Dialectic in Agamemnon

The central dialectic of the first part of Aeschylus’s famous trilogy occurs between the infamous Clytemnestra, a queen rivaled only by Lady Macbeth, and the Chorus of older men of the city of Mycenea. Both are skeptical of each others’ motivations and ambitions. In considering an historical example, recall the feud between King John of Lackland and his ongoing quarrel with the gentry of greater England -though this struggle produced the Magna Carta and the struggle between Clytemnestra and the Chorus is yet to find a solution.

Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (with Aegisthis urging her on) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in 1817

Throughout Agamemnon, we encounter a recurring question of vengeance -on whose shoulders should the blame for villainy lie? With the backdrop of the ten year Trojan War (recall that in Homer’s Iliad we find ourselves immersed in only a few weeks of the ninth year of the war outside Ilium’s walls), Aeschylus forces the audience to question the inherent injustice in requital -a force of passion, rather than reason. Helen, appropriately meaning “death”, falls in love with Paris and elopes with him causing her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon to muster all of the Achaeans, including the reluctant Odysseus, to enter into battle against the Trojans. The war is eventually won not thanks to the aggressive passions of the greatest Achaean warrior, Achilles, but rather to the skill and tact of Odysseus who devises the plan to enter the city through a wooden horse and level it from within, as recounted in Homer’s Iliad.

In Agamemnon, we do not find the same nostalgia, or homecoming with the house of Atreus. Unlike Odysseus who returns home disguised as a beggar or traveler, Agamemnon returns home undisguised, expecting a fond welcoming. He returns home with only one ship, and having had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia to gain favor from the gods on Aulis as they were trapped by inclement weather and winds. Clytemnestra, unbeknownst to Agamemnon, has fallen in love with his banished cousin, Aegisthus and she has sent their son, Orestes away under false pretenses. She has set the scene for an ambush as she greatly disrespects his decisions.

Agamemnon justifies his assault on the city of Priam by recalling the fact that the Trojans welcomed Helen and Paris into their walls and their protection. He also has justifications for why he needed to sacrifice Iphigenia, an act that Clytemnestra never forgets nor forgives, and why he returns home with a captured woman from Troy, Cassandra, who claims to be able to foretell the future thanks to a curse from Apollo to whom she promised a child, but she later denied it and he cursed her by making it so that no one alive would believe her prophecies.

A 1st century fresco depicting the moments before the sacrifice of Iphigenia

Agamemnon’s return is anticlimactic and foreboding. Standing outside the palace, the Chorus of men begin to grow restless until finally Clytemnestra opens the doors to the palace of Mycenea showing the murdered corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra, both of whom she killed. She still holds the bloody two sided axe used to murder him, by stabbing him thrice. This sows unrest among the people of Mycenea (Chorus), particularly when Aegisthus appears and they speak of how they will rule the people and take Agamemnon’s wealth.

As with other great works of tragedy, counting Aeschylus as the founder of the tragic “goat-song” art, we encounter the theme of a just regicide. When is power illegitimate and when does it require the use of force to end its claim? Clytemnestra justifies her act of murder to a horrified and skeptical Chorus of men, elders in the city, stating that her new claim to power has brought balance and peace to the city, though it clearly has not. The only hope is for the return of her banished son, Orestes, to avenge his father and presumably set things on the right path. However, are we not still posed with the same problem? To what extent is Orestes faced with the same problem that plagued Clytemnestra in her decision to gain justice for the wrongs levied against her by her husband, Agamemnon, and also the deep wrongs inflicted upon Agamemnon when the Trojans accepted the elopement of Paris and Helen under their protection? One recalls the famous Biblical account of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” -referring to the ancient law of retaliation found Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy and elsewhere. It is the principle of reciprocal punishment, exacting revenge. It is a primitive form of judicial thinking, one that we moderns still cannot escape as we are tragically bound by our fate, and is predicated on the tribal factionalism of groups like the Achaeans, where it is challenging to find a mode where saner heads, like Odysseus, prevail. It is a seemingly endless dialectic that Aeschylus provides a solution to at the close of the Oresteia, or at least what we moderns consider the close of the Oresteia as we have no access to the Satyr play found at the end of the classical quadrilogy.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

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