Aeschylus's Agamemnon isn't very funny at all. There's no getting round it: this is one dark, scary, bloody, mind-bending play that may leave your eyebrows permanently furrowed. So why read it then? Well, for one thing, there's always the thrill of the challenge; if you can grapple with Aeschylus, you'll be pretty much set to take on anything that comes. In fact, you might even start to find Aeschylus's own intense seriousness pretty fun. But you don't have to take our word for it; just give the play a go, and see what happens.
Aeschylus's Agamemnon is a tragedy because it is a play focused on the downfall of a great man, who in this case is none other than Agamemnon himself (big surprise). At the same time, however, it makes sense to think of this play in terms of the more modern genre of "Horror." This isn't only because, even by the standards of tragedy, it is unusually gruesome. Agamemnon also fits into the horror category because of the agonizingly slow increase of dread as the play continues, especially after the carpet scene and when Cassandra starts having her horrible visions. In a way, Clytemnestra is the original horror villain.
Aeschylus's Agamemnon is named after its tragic hero, King Agamemnon of Argos. What's a tragic hero? Tragedies typically tell the story of a great man (sometimes woman) who gets cut down to size; this initially successful but ill-fated person is usually referred to as the "tragic hero." It's actually pretty common for the names of tragic heroes to appear in the titles of the plays centered on them; thus, Oedipus is the tragic hero of Sophocles's Oedipus the King, or, in more modern times, Hamlet is the tragic hero of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and King Lear is the tragic hero of his King Lear. So, Aeschylus's Agamemnon seems to fit pretty nicely into this pattern.
That said, isn't it interesting that Aeschylus's tragic hero is only onstage for one scene of the play, and basically all he does is show up and get killed? In terms of people who actually do things and influence events, you might say that Clytemnestra is the more important figure. Should Aeschylus have named the play after her? As it stands, it seems as if the title of the play creates a certain set of expectations in the audience, but these expectations don't end up being met. Why do you think Aeschylus might have done it this way?
At the end of Agamemnon, Cassandra and Agamemnon are lying dead and unburied; the Chorus has just narrowly avoided fighting Aegisthus and has called for the return of Orestes to avenge his father; and Clytemnestra has announced her intention to share rulership of Argos with her lover, Aegisthus. This leaves a lot of loose ends to tie up, doesn't it?
Of course it does! That's because Agamemnon is only part one of a three-part trilogy of tragedies called the Oresteia (the other two are Libation Bearers and Eumenides); originally, all three tragedies would have been performed on the same day at the festival of Dionysus in Athens. It wouldn't have been very smart of Aeschylus to wrap everything up nicely at the end of the first play. If he did, people would probably have wandered off in search of lunch or the ancient equivalent of cotton candy, or something (provided that the gruesome murders at the end of Agamemnon hadn't made them lose their appetites). So, it's best to think of the end of Aeschylus's Agamemnon as a cliffhanger.
The play takes place in Argos, a city in the Peloponnese, a large peninsula in the south of mainland Greece. (Here's a map.) The action begins on the night that Troy is captured by the Greeks. We know this because, in the opening scene, the Watchman on the roof of Agamemnon's palace sees a signal fire in the distance that tells him Troy has been captured. This setting is important for a couple of reasons. Time-wise, by almost coinciding with the fall of Troy, the play takes place at the moment of Agamemnon's greatest triumph; from the perspective of tragedy, this is the perfect moment for him to take a tumble. Space-wise, the opening of the play reminds us that we are not with Agamemnon during his triumph. Instead, we are back on the home front, where things have taken a very different turn during his ten-year absence, mainly because Clytemnestra is in control. On his return, Agamemnon will have to confront these changes, as well as the horrible secrets of the past that linger in his house.
There's no getting around it: Aeschylus's Agamemnon is a challenging play – even though its plot is about as simple as they come. Part of this simply has to do with cultural differences between our time and that of the Ancient Greeks; this is the same basic challenge posed by any work from classical antiquity. More fundamentally, however, this play is challenging because it doesn't pull any punches in dealing with extremely complex and profound themes of Justice, Free Will, Language, and others; in fact, it raises so many questions that it took Aeschylus two more plays to try to get them under some sort of control, though even the Eumenides (the third part of the Oresteia trilogy) doesn't tie everything up in a neat little package. To top it all off, the language of the play is extremely challenging, especially in the passages sung by the Chorus, which are stuffed full of a disorienting array of metaphors and mixed metaphors, constantly shifting into one another like the colors of a kaleidoscope.
