Study Guide

Agamemnon Revenge

By Aeschylus


(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)

We also used this same quotation in the section on "Justice and Judgment," but we're reusing it again here. Why? Mainly to point out an ambiguity that lies at the heart of Aeschylus's play. If you set out to kill somebody who did something wrong to you, can you be acting justly? Doesn't that sound more like revenge than justice? Is there a difference between justice and revenge? What about the fact that Menelaus and Agamemnon act out of "anger," as the Chorus says; can justice be dealt out angrily, or does it require a more measured approach? These questions get close to the heart of what Agamemnon is all about.

(Chorus): "I have the power to tell of the command destined on its road, the command
by men in their full prime – my age in life still breathes persuasion
from the gods above, the strength of song –
how the Achaeans' double-throned command,
one mind captaining the youth of Greece,
is sent with vengeful hand and spear
against the land of Teucer by an omen, a ferocious bird" (104-112)

Same idea here as the last time around. The Chorus has generally portrayed the Greek war against Troy as just and sanctioned by the gods, but they also portray it as an angry act of revenge – as symbolized here by the reference to a "vengeful hand and spear." Are these two ideas compatible or incompatible?

(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)

This is another quotation that could be placed in several different sections. Most obviously, you've got some issues here relating to the theme of "Fate and Free Will"; this comes up in the idea of the "unforgetting Wrath which avenges children," a reference to the curse on the house of Atreus that will result in Agamemnon getting killed. But couldn't the Chorus's words here be interpreted in a more metaphorical sense, too? You don't necessarily have to take literally the idea that a spirit of Wrath is responsible for killing Agamemnon; after all, Aegisthus does come onstage at the end of the play and say, "Hey everybody; I just killed Agamemnon because of what his dad did to my brothers and sisters." In this light, couldn't you just take the Chorus's words here as a statement on how the desire for revenge gets handed down from generation to generation like a horrible heirloom?

(Chorus): "[Helen] flitted lightly off through the gates
and was gone, her daring past all daring.
With much groaning the house-prophets spoke:
'The house! Oh, the house, alas, and its chiefs!
The marriage-bed, the steps of a wife in love!
Here is silence, and dishonor seen
in those deserted; and they do not revile, they do not plead.
In his longing for her over the sea
her phantom will seem to rule in the house.'" (407-415)

These words point out a basic precondition for revenge: memory. You can't set out to take vengeance on somebody if you don't remember the bad things they did to you. Here, we see how the memory of Helen makes her absence sting like crazy. This helps explain the incredible revenge Menelaus and Agamemnon got against the Trojans.

(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, once again, we've got the Chorus making a fairly confusing and metaphorical statement out of something that could have been put a lot more simply. When they say "it is the impious deed / which later on begets / more deeds that resemble their own parentage," couldn't that just be rephrased as, "when you do bad things to other people, they do bad things to you"? Looked at in this way, it's pretty clear that the Chorus is talking about the vicious circle of revenge.

(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, Cassandra reveals the horrible crime of Atreus. This crime will inspire Aegisthus, the brother of the slaughtered children, to take revenge against Atreus's son, Agamemnon.

(Cassandra): "This two-footed lioness, bedding with the wolf in the absence of the noble lion, will kill me, wretch that I am; and as if preparing a drug she will put in the drink a wage paid for myself as well. As she whets her sword for the man, she boasts he will pay in blood for bringing me here." (1258-1263)

What does Cassandra mean when she says that Clytemnestra will "put in the drink a wage paid for myself as well"? The drink part seems pretty clear; the idea is that Cassandra's violent fate something she'll have to swallow (this is similar to English expressions like, "you've just got to stomach it," etc.). But what about the "wages" part? Typically, you earn "wages" in return for something you do. If so, we're dealing with some form of revenge here: Cassandra is going to be killed in return for something she did. But what did Cassandra ever do to Clytemnestra?

(Cassandra): "My cry of distress is not like a bird's at a thicket, from alarm to no purpose: bear me witness that, once I am dead, when woman dies in place of woman, in place of me, and man with evil wife falls in place of man. I claim this from you as a stranger here, now I am to die."
(Chorus): "Poor wretch, I pity you the fate you predict."
(Cassandra): "There is one speech more I wish to make – or my own dirge: I pray to my last daylight from the sun, that my master's avengers requite my murder too on our enemies; mine is a slave's death, an easy victory." (1316-1326)

When Cassandra refers to how "woman dies in place of woman," does this shed any light on the quotation just before this one? In any case, it is clear that Cassandra thinks (correctly) that Clytemnestra is out for revenge. Cassandra also predicts that someone will come to kill Clytemnestra. Cassandra suggests that whoever does this will mainly be out to avenge Agamemnon ("my master"); she prays that this person will also avenge her own death.

(Clytemnestra): "You say confidently, this deed is mine;
but you are not to reckon in that I am Agamemnon's mate:
taking the semblance of this dead man's wife,
the ancient bitter demon of revenge
upon Atreus the cruel banqueter
has made this man the price, a full-grown sacrifice made over the young ones." (1497-1504)

Here, Clytemnestra argues that she wasn't the one who killed Agamemnon, but rather a spirit of vengeance which was out to get him in return for the crime of his father, Atreus. But can Clytemnestra really be telling the truth here? First of all, she makes it quite clear elsewhere that she was really mad at Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia. (No surprises here.) Also, she knows (though the Chorus doesn't yet) that she was in cahoots with her lover, Aegisthus, the surviving son of Thyestes. When she refers to that "ancient bitter demon of revenge," couldn't that just be a sneaky way of referring to Aegisthus's revenge against Agamemnon? If so, it starts to look like her talk about divine spirits of revenge isn't just covering her own heinie, but Aegisthus's as well.

(Aegisthus): "Justice brought me back again. I laid my hands on this man from outside, fitting together every device of ill intent. So even death is well for me too, now I have seen this man in Justice's toils. (Chorus): "Aegisthus, I have no respect for arrogance amid others' disaster. Are you saying that you killed this man deliberately, and that you alone planned this pitiable murder? I tell you that in the court of justice you will not escape the people's curse, for stones to be hurled at your head; be sure of it!" (1607-1616)

Aegisthus claims that Justice sent him, but his description of that process sounds a little bit more like revenge. Are justice and revenge incompatible? The Chorus clearly thinks that Aegisthus acted unjustly, when it predicts he will be stoned to death by the people.