Study Guide

Agamemnon Lies and Deceit

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Lies and Deceit

(Chorus): "With the fire's good news
rumour has gone swiftly through the city;
whether it is true, who knows? –
or whether it is really a falsehood from god?
Who is so childish or struck so senseless
as to have his heart fired
by this new message passed on by flame,
and then to suffer from a change of story? (475-482)

Here, the Chorus talks about several different kinds of deceit. First, they call attention to the fact that the gods could be deceiving them. But then, they point out another form of deception: self-deception. The Chorus considers it childish to deceive oneself into thinking everything will turn out well before knowing all the facts.

(Chorus): "[Clytemnestra] spoke that way to you, words which if you understand them with the help of clear interpreters, appear specious." (615-617)

The Chorus warns the Herald not to take Clytemnestra's words at face value. Why do you think the Chorus is able to see through Clytemnestra's deceit? How might their ability to do so connect with other themes in the play?

(Chorus): "Just so, a man once reared
a lion's offspring in his house
without mother's milk though still a suckling,
in these the first-rites of its life
tame, affectionate towards children,
delightful as well to the old;
it was often held in the crook of arms
like a new infant being nursed,
its face brightly turned to the hand
and fawning in hunger's need." (717-726)

Clearly, there is some deception going on here – but who is doing the deceiving? Is the lion cub deceiving the man, by pretending to be all cuddly and then turning into a carnivorous beast? This seems hard to believe – the lion is just obeying its nature, after all. Isn't it more like that this is another example of self-deception, when the man thinks that the cuddly lion cub will stay that way forever?

(Chorus): "Many among mankind hold appearances
in greater honour than reality once they transgress justice.
Everyone is ready to lament the unsuccessful,
but no distress bites deeply to his heart at all,
while men with the appearance of sharing others' joy
from forcing their unsmiling faces
[at least one line missing].
A good judge of his flock however
cannot fail to notice the eyes of a man
which seem out of loyal intention
to be fawning in watery friendship. (788-798)

The overall point of this speech by the Chorus is to convince Agamemnon that they are truly glad to see him. Basically, they're saying that lots of people pretend to be happy to see others, but that a truly good leader (like Agamemnon) will be able to tell who is really loyal and who isn't. But if Agamemnon were really as great as the Chorus says, wouldn't he be able to see through Clytemnestra, his wife? Is the Chorus being deliberately ironic here, or did they just slip up? Also, what do you think about the first two lines we have quoted here, where they say that unjust people care more about appearances than reality. Why do you think this might be so? (Or why might the Chorus think so?)

(Clytemnestra): "Those are the reasons why our son Orestes is not standing with us here as he should, the security of our pledges to each other; and do not wonder at this. He is being brought up by the kindness of 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)

Here, Clytemnestra claims that she has sent Orestes away to keep him free from anxiety about his father, and prevent him from seeing how upset Clytemnestra is in Agamemnon's absence. Are these her real reasons for sending him away? What is it about her final statement that her "plea […] carries no deception" that makes it seems so suspicious? If it does seem suspicious, why do we doubt Clytemnestra here, but believe the Chorus (assuming we do believe the Chorus) in the previous quotation? What gives?

(Cassandra): "The ships' commander and overturner of Troy will meet with underhanded destruction, through evil fortune; he does not know the kind of bite behind the hateful b****'s tongue when it brightly laid back its ears and licked. Such is the male's female murderer in her audacity. What loathsome monster should I be accurate in calling her – an amphisbaena, or a Scylla living in the rocks, destruction for sailors, a hellish mother raging and breathing war without truce on her dearest? How she cried in triumph, in her total audacity, just as at a battle's turn! Yet she appears to rejoice at the safe homecoming." (1227-1238)

These words by Cassandra emphasize the role that deception plays in Clytemnestra's coming murder of Agamemnon. In case you're wondering about the creatures Cassandra mentions, Scylla was a horrible six-headed sea monster who preyed on sailors in the Strait of Messina (between Italy and Sicily); you can read about her here. As for an amphisbaena, that's a special kind of dragon with an extra head on the end of its tail; you can see a medieval carving of an amphisbaena here. The amphisbaena is a particularly good image of duplicity since it has one head where a head is supposed to be, but another, secret head at the end of its tail, just like Clytemnestra shows one nature to Agamemnon, but has another, secret nature concealed within. You can compare Cassandra's description of Clytemnestra with how Lady Macbeth instructs her husband to behave in Shakespeare's Macbeth: "bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't" (I.5.64-66).

(Clytemnestra): "After saying much before that suited the moment, I shall not feel shame to say the opposite. How else would someone preparing hostilities against enemies who had seemed to be friends, make a net-fence of harm too high for them to leap? This challenge had all my thought from long ago; victory has come in fulfillment – late, but come it has." (1372-1377)

Here, Clytemnestra straight-up admits that she deceived Agamemnon, and that her murder was premeditated. She also says that this deception was justified, for two reasons. The first reason is practical: she suggests that deception was the only way she could have carried out her revenge. The second reason is more of an ethical reason: she says that Agamemnon deceived her, by being an enemy who had seemed to be a friend. Do you accept her argument that Agamemnon deceived her? Or is this just an excuse she is offering to the Chorus. If so, is it another deception?

(Chorus): "Oh! O my king, my king, how am I to weep for you?
What am I to say from a heart of friendship?
You lie in this spider's web
breathing out your life in a death which is impious;
oh, oh me!, your lying here is ignoble,
laid low in a treacherous death
by a hand with double-bladed weapon." (1489-1496)

Remember how Cassandra compared Clytemnestra to an amphisbaena, and we thought that its double head might refer to her double, or two-faced nature? What do you think about the fact that she killed Agamemnon with a "double-bladed weapon." Could this continue the same symbolism? What about the Chorus's image of the spider web? That seems like a pretty clear indication that they are angry at Clytemnestra for the deceitful way in which she killed Agamemnon.

(Aegisthus): "By returning as suppliant to the hearth the wretched Thyestes found for himself security against being killed and bringing blood upon his ancestral soil himself; but for his hospitality this man's godless father Atreus, eager rather than amiable towards my father, while cheerfully seeming to celebrate a day for butchered meat, provided him with a feast from his children's flesh." (1585-1593)

Here, Aegisthus argues that Agamemnon's father, Atreus, used deception when he tricked his own brother, Thyestes, into eating his own children's flesh. (This makes sense; it doesn't seem likely anybody would do that willingly.) Do you think the deception of Atreus justifies Aegisthus's deception and murder of Agamemnon?

(Chorus to Aegisthus): "You – you woman! Against those who were newly from the fighting, while you had kept the house at home and violated the husband's bed as well – did you plan this death for their commander? […] As if I shall see you ruling the Argives – you who planned death for this man but had no courage to carry out the deed by killing him yourself!"
(Aegisthus): "That was because the deception was clearly a woman's role, while I was a suspect enemy from long ago." (1625-1627, 1633-1635)

Once again, we see that the Chorus, even though they are already upset for the basic reason that their king has been killed, is EXTRA angry because he was killed through deception. Here, they show how Aegisthus's use of deception means they have no respect for him. (This is expressed by the fact that they call him a "woman," which in ancient Greek society meant that Aegisthus was less than a man.) In response, however, Aegisthus argues that he used deception because he had to. Can you think of other moments in Aeschylus's play in which characters justify their actions by saying that they had no choice? Do you think that Aeschylus considers this an acceptable way of justifying bad behavior?

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