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Agamemnon | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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In what ways is Agamemnon, Episode 3, a reflection on the loyalty and disloyalty of men, an example of situational irony?

Agamemnon deplores disloyalty, but he himself has been disloyal. He brings Cassandra home as a concubine. He has led an unpopular war that killed many young men in Argos. And he sacrificed his own daughter to carry out the war. Nonetheless he wants to be seen as a good leader and a good man. He advocates for a general assembly where he can hear the people's concerns. He refuses to walk the purple carpet at first because of false humility, saying "Praise that's due to us should come from others." When he eventually does walk the carpet, he hopes no god will see him, knowing all the while that he is demonstrating pride and wealth. Like the soldiers he distrusts, Agamemnon's loyalty is "pictures in a glass," no more than an image. Agamemnon thinks he can discern which of his close associates are loyal to him and which are traitors. But he does not recognize the treachery in his own house. His old enemy Aegisthus is threatening his own good fortune, and Agamemnon seems unaware.

In her Episode 3 speech in Agamemnon, how and why does Clytaemnestra reveal her true intent toward Agamemnon?

By describing in detail the fates she has imagined for Agamemnon on the basis of rumors, Clytaemnestra cannot help but brag about her own plans for him. She speaks in images so no one can grasp her meaning. Agamemnon would have "more holes in him than any net": later Clytaemnestra refers to Agamemnon being caught in her net, the net of his own inescapable hamartia (fatal flaw, or doom he brought on himself). She imagines him "covered up with earth three times" before she stabs him three times and buries him. She praises him as "his father's truly begotten son," not saying yet he will pay for the deeds of his father. She emphasizes he is the head of the house: a "watchdog," a "mainstay," a "lofty pillar." Therefore whatever happens in the house is his responsibility as head.

How is Orestes significant in Agamemnon and in the cycle of plays in Aeschylus's Oresteia?

Orestes is the exiled son who will kill Clytaemnestra in the next Oresteia play, The Libation Bearers. Orestes does not enter as an onstage character in Agamemnon, but his absence and the possibility of his return add dramatic tension and set the stage for a sequel. Clytaemnestra first mentions Orestes in Episode 3, saying he is away but alive. Since he is "the most trusted bond" linking her to her husband, the audience can tell he will play an important role, as the relationship between Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon is the most important and fraught one in this play. Cassandra never names Orestes, but in her prophecies she describes a man returning to avenge his father and kill his mother: "A wanderer in exile, a man this country's made a stranger." During the Exodos, the Chorus realizes Orestes is their only hope to be saved from tyrannical rule. They believe Aegisthus will be defeated "if fate brings Orestes home again." It may be too late to hope the cycle of violence will be broken, but perhaps Orestes can restore order.

What methods of persuasion does Clytaemnestra use to convince Agamemnon to walk the carpet in Agamemnon, Episode 3?

Clytaemnestra appeals first to Agamemnon's respect for the gods, saying "You must fear something." She knows his confidence and masculinity will make him deny, on the surface, his fear. Next she appeals to his sense of competition, which led him to war by invoking Priam, the enemy. Then she appeals to his pride and confidence as a leader, questioning them by asking "why be ashamed by what men say?" She knows not everyone agrees with the war, and she has heard citizens mumbling against Agamemnon. Here Agamemnon finally stands on moral ground and counters, saying she wants him to take superficial comfort in his victory and walk the carpet for appearances: "that's the sort of victory you value?" Finally she tells him to "be strong and yield to me of your own consent," making Agamemnon think he has a choice and will choose to do right. In a world where the gods, fate, and curses seem to dictate events, Agamemnon wants to have a sense of consent and free will; Clytaemnestra understands his need and uses it to her advantage.

Where and why do Agamemnon's characters hint at political rebellion in Argos?

The Chorus warns in Stasimon 1 "the people's voice, once angered, can create dissent, ratifying a curse which now must have its way." They have been describing the terrible price of war, and they know loyalty to a leader goes only so far. Clytaemnestra does not wait to tell Agamemnon she has heard rumors of "people here, how they could rebel, cry out against being governed, then overthrow the Council." She is afraid not only of murmurings but of total revolt. As a ruler, the palace watchdog in Agamemnon's absence, she knows the importance of pleasing the rank and file. Agamemnon is unpopular with the Argive citizens, so Clytaemnestra knows the time is good to bring in a new ruler. Unwittingly, in her statement to Agamemnon, she is foreshadowing the Chorus's rebellious reaction to Aegisthus's overthrow. The herald asks the Chorus Leader "Were you afraid of someone once the kings were gone?" The Chorus Leader answers he is, implying tension between the people and the leaders. The watchman also alludes to the house not being governed well. Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon while Athens was turning toward democracy after years of war. The democracy was still new, and political strife rampant. The play shows the importance of the rulers and the people listening to each other to create a working government. Agamemnon addresses what happens when leadership goes wrong and threats attack democracy.

