Study Guide

Agamemnon Fear

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(Watchman): "Whenever I find myself shifting my bed about at night, wet with dew, unvisited by dreams – because fear instead of sleep stands at my side to stop my eyes closing fast in slumber – and whenever I think to sing or to hum, dispensing this remedy from music against sleep, then I weep in lament for this house's misfortune; it is not managed for the best as it was before." (13-20)

This vivid image from the opening speech of the play introduces an image that will recur several times in the play: fear which prevents a person from sleeping. What do you think the Watchman is afraid of?

(Herald): "You say the land here is longing for the army which is longing for it too?"
(Chorus): "Enough for me to groan aloud often, from a gloomy heart."
(Herald): "What brought on this hateful despondency? Tell me."
(Chorus): "I have long had silence as my medicine against harm."
(Herald): "What? How is that? Were you in fear about any of the absent lords?
(Chorus): "So much that now, to use your own words, even death would be great happiness." (545-550)

There appears to be some sort of disconnect between the Herald and the Chorus here, like they are talking at cross-purposes. Does it really make sense for the Chorus to have kept "silence" as their "medicine against harm" because of "fear about any of the absent lords"? We can't think of any reason why this would be so. Some sort of fear is clearly making them shut up, but is that it? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to say that they are afraid of saying anything that might offend Clytemnestra? But, if so, why don't they say that now? Could it be that they are afraid of saying that they are afraid of Clytemnestra? We're not trying to confuse you on purpose; it's just clear that the Chorus is hiding something here, and we see no reason to stop until we've puzzled it out.

(Agamemnon): "Besides, do not pamper me in a woman's fashion; and do not give me gawping or obeisance crying from the ground as if I were some barbarian, or strew my way with vestments and open it to jealousy. It is the gods these things should magnify; as a mortal it is impossible for me to walk on beautiful embroideries without fear." (918-924)

In contrast to the fear of the Chorus in the previous section, Agamemnon's fear here has to do with something supernatural. He is afraid that, if he steps on the purple fabrics, the gods will think he is getting a big head and punish him accordingly.

(Clytemnestra): "Well, answer me this, without going against your true opinion."
(Agamemnon): "Be sure, I will not falsify my true opinion."
(Clytemnestra): "Would you have vowed to the gods, if you had been in fear, that you would do this thing?"
(Agamemnon): "Yes, if anyone would, with sure knowledge I would have proclaimed this duty." (931-934)

This is a very important passage in the play; unfortunately, it's also pretty hard to understand. Here's the basic gist: Clytemnestra is trying to get Agamemnon to walk on the purple fabrics. Then she says, "Oh come on, you're telling me that, if you were ever in a really bad situation, and the only way to get out of it was by swearing to step on purple fabrics, you wouldn't swear to do it?" Then Agamemnon says, "Of course I would." What Agamemnon doesn't seem to notice is that he never is or was in that sort of situation, and he never swore to step on the fabrics, so he doesn't have to now. Oh well.

But that's not the point of why we're quoting this passage here. What's important in the context of the theme of "Fear" is that Clytemnestra's words show that she recognizes that fear will make people do anything. If so, it is surprising that she doesn't realize that it was also Agamemnon's fear that made him sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia; actually, the situation he found himself in then is almost the exact parallel of the one Clytemnestra describes, if you replace stepping on fabrics with killing your daughter. Why doesn't she understand this? Or do you think she does understand, but just doesn't care?

(Clytemnestra): "And what do you think Priam would have done, if he had achieved what you have?"
(Agamemnon): "I think, he would have certainly walked on embroideries."
(Clytemnestra): "Then have no regard for men's censure."
(Agamemnon): "But the people talk; there voice is very powerful."

Like Aegisthus, Agamemnon is afraid of what the people will think about him. But you might also say that he is afraid of people thinking that Priam, the king of Troy, is better than him. This is why Clytemnestra is able to peer pressure Agamemnon into walking on the fabrics by convincing him that Priam would have done the same, if he'd had the chance.

(Chorus): "Why, why is this terror
hovering constantly
in front of my heart, to rule its divinations?
and why does my song act the seer, unbidden,
unpaid? and why is confidence
not enthroned at my mind's own seat,
easily persuading me to spurn my terror
like a doubtful dream?" (975-983)

Here, the Chorus provides a vivid description of fear and confusion. Their fear seems to be heightened by the fact that they don't know why they are afraid.

(Chorus): "Were not one man's status in life
set by heaven, preventing
another's from greater advance,
my heart would have anticipated
my tongue in pouring this out;
but now it grumbles
in the darkness, with my spirit grieving and not hopeful
ever of winding all to its end
effectively; my mind is ablaze." (1025-1033)

Compare this passage with the first quotation for this theme. Here, the Chorus makes it pretty clear that they're afraid to say anything because their lower social status will expose them to punishment if they anger those in control. In this case, their fear appears to be compounded by the religious belief that their lower social status reflects the will of the gods. Do you think they really believe this, or are they just saying that to put a nice, pious gloss on the fact that they are afraid of their fellow, but more socially prominent, mortals?

(Cassandra): "O-o-o-oh! Horror! No!
O Apollo, O Apollo!
(Chorus): "Why this loud wailing for Loxias? He is not of the kind to meet a lamenter."
(Cassandra): "O-o-o-oh! Horror! No!
O Apollo! O Apollo!"
(Chorus): "This woman blasphemes again in calling on the god; it is not his part to assist at lamentations."
(Cassandra): "Apollo, Apollo!
Lord of the streets, my destroyer!
You have destroyed me without effort for the second time!" (1072-1082)

Who do you think is more afraid in this scene, Cassandra or the Chorus? What do you think of Aeschylus's decision to represent Cassandra's emotion in part through nonverbal sounds?

(Cassandra): "Oh! Oh, this misery! Deep down again the fearsome work of truthful prophecy agitates and whirls me round with its stormy prelude. You see these young ones seated by the house, resembling dream-shapes? They are children killed, as if by people outside their family! Their hands are full of their own flesh for meat, clearly visible, holding their entrails and the vitals with them, most pitiable burden, which their father tasted. For that, I say that someone is planning retribution, a cowardly lion who roams free in the marriage-bed and has stayed at home – alas it is against the master on his return." (1214-1227)

Here, once again, Cassandra reports fearsome visions about both the past and the future. We call them fearsome because they inspire fear in the Chorus, and probably also in the play's original theatrical audience, and in us modern readers. Do you think these visions also inspire fear in Cassandra? Why or why not?

(Aegisthus): "Well, since you think to act and speak like this, you shall soon learn!
(Chorus): "Come on then, our band of friends! The action here is not far off!"
(Aesgisthus): "Come on then: every man have his sword ready, hilt to hand!"
(Chorus): "Look, my hilt is to hand as well, and I do not refuse to die!"
(Aegisthus): "You die? We accept the omen of your words, we choose this outcome!" (1649-1653)

This scene from the end of the play shows how fear does not have absolute control over how people act. At time of extreme emotion or anger, they can act without fear – just as here both the Chorus members and Aegisthus claim that they are not afraid to die. In the end, of course, they do not end up fighting each other. Based on your interpretation of this last scene, do you think they ended up not fighting each other because they were afraid, or for some other reason?

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