At the same time, the Chorus, a group of old men, walks in. For more information on the role of choruses in Greek tragedy, check out our sections on "Genre" and "Writing Style"; the basic idea, though, is that it's a group of characters on stage who comment on the main action through song and dance.
Right off the bat, the Chorus starts talking about the beginning of the Trojan War, ten years ago. Fortunately, we now have the info to know what the heck they're talking about.
Basically, the Chorus points out how the two sons of Atreus – i.e., Menelaus and Agamemnon – launched a massive war against Troy, all for the sake of a woman: Helen, Menelaus's wife. Then they say how they didn't go to war because they're old men, and how life sucks when you're old.Then the Chorus turns to face the doors of the palace, and calls out to Clytemnestra, asking her why there has been so much commotion in the city, with fires being lit, sacrifices being made, and so on.
Without getting any response, the Chorus keeps on singing. Actually, they turn things up a notch. Here's what the Chorus says now:
Menelaus and Agamemnon had justice on their side when they brought war against Troy. 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. In ancient times, birds could be interpreted as signs from the gods: if they flew by on the right, that was good; if they flew by on the left, that was bad.
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, who sided with the Trojans, would give them trouble. There was a risk, Calchas said, that she would 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 spirit lurked in the house of Agamemnon! (Insert ominous music here.) But we don't know anything about this yet, so we can't give you any more information. Sorry: you'll just have to wait.
After finishing this part of their story, the Chorus moves into a new phase of their song. The new phase of their song (which begins at line 160) is very, very famous, and is often referred to as the "Ode to Zeus." This passage contains some of Agamemnon's most important themes, so, you know, you might want to pay attention. We're just saying.
The Chorus begins the "Ode to Zeus" by saying that Zeus is super-awesome, and they can't compare anything to him. Fair enough.
Then they talk about how human greatness is fleeting, blah blah, you know the drill.
But then comes the important part; as the Chorus puts it in Christopher Collard's (Oxford World Classics) translation: "but a man readily crying triumph for Zeus / will meet with wisdom totally – / Zeus who put men on wisdom's road, / who gave 'Suffer and learn' / authority" (174-178). In case you need a translation of that translation, the basic idea is this: "If you want wisdom, you'd better respect Zeus: Zeus sets people on the path to wisdom, and he set things up so that people learn through suffering."
Remember that last phrase: "Suffer and learn," which in Greek is pathei mathos. (This literally translates to "In suffering [there is] learning.") What do you think it means? If it isn't clear right away, don't worry: if you suffer through the rest of the play, you'll learn. Not that you'll be suffering, of course. But this is one of the play's key themes, so you'll be hearing it a lot.
The end of the "Ode to Zeus" takes us back into the main story that the Chorus was telling us beforehand. Now they say how, sure enough, as the Greeks were sailing on their way to Troy, they ran into some bad weather and couldn't go any further.
Specifically, the Greeks got stuck at Aulis, which you can see in this map. (Note that this map says that Agamemnon comes from Mycenae, Menelaus comes from Sparta, and Diomedes comes from Argos. That's because this map reflects Homer's version of the Trojan War; we're following Aeschylus's version now, in which Agamemnon and Menelaus both come from Argos.)
OK, so the Greeks were stuck at Aulis. What then?
The Chorus says that 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.
What happens next? The Chorus doesn't tell us, but we get the hint. (Iphigenia was killed.)
The Chorus finishes up their song by saying, "Let's not talk about the future; we'll know it when it comes. Let's just hope things turn out well." Then, Clytemnestra appears on stage.
The Chorus says to her, "What's up?"
In reply, Clytemnestra tells them that Troy has been captured by the Achaeans.
But then the Chorus says, "How the heck do you know that?"
Clytemnestra says, "Easy. Fire told me." Then she explains how, after the city was captured, someone lit a bonfire on top of Mount Ida, near Troy. Then, somebody on the island of Lemnos, in the middle of the Aegean Sea (between mainland Greece and modern Turkey) saw that bonfire and lit a bonfire of his own. Then somebody on Mount Athos in the Chalcidice region of Northern Greece saw that fire and…well, you get the picture. Eventually, somebody on Mount Arachnae lit a watch-fire – the same one that the watchman saw in the first scene of the play.
The Chorus says, "Ooh, tell us more, tell us more."
