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Scope: We now begin our examination of Aeschylus’s Oresteia by focusing on the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon. The
lecture examines several crucial themes that are explored in that play, including the themes of hereditary guilt and
irreconcilable moral duties. The lecture pays close attention to Agamemnon’s character and how the sacrifice of his
daughter Iphigenia begins the process that will end in his own death. We also examine the character of Cassandra
and consider how her words to the chorus set up images and themes to which the two later plays of the trilogy will
repeatedly return. Finally, we examine the character of Clytaemestra and consider how the description of her as a
“manly” woman sets up another crucial theme, of appropriate gender roles, that will resonate throughout the rest of
the trilogy.
I. The Oresteia was performed in 458 B.C., just two years before Aeschylus’s death. As the only extant trilogy, it is
invaluable for giving us a sense of how the trilogy form worked.
A. In The Oresteia, we can see how Aeschylus sets up themes, complex strands of imagery, and even turns of phrase in
the first play that will be amplified, reiterated, and resolved in the second and third plays.
1. If Libation Bearers and Eumenides, the second and third plays of this trilogy, had not survived, we would find it very
hard to know exactly what to make of the first play, Agamemnon.
2. We know that Suppliant Maidens was the first play in its trilogy and that Seven against Thebes was the third in its
3. It is sobering to realize what a disadvantage we labor under in trying to interpret those plays in isolation.
B. Even The Oresteia is not complete, however, because its satyr play, Proteus, is lost.
1. The satyr play almost undoubtedly dealt with Menelaus’s and Helen’s sojourn in Egypt on their way home from the
Trojan War.
2. According to the Odyssey, the sea-god Proteus told Menelaus about Agamemnon’s murder.
II. The first play of The Oresteia, Agamemnon, deals with Agamemnon’s return after the Trojan War and his murder by
Clytaemestra. Despite the title, Agamemnon is on stage for a very short time; most of the play deals with
anticipation of his arrival and the aftermath of his murder.
A. The prologue of the play is spoken by a Watchman stationed on the roof of Agamemnon’s palace.
1. The Watchman’s speech establishes the play’s setting; he tells us that he is guarding the palace of Agamemnon in
2. The prologue also sets the mood of the play as one of somberness and dread. His very first words strike an ominous
3. Finally, the Watchman sets up several key themes that will be reiterated through this play and the trilogy. Most
important among these are the sense that something is amiss in the palace and unease with Clytaemestra’s character
as a “man-like” woman.
B. The Watchman also calls attention to the importance of the “house” in Agamemnon.
1. The Greek word oikos means both actual, physical “house” and “family.”
2. Thus, the unease that the Watchman attributes in his speech to the “house” implies that untoward things are happening
in the building and refers to the ill-fated tendencies of the family.
C. The Watchman is looking out for one particular thing: a beacon fire that will tell him Troy has fallen.
1. Clytaemestra has arranged a relay system of bonfires so that she will know of Troy’s fall as soon as possible.
2. The Watchman sees the beacon and rejoices, but ends his speech with another expression of foreboding.

III. The Watchman’s speech is followed by the longest parados in extant tragedy. The chorus identifies itself as citizens
of Argos who were too old to go to war with the army. It also narrates essential background information, including a
description of the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis.
A. The information that the chorus gives here is absolutely essential for our understanding of the rest of the play and the
1. The chorus stresses that the expedition to Troy was both sanctioned and demanded by Zeus in his role as god of xenia.
2. Paris had violated xenia by abducting Helen; therefore, Zeus sent Agamemnon and Menelaus out against Troy.
3. The idea that the expedition is demanded by Zeus is essential for our understanding of what the chorus narrates next,
the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis.
B. Some versions of the story of Iphigenia attribute some direct wrongdoing by Agamemnon as the motivation for
Artemis to demand the sacrifice. Here, the chorus makes it clear that Agamemnon has not done anything to anger
Artemis; the goddess is angry because of an omen the army saw in which two eagles devour a pregnant rabbit.
1. The goddess Artemis protects the young of all species, but her anger over the death of the unborn rabbits seems out of
2. According to the prophet Calchas, the omen signifies that the Greeks will sack Troy.
3. Apparently, Artemis is angry over what Agamemnon will do in Troy, not over anything that he has already done.
4. By demanding the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Artemis in effect requires Agamemnon to become ruthless and merciless;
i.e., to become the kind of man who will sack Troy.
C. The chorus’s description of Agamemnon’s position at Aulis stresses the inexorable nature of his dilemma and the fact
that it is not brought on by any of his own actions. Agamemnon is an innocent man forced into the position of
making an unbearable choice.
1. Zeus demands that Agamemnon’s army go to Troy and punish Paris’s violation of xenia.
2. Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter to get winds to sail to Troy.
3. Thus, Agamemnon must choose between two irreconcilable duties: to his army and to his child.
IV. This picture of a man caught between two irreconcilable moral duties sets up one of The Oresteia’s main themes,
which we encounter here for the first time.
A. In Libation Bearers, we will see the same theme expressed through Orestes, a son who has an absolute duty to kill his
father’s killer, but no less absolute a duty not to kill his mother.
B. In Eumenides, the irreconcilable duties of the earlier plays will finally be mediated and resolved by the intervention of
the goddess Athena.
C. The fact that Agamemnon is forced into making this choice does not free him from the disastrous
consequences of his actions.
1. The chorus relates an evocative description of both Agamemnon’s hesitation and the horror of the scene once he has
made up his mind to kill Iphigenia.
2. Making the decision to sacrifice his daughter changes Agamemnon.
3. The consequences of these changes can be seen in his later actions and words in the play.
V. Agamemnon finally enters at line 810, nearly halfway through the play. He enters in a chariot, with the captive Trojan
princess Cassandra behind him.
A. His first speech contains several ominous points.
1. In his very first words, he says that the gods worked with him (not vice versa) to gain Troy.
2. The terms he uses to describe the taking of Troy are strongly reminiscent of the eagle omen that led to Iphigenia’s
3. He speaks of healing the corruption in the state.
B. When Clytaemestra comes forward to greet him, she showers him with overdone rhetoric about her own misery in his
absence, then orders her servants to spread out embroidered cloths for him to walk on.
1. This scene is often called the “carpet scene,” but it is crucial to realize that these cloths are lavish garments or
tapestries, not carpets.

