Even if it isn't the most important theme in Agamemnon, "Family" is definitely up there because it provides the context for everything else. Let's not forget that everything in Agamemnon goes back to the generation before the main action takes place, when Thyestes had an affair with Atreus's wife; in revenge, Atreus killed Thyestes's children, butchered them, and served them to him for dinner. Atreus, of course, was Agamemnon's father; at the end of the play, when Aegisthus, one of Thyestes's remaining children, shows up on stage, he remarks how the murder of Agamemnon convinces him that the gods are just.
But Aegisthus didn't kill Agamemnon himself, right? (We don't know for sure, but it doesn't seem like he had a hand in it.) The actual murder was committed by Clytemnestra, who was angry because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia; thus, you could say that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon to defend her family. At the same time, various theories get put forward by different characters (especially the Chorus) about how a curse on Agamemnon's family was responsible for making him sacrifice his daughter, or even that his father's bad behavior set a bad example for his son, and his homicidal tendencies got passed on that way. Thus, Aeschylus's play also gets into some very modern issues about how human characteristics get passed on from generation to generation.
Questions About Family
- How would Agamemnon be different if its acts of murder and revenge had been committed by unrelated people, instead of members of the same family? Would the play even still make sense?
- Clytemnestra appears to care deeply about her children; thus, her main motivation for killing Agamemnon appears to be because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. If this is true, why did Clytemnestra banish their son Orestes?
- Atreus kills Thyestes's children because of what Thyestes did. Aegisthus is pleased with the death of Agamemnon because of what his father Atreus did. Based on the play, do you think Aeschylus considers it just to punish a child for its parent's crimes?
- If Agamemnon is guilty because his father was guilty, why does his brother Menelaus get off scot free? What does the fate of Menelaus say about the possibility that injustice is passed on from generation to generation?
Chew on This
The fact that Menelaus gets off scot free shows that, when the Chorus talks about a supernatural spirit of vengeance inhabiting the house, that is really just a metaphor for the anger felt by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Clytemnestra's inconsistent behavior towards her children (mourning Iphigenia, banishing Orestes) suggests that anger over her slain daughter isn't her real motivation for killing Agamemnon.