July 25, 2010

Agamemnon is the first Greek tragedy in a trilogy known as The Oresteia written by Aeschylus. Aeschylus, often considered the father of Greek tragedy, composed more than seventy plays, only seven of which are extant. Aeschylus drew much of his content for the trilogy from Homer’s epic poems, as the title of the play Agamemnon attests.

The house of Atreus is under a curse before the play even begins. Years earlier Atreus, the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, had defeated his brother Thyestes in the competition for the throne and had banished him after his ascension. Later returning in hopes of reclaiming the throne, Thyestes is (supposedly) warmly received by Atreus and given a meal which he eats, not knowing that it is all of his own children (save Aegisthus) that he is consuming. Upon learning of the atrocity, Thyestes curses Atreus for the heinous act and flees with his only surviving child, Aegisthus.

The other background story that is vital to comprehend regards Agamemnon himself. Stuck with his troops on an island due to lack of wind, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis in order to appease her and gain a favorable sailing wind so that he and his troops may successfully begin the Trojan War. Itself a pernicious act, the murder of Iphigenia both depressed and enraged Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife who stars in Agamemnon.

Agamemnon begins upon the return of Agamemnon after his success in the Trojan War. Though quite a bit of conversation occurs between the watchman, the chorus, Clytemnestra, and the herald before the action of the play gets underway, the primary events of the play commence when Agamemnon finally arrives home. Clytemnestra, in an act of feigned deference and respect, lays crimson robes on the ground upon which she invites Agamemnon to walk. Although he remarks that such an act would exhibit hubris, he executes it nonetheless, leaving Cassandra, his oracular concubine, behind. Cassandra will not speak with Clytemnestra, so Clytemnestra returns to the house where Aegisthus, her lover, awaits her. Cassandra, who is clearly in distress and who can see with mantic vision both the impending murder of Agamemnon and of herself, converses with the chorus for a while before entering the house. The chorus then hears Agamemnon cry out in pain. The chorus enters the house, sees the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and speaks to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, both of whom justify their actions by relating the horrors that they underwent in the past, which I documented above.

The concept of the chorus is one with which I was mostly unfamiliar, and my literary encyclopedias inform me that the Greek tragedies’ chorus served as commentators on the actions of the dramas and as vocal expressions of traditional moral and social attitudes.

There are a few rather striking parallels that I would like to note here between this tragedy and those of William Shakespeare. Firstly, the perverse idea of feeding someone their own child, as Atreus did to Thyestes, returns in Titus Andronicus. Secondly, the bloody apparitions that Cassandra sees seemed oddly similar to those that King Macbeth sees after they are summoned by the weird sisters in Macbeth. These parallels may be tenuous or coincidental, but they nevertheless struck me. Classical literature did indeed exert an enormous influence over subsequent Western letters, and Shakespeare’s corpus is no exception.


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