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Agamemnon | Exodos | Summary

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Summary

The palace doors open. Clytaemnestra stands covered in blood beside the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytaemnestra reveals she lied before to suit her agenda. She has been angry with Agamemnon for years, claiming he faked his love. Having stabbed him three times, Clytaemnestra feels triumphant and holds Agamemnon responsible for his own destruction.

The Chorus leader cannot believe Clytaemnestra's gloating. Clytaemnestra defends her actions as "a work of justice." When the Chorus leader says she will be exiled, Clytaemnestra notes the leader said nothing when Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia. Agamemnon should have been banished, she says. Now she is prepared to fight the Chorus. Still outraged, the Chorus leader says Clytaemnestra will pay. Clytaemnestra interrupts to point out she is protected by Aegisthus, her lover. She knows Agamemnon was unfaithful, too, for he seduced Troy's captive women, including Cassandra.

Speaking as one, the Chorus mourns Agamemnon, blaming Helen as well as Clytaemnestra for his death. Clytaemnestra says Helen killed no one. The Chorus then blames the spirit of the House of Atreus. When Clytaemnestra agrees "the demon of this house" bears the blame, the Chorus replies everyone is bound to fate, to Zeus's will, but the blame lies with Clytaemnestra's treachery.

Clytaemnestra protests "the ancient savage spirit of revenge" sacrificed Agamemnon because of his father's crimes. The Chorus argues she is avoiding responsibility, but Atreus's crimes could have motivated her. The Chorus laments "storms of blood rain" are destroying the house, and no one will bury their king. To Clytaemnestra the burial is none of their business. She will bury him, content with what she has done, but the murders must stop.

Aegisthus enters, guarded by armed soldiers. The mood becomes tenser as the soldiers surround the now reunited Chorus. Aegisthus is openly overjoyed at Agamemnon's death. He traces the treachery back to former Argive king Atreus (Agamemnon's father) and Thyestes (Aegisthus's father). When Thyestes challenged Atreus's authority, Atreus exiled him and then welcomed him back. But the welcoming feast Atreus prepared for Thyestes was really vengeance; the food contained the flesh of Thyestes's own children. Unaware, Thyestes ate. When Thyestes discovered what he had done, he vomited and called down a curse on the House of Atreus. Finally, Aegisthus says, he has avenged his family.

The Chorus leader, representing the people of Argos, says Aegisthus will not go unpunished. Aegisthus claims he has power now and will enslave the Chorus members. The Chorus is appalled at Aegisthus's evil—he waited out the war only to kill the king. More despicably he had a woman commit the murder for him. Aegisthus says the Chorus will regret their words.

The Chorus members hope Orestes will return and kill Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra. Aegisthus's soldiers raise their weapons, and the Chorus members raise their staves. Clytaemnestra interrupts to stop the escalating conflict. She says there has been enough bloodshed and tells the Chorus to go home. The Chorus leader and Aegisthus trade a few more insults. Clytaemnestra pulls Aegisthus into the palace, saying they now control the royal house and will put everything in order. As the Chorus members walk off one by one, Aegisthus's soldiers stand in front of the palace.

Analysis

Here is the peripeteia, the reversal of fortunes, the climax and rapid denouement of the play. Agamemnon, the conquerer, is now conquered. Clytaemnestra, the loyal wife, is now a murderer, another chain in the link of bloodshed. She has more power than ever. The Chorus, respected citizens, are now at the mercy of a new regime.

This section questions humans' moral responsibility when fate and the gods make decisions. Is Clytaemnestra accountable for what she has done? Did Agamemnon deserve his death? How culpable is the House of Atreus, with Thyestes's curse hanging over it? Clytaemnestra and the Chorus never resolve these questions to their satisfaction.

The Chorus members think the city will feel as aggrieved as they do over Agamemnon's death and exile his killer. They see genuine loyalty as a hallmark of righteousness. Their mourning for Agamemnon and not Cassandra shows sensitivity toward rank; he was the king and represented the unity of the city. The Chorus laments with a kommos, or lyrical mourning song. After Clytaemnestra's duplicity they want to know "whose sad heart will be sincere?"

Clytaemnestra is convinced of her righteousness and even admits her hypocrisy freely. She believes her husband was a sacrifice, as their daughter was to him, and "his suffering matches exactly what he did himself." The Chorus compares her to a raven, a bird associated with scenes of death. Her motives are complex. She killed Cassandra for more reasons than mere collateral damage. Envious of the young captive, Clytaemnestra disapproved of what Cassandra's arrival represented: a "spear prize," a spoil Agamemnon did not deserve.

The Chorus says Agamemnon was "entangled in the spider's web"—caught in the play's symbolic net. He died in the "silver-plated bath," surrounded by riches that did not save him. Even the Chorus seems to think Agamemnon's death was the will of Zeus, a tribute Agamemnon paid for past hubris, or pride.

Clytaemnestra's acts propel the audience to anticipate greater acts of violence in the next two plays of the Oresteia. Yet in a situation of dramatic irony she is the one who wants the bloodshed to end but has ensured more bloodshed by perpetuating the curse. She claims responsibility but not accountability. She is appalled by the Chorus's blaming of Helen for Agamemnon's death; in Clytaemnestra's eyes all blame lies with Agamemnon and the spirit of the house. Even the Chorus admits the avenging spirit could have "egged [her] on."

She dehumanizes her husband and dissociates herself, calling Agamemnon "a corpse" and "this man lying here." The "spirit of revenge" overcame her, making her lose her selfhood. And although Agamemnon warned her "what people say can have great power," she risks censure, believing her actions to be destiny.

However Clytaemnestra's introduction of Aegisthus leads to impending conflict. Aegisthus has his own motives. "Justice brought me back," he says, also invoking the inevitability of destiny. As he relates his father's story, Aegisthus never specifies what Thyestes did to make Atreus serve him the meal. According to some legends Thyestes had an affair with Atreus's wife Aerope. In others Thyestes killed Atreus's son Pleisthenes without knowing he was Atreus's son. Aegisthus says only that Thyestes challenged the authority of Atreus. Thyestes paid dearly, as did Troy did for kidnapping Helen. Once again Aeschylus addresses the theme of blood vengeance as justice. Aegisthus provides the grotesque details both as context for the audience (since the Chorus already indicated to Cassandra they know the story) and as a justification for revenge.

Now Aegisthus is following in his father's footsteps, exiled and returned. But having supplanted Agamemnon's authority, he returns as a ruler, not a suppliant like his father. Aegisthus is clever enough to wait until the end of the drama to appear, since his presence earlier would have aroused suspicion. With hints of Agamemnon's declining popularity because of the war, Aegisthus comes forward at an opportune time to replace his enemy.

That bloodshed will not end becomes increasingly clear as Aegisthus threatens Agamemnon's loyal Chorus, and the Chorus in turn threatens divine vengeance on the murderers. The Chorus members are even willing to martyr themselves. Clytaemnestra's last line, "We'll put things in order," shows a desire to return to the natural order of things. However returning to the past will be impossible. Aegisthus's soldiers gather around the gate, representing new authority—new watchdogs. And the Chorus makes its final, hopeful references to the return of Orestes, setting the stage for a sequel to come in the trilogy.

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