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Agamemnon | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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How does Helen influence the plot and characters of Agamemnon?

Helen is one of the many female destructive forces in the play, along with the Furies, the goddess Ate, and Clytaemnestra. Like Clytaemnestra, she is compared to a lion, a killing beast. A legendary beauty, Helen is elevated almost to celestial status, with the power of influence usually reserved for gods. Paris, although he chose to kidnap and marry her, was at her mercy. Helen's extraordinary beauty has left Menelaus in mourning and goaded him to war. The Chorus blames Helen for much of the slaughter, calling her "a hell for ships, a hell for men." But Clytaemnestra correctly points out to them in the Exodos that Helen killed no one. She is less a human than an idea of a greater force to which men succumb, making them helpless and making them slaughter. The beauty and calm, like "a delicate, expensive ornament," have made each side fight for her. As the Chorus reminds the audience repeatedly, lust for riches and expensive things will bring men to ruin.

How are Cassandra and Clytaemnestra alike and different in Agamemnon, especially in their expressions of agency and acceptance of fate?

Both women want witnesses to deeds they believe are courageous. Cassandra wants the Chorus to bear witness to the way in which she meets her death. Clytaemnestra is not ashamed to admit she has lied to exact justice and cast her "all-embracing net" around Agamemnon. While Cassandra is caught in a net, Clytaemnestra is the net herself. According to war tradition in ancient Greece, Cassandra, the daughter of the conquered king, becomes Agamemnon's slave and concubine. Led by Apollo as a prophet, she is used to dealing with the whims of the gods. Cassandra is accustomed also to the net of fate after years of foretelling disasters: she was the first to predict the destruction of Troy. The ancient Greek world relied on hierarchy, and Cassandra knew her place in it. Clytaemnestra, acting according to a higher code of familial justice, refuses to serve Agamemnon willingly as his wife. Cassandra, too, refused to consort with Apollo and accepted her punishment. Clytaemnestra, however, instead of accepting fate, seizes authority and threatens the Chorus: "I'm prepared to fight you head to head."

How are Agamemnon and Aegisthus alike and different in their leadership and views of politics and family?

Both are intelligent and strategic. Agamemnon is clever enough to win the war, even at great cost to Argos. Aegisthus helps plan Agamemnon's murder in a way that he would not be discovered as a conspirator, thus leaving the deed to Clytaemnestra. Both men are architects of their own fates. Agamemnon leads himself to his death; Aegisthus to his triumph. Agamemnon feels at least a superficial loyalty to his soldiers and to the Chorus, his citizens. He chooses the army over his child, showing his priorities as a leader. But he is not all evil; he expresses a desire to work together with the Chorus toward a better government. He also wants to be known as a master who treats his slaves exceptionally well. When Agamemnon refuses initially to walk across the carpet, he makes the appearance of humility, driven by fear. Aegisthus's loyalty works through vengeance and trickery; he lacks Agamemnon's civic loyalty. The chains and hunger with which he threatens the Chorus show he is not concerned with treating his slaves or subjects well. Instead, he wants absolute obedience. He is fiercely loyal to his family, having waited all his life to avenge his father, at personal risk.

In Agamemnon how do Clytaemnestra's and Cassandra's imaginations transcend time and space, and what effect do these images have on the play?

Clytaemnestra imagines the distant fall of Troy. Her portrait of "mass confusion" and captives "lamenting their slaughtered loved ones" reflects the destruction caused by her husband's actions. The Chorus follows this scene by mourning for Argive families who have lost loved ones in the war. Aeschylus does not show battle scenes per se any more than he shows violence onstage but vividly portrays the aftermath of war. Neither side has won in any conflict. When Clytaemnestra pictures Agamemnon and Iphigenia embracing in the afterlife, the image renews her sense of doing the right thing by bringing the two together. The Chorus imagines the aftermath of Agamemnon's sacrifice differently. Coalescing again as a unit in the Exodos they begin to see the next cycle of the Oresteia, in which Argos's government will again experience upheaval. Cassandra can picture events as they happen, as well as events years into the future. Her gift of prophecy is a burden to her, but for the audience prophecy increases the significance of the story and its characters. Their importance is not limited to the production (the play takes place in a matter of hours in real time) but spans Greek history and its myths.

How does Clytaemnestra show she values performance and ceremony in Agamemnon?

