Study Guide

Agamemnon Family

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(Calchas, quoted by the Chorus): "'Apollo there! Healer indeed, I call on you,
lest [Artemis] make contrary winds for the Danaans,
long delays that keep the ships from sailing,
in her urge for a second sacrifice,
one with no music, no feasting,
an architect of feuds born in the family,
with no fear of the man;
for there stays in wait a fearsome, resurgent,
treacherous keeper of the house, an unforgetting Wrath which avenges children.'" (146-155)

In these words quoted by the Chorus, we see Calchas, the chief soothsayer of the Greek fleet, accurately predicting what will happen. Artemis will force Agamemnon to kill his daughter, Iphigenia; this, in turn, will inspire Clytemnestra to seek revenge on him. At the same time, however, there could be a double meaning in Calchas's reference to the "unforgetting Wrath which avenges children." This doesn't just have to refer to Clytemnestra, but could also refer to the spirit of vengeance (or, more simply, the desire for vengeance) that will impel Aegisthus to murder Agamemnon in revenge for his brothers and sisters, who were killed by Agamemnon's father, Aegisthus. Things must get really awkward at this family's Thanksgiving dinner.

(Clytemnestra): "May happy news come with the dawn from her mother night, as in the proverb!" (264)

These words spoken by Clytemnestra use family imagery in a metaphorical way, when she suggests that the dawn is the child of "mother night." Is this just random, or could it be connected with the play's more general themes? Here's something to think about: if the night before was when Troy was captured, and if Troy being captured led to Agamemnon's homecoming, then wouldn't it make sense (still in a metaphorical way) to say that the fall of Troy is the "mother" of Agamemnon's homecoming? In a play in which the cycle of revenge is handed down from generation to generation within a single family, wouldn't it make sense to talk about all forms of cause-and-effect in terms of mother-and-child imagery? Maybe Aeschylus isn't so crazy after all.

(Chorus): "And just how recent is the city's sack?"
(Clytemnestra): "During the night which has now given birth to this day, I tell you." (278-279)

If you weren't convinced the last time around, look how Aeschylus is hammering the point home. He repeatedly describes sequences in time, and sequences of cause-and-effect, in terms of mother-and-child imagery. This can hardly be coincidence in a play focused on the cycle of revenge passed down from generation to generation of a single family.

(Chorus): "And what messenger could reach here with that speed?"
(Clytemnestra): "Hephaestus! He sent a bright gleam of fire out from Ida; and beacon sent on to beacon here from the messenger-fire in relays, Ida to Hermes' crag on Lemnos; and Zeus' steep on Athos was third in taking up the great torch from the island. Rising high in its strength to cross the ocean's back, the journeying flare in pleasure [at least two lines missing] the pine-torch, passing on the message of its brilliant golden gleam like a sun to the watch-point on Macistus. The man there made no delay at all nor failed his part as messenger by carelessly letting sleep overcome him, and from far away the beacon-light signals to the watchmen at Messapion that it has reached Euripus' currents. They lit their flare in response and passed the message forward, kindling fire in a heap of ancient heather. Strong and not yet dimmed the flare leapt above Asopus' plain like the shining moon to Cithaeron's crag, and woke a further relay in sending on the fire. The watch did not refuse the light sent from so far, the fire they burned was more than had been ordered. Over the Gorgopian lake the light dashed down; as it reached the Wander-Goat Mountain it urged no delay in the orders for the fire; they send it on, their ungrudging zeal making a great beard of flame blaze upward, to cross also the foreland which looks down on the Saronic narrows, onward as it flamed; then it dashed down, then it came to the steep of Arachnae, the watch-point neighbouring our city; and then it dashes down to the roof-top here, of the Atreidae – this light which is a true grandchild of the fire on Ida." (280-311)

This is Aeschylus's equivalent of those famous passages of "begats" in the Bible. True, Aeschylus uses a variety of imagery during the main body of the speech, but he makes Clytemnestra drive the point home at the end by calling the light that the Watchman saw at the beginning of the play "a true grandchild of the fire on Ida." (By "grandchild" Aeschylus obviously means something more like "descendent," since many "generations" have been involved.) As with the previous examples, Aeschylus describes sequences in time and sequences of cause-and-effect in terms different generations; this echoes his play's overarching theme of cycles of revenge handed down from generation to generation of a single family.