Clytemnestra says, "The Greeks captured the city, killed lots of people, enslaved Troy's women and children; now they're on their way home."
The Chorus says, "Word."
Then Clytemnestra heads offstage, back into the palace.
Now the Chorus sings another song. This time, they start by praising Zeus, the king of the gods, for casting his net over Troy (the metaphor comes from fishing).
The Chorus takes this as a sign that the gods watch over humans and ensure justice.
As an example of this, the Chorus references Paris (a.k.a. Alexandros), who carried off Menelaus's wife Helen.
After these lovebirds sailed back to Troy, Argos was up in arms. The house was full of misery now that Helen was gone.
This misery continued once the armies had sailed off for Troy. Now, as the war waged on through the years, the citizens lamented to see their loved ones come home as cremated ashes.
After enough of this, the citizens began to grumble: "Why do we have to endure all this for the sake of some other guy's wife?" they asked.
But then the Chorus comes back to the recent news about the fall of Troy. They don't completely believe it yet, because they don't want to be disappointed in case it turns out to be false. Still, they are pretty excited.
While the Chorus is still going on about the news, a Herald appears on stage. The Chorus decides to hit him up for some more specific information.
The Herald's first words are to praise the land he has missed for so long, and which he now sees again with his own eyes.
The Chorus tells him that the people of Argos have missed the army, too.
Then the Herald starts to tell the Chorus about all the hardships the army went through while besieging Troy. But then he rounds it off by saying that there's no point in dwelling on the misery of the past: the army should be happy now that they have succeeded and arrived back home.
The Herald rounds off his speech by praising Zeus who has brought all this about.
Just when he finishes speaking, out comes Clytemnestra from the palace.
Clytemnestra basically tells everybody, "I told you so." Then she tells the Herald to hurry off to Agamemnon and tell him to come quickly. She also announces that she has been totally faithful to him while he's been gone. Then she heads inside the palace, offstage.
When she's gone, the Chorus turns to the Herald and says, "That's what she says; don't be surprised if you find out it isn't exactly the truth."
Then, seemingly wanting to change the topic, the Chorus asks the Herald to tell them what's happened to Menelaus.
The Herald says, "Beats the heck out of me. On the way back, there was a huge storm, and Menelaus got separated from the rest of the fleet. We don't know if he's alive or dead."
The Herald says that, if anyone is keeping Menelaus alive, it must be Zeus, who doesn't want to destroy the family of Atreus completely.
Then the Herald leaves.
At this point, the Chorus starts singing again.
This time, the Chorus sings about Helen. They make a joke about her name, which sounds like the Greek word for to "capture, overcome, destroy," as Christopher Collard points out. In the edition we use, by Collard, he gets the same point across by making the Chorus call Helen "hellish."
The Chorus says that this was a good name for her since, after she ran off with Paris, she ended up being "hellish" for Troy. This is of course because of the destruction the Greeks brought with them when they came in pursuit of her.
They also blame Paris, though without making any jokes about his name. The Chorus compares the experience of Priam, king of Troy, in raising Paris, to that of a man who raised a lion-cub, which grew up to slaughter his livestock.
Then the Chorus refers to an old proverb, which says basically that "Successful people have dumb kids." But then the Chorus members say that they don't believe in this proverb. Instead, they say that it's wicked people who have wicked children.
They round off their song by telling how the goddess Justice likes to hang out in the houses of people who are just. When she finds herself in the houses of unjust people, however, she says, "Let's blow this pop-stand."
Just when the Chorus stops singing, whose chariot should roll into town but Agamemnon's – with Agamemnon in it, of course.
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.)
OK, before telling you what happens next, we have to interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you an Urgent Historical Context Update. The key words here are: dye, expensive, piety , and snails. Snails? We'd better explain.
In Ancient Times, Greek as well as Roman, purple dye was extremely, extremely expensive. If you had anything dyed purple, that meant you were definitely in the top tier of society. Thus, in Ancient Rome (a little after the Agamemnon takes place) they actually used laws about who could wear purple as a way of reinforcing status divisions; only Senators were allowed to wear a purple band on their togas.
Why was purple dye so expensive? Because it only came from one, really weird source: sea-snails. In case you were wondering, this is what Clytemnestra is talking about at lines 958-960, when she says (in the Collard translation): "The sea is there – and who shall quench it? – nurturing the juices which yield much purple worth its weight in silver, wholly renewable, the dye of vestments." Get it now?