Clytaemnestra creates an elaborate, ceremonial gesture with her signal fires. She describes her beacon system in great detail to the Chorus in Episode 1, almost as proud of her contribution as she is of the war's outcome. She's ostentatious about her wealth, reminding Cassandra in Episode 3 the family she serves is rich. Clytaemnestra knows laying out the purple carpet is a blasphemous move, but she does not mind; she has access to all the expensive purple dye in the sea, and the carpet is nothing special to her. Her pompous speech to Agamemnon, which he finds far too long, is full of vivid but insincere images of grief. Finally she kills her husband with much ceremony, stabbing him three times and wrapping him in a robe.

In Agamemnon, Exodos after Aegisthus returns, what are the indications of political division coming to Argos?

The Chorus leader believes Aegisthus will "pollute all Justice" while he still can, showing the Chorus's lack of faith in him as a leader. The Chorus counts on the Argive people to deliver vigilante justice for Aegisthus's betrayal: "your head will not escape the people's cursing or death by stoning at their hands." The members refer to the unity of "men of Argos." The citizens, they believe, will not react well to Aegisthus's use of Agamemnon's wealth or Clytaemnestra's murders. Aegisthus plans to silence all dissenters with force. He says to his guard, "Your work's in front of you." He is willing to resort to violence, even at the expense of his life: "I'm not afraid to die." Though Clytaemnestra pleads for the conflict to cease she can tell it is out of her hands.

What do gold and silver signify in Agamemnon?

Gold and silver signify wealth, pride, and the flimsiness of material riches. Righteousness "turns her eyes away from gold-encrusted mansions" sings the Chorus before Agamemnon's return in Stasimon 2. Agamemnon loses his life in a "silver-plated bath." Wealth will not redeem anyone in the play. The doomed Agamemnon survives 10 years of war only to return to die in a gilded palace. Clytaemnestra thinks the family's old money makes her slaves lucky to be there, but she murders a slave with a "two-edged sword," showing her tendency toward evil and disregard of the gods' anger at one who boasts about wealth.

Based on the events in Agamemnon, why does it take the gods' intervention to stop the cycle of violence in the Oresteia?

The human characters in the House of Atreus are incapable of stopping the violence themselves. The curse is more powerful than they are. In the Exodos the Chorus describes the family and their descendants as "wedded to destruction." By the end of the play Clytaemnestra, too, is feeling caught in the nets of fate. She refers to three generations of "bloodlust in our guts" as if the violence were a physical part of her family members, inextricable as a limb. Orestes, fated to return, will continue the cycle of blood-for-blood vengeance. But Orestes has an official trial at the end of the trilogy, as Clytaemnestra did not, in Eumenides. The goddess Athena acquits him. Only then with her divine power can the cycle stop and justice reign. The intervention of the gods provides civility, fairness, and democracy—the same accomplishments Aeschylus hoped humans could achieve in the new Greece of his time.

In Agamemnon, Episode 2 what is the significance of the words, "You suffered from love for those who loved you," the Chorus leader tells the herald?

The quotation indicates the Argives' patriotism and unity. The soldiers suffered, in part, because they were away from the country they loved. The Chorus leader also emphasizes the role of civic engagement in the play; he and the Chorus are eager to return to peace under a just leader. A love for country, they believe, is a symptom of righteousness. The lack of unity in the House of Atreus disturbs and frightens them. The Chorus loses its unity when they lose Agamemnon. They reunite to defeat the common threat of Aegisthus. The Chorus's voice is the voice of the polis, or city. Aeschylus gives them lines that express his own patriotism toward Greece and his experience as a soldier who "suffered from love."

In Agamemnon what does the archer or archery signify?

Archery signifies victory, intelligence, and justice. The archer who hits the mark has met with success. Often, though, the archer is a killer as well. The bow and arrow, like the net, is a weapon that traps and entangles its victims. When the Chorus praises Zeus's wisdom in Stasimon 1, they applaud his vengeance against the prideful Paris: "he aimed his bow at Paris, making sure his arrow would not fall short." Omnipotent Zeus, whom Clytaemnestra also believes "accomplishes all things," is the archer responsible for Troy's destruction and the demise of Atreus's ruling house. Cassandra describes the horrors in the House of Atreus in metaphors, as a chorus "predicting doom" and "drinking human blood." She accurately pictures Aegisthus in Agamemnon's bed. When she asks, "like a fine archer have I hit the beast?" she knows she has won the trust of the Chorus. Like an archer she is able to hit even a distant mark with her supernatural talent. Yet for her perfect aim is a curse; she knows the truth is responsible for her fated destruction as well.

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