Friday, September 9, 2011

Book 112: "Agamemnon." (The Oresteia)

One of my favorite books in The Odyssey is when Odysseus travels to the land of the dead. There, he meets many figures from his past, including the great hero, Agamemnon. There, Odysseus learns what happened to Agamemnon when he returned home from Troy. When Agamemnon tells Odysseus of his murder and betrayal by his wife, it sets up the ending books of The Odyssey and what Odysseus finds when he returns home.

The fallen hero, Agamemnon, is the feature of the first of Aeschylus' triology The Oresteia. The first play is fittingly titled Agamemnon. It is short and can be easily read in one sitting. And like Homer's works, it should really be read out loud (it was performed after all). I read it out loud to my cats, but I am sure your plants would benefit as well (and no, my cats did not like my reading. They slept).

I was pretty excited to dive into this play. Since I have a deep and abiding love for The Odyssey, I am pretty familiar with what ghost Agamemnon tells Odysseus. But I have always wanted to know more. I got more.

The drama begins with Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, declaring that Troy has fallen and Agamemnon will return home. She also boasts of some "inappropriate" things to the Chorus, who chastise her to the audience. It is here that we get the back story of Agamemnon.

His brother, Menelaus, is the man who WAS married to Helen, before she ran off with Paris to Troy. As Menelaus' brother, he had to go to war as well, and commanded much of the battle over Troy. The important backstory is what he did before he left. After seeing an oracle before departing, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to get a fair wind to Troy. Needless to say, Clytemnestra is not too happy with him. And she probably has reason to be angry.

When Agamemnon does return in the drama, he has little to say to Clytemnestra. You would think that after being gone for ten years he would have tender words for his wife, but he doesn't. Instead, the scene is tense. It also doesn't help that he brought a war prize home with him, a girl named Cassandra, who also happens to be a prophet of sorts. After Agamemnon and Clytemnestra venture indoors, Cassandra begins to prophesize, basically affirming that Clytemnestra has taken a lover and they plan to murder Agamemnon. She also utters that their son will avenge Agamemnon's death. Then she also goes inside.

The Chorus discusses this until two cries are heard from Agamemnon, and yep, his body is brought out at the hands of Clytemnestra and her lover. They have also murdered Cassandra.

The play more or less ends there, and it gives greater detail to the story Agamemnon tells Odysseus in The Odyssey. After being away from home for ten years, Agamemnon was betrayed in his own home. Again, I can't help but compare this to Odysseus' own homecoming to Penelope and the anxious feeling he must of had in his stomach. In Odysseus' case, however, he was gone 20 years. Interesting in comparing the two, right? I was fascinated!

What I loved most about diving into this was the further depth I got in this area of Greek history. I also like that the two writers, years and years apart, give us the story of his death in different ways.

In any case, I am looking forward to the second part, The Libation Bearers, to see how Agamemnon's son avenges his death.


  1. I really enjoyed this one - I think it was my favorite of the Oresteia. Like you, I wanted more from Agamemnon's story; I found Clytemnestra fascinating in her short appearances in The Odyssey (plus, I'll admit, I was taken in by her name). Glad you liked it!

  2. It's funny how we all react differently! I was completely in Clytemnestra's camp, and I loved the way she tricks him w ridiculous flattery in order to kill him. I remember finding the chorus' description of Iphigenia's murder hair-raising as well: the parallels between her and sacrificial animals were just so well done.

    I did feel bad for Cassandra, but if I were her, I 'd have welcomed death at that point.

  3. I read the Oresteia in high school and even wrote my term paper on it. It's one I'd like to revisit. Did you know that Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is based on the Oresteia? I read that one in high school, too, and loved it!

  4. I haven't read this yet, but I'm so looking forward to it!

  5. Aeschylus' The Oresteia is one of my favorites of the Greek classics. There's so much power, pathos, and emotion in this trilogy. I own at least five different translations, and love each of them for different reasons. One of my favorites is an incredibly poetic and lyrical translation/adaptation by the late Ted Hughes. I highly recommend it. I largely agree that the "Agamemnon" is probably my favorite of the trilogy, although "The Eumenides" is pretty special with the transformation from blood vendetta to civil justice is profoundly amazing to witness occurring during the course of the three plays. I really enjoyed all three of your reviews of this hugely significant work. Well done! Cheers! Chris