27. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 1. Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Plot : This trilogy of plays tell the story of the curse upon the House of Atreus, from the time of the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad. But the curse stretches back before current events to the earlier generation, where brothers Atreus and Thyestes quarrel over the throne of Argos. Thyestes seduces Atreus’ wife and in retribution and to secure the throne, Atreus kills two of Thyestes’ sons and feeds their flesh to Thyestes at a banquet. Thyestes dies in exile and his remaining son Aegithus awaits his chance for revenge.
Atreus’ sons Agamemnon, King of Argos, and Menelaus, King of Sparta marry sisters Clytemnestra and Helen. Prince Paris of Troy abducts Helen while a guest of Menelaus, and the kingly brothers gather a huge army and head off to retake Helen from the Trojans. But before they can set sail, their combined navies are becalmed and according to prophecy will not be able to leave harbour unless Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter Iphigenia.
After ten years of siege Troy is captured and Agamemnon returns to Argos with the prophetess Cassandra as his prisoner. But Queen Clytemnestra has taken Aegithus as her lover and together they plot Agamemnon’s death.
My thoughts : This first play is quite long (1,673 lines, compared to the 1,040 and 1,070 of the others on the trilogy), and I found many of the early speeches, particularly those of the Chorus and Clytemnestra overladen and slow. But as Agamemnon steps into his house to unknowingly meet his doom, the drama and tension build up to the double tragedy.
It is difficult to sympathise with either side as they both have blood on their hands. There is no doubt Clytemnestra is a “vile plotting she-hound …. a raging shark of hell”, spouting hypocrisy and lies without the smallest ounce of regret, and taking great delight in her murderous act. But then, her daughter was betrayed and killed by Agamemnon, so are her actions justifiable? Are her actions Justice or Revenge?

The most tragic figure is Cassandra, ‘gifted’ by Apollo with the power of prophecy yet cursed to be disbelieved or misunderstood by all, paraded captive through the streets of Argos, her home and her family destroyed, and her life as a slave only a prelude to her own death. Her powers warn her of Agamemnon’s fate and the history of bloodshed hanging over the family, and her speech as she beholds the bloody fate of the Thyestes’ children are the most effective and horror-laden of the play.
Again, the deaths of Agamemnon and Cassandra happens off stage, and the doors open to a blood-spattered Clytemnestra standing jubilant over their bodies, bloodied dagger still in hand. Now her speeches are more powerful and resounding, as she boasts and celebrates her revenge for the murder of Iphigenia. Considering the play is named Agamemnon, he is the least powerful character, and brings more to the story as a corpse than a king. Aegithius hides and plots, leaving Clytemnestra to do the actual murder yet appearing from the shadows to claim his share of the Argive throne.
But the story is not yet told, for Agamemnon’s son Orestes is still travelling overseas and on his return, more blood is likely to be shed.
Favourite lines/passages:
Avoiding all the blood and horror of the second half, I’ ll settle for Aeschylus’ description of Helen

“And so to Troy there came
One in whose presence shone
Beauty no thought can name.
A still enchantment of sweet summer calm,
A rarity for wealth to dote upon,
Glances whose gentle fire,
Bestowed both wound and balm,
A flower to melt man’s heart with wonder and desire.”

Well, even Aphrodite claimed Helen was the most beautiful mortal woman alive!

Personal rating : 6 /10
Kimmy the Lit-Terrier’s rating : She sat with her head down throughout so I guess that’s only a 1/5
Next: The second play of the trilogy, The Choephori (or , The Libation Bearers)

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