Study Guide

Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Iphigenia Analysis

  • Context

    The messed up family of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra was legendary even in ancient times. If even half of this crazy stuff actually happened, it's no wonder people were still talking about it hundreds of years later. Some of the earliest written accounts come from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Probably the most famous, though, come from the plays of Aeschylus, whose Oresteia trilogy begins with the tragedy, Agamemnon, in which Clytemnestra offs her hubby. The sacrifice of Iphigenia by her dear old dad is also the subject of a play that's stood the test of time:
    Iphigenia at Aulis
    by Euripides. Ovid also puts his spin on this tale in his famous collection of myth-y poems, the Metamorphoses.

    Over the years, tons of playwrights have been inspired to re-imagine the story of Iphigenia's sacrifice. Big names like Racine, Goethe, Gluck, and contemporary experimental writers like Charles Mee have all taken a shot at it. The tale of Agamemnon's murder and the rest of the Oresteia have also been remixed by modern playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, whose Mourning Becomes Electra places the whole trilogy in post Civil War New England. The trilogy has also been the inspiration for various movies and TV mini-series over the years.

  • Setting

    Aulis, Mycenae

    Aulis

    Iphigenia gets sacrificed in a place called Aulis, a place in coastal Boeotia where the Greeks have gathered to set sail. Unfortunately for Aulis, Iphigenia's sacrifice was the most famous thing that ever happened there. Not exactly a major tourist draw, we're guessing.

    Mycenae

    Clytemnestra skewers Agamemnon in his own palace in the city of Mycenae. Though nobody knows for sure whether Agamemnon or his murderous wife actually existed, archeologists unanimously agree that Mycenae was majorly important back in ancient Greece. They've even named a whole period of Greek history the "Mycenaean Period" after this seat of power. The fact that Agamemnon was said to be the king of this dominant city-state shows just how powerful he really was. The ruins of a palace still stand on the sight that was once Mycenae, and many amazing ancient artifacts have been found there. For much more on this ancient place, click here.

  • The Hero's Journey

    The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

    The story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Iphigenia doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

    Ordinary World

    Agamemnon's sitting pretty as the top dog in Mycenae. He's living the life with a beautiful wife and daughter.

    Call To Adventure

    Turns out, Agamemnon's brother's wife got snatched by some Trojan whippersnapper, and he's got to hop across the pond and get her back. Along with like, ten thousand ships. However, he's got to sacrifice his beloved daughter, Iphigenia, in order to set sail.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Surely, no father would jump into the task of slaughtering his own child without hesitating at first. Things are dire for King A, but his political obligations eventually outweigh his paternal affection.

    Meeting The Mentor

    No one exactly teaches Agamemnon how to kill Iphigenia, but you don't have to go far back in his family tree to find a lot of child-killing. His great-grandfather, Tantalus, tried to kill Pelops, Agamemnon's grandfather, by cutting him up and serving him to the gods. Similar atrocities were enacted upon kids. So perhaps Agamemnon's thinking back to his forefathers as he puts his daughter under the knife.

    Crossing The Threshold

    He goes through with terrible deed, and there's no turning back. Now the Greeks are free to set sail for the most famous war in human history.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    While Agamemnon encounters his fair share of tests, allies and enemies while he's abroad cutting the heads off Trojans, it's when he returns home that he must face his wife Clytemnestra, who's still fuming over the fact that he killed their kid. Can't this lady get over it already?

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Agamemnon enters his palace at Mycenae, having not set foot there for many years. Little does the poor idiot know, he's walking into a trap. The tragic irony is revved up by the face that he walks on a purple robe to his chambers, as if his royalty were being trampled with each step.

    Ordeal

    Clytemnestra snares Agamemnon with a net in the bathtub before giving her hubby the coup de grace with a wallop from an ax. We don't care who you are, that's a pretty crummy way to go, especially if you're a victorious general and the head honcho of the Greek world.

    Reward

    Although he believes Cassandra, the Trojan princess he brought home for a sex puppet, is his reward, Agamemnon's ultimate prize is an ax to the chest from his bride. Let this be a lesson to you Shmoopers and Shmoopettes: if you sacrifice your daughter, even if it's to a goddess, you're gonna get your butt kicked in a bathtub.

    The Road Back

    There is no victory lap for Agamemnon, since he's sprawled naked and dead, chopped down like a cherry tree beneath a teenage George Washington.

    Resurrection

    But we know that Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, are still alive, and they carry his life force in some sense. They may represent the last hope of revenge for the fallen king. Or, just maybe, the resurrection is represented by the version of the myth where Iphigenia turns out to never die at all.

    Return With The Elixir

    Whether or not someone shows up to Mycenae to deliver justice to the wicked, ax-wielding Clytemnestra is up in the air. You'll have to pop over to the next phase in the seemingly-never ending story of blood and revenge to find out what happens next.

  • Child Sacrifice

    Agamemnon isn't the only guy who was asked by a god to sacrifice his child. Abraham, who is a major figure in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, was asked by his God to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.

    When God told him to give Isaac as a burnt offering, Abraham set out to do as he was told. Right before he did it, however, an Angel swooped down and was like, "JK! God was just testing you."

    Abraham then saw a ram caught in some briars and sacrificed it instead. This story reminds us a whole lot of the version of Agamemnon's story where Artemis swoops down at the last minute and gives Agamemnon a deer to sacrifice instead of Iphigenia.

  • Deer

    The fact that Agamemnon kills a deer in Artemis' sacred grove and brags about is even stupider than it sounds. See, the deer is a sacred animal of Artemis and is symbolic of the goddess herself.

    She loved them so much, she was even said to have a chariot pulled by deer with golden antlers. So, when Agamemnon slays one of her favorite animals in one of her favorite places, it's a major slap in her face.

    In some versions of the myth, a deer comes into play later on when Artemis switches Iphigenia out for one of them right before she's about to get sacrificed. We wonder why the goddess would provide a deer as a sacrifice to make up for the fact that another of her deer was slaughtered. Is it just us, or do the deer really get the bum end of the deal in this myth?

  • Purple Robes

    In some versions of the story, Clytemnestra coerces Agamemnon into walking across some purple robes when he first reenters his palace. Later, some say they she trapped him in the bathtub with either these same robes or some very like them. This all becomes pretty ironic because the color purple has long been associated with royalty. So, Agamemnon's rule is ended in part by an item that represents the power and dignity of royalty.