OK, you're probably saying. You've told us about the "dye" and the "expensive" and the "snails" bits, but where does "piety" fit in?
So glad you asked. Here, you have to bear in mind the Greek concept of "hubris" (sometimes spelled "hybris"), which translates roughly to "getting to big for your britches." The Greeks considered anyone "hubristic" if they tried to equal to, or better than, the gods. They also thought that such people stood a pretty good chance of getting struck by lightning, or having something else nasty afflict them from on high.
As we are about to see, Agamemnon is very afraid about walking on the purple fabrics because he thinks only a god would have the guts to do that. Thus, he is afraid of seeming hubristic, and thus inviting the punishment of the gods.
Does this make sense? Well, we sure hope so. Anyway, this is the end of our Urgent Historical Context Update; let's see how this info plays out in the scene between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.
As we have just seen, Clytemnestra has rolled out the purple fabrics and told Agamemnon to walk on them instead of getting his feet dirty.
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.
At this point, the Chorus begins singing. The subject of their song is fear – the strange sense of unease they feel at Agamemnon's arrival, even if they can't quite figure out why.
Then the Chorus sings about how human life is unstable: at one moment, a person can be on top of the world; at the next, that same person might be lying in the gutter.
When the Chorus stops singing, Clytemnestra comes back out in front of the palace. She tells Cassandra to come inside.
Cassandra doesn't answer. Then, the Chorus tells her to listen to Clytemnestra. Cassandra still doesn't answer, nor does she make any move toward the house.
Eventually, Clytemnestra reasons that Cassandra, as a Trojan, must simply not be able to understand the Greek language. Clytemnestra decides not to waste any more time on this matter, so she heads into the house, offstage.
Now the Chorus tries again to convince Cassandra to go inside.
All of a sudden, Cassandra starts speaking – or rather, singing and chanting. The words of her chant are expressions of pure horror. As Collard translates it: "O-o-o-oh! Horror! No! / O Apollo, O Apollo!" (The sound that Collard translates as "O-o-o-oh!" sounds even weirder in Greek: "ototototoi!")
The Chorus asks her what's the matter, but she just keeps chanting about horror, and talking about how Apollo has destroyed her.
Eventually, Cassandra asks Apollo what house she has come to.
The Chorus says, "Don't you know, this is the house of the sons of Atreus!"
But Cassandra disagrees: she says that she has come to a slaughterhouse – a slaughterhouse where family members have killed family members.
The Chorus knows what she's talking about, but doesn't go into too many details.
Then Cassandra starts prophesying that Agamemnon will be killed – by his own wife!
The Chorus is very confused and disturbed by this.
Then Cassandra starts saying that she is going to die too.
The Chorus wavers between understanding exactly what she's saying, and pretending not to; they also say that they are helpless to do anything about it.
Finally, Cassandra provides a pretty clear hint that she knows about the murders that took place in the palace – the children of Thyestes whom Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus's father) butchered and served to him. She also alludes to the fact that Thyestes slept with Atreus's wife, which provoked the whole thing.
The Chorus tells her that she's right; they're amazed that a foreigner could have learned about this story.
Cassandra tells them that she knows because of the prophetic power she was given by the god Apollo.
The Chorus says, "Why did he do that? He must have had a huge crush on you."
Cassandra reveals that this was, in fact the case. But even though she had promised to sleep with Apollo, at the last minute she changed her mind – after he had given her the power of prophecy though.
In revenge for this, however, Cassandra explains, Apollo cursed her. He made it so that, even though she had the power of prophecy, she was condemned to have no one believe her.
The Chorus tells her that they believe her, however. (What do you make of this, Shmoop readers?)
Then, all of a sudden, Cassandra starts having another vision. This one is really spooky. She says that she sees the children of Thyestes nearby, holding their own guts in their hands. Yup.
Cassandra finishes her prophecy by saying that some "bitch" (like, literally, a female dog) is going to kill Agamemnon.
The Chorus doesn't know what to make of this. In fact, they simply tell Cassandra to shut up, on the off chance that her words might bring bad luck against Agamemnon.
When Cassandra persists, they ask her (in Collard's translation), "What man is to bring this evil thing about?" Realizing that the Chorus clearly didn't get the point of the whole "female dog" reference, she just says, "You guys are way off track."
