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Agamemnon | Study Guide


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Agamemnon | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How and why do Agamemnon's characters compare Clytaemnestra to a man, and what effect does this masculinity have on her character arc?

Clytaemnestra shows many traits considered more masculine than feminine, according to gender roles in ancient Greece. She trusts her own mind and decisions, not listening to dream interpretations. She says in her welcoming speech to Agamemnon she will not "talk as one who was taught by others" but describes her own experience. She is bold in planning her revenge; the Chorus calls her "ambitious" and "arrogant." Clytaemnestra grows more open and takes on more authority over the course of the play. At first Clytaemnestra is slyly self-deprecating about her subordinate status as a woman, saying, "I've let you hear my woman's words," after a speech to the Chorus. The Chorus leader says she speaks, "wisely, like a prudent man," as a compliment to her planning and intellect. The watchman already knows she has a man's "determined resolution" and stubbornness. Her assumedly masculine traits also mean she does not feel shame at conquering her husband and breaking the rules. The Chorus laments her "power like a man" in the Exodos. Agamemnon notices this aggressive, competitive streak in her, too. He says, "It's not like a woman to be so keen on competition." In fact her unflagging determination and pride lead him to his death. Clytaemnaestra's conflicting traits reveal her as the most complex character in the play, and the development of her character creates dramatic tension throughout.

How does the act of waiting affect the characters in Agamemnon?

The watchman's "weary job" of waiting sets the mood. The play begins at the breaking of this moment of tension. The watchman's dilemma shows the psychological struggle of a long wait. He cannot sleep or dream, complaining "Fear comes instead and stands beside me." Waiting is often linked with being in a dreamlike or nightmare-like state. The Chorus members, too old to fight, can only wait for the outcome of the war, "no better than a child, as they wander like a daydream." The Chorus suffers persistent anxiety as they wait for news. In Stasimon 1, describing tension in Argos, they say: "I wait, listening for something murky, something emerging from the gloom." The waiting emphasizes the characters' lack of control over their fates. Clytaemnestra waits not only for her husband to come home but to exact revenge. She also describes her waiting for Agamemnon as dreamlike: "The faint whirring of a buzzing fly would often wake me up from dreams of you." Finally Aegisthus waits his entire life for revenge. The climactic act of the play is the culmination of a lifelong obsession. After achieving what he has been waiting for he proclaims he can face even his own death with joy.

In the Parodos of Agamemnon, how do the extended eagle metaphors describing Agamemnon and Menelaus shed light on the brothers' characters and actions?

The eagles represent Menelaus and Agamemnon as "kings of birds." Like Agamemnon and Menelaus, the birds are stately and powerful. With "wings beating like oars" they resemble sailors, repeating the motif of sailing. The birds also rely on divine intervention, screaming to the gods. The metaphor, which reinforces the symbol of birds, establishes the two Argive leaders as royal destroyers who are still at the mercy of powers greater than themselves. Later Calchas the prophet sees the eagles devour a pregnant hare. The eagles are destroying both the hare and its innocent children, symbolizing the destruction of war to entire family legacies. The eagles have taken on too much power, and they displease the gods.

How do parents in Agamemnon show grief for murdered children, and how is this grief significant to the play?

Vengeance for a slaughtered child is the force that causes the "dreadful anger ... its treachery controls the house," according to the Chorus in the Parodos. Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Clytaemnestra all lose children. Cassandra sees the protarchos ate (primal act of doom/ruin) as "children murdered by their loved ones" and says "revenge is on the way." The harm to Thyestes's children and the grief of their father set the curse on the House of Atreus in motion. The strength and depth of this grief motivate the parents for years. Agamemnon and Menelaus grieve Iphigenia's loss, even though they ultimately commit the sacrifice. The idea of sacrificing a daughter is so painful "the sons of Atreus struck their canes on the ground and wept." Clytaemnestra's grief takes the form of action as she murders her husband, the cause of her daughter's death, to achieve justice. She believes her vengeance is complete enough for Iphigenia to embrace her father in the afterlife.

How is the concept of exile important in understanding Agamemnon and the motivations of its characters?

Home and native lands were important to identity in ancient Greece. Characters are introduced by names of family members, showing the value of lineage. The play is intricately linked to war, a war that made exiles of many Trojans and Argives, including Menelaus and Orestes. Cassandra is an exile, and the newness of her surroundings makes "the labor pains of true prophecy" especially strong. She mourns the Scamander, river of Troy, and her father. Because she is caught in the "nets" of fate she knows she will never return home. As an outsider she is motivated to expose the crimes in the House of Atreus. Characters' returns from exile are not always positive, like the herald's triumphant return. Aegisthus has been an exile from his homeland since he was an infant. As a result he believes leadership of Argos is his due. He calls his return a "glorious day of retribution" and is angry his father, Thyestes, is "a suppliant at his own hearth." The possible return of exiled Orestes creates both tension and hope at the play's end.

