Aeschylus wrote his Agamemnon to be performed in Athens, a democratic city-state. But the society portrayed in his play is not democratic – instead, it hearkens back to an earlier time, in which Greek cities were ruled by kings, and sometimes queens while their husbands were away fighting wars. Agamemnon shows that these kings and queens had significant power, but only within certain limits. For example, at the beginning of the play, the Watchman has to be very careful about what he says; this suggests that Clytemnestra's rulership has created a climate of fear. At the same time, however, rulers have to be wary of what their citizens say. Both Agamemnon and Aegisthus mention that they are concerned with what the people say about them; their approaches to this problem are different, however. Agamemnon tries to act modestly, so the people won't get angry, while Aegisthus threatens the people with torture if they get out of line.
What about the people themselves? What are their attitudes like? Towards the end of the play, Aeschylus gives us a vivid picture of democratic society in action, when the Chorus debates what to do after hearing the death-cries of Agamemnon. This scene shows both the advantages and disadvantages of democracy: it can be cautious, as the need for majority rule lets calmer heads prevail. At the same time, this caution can mean that it is too slow to act. Thus, the Chorus fails to catch Clytemnestra red-handed, and ends up knuckling under to her and Aegisthus's new joint-dictatorship.
Questions About Politics
- Where does Aeschylus see political power as coming from: from the gods or from human beings?
- The internal debate between the Chorus members after they hear Agamemnon's death cries mimics the Athenian democratic assembly. What does Aeschylus see as the advantages and disadvantages of democracy?
- In Aeschylus's view, who has more power, rulers or their subjects?
- What does Aeschylus portray as the relationship between the family and the state?
Chew on This
Aeschylus's play indicates that rulers can only remain in power with the consent of the people they rule.
Agamemnon shows that one can be a good ruler even if one treats one's family badly.