The Chorus tries to press her further, but she just goes off into another prophetic trance.
This time, Cassandra speaks again in metaphorical terms about how Clytemnestra is going to kill Agamemnon – and her too.
She says that this is Apollo's final way of punishing her.
But then, she reflects that someone will come to avenge her and Agamemnon, a child born to kill his own mother.
Finally, comforted by this, and by the fact that the man who captured Troy (Agamemnon) is about to die, she accepts death.
Just before Cassandra heads inside, she stops, repulsed by the smell of blood she claims is coming from inside. The Chorus tries to figure out what's going on, but doesn't succeed. Then Cassandra tells them that she and Agamemnon are going to die; she prays that whoever comes to avenge Agamemnon will avenge her too.
Then, after offering a brief reflection on the fragility of human life, she heads inside.
After Cassandra goes inside, the Chorus starts chanting; they also reflect on how short human life is, and how nobody, not even someone born with silver spoons in their mouths, can know for certain how his or her life will turn out.
The Chorus is interrupted, however, by a cry from inside the palace (i.e., a cry from offstage.) It is 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!"
Now the Chorus goes into a frenzy, different voices coming in and out of focus as its members try to figure out what to do.
At first, most of the voices argue that they should act immediately; but then others point out that they don't really know what's going on; after much bandying back and forth, a majority finally resolves to form an exploratory committee to find out the facts. For the moment, they will take no action.
Then, the door of the palace opens. We see Clytemnestra standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.
Clytemnestra says, "All that stuff I said before – that was just for show. It was necessary because I had to kill my husband. Now that I have, I feel great! You guys should throw a party. As for myself, I'm having a fun time boasting."
The Chorus doesn't like this. So what's a Chorus to do? They start chanting. The gist of their chant is that Clytemnestra should be banished from the city.
Clytemnestra says, "No way. Agamemnon was the bad guy – he sacrificed his own daughter! Don't you think he was the one you should have banished?"
The Chorus doesn't agree, and says that Clytemnestra will have to pay the price for what she did.
Clytemnestra says "Fat chance. Justice is on my side – and so is Aegisthus; he'll protect me. Anyway, Agamemnon was a scumbag."
The Chorus says, "Oh, this all stinks; we hope we die soon." Then they go into a misogynistic rant about how a woman brought about Agamemnon's death, and how a woman (Helen) was the cause of the Trojan War.
Clytemnestra says: "Get over it." In fact, she even goes on to say that she isn't responsible for killing Agamemnon; she blames the Fury of vengeance, which is coming back to get Agamemnon for the crime his father committed against his brother Thyestes.
When the Chorus asks who will take care of Agamemnon's funeral preparations, Clytemnestra tells them, "Mind your own business!" She gives a hint, though, of what his funeral will entail, when she says that the only person to lament Agamemnon will be his daughter Iphigenia, in the Underworld. We're guessing this means she's not going to great lengths about it.
Then Aegisthus comes on stage.
Aegisthus says that he now believes that the gods are just, now that he has seen Agamemnon murdered. Aegisthus explicitly links up what happened to Agamemnon to what happened to his own father, Thyestes.
Aegisthus explains how Atreus, Agamemnon's father, killed Thyestes's children and fed them to him. (Aegisthus leaves out the part about how Thyestes slept with Atreus's wife.) Aegisthus thinks that Justice brought him back to avenge his murdered brothers and sisters.
When the Chorus starts questioning him, however, Aegisthus asserts his authority and tells them to shut up.
The Chorus and Aegisthus then get into a back and forth argument, with the Chorus calling Aegisthus a wuss because he didn't go fight at Troy, and because he resorted to scheming with a woman to bring down Agamemnon, instead of facing him head-to-head. Aegisthus replies that he did what he had to do.
Things escalate to a point where it looks like Aegisthus and the Chorus are about to fight each other with swords – but then Clytemnestra steps in.
Clytemnestra tells the Chorus to go home, and tells Aegisthus to come with her inside the palace.
Aegisthus and the Chorus trade a few more harsh words; the Chorus hopes that Orestes will come home and settle Aegisthus's hash.
Then, Clytemnestra takes Aegisthus inside; in the last words of the play, she says that she and he will now be joint rulers in Argos.