How are rhetorical strategies such as flattery a force of destruction in Agamemnon?

The Chorus calls persuasion "the power of song sent from the gods" and uses persuasion as a muse to tell stories in the Parodos. But the Chorus is aware stories, especially those that recount past crimes, can bring destructive sorrow and grief into the present. Like much from the gods, persuasion is both a gift and a curse. Persuasion works as seductive flattery in the lives of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra. By praising his war prowess and using shrewd arguments Clytaemnestra appeals to Agamemnon's pride and vanity and persuades him to walk the purple carpet to his death. Clytaemnestra's use of persuasive techniques makes Cassandra call her a Scylla, a seductress of the sea, leading men to their deaths. Nor is Agamemnon blameless. Persuasion led him to partake of an honor fit only for gods by walking the carpet. The Chorus calls persuasion the "child of scheming folly" and laments its effect on men who take advantage of wealth. Persuasion's evil is not concealed, but it is obvious in ceremonies with "lurid glitter" and "false bronze" and in Clytaemnestra's telling Agamemnon all the right things upon his return.

How and why does the Chorus of Agamemnon reflect on past events, and how does this reflection relate to the purpose of the Chorus in Greek tragedy?

The Chorus explains and interprets the action to the audience. These explanations give the audience a deeper understanding of the action's meaning and importance. The Chorus bears witness, cementing the events in a collective consciousness. The Chorus members are not omniscient and they do not necessarily believe in prophecy, but they are community elders familiar with the country's history. The past events in Agamemnon the Chorus retells include these: the event that started the Trojan War: Paris's kidnapping of Helen Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, which informs Clytaemnestra's later actions the deaths in the Trojan War and the Argive community's dissent The Chorus also reflects the playwright's views. Aeschylus's personal experience with war showed him war creates sorrow and pain in families and in the city as a whole.

In what ways does the Chorus in Agamemnon believe the Trojan War was unjustified?

Although the members are loyal to the king and refuse to criticize him, they know the war has brought more destruction than glory to Argos. The Chorus repeatedly cites Helen as the war's cause and believes Argos gained nothing from fighting to get her back. In Stasimon 1 the Chorus describes the cost of war on families, even those on the winning side: "Every house gets back weapons and ash, not living men." The public voice against the war, the Chorus believes, has brought Argos "a curse which now must have its way." As members of the polis (city), they hear the dissent and speak for the people. The Stasimon 1 lament is born of the Chorus's loyalty to the city and admirations for its soldiers: "the hostile ground swallows our beautiful young men." Though the Chorus members are happy about the outcome of the war, they personally do not want to fight wars, even if they could. The Chorus leader respectfully tells Agamemnon on his return of their disapproval; they saw him as "an unfit mind steering our ship astray."

What is the significance of Agamemnon's choice regarding his daughter as described in the Parodos of Agamemnon?

Agamemnon's choice to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, sets off a chain of events affecting his family, his city, the city of Troy, and many innocent people along the way. Iphigenia is only the first innocent victim. Artemis presents Agamemnon with a choice between loyalty to the state and loyalty to his family. Despite the boundaries inflicted on him he does make a decision. From his monologue as presented by the Chorus he leans heavily toward supporting his soldiers at the expense of his daughter. He also chooses sacrifice to appease the gods. It is important to Agamemnon for the gods to see him as faithful and humble, since he fears their vengeance. Agamemnon justifies his actions with the language of rights and justice, saying his soldiers' demand for the winds to calm "lies within their rights." But he is caught in the nets of fate, too; the choice will cost him both family and leadership of the state.

Why is Iphigenia compared to a painting and to captive animals during the story of her sacrifice in Agamemnon's Parodos, and how does her situation parallel Cassandra's in Episode 4?

Iphigenia is dehumanized and literally robbed of her voice. She is raised to the altar "like a goat" and gagged with a device "like a horse's bit." The bit is meant to "stifle any curse which she might cry against her family." This is a reference to the curse Thyestes called down on her family long ago, after another act of brutality against his children. Clytaemnestra later says Agamemnon could have chosen any animal in his stable to sacrifice but instead chose their human daughter. The entanglement and confinement into which she is placed represent her loss of free will. Both Iphigenia and Cassandra are captives: young, female, and vulnerable. They both tear off their robes as a symbol of accepting fate, discarding any trappings of being human before going to their death. Iphigenia is dragged to her sacrifice and already immortalized as an idea, "like a painting." Cassandra goes willingly to meet her fate and uses her voice to speak up for herself, saying "I'm not holding back in fear, like some bird trapped in bushes."

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