We're not dwelling on the challenges of this play to discourage you; far from it – this sheer wealth of poetic and intellectual energy is what makes Agamemnon totally awesome. What we are saying is that, when you are scaling this mountain, don't be surprised if you find yourself feeling dizzy. Once you make it to the top, however, you'll never forget the view.
OK, so this might seem like a pretty weird list of adjectives to describe somebody's writing style. Sure, "poetic" might seem pretty straightforward, but how can he be "subtle" and "extravagant" at the same time, and what's so special about being "metaphorical"? Well, by saying "poetic," we are trying to be straightforward; it's a basic fact that the play is written in verse, after all. (The Collard translation that we use on Shmoop puts the dialogue into prose and the Chorus's songs into verse, but in the original Greek it's all in verse – the Chorus is just more over the top.)
As for the other three ideas, they actually all sort of go together. Let's take an example from the Chorus's first song, about the Trojan War. There, they quote the prophet Calchas as wishing that "no jealousy from god / bring[s] darkness on Troy's great bridle-bit / if that is stricken first, now it goes / on campaign!" (131-133). What the heck are they talking about? The key to understanding these lines is you have to realize that the "bridle-bit" refers to Agamemnon. Huh? So, a bridle-bit is a piece of metal you put in a horse's mouth to control it. And Agamemnon is setting out to dominate, and hence control the Trojans, right? In this way, it sort of makes sense to call Agamemnon the Trojans' bridle-bit, doesn't it? But if the Trojans are the horse (pretty ironic, don't you think?), and Agamemnon is the bridle-bit, then who is the horse's rider? Well, we've already been told (for example, at lines 60-63) that Zeus is the one sending the sons of Atreus against the Trojans. So couldn't he be the rider, who is using Agamemnon as the bridle-bit to curb Troy's arrogance? That makes sense to us.
Now look at the passage again. It doesn't make any mention of "Agamemnon" or "Zeus," does it? You have to just kind of imagine them being, there, right? We'd say that's pretty subtle. But it's pretty extravagantly subtle isn't it? It isn't just implying one thing, it's implying a whole bunch of things. And the metaphors are constantly changing, one after another, from line to line, sometimes with metaphors inside metaphors. This kind of stuff mainly happens in the songs sung by the Chorus, but it also happens in the play's regular dialogue as well. For this reason, we're saying that Aeschylus's style is "Poetic," "Subtle," "Extravagant," and "Metaphorical," as well as any number of other adjectives you feel like sticking in. (We were thinking maybe "Bodacious.") This may make reading him a challenge, but we think it makes him totally freaking awesome as well.
Probably the most famous symbol in Agamemnon is that of the "net." This image appears at numerous points in the text, most memorably when Clytemnestra appears outside the palace at the end of the play, standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra; there, she boasts about how (in Collard's translation), "A net with no way through, just as for fish, I stake out round him, an evil wealth of clothing" (1382-1383). But similar images appear throughout the play, such as when the Chorus says to the dead Agamemnon, "You lie in this spider's web breathing out your life in a death which is impious" (1492-1493), or even in the famous image of the purple fabrics that Clytemnestra bullies Agamemnon into trampling on as he walks into the palace. Taken together, these images of nets, spider webs, and entangling clothing create a common image of Agamemnon's death inexorably closing in on him. Could this also be an image of the inescapable power of fate? That would depend on how you interpret the play's treatment of the theme of "Fate and Free Will," and we're not going to spoil your fun.
Family is a theme in Aeschylus's play, but it is also one of recurrent symbols or motifs. We touch on this a little bit in our section on the theme of "Family," so you can look there for more details on the specific passages where this motif appears. Basically, though, Aeschylus keeps the theme of family fresh in our minds by describing many things that we would not typically think of in terms of family relations in language derived from genealogy. Thus, on several occasions, characters refer to the night that has just passed as having "given birth to" the present day. In a play in which the crimes of previous generations of Agamemnon's family are rehashed and repeated in the present generation, it makes sense to think of the simple passage of time in generational terms.
Technically speaking, Agamemnon doesn't have any narrator at all, because it's a play. Instead of hearing about what characters do, we actually see them do it. Of course, those characters also talk about themselves, in which case they act as first-person narrators, and about each other, in which case they act as either second or third person narrators. Of the narrations within the play, the most notable are those of the Chorus, when recounts Agamemnon's experiences leading up to the Trojan War from a Third Person Limited Omniscient point of view, and of Cassandra, when she recounts the crime of Atreus, from the same point of view.