What is Cassandra's curse and how does it reflect the outcome of Agamemnon?

Cassandra is a priestess of Apollo, the god who gave her the gift of prophecy. When Cassandra refused to bear his child, he cursed her in revenge. "Since I resisted him," she tells the Chorus, "no one believes me." In fact the Chorus does not fully believe her. Although they say "what you prophesy seems true enough," they fail to understand the impact of her words. When the Chorus members hear Agamemnon being stabbed, they are bewildered, even though Cassandra warned them Clytaemnestra would kill her husband. The Chorus loses its unity as its members form groups and discuss what to do, rather than rush to their king's defense. In not acting as one, the Chorus reflects its avoidance of the truth and thus does not help Agamemnon. In addition, the breakup of the chorus as a result of their disbelief may foreshadow the breakup of the House of Atreus. Cassandra also predicts Orestes's return. The Chorus mentions Orestes's vengeance toward the end of the play, realizing Cassandra's predictions were accurate.

How do shipwrecks function as metaphors and reinforce the theme of fate in Agamemnon?

Life in the city of Argos is sometimes compared to sailing on a ship. Crew members have different roles on a ship as do citizens of Argos. Aegisthus says to the Chorus "You man the lower oars. Your masters on the higher tier control the ship" to establish his authority. The Chorus uses storm imagery to emphasize the destruction of the House of Atreus: "storms of blood rain batter down, destroying the house." Humans cannot ultimately control fate any more than sailors can control the weather. In Stasimon 3 the Chorus sings "the fate of man can crash upon the hidden rock of grief." To survive, man must let go of some of his cargo, which can mean wealth, prosperity, and pride. Otherwise the hull of the house will be swamped; the family members will be doomed. Agamemnon's and Argos's fate are bound up in literal shipwrecks. The wreck that destroyed Argive ships exiled Odysseus, Agamemnon's most trusted soldier, and Menelaus, his brother. References to nets and entanglement also imply drowning, or being trapped at sea, as in life on land with human entanglements.

What is the significance of the Chorus's reference to Aesculapius in Agamemnon, Stasimon 3?

Aesculapius's story is described as a "warning to us all." Aesculapius was the god of medicine and healing, a physician who got too good at his job. His power to raise people from the dead angered Zeus. Resurrection disturbed the natural order the gods strove to protect. Zeus destroyed Aesculapius with a thunderbolt. The Chorus mentions Aesculapius to remind the audience no one can ultimately outrun fate. If the gods have decided a man will die, the decision is final. In a foreshadowing reference to Agamemnon, they realize life cannot return "once a murdered man's dark blood has soaked the ground." When Agamemnon walks across the carpet, he is putting himself in the place of gods, and he leads himself to death.

In Agamemnon how does Aeschylus use antithesis, or opposing ideas—light and darkness; harsh, violent grace; gratitude and slaughter—to elaborate on the themes of fate and of righteousness versus evil?

Juxtaposed mentions of light and darkness work as antithesis. Agamemnon's return is a light in the darkness to the herald and to Clytaemnestra. His return brings an end to the evil of war (a war he escalated in the first place, demonstrating the situational irony of the celebrations). In describing the favors of the gods in the Parodos, the Chorus sings "such grace is harsh and violent." Aggressive words describe the more passive acts of favor and grace, emphasizing the gods' power, often unpredictable, over the destinies of all. In the story of the man and the lion cub in Stasimon 2, the Chorus contrasts the lion's "gratitude" with the "unholy slaughter" it creates, or righteousness versus evil. Aegisthus describes Atreus setting up a "celebration" and "feast day" to serve Thyestes the flesh of his own children: an "abominable thing" that leads Thyestes to curse the house. Duplicity and false celebration are the common themes, echoed in Clytaemnestra's false praise of Agamemnon, and reflect righteous intents but evil acts.

How are the events of Agamemnon affected by the importance of sacrifice to the gods?

Sacrifices celebrated victories and assured good outcomes in war. A sacrifice was usually an animal, but on occasion the gods requested a human sacrifice, as they did with Iphigenia. The Argives destroyed the Trojans' holy places of sacrifice, dooming Agamemnon through the gods' inevitable vengeance. Cassandra laments that her father's own war sacrifices were in vain. Clytaemnestra alludes to sacrifice as destruction and exaltation; the women of Argos making joyful sacrifices after war victory tend "sweet-smelling spicy flames as they consume their victims." Sacrifice is associated with both triumph and death, antitheses of one another. Clytaemnestra imagines pouring out libations on Agamemnon's corpse as if he were a sacrifice. She killed him with "prayerful dedication to Zeus." In a way he is a sacrifice to the curse that dominates the house. The purple carpet marks him for a sacrificial offering. When Cassandra smells death in the palace, the Chorus Leader tells her "that's the smell of sacrifice." The word takes on a double meaning: triumph and death.

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