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Agamemnon | Study Guide


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Agamemnon | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Aeschylus's play Agamemnon, first performed in 458 BCE, has long been considered one of the greatest of the Greek tragedies for its depiction of the concept of agon, or struggle, within a family, and betrayal between spouses. Agamemnon tells the story of the titular character, ruler of the Greek kingdom of Mycenae, after he returns from the lengthy campaign of the Trojan War. Unaware that his wife, Clytaemnestra, has taken another lover during his absence, his return home proves to be more dangerous than his years spent at war.

In a sharp contrast to Homer's Odyssey, in which Odysseus's wife Penelope fends off suitors and waits patiently for her beloved, Clytaemnestra has plotted to kill her husband for years while he's been away. Agamemnon was crafted to continue the literary tradition of Homer and his contemporaries, but it instead explores the tragic aftermath of the epic war, providing a heartrending glimpse into the troubles that can occur long after a battle seems to be won.

1. Agamemnon is part of the only complete surviving trilogy of ancient Greek plays.

Agamemnon is the first play in a trilogy of Greek tragedies called Oresteia, which also includes the plays The Libation Bearers and The Euminides. Out of the some 90 plays Aeschylus is thought to have written, only this trilogy and three or four other plays have survived.

2. Aeschylus won first prize at a drama competition for his trilogy.

Annual drama competitions were held in Athens as part of the Dionysia festival, and Aeschylus took home first prize for Agamemnon and its two accompanying plays in 458 BCE. The playwright had won the competition before but had been defeated by Sophocles 10 years earlier.

3. Tourists can visit the ruins of Agamemnon's kingdom in Greece.

The ruins of Agamemnon's palace have been preserved at the archaeological site of Mycenae, about 90 miles from Athens. This area of Greece is estimated to have been inhabited since the 7th millennium BCE. The city of Argos, where Agamemnon's action takes place, is only a few miles from the ancient palace.

4. Argos is still a functioning, populated city.

The city of Argos, where Agamemnon is set, is still called home by more than 20,000 people. Argos is notable for being one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited settlements—people have lived there for more than 7,000 years. Along with Athens, it is one of the two longest-inhabited cities in Europe.

5. Aeschylus's plays were heavily influenced by the works of Homer.

Homer lived and wrote centuries before Aeschylus, and his epics were fundamental to Greek education when Aeschylus was growing up. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were Aeschylus's main inspirations as he began writing during his teenage years, which explains why the Oresteia trilogy focuses on the aftermath of the Iliad's Trojan War.

6. Agamemnon is one of the earliest works to use literary foreshadowing.

Though the element of foreshadowing is featured briefly in the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, it became a common literary device during the height of ancient Greek drama. Aeschylus crafted his play around the foreboding, or foreshadowing, present in the watchman's lines at the beginning of Agamemnon, which intentionally clash with the festive atmosphere of the king's return.

7. There is a debate over the correct color of the carpet in Agamemnon.

Since there is often confusion regarding the translation of the Greek word for red, scholars are not sure whether the carpet was intended to be red or purple. Though "red" is the more literal translation, purple was regarded as the color of royalty in Greece, and purple dye was the most expensive to purchase. Therefore, some critics believe purple to be the more likely option.

8. According to legend, Aeschylus died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head.

Although few historians believe it, Aeschylus purportedly died when a bird of prey mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it from a great height. Some species of eagles use this method to crack open a turtle's or tortoise's protective shell.

9. A Greek actor was nicknamed after the weapon that kills Agamemnon.

Clytaemnestra delivers the third and final blow to Agamemnon with an axe known as a pelekus. This was also a nickname attributed to a Greek actor named Demetrios in the 4th or 5th century BCE. He was known for his performances in Aeschylus's Oresteia—the trilogy of Greek tragedies that included Agamemnonin which he took part in the death of Agamemnon, slain by the unique weapon.

10. Aeschylus's characterizations of powerful men may have been influenced by a Sicilian tyrant.

Around 472 BCE Aeschylus traveled to Sicily, which was ruled by the Greek-born tyrant Hieron, supposedly a great patron of the arts. The despotic leader may have provided inspiration for the characterization of men of power in Aeschylus's plays, including Agamemnon, since Hieron and Aeschylus became good friends while Aeschylus lived at the Sicilian court.

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