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Agamemnon | Context

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The Trojan War

Like many of his contemporaries, Aeschylus drew inspiration from ancient Greek mythology. The Trojan War, in which Agamemnon fights and triumphs, is the backdrop for Agamemnon's plot.

Although modern historians are unsure about whether the war reflects actual events, its legend has inspired Greek writers, poets, and playwrights for centuries. The legend's most famous accounts come from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Archaeologists have located Troy on the western shore of Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey. Based on their findings and on the timeline of Homer's writing, archaeologists dated the conflict in the 12th or 13th century BCE.

Paris, son of the Trojan king, incited the war when he abducted Helen—the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. Helen was celebrated as the world's most beautiful woman, and not everyone was happy with her marriage to Menelaus, including the goddess Aphrodite. As a result Aphrodite devised a plan with Paris to steal Helen's heart.

Agamemnon, Menelaus's brother and ruler of the city of Argos, led the Greek soldiers, called the Achaean or Argive forces by both Homer and Aeschylus, in the invasion of Troy to recover Helen. During the war, a storm scattered the Achaean troops, and the remaining soldiers did not have enough wind to set sail. The prophet Calchas revealed the reason for the storm: the goddess Artemis, protector of animals, was angry with Agamemnon for having sacrificed an animal dear to her. As revenge she demanded he sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia if he wanted to end the storm. Agamemnon reluctantly complied.

After 10 years of war the Greeks tried a final stratagem. They pretended to withdraw, leaving a large wooden horse as a surrendering gift inside the gates of Troy. The Trojans had no idea the horse contained a Greek army. While the Trojans celebrated what they thought was the end of the war, the Greek army escaped from the horse at night and slaughtered the Trojan men. The expression Trojan horse has survived to mean "someone or something that hides what is true or real in order to trick or harm an enemy."

At the start of the play Agamemnon and his few surviving troops return to Argos from Troy to contend with both the aftermath and the consequences of violence.

Structure of Greek Tragedy

Plays in ancient Greece were limited to a household set, or skene. Chorus members and nonspeaking actors, such as soldiers, filled the stage. Violence could not be shown onstage and was considered unacceptable to represent; therefore, instead of showing murders as well as distant but relevant events, actors described them. Aeschylus put his poetry, with its vivid metaphors, to good use, for the plays are full of invisible violence.

Greek tragedies are organized into distinct parts:

  • First the Prologos, or prologue, introduces the play's topics.
  • Next the Chorus sings the Parodos, or Entrance Ode.
  • A number of Episodes (three to five, usually) follow. In each episode, one or two actors interact with the Chorus. Though Aeschylus increased the speaking parts in his dramas, he was still limited by the conventions of the genre to three speaking actors onstage at once.
  • After each episode the Chorus presents a Stasimon (stationary song). Stasimons comment on or react to the episode's events.
  • The final section is the Exodos, or Exit Ode, in which the Chorus reacts to the play's outcome.

Music and dance are important aspects of Greek tragedies. The Chorus, and many of the actors, sang or chanted their lines. Onstage the Chorus members wore masks.

The choral odes are divided into two parts: strophe and antistrophe. The strophe, or first stanza, is the first half of the debate or argument the Chorus presents. Onstage the actors moved from right to left. The antistrophe, the next stanza, presents a response or an alternate side to the strophe. The actors then moved from left to right. Following the antistrophe, a final stanza, called the epode, is then delivered in the center of the stage.

Aeschylus engaged actors in dialogue with the Chorus members. He also gave individual Chorus members lines during some choral odes.

The Oresteia Cycle

Agamemnon is the first in Aeschylus's cycle of three plays, known together as the Oresteia. The cycle's name is taken from the name of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra's son Orestes. Though Orestes does not appear onstage in Agamemnon, the Chorus's hope of his coming anticipates the next installment.

Orestes appears in the second play, The Libation Bearers, to avenge his father's death. Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus now rule Argos. Together with his sister Electra, Orestes murders them both. The Furies, vengeful goddesses, pursue Orestes, who goes into hiding.

The final play is The Eumenides (The Kind Goddesses) in which Orestes stands trial in Athens for the murder of his mother, Clytaemnestra. The Furies, goddesses of destruction, were eventually named as the Eumenides or Kind Goddesses to win their favor. The goddess Athena votes to acquit him and then persuades the Eumenides (or the Furies ) to leave Athens in peace. Athena ends the cycle of bloodshed and restores Athens to just rule.

The Oresteia thus ends on a positive note—a tragedy with a happy ending, but one in keeping with the Greek genre of tragic drama, which, rather than a necessarily bleak conclusion, features the exploration of complex universal themes such as righteousness versus evil and the laws of the gods. As they present the saga of the House of Atreus, a cursed Greek royal family from Argos, the Oresteia plays share themes of vengeance, justice, and complexities of family relationships.

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