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Agamemnon | Episode 3 | Summary

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Summary

Agamemnon salutes his city and his gods, who led him to victory and obliterated Troy (also called Ilium in the play). He can still smell smoke from Troy's burning. Agamemnon tells the Chorus he has heard his people's concerns. He understands some men feel jealous at others' good fortune, and many of his soldiers revealed themselves to be poor companions. Only Odysseus was loyal. Agamemnon plans to establish a democratic assembly in Argos to see what works and what "infectious evil" to remove.

As he is about to retreat to the palace, Clytaemnestra interrupts him, telling the Chorus how much she loves her husband and how worried she has been about him. The many rumors of his death, and of other disasters, almost led her to suicide. Worried about rebellion in the city, she sent her son Orestes to stay with an ally in the city of Phocis. She salutes Agamemnon as a "watch dog" and "mainstay" for the city and family. Telling him not to walk on "common ground," Clytaemnestra has her attendants lay out a red-purple carpet for him to walk from the chariot to the palace. Unimpressed by groveling and false praise, he says the carpet is "how we honor gods, not human beings," and he is taking a prideful risk if he walks across it. His fame and prosperity, he says, will speak for themselves.

Clytaemnestra protests Agamemnon must have "made some promise to the gods" to thwart her homecoming plan, and she and Agamemnon argue. Clytaemnestra says Agamemnon is too concerned with what people say, and as a conqueror he should be unashamed to walk across the carpet; Priam, the conquered king of Troy, would have done so. Agamemnon refuses to change his mind, but when Clytaemnestra appeals to his strength, Agamemnon finally agrees to cross the carpet, hoping no god sees him and kills him out of envy.

Agamemnon then tells Clytaemnestra to welcome Cassandra and treat her well. He wants the gods to think of him as a good master to his slaves. Agamemnon enters the palace slowly while Clytaemnestra speaks. Clytaemnestra thanks the gods her family is wealthy, rich enough for plenty of valuable red dye. But she would have given all the wealth for Agamemnon's life. She is hopeful the house will "blossom into leaf" since the king has returned.

Analysis

This is the only scene in which Agamemnon speaks. He is taciturn, a war leader and not a talker. He tries to remain humble but is interested primarily in self-protection. His wife is the leader in rhetoric.

Agamemnon seems decent at first. He respects the Chorus members and is willing to work with them. However Agamemnon's metaphors for rooting out evil are violent: "burning" and "slicing" sores away. Though Aegisthus (who later will usurp Agamemnon's role) also wants to root out evil, he will be far less open to discussion.

However Agamemnon is too fond of his prosperity, seeing riches as the route to happiness. He does not want to invite the gods' rebuke, but he cannot resist talking about his fame, asserting "there's nothing I need fear." Agamemnon, like many Greek tragic heroes, falls because of hamartia—a fatal flaw, an inescapable element of his personality—that ultimately determines his fate. Like the lion cub, Agamemnon cannot hide his nature. He thinks he has done right by casting the symbolic "savage net" around Troy, indicating the city's capture; they deserved it, according to him. Their destruction was the gods' idea, not his. Agamemnon may be aware of the public dissent that Clytaemnestra mentions, but it does not concern him.

Clytaemnestra knows her husband's character. Agamemnon pretends to be unimpressed by her speech, but Clytaemnestra sees the importance of saying the right things. She describes her love, laments their separation, and praises his leadership. When she says, "he'd have more holes in him than any net," pretending to describe her fear for his life, she alludes, subtly, to her plans for him. (Her desire for Agamemnon to return home alive may be genuine because she wants to murder him herself.) Nets symbolize captivity, and any character mentioned in connection with a net is caught up in unfortunate circumstances that cannot be changed.

Clytaemnestra's grand speech serves another purpose: to give her handmaidens time to roll out the symbolic purple carpet. Her argumentative "Don't say that just to flout what I've arranged" has a double meaning. She has arranged Agamemnon's kingly entrance and, of course, his death. With the carpet she encourages Agamemnon's pride as well, knowing he will not admit to fear of the gods.

Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon's dialogue is an example of stichomythia, a dramatic technique in which two characters exchange rapid lines, often sparring verbally. This argument draws focus into the main conflict: how much responsibility humans bear for what happens to them in a world constantly and unpredictably influenced by the gods.

Agamemnon has a deeper sense of the complexities of war: "in this contest that's the sort of victory you value?" he asks his wife. But as he knew when he sacrificed his daughter, he knows he is doing wrong. He makes a conscious choice. Although he is concerned about wasting good material, Clytaemnestra says they have access to plenty of precious purple dye, a reference to wealth and the evil it fosters. Agamemnon tries to dodge blame for his actions— "you've talked me into this"—and reasserts himself as a noble ruler by asking for Cassandra to be treated well.

Clytaemnestra's hopeful prayer to Zeus indicates her desire for prosperity in the House of Atreus. The metaphors—a tree blossoming into leaf and wine drawn from bitter grapes—recall life, nature, and beauty. She may take desperate action to achieve such prosperity.

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