Typically in a tragedy, the "Anticipation Stage" happens when the tragic hero is somehow unsatisfied; this stage also usually involves the moment when the hero discovers a goal that he (or she) can begin pursuing. The thing is, Agamemnon is an unusual tragedy because the tragic hero is offstage for most of the play. Thus, even though in a normal tragedy, the different stages of the plot would all be directly relevant to the hero, in Aeschylus's play they are distributed among the other characters of the play. Thus, the Anticipation Stage in Agamemnon happens when the hero is not present; you could say that the Watchman and the other characters of Argos are unsatisfied because of their longing for Agamemnon. The appearance of the beacon, which announces that Agamemnon is coming home, is equivalent to the appearance of the hero's "goal" in an ordinary tragic plot.
In an ordinary tragic plot, the "Dream Stage" happens when the hero is committed to pursuing his goal; we call this the Dream Stage because he (or she) is typically deluded about how well everything is going. But, as we've already noted, Aeschylus's play is different because the hero is offstage most of the time. Thus, the equivalent in Aeschylus's play is when the Herald comes to provide convincing testimony that Agamemnon is on his way home. It makes sense to call this a dream stage because it creates the false impression that everything is going really well.
The "Frustration Stage" in a typical tragedy comes when things start to go wrong for the tragic hero. In this case, the typical tragic plot and the plot of the Agamemnon match up pretty well. As soon as he arrives home, expecting everything to be hunky dory, Agamemnon is immediately confronted with behavior he finds troubling: his wife insists that he walk on expensive purple fabric, instead of getting his feet dirty on his way from his chariot into the house. Agamemnon doesn't want to do this because he considers it impious; he is afraid of the wrath of the gods. When Clytemnestra bullies him into bending to her will, we can tell that everything isn't going well for our hero.
Once again, Agamemnon is offstage, and we can't use our typical tragic pattern in a typical way. That said, it is still clear that Aeschylus's play contains equivalents of the typical pattern, even if they're reflected in a distorting mirror. In this case, the nightmarish prophecies of Cassandra make it clear that Agamemnon is going to come to a bad end.
Many tragic heroes go willingly to their deaths; Agamemnon doesn't because he doesn't know it's coming. Also, his death happens offstage, so we don't get to see how it happens. You could still say, however, that Cassandra accepts death on his behalf, when she willingly enters the palace, even though she knows Clytemnestra is about to kill her. It's not hard to see how getting murdered by his wife spells destruction for Agamemnon.
The Watchman reveals that Argos has been living without its king for ten years. He doesn't think that Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, is managing things very well.
A signal fire announces that Agamemnon is coming home from the Trojan War. This raises the question of how he will be reintegrated into Argos, since so much has changed in his absence.
The Chorus sings a song pointing out that Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure good winds on the way to Troy. How is this going to play out when he comes back home and faces his wife, Clytemnestra?
Despite the uncomfortable history, Clytemnestra seems happy to see Agamemnon. But then she bullies him into walking over expensive purple fabrics, which Agamemnon considers disrespectful to the gods. The Chorus feels uneasy, but can't explain why.
Cassandra reveals the gruesome crimes that have taken place at the palace in the past generation, when Atreus (Agamemnon's father) butchered the children of his own brother Thyestes, and fed them to him. Cassandra also predicts that she and Agamemnon will soon be murdered, and hints that Clytemnestra will do it. The Chorus can't quite figure this one out.
It turns out that Cassandra was right. Clytemnestra reveals that she has killed Cassandra and Agamemnon in revenge for Agamemnon's sacrificing Iphigenia, and also because she is carrying out the curse placed on the family in the past generation. Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, reveals that he has taken part in the plot to avenge his siblings whom Atreus murdered. It also turns out that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are now lovers.
This conclusion is actually more like a cliffhanger. The Chorus wishes that Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's son Orestes will come back from exile to avenge his father. Clytemnestra says that she and Aegisthus will now become joint rulers in Argos.
Agamemnon is coming back after ten years' exile.
Agamemnon arrives home with the Trojan princess Cassandra. His wife, Clytemnestra, welcomes them in, but Cassandra prophesies that they are about to be killed.
Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon. She is helped by her new lover, Aegisthus, Agamemnon's nephew, whose siblings were murdered by Agamemnon's father, Atreus.