(Herald): "So, as to Menelaus, first and above all you may look forward to his return; in fact if a ray of sun finds him alive and flourishing through the devices of a Zeus who is not yet willing to destroy his family-line utterly, there is some hope he will come home again. Now you have heard that much, know that you have heard the truth." (674-680)

Even though the Herald does not know what has happened to Menelaus, the play's original Greek audience would have known from Homer's Odyssey that he was OK. Thus, this passage points to one of the more mysterious issues in the play: if Agamemnon is punished by the gods because of the crime of his father Atreus, why does Menelaus get off scot free? After all, you'd think that, as Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus would be just as guilty of a crime he really had nothing to do with, right? But here's another, more basic question: supposing Zeus really is saving Menelaus for the reasons the Chorus suggests; what is it about a family-unit that makes it especially sad if all of its members die? Why is it so culturally important for this unit to survive? In thinking about this, you can draw on your own culture, what you know about the culture of the ancient Greeks, and the other references to family in Aeschylus's play.

(Chorus): "Long spoken among men, there exists an old saying
that a man's prosperity grown
fully great has offspring, not dying
childless; his line's good fortune
bears shoots of insatiable woe.
I differ from others, alone in my thinking:
it is the impious deed
which later on begets
more deeds that resemble their own parentage;
for to houses upright and just
fine children are destined forever." (750-762)

Here, the Chorus speaks in metaphorical terms about impious deeds begetting impious deeds; this reference to lines of cause-and-effect (or perhaps action-and-response) in generational terms sounds a lot like the quotations we looked at earlier in this section. Here, however, their words should also be interpreted literally: they are saying that rotten people give birth to children who are also rotten. Based on your reading of Aeschylus's play, why do you think this might be? Is it coincidence? Is it genetic? Is it because rotten people pass on rotten values to their offspring? Or is there a more supernatural cause; say, if a father dishonors the spirit of Justice, then she will abandon his house, thus depriving his children of the divine power they need to act justly? This is a pretty important issue in the play, and definitely worth thinking about.

(Chorus): "Ancient insolence is wont to breed
youthful insolence in evil men
sooner or later, when the appointed day comes
for birth, rancour rising afresh,
and a demon, unfightable,
invincible, unholy in boldness,
a demon of black Ruin
for a house, resembling its parents." (763-771)

This passage raises the same questions as the one before it. Sure, bad behavior may be passed along within families, but how? And why?

(Clytemnestra): "Those are the reasons why our son Orestes is not standing here with us as he should, the security of our pledges to each other; and do not wonder at this. He is being brought up by your war-ally Strophius the Phocian; he warned me of disaster on two counts, both the dangers under Ilion to yourself and the popular clamour amid anarchy which might overthrow deliberation, and how it is natural to kick a man more who is down. Such a plea in excuse, I assure you, carries no deception." (877-886)

Anytime somebody assures you that what they're saying "carries no deception," you've got to immediately suspect some deception. What do you think might be the real reasons why Clytemnestra has sent her and Agamemnon's son Orestes out of town? Could she be ashamed to have her son see her having an affair with Aegisthus? Could she be worried that he might get caught in the crossfire when she tries to kill Agamemnon? Can you think of any other reasons? If either or both of the two we have suggested is correct, what does this say about Clytemnestra's feelings for her son?

(Clytemnestra): "Now your sentence is my exile from the city, and to have the townsmen's hatred and the people's spoken curse, although earlier you made no opposition to Agamemnon here. He took no special account, just as if it were the death of an animal from his teeming woolly flocks of sheep, when he sacrificed his own daughter, the darling of my womb, as a spell against Thracian winds. Is he not the one you should have driven from the land in penalty for pollution?" (1412-1418)

Here, Clytemnestra defends her actions in killing Agamemnon by invoking her own rights as a mother. Do you find Clytemnestra's argument persuasive?

(Clytemnestra): "It is not your business to take care of this duty: from us
he had his fall, he had his death, and we shall have his interment,
not to the accompaniment of weeping by outsiders,
but Iphigenia shall welcome him,
daughter meeting father as she should,
at the swift ferry-crossing of sorrow,
to throw her two arms around him and kiss him." (1551-1558)

In this passage, Clytemnestra draws a distinction between her rights as a member of Agamemnon's family, and those of the Chorus, who are merely his subjects as citizens of Argos. According to her, the citizens have no business messing in Agamemnon's funeral arrangements: that's a strictly private matter and falls within the control of the family. The irony comes in Clytemnestra's final lines, of course, when she says that the only ceremony Agamemnon will receive is being greeted by his daughter Iphigenia in Hades. This suggests that, in the real (living) world, Clytemnestra will not be giving him an elaborate funeral.

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