Study Guide

Agamemnon Memory and The Past

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Memory and The Past

(Chorus): "Ten years it is since the great plaintiff against Priam,
lord Menelaus with Agamemnon,
honoured by Zeus with their double throne and double scepter,
the sturdy yoke-pair of the Atreidae,
sailed with a fleet of Argives from this land,
a thousand ships, an armada in support.
Their loud and ringing cry was of war, from anger" (40-47)

Why do you think the Chorus's first song is so preoccupied with events that happened ten years earlier? Is this just Aeschylus's way of conveniently presenting background information about Agamemnon? But couldn't Aeschylus also be showing how, in Agamemnon's absence, his citizens are all living in the past? What's your take?

(Chorus): "What followed, I neither saw nor do I say;
but Calchas' skills did not go unfulfilled." (248-249)

Here, the Chorus drops hints about what happened in the past ("Calchas' skills did not go unfulfilled"), while also reminding us that they were not there to witness it. This could be interpreted as showing how events can become part of inherited cultural memory. If so, could this be related to some of the play's other themes, such as those of "Revenge" or "Family"?

(Chorus): "The grace of shapely statues
is hateful to the husband;
in their lack of eyes
all love's being goes lost.
Apparitions in dreams and mournful imaginings
come to him, which bring empty delight –
empty because when a man imagines his loved one,
the vision slips away through his hands
and is gone, never afterwards keeping
with its wings to the pathways of sleep." (416-426)

In these lines, the Chorus shows how memory makes the absence of a loved one especially painful; if Menelaus were simply able to forget Helen, there might have been no Trojan War. Can you think of other examples in the play of memory contributing to pain?

(Herald): "Hail, my ancestral soil, land of Argos! Ten years' daylight now, and I have reached you, the one hope met after so many broken! I was never confident I should die here in the land of Argos and have my share of the funeral most dear to me. Now, my greetings to the land, and greetings to the sunlight, and to Zeus supreme over the land, and to you the Pythian lord, no longer I hope shooting arrows at us with your bow! You were implacable enough by the Scamander; but now be our savior and our healer, lord Apollo! I address too all the gods in their assembly, and my own protector Hermes, herald whom heralds dearly revere, and the heroes who sent us out – favour with your welcome back the army which has survived the war!" (503-517)

Agamemnon often portrays the return of the past as having negative consequences. For example, when Aegisthus returns to Argos, full of the memory of the crime of Atreus, he is there to commit murder. For the Herald, however, the return of the past – the sweet homeland he remembers – is positive. In fact, he says that he can die happy now that he has seen it again. Clearly, Aeschylus thought this was important, or he wouldn't have given the Herald such a long speech about his home. Why do you think Aeschylus wanted to play up this contrast?

(Herald): "The misery is past; it is past, so that the dead never even care about rising again, while for us remnants of the Argive army our gain prevails and the anguish does not outweigh it. Why should those who perished be counted up, and the living have pain from fortune's spit? Besides, I think it right [to say] a long goodbye to our misfortunes [a line missing] since it is natural for men passing swiftly over sea and land to boast to this day's sunlight [lines missing] 'After taking Troy long ago the Argive expedition nailed up these spoils for the gods throughout Greece in their temples, to mark an ancient glory.'" (567-579)

At the end of his speech, however, the Herald changes his tune. Now he is saying that some things are better left forgotten. What sorts of things? Memories of pain. Can you think of any way this might be connected to the theme of "Revenge"?

(Chorus to Agamemnon): "Yourself, at the time you were launching the campaign
to get Helen – I shall not conceal it from you –
you made a most unpleasing picture to me,
unwise too in guiding your mind's helm
[words missing] when you tried to recover
willing courage for dying men;
but now, from no mere surface feeling nor from insincere
loyalty [words missing]
'toil [at least one word missing] for those who have brought it to a good end.'" (799-806)

It's unfortunate that so much of the manuscript is missing at this point. All the same, we can still reconstruct the gist of what the Chorus is saying. In a nutshell, they are saying, to Agamemnon, "We used to think that you were a real goon when you first went off for Troy, but now we think you are alright; as the saying goes, all's well that ends well." Based on the evidence of the rest of the play, do you this Aeschylus thinks that, generally happy endings outweigh bad beginnings in our memories? Or is the memory of past pain likely to blot out present happiness? Once again, you might want to think about how these ideas are connected with the theme of Revenge.

(Agamemnon): "The city was taken; its smoke even now makes it a clear mark; the storms of Ruin live on; the ash of its dying sends out rich puffs of wealth. For this the gods should be paid very mindful thanks, since we punished an arrogant robbery, and it was for a woman that Troy was ground into dust by the Argives' beast of destruction – the offspring of the horse, shield-bearers in a body, launching their leap at the Pleiades' setting." (821-826)

In these lines, Agamemnon makes a point of reminding his audience about the past, specifically, the crime of Alexandros in carrying off Helen (this is the woman to whom he refers). You could say that he is using the memory of the past to justify the actions of the present. After all, if there wasn't some excuse, you wouldn't think that leveling a whole city to the ground would be something to boast about, would you?

(Cassandra): Apollo, Apollo!
Lord of the streets, my destroyer!
Oh where, wherever have you led me? To what kind of house?
(Chorus): "To that of the Atreidae. If you do not realize this, I am telling you, and you will not call it false."
(Cassandra): "No – to a godless house, with much on its conscience –
evil bloodshed by kin, carving like meat –
a place for slaughtering men, a floor sprinkled with blood!"
(Chorus): "The stranger has a keen nose it seems, like a hound; she is searching for blood and will discover whose murder it was."
(Cassandra): " – because I put my trust in this evidence here:
these are infants weeping for their slaughter,
and over their roasted flesh which their father devoured." (1085-1097)

Cassandra is able to ferret out the crimes of the past with her prophetic power. As soon as she starts talking about sensing blood in the house, it is clear that the Chorus knows what she is talking about; they aren't surprised by what she tells them, only that she was able to figure it out. What does this say about the Argives' (citizens of Argos's) relationship to their past, if the murder of Atreus is on everybody's mind, but nobody explicitly mentions it?

(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)

The power of Cassandra's vision is such that it makes the past present: she literally sees the victims of Atreus's crime standing in front of her, holding their own entrails in their hands. Aside from its dramatic effectiveness (the image is likely to strike fear into any theatrical audience or reader, modern or ancient), could we think of this as connected in any way to the main theme of "Revenge"? Doesn't revenge also seek to make the past present, by turning a deed back on its original doer?

(Aegisthus): "Atreus his father, the ruler of this land, when his power was disputed, banished my father Thyestes, his own brother – this is a true account – from city and home. 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 this hospitality this man's godless father Atreus, eager rather than amicable towards my father, while cheerfully seeming to celebrate a day for butchered meat, provided him with a feast from his children's flesh. He broke up small the feet and the combs of fingers; and Thyestes, seated separately at a distance, at once takes the unrecognizable parts and eats them in ignorance, an ugly meal which ended the safety, as you see, for Atreus' line." (1583-1597)

Speak of the devil and the devil appears: compare this speech by Atreus with the previous quotation, the vision of Cassandra. Aegisthus indicates that the desire for revenge can involve an inability to forget the past. A person who wants revenge paradoxically both lives in the past and seeks to make the past present, by turning a deed back on its original doer. The irony in Aegisthus's case, of course, is that the person he really should get revenge on – Atreus – is dead. Strictly speaking, Agamemnon didn't have anything to do with the murder of Aegisthus's siblings.

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