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Author Topic: [121] Agamemnon--Aeschylus  (Read 1863 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: March 09, 2014, 09:57:09 AM »

Chinatown, Hellas

March 9, 2014

Did the Greeks invent family dysfunction, or did they just turn it into great art?  Whatever the case, one need only turn to them to find a suitable name for any relational aberration or social taboo whatsoever.  The tragedy, Agamemnon, by Aeschylus serves as a fine introduction to the world's best known cursed family, the house of Atreus.  This play forms the first part of a trilogy, the Oresteia.  Aeschylus also wrote a fourth part, a comic companion piece, that rounded out the work.  Unfortunately, the comedy did not survive the intervening millennia, and, even though this four-part structure was a standard form of the time, the Oresteia is the most complete set of connected Greek plays we have.  While I have trouble imagining Aeschylus writing a comedy, the inclusion of such a play as part of a tragic cycle makes a great deal of sense to me.  One might find a musical parallel in a symphony's scherzo movement: a musical joke that may either relieve or intensify the work's overall seriousness. 

The Trojan War has dragged on for ten years now when a night watchman at Agamemnon's palace sees a long-awaited signal from a distant outpost, announcing the Achaean victory.  Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, who has been ruling in her husband's absence, tells the people to prepare for Agamemnon's return.  He arrives, with his Trojan concubine, Cassandra, and enters the palace.  Cassandra predicts a bad end, and resignedly follows him inside.  An offstage cry and Clytemnestra emerges, having killed the other two, then shoos the grumbling populace about their business.  In terms of plotted action, this play may take the record for ancient minimalism, yet I found it unnerving and eerie (as often happens with minimalist art when you look at it long enough). 

The multigenerational horror and tragedy unfolds as stories declaimed in exalted dialogue, punctuated by moments on stage, moments which we come to understand not as freely chosen by the characters but as dictated by a primitive Greek notion of justice qua vengeance.  Agamemnon's mother, Aerope, and his uncle, Thyestes, had committed adultery, so Agamemnon's father, Atreus, took vengeance on Thyestes, his own brother, by killing, cooking, and serving his sons to him at dinner.  Upon discovery of this monstrous treachery, Thyestes cursed Atreus and his house.  Years later, Helen, wife of Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus, had run off with Paris to Troy.  Agamemnon forthwith raised an army to besiege the Trojans and bring back Helen.  When they had attempted to set sail, however, the winds died and supposedly the only way Agamemnon could revive them was by sacrificing his own daughter, Iphigenia.  He did, the winds sprang up, and the ships sailed off to Troy for a bloody ten-year siege, but we'll look at that story another week.  Clytemnestra never forgave him for killing their daughter.  In his absence, she had taken up with his cousin, Aegisthus—not just any cousin, unfortunately, but the grandson (and also son, if you catch my drift—think “Chinatown”) of Thyestes. 

Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon.  On the one hand, her action represents one of the most contemptible forms of treachery.  But Clytemnestra's evil merely rises from the background of Helen and Aerope, like a harmonic overtone.  Aerope's adultery had started the cycle of familial murder and vengeance within the house of Atreus, while Helen's adultery had unleashed the ten-year cycle of war that divided the Olympians themselves.  These two women, whose passive disobedience to society's norms devastated generations and kingdoms, made possible Clytemnestra, a defiant and genuinely powerful woman who rebelled against her legal and cultural bondage by calling upon transcendent justice.  One could accuse her of petty motives like jealousy of Cassandra or preference for her present lover, but, in this play at least, she commands center stage, dignified, noble, righteous, furious, while, in her shadow, Agamemnon struts and Aegisthus minces.  In a world where women played almost no legal role whatsoever—served no political offices, had no standing in court, had not even control of their own dowries—Clytemnestra models a natural feminine authority that cuts through all convention and exposes the vain posturing of men for ridicule.  At least she comes across that way to me.  To the Greek audience, she probably brought nightmares.  Her method of killing, too, must have haunted the warriors: she cast his sumptuous robes around his feet as fishers cast a net, then stabbed him twice while he stood and once as he struggled on the ground. 

At the end of Agamemnon, we know that vengeance has not run its course.  We know this, not just because Cassandra has told us.  The gods demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his child, but they failed to provide a substitute ram at the last minute.  The daughter's murder called for revenge.  But now, a husband's murder calls for revenge.  Since every murder calls for another, only the extinction of the entire line can bring justice to an end.  Like some immense grindstone once set in motion, the inertia of “sacred duty” seems destined to reduce the house of Atreus to a fine powder. 

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