Study Guide

Agamemnon Politics

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(Chorus): "Ares who traffics in the gold of bodies
and holds his scale in the battle of the spears,
sends back to their kin
from Troy heavy dust burnt in the fire,
which brings hard tears; and in place
of a man, ash is the freight
of urns easily stowed.
Lamenting they praise the men,
one as knowing in battle,
another as fallen bravely amid slaughter.
'Through the wife of another' –
a man is snarling this quietly.
Resentment steals over their grief
against the Atreidae leading the case." (437-451)

This quotation is thematically the inverse of the last quotation from the theme of "Family." There, Clytemnestra told the Chorus to butt out of the funeral arrangements for Agamemnon: that was a private matter best left up to her own family. Here, the Chorus describes how they grumbled about the Trojan War, because they considered it an inappropriate intrusion of Agamemnon and Menelaus's own family life into the political life of the city. Why should their sons and relatives have to die to bring back some other guy's wife? What do these lines suggest about the relationship between private life and politics?

(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)

Here, the Chorus portrays their social and political status as determined by the gods. It's easy to imagine that kings such as Agamemnon would promote such beliefs among their people. After all, if the lower classes think that the gods want them to stay that way, they're much less likely to revolt, right? The thing is, these specific lines show that plan backfiring. Because the Chorus members are so concerned about their low social status, they don't speak out of turn to warn Agamemnon about the impending danger from Clytemnestra. Whoops.

(Chorus): "The deed has been done, it seems to me from the king's cries of pain. Let us share our thoughts, in case there may somehow be safe plans.
– I tell you my proposal, to have criers call the townsfolk here to the house, to help.
– No, my idea is to rush in at once and prove the deed together with the freshly streaming sword.
– I share a proposal like that, and I vote for action; it's a moment for no delay!
– It's here to see: this is their prelude to actions which mean tyranny for the city.
– Yes, we are taking our time while they trample down delay's reputation, and their hands are not asleep." (1346-1357)

After the Chorus hears the death-cries of Agamemnon, they immediately launch into a scene that would have been familiar to all members of the play's original audience – at least all of them who were male citizens, that is. What do they do? They debate! The democratic nature of this debate is driven home by the Chorus's biggest fear: that whoever assassinated Agamemnon will use this to impose tyrannical, dictatorial rule over the city.

(Chorus): " – I do not know what plan to hit on and say; for the man of action has also to plan for it.
– I'm like that too, at a loss for words to resurrect the dead.
– Are we really to drag out our lives in submitting like that to these violators of the house as our rulers?
– That is not tolerable, it is better to die; it is a fate milder than tyranny.
– Why, are we to divine from the evidence of his groans that the man is dead?
– We should be discussing this from clear knowledge; guessing is different from knowing clearly.
– I am getting a majority on all sides for approving this course, to know exactly how things are with the son of Atreus." (1358-1371)

Sure, you hear a lot of talk about how Congress is deadlocked and can't get anything done. But even ancient Athens, the birthplace of modern democracy, experienced its share of "Democracy Inaction." Here, we see the initial enthusiasm of the Chorus members fade away as they descend into confused arguing. When they finally come to a majority decision, the decision is to take no action: they will wait until they have a clearer knowledge of the facts. Of course, it's always good to know the facts before acting. Overall, do you think Aeschylus's picture here supports democracy, criticizes it, or is his portrayal a mixture of both attitudes?

(Aegisthus): "Is this your language when you sit at the oars below, while those at the helm control the ship? Old as you are, you shall know how heavy it is for one of your years to be taught, when word has been given to show good sense. Chains and the pangs of starvation are the most excellent diviner-doctors for the mind in teaching even old age. You can see – but can you not see this? Do not kick against the pricks, in case you hit yourself and get hurt." (1617-1624)

These words from Aegisthus seem to bear out the Chorus's fear from the previous quotation: that the murder of Agamemnon is only a prelude to a new reign of tyranny in Argos. This can be seen in the fact that Aegisthus insists on rigid political and social hierarchy (as symbolized in the image of the oarsmen and the helmsmen of a ship), and promises to inflict physical pain on those who try to destabilize it.

(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)

The gendered language of the Chorus reveals that they are not entirely opposed to having somebody rule over them – they just don't want to be ruled by someone they consider less than a man – i.e., a woman. This is consistent with their negative attitude towards Clytemnestra, expressed elsewhere in the play. What do you think the Chorus finds most objectionable about being ruled by a woman, or a man who reminds them of a woman?

(Aegisthus): "From this man's wealth I shall try to rule the citizens; any man who does not obey me I shall put under a heavy yoke – he will be no trace-horse fed with barley! That hard friend hunger which houses with darkness will see him softened." (1638-1641)

Yup, Aegisthus definitely has a tyrannical streak in him. He makes no bones about his intention to inflict pain on anyone who disobeys him.

(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)

These lines show that the Chorus is not totally passive; when push comes to shove, they are willing to stand up to tyrants. Of course, they do not actually end up fighting Aegisthus, because Clytemnestra is able to defuse the situation. What does this contradictory image of the Chorus – ready to fight, but easily appeased – suggest about Aeschylus's views on democracy?

(Aegisthus): "But that these men should glory over me with empty talk like this, and throw out such words to test their fate, and in default of sensible moderation [insult] their master!" (1662-1664)

Aww, poor baby: Aegisthus doesn't like it when the people insult him. If he's thinking about embarking on a political career, he's definitely going to have to learn to deal with "empty talk." That said, tyrants do have notoriously thin skin…

(Chorus): "It would not be like Argives to fawn upon an evil man!" (1665)

Here is the Chorus's comeback to Aegisthus: they say that they wouldn't flatter somebody who didn't deserve it. ("Argives" just means people from "Argos.") Even though the Chorus intends this as a sign of pride, is it really something to be proud of? If all you do is pick and choose who you are going to "fawn" on, that's a long way from taking control of your own destiny, right? This clearly shows that, for all their complaints about some of their leaders, the people of Argos in Aeschylus's play aren't very good at managing their own affairs either.

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