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Agamemnon | Episode 4 | Summary

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Summary

Clytaemnestra tells Cassandra to swallow her pride and go into the palace, grateful she serves wealthy, kind masters. The Chorus leader tells Cassandra obedience is her best option. Growing impatient, Clytaemnestra asks Cassandra to give a sign if she does not understand Greek. When Cassandra does not speak or move, Clytaemnestra decides Cassandra is too angry or wild to obey and retreats to the palace.

As the Chorus leader implores her to accept her fate, Cassandra cries out to Apollo. The Chorus thinks she has chosen the wrong god to cry out to in grief. They suspect she will prophesy—"inside her the god's voice still remains." Cassandra seems disoriented but sees a house full of murder and blood, "kinsmen butchered." She sees a father eating his infant's flesh, a story the Chorus has heard. But when Cassandra pictures a woman murdering her husband, the Chorus is confused. Cassandra compares the woman inside the house to a net, a bull, and the Furies. Though the Chorus believes nothing good can come from prophecies, it can feel the flow of blood.

Cassandra is crying for herself, too; she knows she will die soon. A Chorus member thinks Cassandra is possessed by a god and compares her to a singing nightingale. Cassandra laments her fallen city and the marriage of Paris, which began the Trojan War. The Chorus members pity but do not understand her. Cassandra explains the crimes of the House of Atreus cannot be forgiven; "the family's Furies cannot be dislodged."

When the Chorus leader is surprised Cassandra knows so much about Argos, she explains she is a prophetess of Apollo who foretold disasters. When she refused Apollo's advances, he cursed her so no one would believe her prophecies. She again sees a vivid picture of children eating their own flesh, murdered by their family. Someone, she says, is planning revenge for this deed. As she describes the vicious woman who will murder her man, it becomes clear Cassandra is predicting Clytaemnestra's murder of Agamemnon. She is indifferent about whether the Chorus believes her, since they will see the truth soon.

Even when Cassandra claims they will see Agamemnon dead, the Chorus does not understand. They cannot imagine a man capable of such a deed. Cassandra sees that Clytaemnestra will kill her. As her own act of revenge she discards her prophet's wand and wreaths and rips off her prophet's robes. She has been mocked before for her prophecies, and she knows Apollo has led her to her death. But she predicts "the gods' revenge." A son, "a wanderer in exile," will return and avenge the death of his father. (She is referring to Orestes without mentioning his name.)

The Chorus leader wonders how Cassandra can face death so calmly. Cassandra says she sees no way out. As she approaches the palace she moves back in horror. The house smells of blood and open graves. The Chorus thinks she smells the sacrifice and incense at the altar. Cassandra tells the Chorus she wants them to witness how she meets her death. She prays her avengers will make her enemies pay; then she slowly enters the palace.

Analysis

Clytaemnestra was born to nobility and prides herself in treating slaves well. Like Agamemnon she wants to believe her wealth and position indicate her virtue.

Cassandra knows she will share in the "purification rites" by becoming a sacrifice herself. And she will be a "member of our household," cursed to die horribly with the rest of the House of Atreus. Cassandra's silence and her incoherent, desperate cries when she speaks make her a mysterious figure pitied by the Chorus. She is entangled, captured in the symbolic net of fate. But during her single scene, she will become one of the most enigmatic and prescient characters in the play and in Greek tragedy. Cassandra speaks mostly in pictures and visions, beginning with vague images of doom, moving on to more concrete and specific scenes, and finally naming names. Prophecy comes to her, and to the audience gradually as the action rises.

Reinforcing the symbolism of birds, both birds to which she is compared are singers: swallows and nightingales. Cassandra's "song all her own" is the curse of prophecy no one will believe. The Chorus members try to understand her, but they do not believe her even when she tells them outright "You'll see Agamemnon dead." The horror of the act stops them. When they ask what man is capable of such crimes, they miss the point, for all along, Cassandra has warned them about a woman.

The gruesome images Cassandra presents include a father (Thyestes, though she doesn't name him) eating his own children's cooked flesh. This, the act that caused Thyestes to call down the curse on the House of Atreus, is the protarchos ate—the primal act of doom or ruin. Blood imagery recurs, dreamlike and surreal. The Chorus Cassandra describes is bold with "drinking human blood."

The metaphor of the lion, or lioness, returns with Clytaemnestra. She is compared to predatory creatures, a snake and a bull, and to a net, caught in the inescapable "death's net." In the sea she would be a monster "preying on sailors," as the motif of sailing recurs. She is both a murderer and an agent of fate. Clytaemnestra will argue she has been overtaken by a power larger than herself, out of her control, although she does not regret her murders.

Cassandra, too, is at the mercy of a power larger than herself: "the god's voice." She is exiled and mourns for her home, even though she was "brought up to all this misery." As the scene proceeds, Cassandra accepts her fate. She foresaw the destruction of Troy, and she knows there is no way out once the gods have made their decisions.

The play shows omniscience is a burden, not a gift. Cassandra despises being a prophet and is relieved to take off her insignia. The job gives her physical pain and opens her to mockery. As the Chorus warns, prophecies do not change events. Cassandra's ability to "foretell disasters" did not help Troy, and it will not help Agamemnon.

Perhaps from her link to the gods Cassandra believes in the natural order of things. She sees no point in defying authority or fate, and disapproves when others do: "it's outrageous, the woman kills her man," she says of Clytaemnestra. Cassandra feels dutiful loyalty to Agamemnon, her captor. According to tradition, after the war Agamemnon took her as his concubine, and she did not resist. Her passive acceptance allows her to meet her death with a grace the Chorus admires. Every character in the play must contend with accepting fate and what that acceptance will be.

When Cassandra describes a "two-footed lioness ... crouching there with a wolf" she sees Clytaemnestra as the lioness, Aegisthus as the wolf (the carnivore, the usurper), and Agamemnon as the noble lion. Like the Chorus she thinks Agamemnon is a better man than he is. Cassandra knows the family's blood curse and pictures the next stage of the Oresteia, the return of Orestes to avenge the deaths of Agamemnon and herself.

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