2. Carpets are designed to be walked on, but these fine, delicate fabrics will be ruined by such treatment.
3. Agamemnon himself says that such riches are fit for gods, not for humans to misuse; nevertheless, he walks into the
house on them.
C. Agamemnon’s walk on the embroideries is emblematic of his character in two ways.
1. First, it is an enactment of hubris. This word is often translated as “excessive pride,” but its basic meaning is “wanton
violence,” often arising from pride or passion.
2. Agamemnon’s walk on the tapestries does violence to them and destroys them.
3. More important, the walk epitomizes what Agamemnon does to all lovely and delicate things: he has destroyed
Iphigenia, and he is in the process of destroying Cassandra.
VI. Cassandra has been a silent presence in the chariot all through Agamemnon’s opening speech, his exchange with
Clytaemestra, and the chorus’s stasimon after Agamemnon enters the house. She remains silent when Clytaemestra
comes back out and speaks to her.
A. The three-actor rule applies to speaking actors; most Greek tragedies have a variety of silent characters as well.
1. The audience probably assumed that Cassandra was one such silent character.
2. Clytaemestra’s vain attempt to get Cassandra to speak would seem like a very clever manipulation of the convention.
3. But after Clytaemestra goes back into the house, Cassandra breaks her silence, not with speech but with an eerie howl
of lamentation and an anguished call upon the god Apollo.
B. In the scene that follows, Cassandra tells the chorus her own story and prophesies Agamemnon’s and her own
approaching murders.
1. As Cassandra herself explains to the chorus, it is her special curse for her prophecies to be unbelieved.
2. She had promised to sleep with the god Apollo, and he gave her the gift of prophecy.
3. She then went back on her word, and Apollo cursed her by making it impossible for anyone ever to believe her.
4. The chorus understands her when she speaks of past events, such as the murders of Thyestes’s children.
5. However, the chorus cannot understand or believe her when she tells them what is about to happen, even when she
speaks as plainly as possible.
C. Cassandra is one of the most memorable and pitiable characters in the entire trilogy. She knows what is about to
happen to her, but she also knows that there is nothing she can do to stop it.
VII. After Cassandra enters the house, the chorus has time to sing only twenty-six lines before Agamemnon is heard
crying out that he has been struck. The chorus members discuss what they should do, but they hesitate too long, and
Clytaemestra appears to announce what she has done.
A. The passage in which the chorus debates whether to help Agamemnon is often used as evidence for the number of
chorus members.
1. These lines are broken up into twelve couplets, each of which seems to belong to a different speaker.
2. The speakers disagree with one another about what to do: one suggests calling all the citizens; another, bursting in to
catch the murderers in the act; another, waiting to see what the situation is.
3. The usual assumption is that, here, the chorus breaks up into individuals, and each couplet is spoken by a different
4. This passage does not necessarily mean, of course, that there were only twelve chorus members, but it does suggest
that conclusion.
5. The passage is also extraordinarily effective dramatically. The chorus, which up till now has spoken as one, fragments
with the murder of the king.
B. Clytaemestra appears, standing over the bodies of her victims, and announces her deed to the chorus.
1. They are absolutely horrified, both that she has murdered her husband and that she feels no shame or remorse.
2. At first, they think she must have gone mad, or been poisoned, to be able to dare such a thing.
3. She reminds them of Iphigenia and says that her killing of Agamemnon was just vengeance.
4. The chorus’s horror does not diminish, but they admit that it is difficult to judge easily between these two sides,
where reproach meets reproach.

C. Aegisthus enters and trades recriminations and threats with the chorus. The play ends when Clytaemestra asks for an
end of violence, and she and Aegisthus enter the house.
VIII. Clytaemestra’s character throughout the play deserves closer examination.
A. She is referred to several times as a woman who is in some way manlike, who has a “man’s heart.”
B. In her great triumph speech over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, she herself highlights some of the
“masculine” elements in her character.
1. She says that she spoke earlier out of necessity but is not ashamed not to unsay everything.
2. She describes her murder of Agamemnon in terms that invert the usual assumptions about gender roles.
3. She was the hunter, he was the prey; she caught him in a robe as fishermen catch fish.
4. He was in his bath and, therefore, presumably naked and supine; she stood over him, armed, as a warrior.
C. These inversions of gender roles are shocking enough, but then she uses sexual imagery, recasting herself as female,
that is more shocking still.
1. She says that she enjoyed his blood splattering on her as flowers enjoy the rain of Zeus.
2. Rain fertilizing plants is a commonplace metaphor for sexual intercourse.
3. Thus, Clytaemestra seems to be saying that she derived sexual enjoyment from killing Agamemnon.
4. It is no wonder that the chorus is appalled.
D. At the very end of the play, Clytaemestra tries to reassert her femininity, soothing Aegisthus and suggesting
an end to violence.
1. She points out that she is a woman speaking among men and asks them to deign to listen.
2. But her attempt to reenter the traditional womanly role cannot overcome the image of her standing in the doorway
of the oikos, boasting over her murdered husband’s body.