Aeschylus’ Oresteia: Part 1, Agamemnon

It’s still the holidays, so I have way more free time than usual, but I’ve managed to read my first “book” in the Great Books collection: Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the first part of his trilogy the Oresteia. Trilogies aren’t just a modern phenomenon: according to this informative introduction to Greek theater, trilogies were regularly performed as part of Athen’s annual Dionysia, placed together with a single satyr play to form a tetralogy presented by one playwright. Three playwrights would each write a tetralogy and a winner would be chosen. This seems to show that the Greeks must have loved grand, multistage epic stories that told the tale of multiple generations of a family, just like today we love Star Wars, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read the entire trilogy, but I do know that the Oresteia tells about the tragedy of the house of Agamemnon, leader of Greek forces during the preceding Trojan War, a conflict that began from his murder by his wife Clytemnestra in the first play.
Now, you might point out that the three 20th century works I mentioned above are all pure fantasy, whereas Aeschylus’ plays are closer to ancient Greek life and culture as it was experienced by the audience back then. Maybe. It’s debatable whether the epics of Homer felt like actual history even to the Greeks back then. Nevertheless, I would say that they serve the same function as our modern epics: they were myths that gave context, meaning, and a sense of unity to Greek culture and civilization. It would be interesting to explore how it reflects on today’s culture that our shared myths are no longer historical stories, but magical and fantastical worlds. (Some linger, like patriotic stories about a nation’s founding, but they are mostly there out of top-down enforcement, not organic necessity.)

A Note about Translations

The translation I read for this play was translated by E.D.A. Morshead, downloaded from here. I read this because it was free. Morshead’s translation, however, is a completely rhymed one, with many archaic English terms that are not even in most modern dictionaries. (I particularly noticed the abundance of the word “weal” – defined as “that which is best for someone or something.”) At first, reading only this translation I could not follow the plot at all. Especially because many of the chorus lines are historical narrative instead of action-based. But when I read it in parallel with Robert Browning’s more modern prose translation, gradually I got used to Morshead’s style, and by the midpoint I had ditched Browning completely.
Morshead reminds me of Chapman’s rhyming translation of the Odyssey, which is the first translation of the work I had read as a teenager – I did not understand anything back then either. Morshead’s poetry is no Paradise Lost, at several points being rather repetitive and unimaginative in its use of words, but it is still full of beauty, lyricism, and vivid imagery in many places, especially during the long soliloquies by Clytemnestra and Cassandra. When you get used to the language a bit, reading it feels a lot more like actually reading epic poetry – it has that sense of timelessness and significance which you rarely get from prose. Browning’s translation easily reads like a modern novel in many places, which is great for understanding the plot, but in many places it gets clunky. Compare the beginnings. First, Browning’s understandable but mundane prose:

Release from this weary task of mine has been my plea to the gods throughout this long year’s watch, in which, lying upon the palace roof of the Atreidae, upon my bent arm, like a dog, I have learned to know well the gathering of the night’s stars, those radiant potentates conspicuous in the firmament, bringers of winter and summer to mankind.

To me this gives a sort of very matter-of-fact feel to the watchman’s observation. Compare this with the lyricism of Morshead’s poetry:

I pray the gods to quit me of my toils,
To close the watch I keep, this livelong year;
For as a watch-dog lying, not at rest,
Propped on one arm, upon the palace-roof
Of Atreus’ race, too long, too well I know
The starry conclave of the midnight sky,
Too well, the splendours of the firmament,
The lords of light, whose kingly aspect shows –
What time they set or climb the sky in turn –
The year’s divisions, bringing frost or fire. 

A little bit wordy, but certainly quite vivid. I don’t know how Morshead’s version is faithful to the original Greek, but it certainly captures a little bit of the feeling when reading an opening Shakespearean soliloquy (like the opening of Richard III). My suggestion is to try to read Morshead primarily, consulting something like Browning whenever you get lost – the effort pays off eventually, at least in this case.

Impressions: the Role of the Chorus

I’ll try to keep this whole post short. I’ve had only sparse experience reading Greek drama. (I had breezed through Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripedes’ Medea as part of an online course I took about Greek history during the summer.) But Agamemnon was consistent with what little I knew. The plays are much shorter and less complex than Shakespeare dramas. They have only a few major characters, as it was the common practice to have only three actors playing all the roles. Consequently, there is only one plot line, and this made the play quite easy to follow.
A very Greek characteristic is that there is always a chorus, and they are heavily involved at many different points of the play (unlike in Shakespeare, where at most they would just speak before an act, like in Henry V). Interestingly, the chorus in Agamemnon has a changing position throughout the play. Sometimes they function as a narrator, explaining the historical background that led to motivations for the characters. Sometimes they comment on the action going on, serving as the voice of the audience. Sometimes they actively engage with the characters as if they were physically in the setting of the play. In other words, the chorus keeps breaking all the walls on the stage.
In this play this is seen the most vividly in Cassandra’s extended “mad scene.” Agamemnon has arrived back in Mycenae, bringing Cassandra from Troy as a slave. She has been silent the whole time as he and his wife Clytemnestra spar against each other. She doesn’t respond to Clytemnestra’s order to follow her into the palace, angering her. The queen exits the stage, leaving only Cassandra and the chorus. At this point she suddenly breaks into impassioned prophecy, calling desperately to Apollo, from whom she had received her cursed gift of never-believed prophecy.

Cassandra (chanting)
Woe, woe, alas! Earth, Mother Earth! and thou Apollo, Apollo!

The chorus’ reaction to her chanting is fascinating. At first, they are bewildered by what she is saying, mentioning to the audience how wild she is acting, like an aside in a Shakespearean play. (I apologize for the constant Shakespeare comparisons, but they’re quite natural, as in today’s culture Shakespeare plays define what poetry in drama is supposed to sound like.) Then they answer her questions to Apollo. They tell her they don’t need prophets. As Cassandra starts elaborating on the bloodied history of Agamemnon’s household, they comment, “But now thy speech is dark, beyond my ken.” As Cassandra’s utterances get longer and even more impassioned, so does the chorus – at a point, they start breaking into impassioned verse themselves (although this may be Morshead’s construction), finally culminating in an extended soliloquy. So the chorus is a special, separate character in this scene. Their numbers create the possibility of intensifying the atmosphere. The chorus also serves as narrator: we learn about the origin of Cassandra’s gift that way.

“Moral” Reflections

The center piece of Agamemnon, plot-wise, is the so-called agon or word duel between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon as she greets him upon arriving home. At this point she has already decided to murder him, due to his past crime of sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to calm the storm. Perhaps to put him off-guard, she acts like a faithful, adoring wife extraordinarily happy to see her husband again. After denouncing the people who didn’t like Agamemnon’s decision to go to war, she asks him to step onto a purple tapestry as he walks into his palace. Agamemnon initially refuses, stating that “the praise which honours bid us crave / Must come from others’ lips, not from our own.” He avers that he is only a mortal man, not a god – accepting the offer would be an act of hubris. Politically speaking, it might also not look good to the people of the city, as despite the victory, the Greeks had been gone for years and surely incurred losses of men.
The two then engage in the agon, a series of one-line tit-for-tat exchanges also known as stichomythia. It’s unclear what really makes Agamemnon eventually succumb to Clytemnenstra’s offer, other than just pure temptations of glory or hubris. Clytemnestra taunts him as being meek, asks him what Priam (the defeated Trojan king) would have done, and tells him not to fear what the crowd thinks. Agamemnon has answers to all of these arguments. However, at one point he retorts that as a woman, Clytemnestra shouldn’t be talking about these things:

War is not woman’s part, nor war of words.
Yet happy victors well may yield therein.
Dost crave for triumph in this petty strife?
Yield; of they grace permit me to prevail!
Then if thou wilt, let some one stoop to loose…
(proceeds to step on the carpet)

The queen turns this sexist argumentative tactic against Agamemnon, masterfully manipulating her seemingly inferior position as a woman – and Agamemnon is defeated. He steps on the carpet, enters the palace, and after the Cassandra scene is promptly murdered together with Cassandra by the queen. After this the Clytemnestra explains her actions, her lover Aegisthus makes a speech and almost fights with the chorus, and the play ends.
Apart from the question of what is the significance of Agamemnon succumbing when faced with a gender-based argument in the agon, how is this tapestry scene meaningful at all? The carpet doesn’t seem to play any clear role in the eventual murder, as Clytemnestra just stabs him using a blade. Is it purely symbolic, a harbinger that the king has voluntarily surrendered to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus? Is it a pedagogical demonstration of his vanity and hubris? Or is she simply using the offer of a purple carpet as a device to flatter him and lower his guard? This scene seems to point that this play has something more complex going on in the wider picture, instead of being a straight-up murder tragedy.

Final Parting Thoughts

There are still several other points I would like to go into for this play, for example the constant hate against Paris for starting the Trojan War, and the comparison of him to a lion by the chorus, which Cassandra then takes up as a metaphor for Clytemnestra. But I would not want this to drag to long. I think I gained much more than I initially expected from reading Agamemnon. Even with Morshead’s poetry, the play is not as quotable as the best of Shakespeare or even Homer. Even with the mystery of the purple carpet described above, it seems simpler, less ambitious, “cleaner” than drama in later eras. Still, the characters, though very complex and multi-faceted, are still convincing representations of human nature, and though the moral background of the Greeks is very different to ours (such as the existence of child sacrifice), universal sympathies and emotions pop up all over the place. I look forward to reading the next drama in the trilogy.

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