AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon

The Oresteia is the only surviving trilogy of Ancient Greek Tragedy. The trilogy was written by Aeschylus, and it was first performed in 458 BC during the festival of Dionysus in Athens, where it won first prize. In this three part video series, we will provide brief summaries of the three plays, and also explore the themes of Revenge, Justice, and Fate.

The first play of the trilogy is called the Agamemnon, named after the King of Argos. The play relates the homecoming of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War, and his subsequent death at the hands of his own wife, Clytemnestra. She kills Agamemnon to avenge the murder of their daughter, Iphigenia, who was sacrificed by Agamemnon to appease the gods in order to gain favorable winds to sail to Troy before the war.

Revenge is a major theme in the Agamemnon. The Greeks fight the Trojan War to avenge Paris’ theft of Menelaus’ wife Helen, Clytemnestra avenges the death of her daughter by killing her husband, and Orestes and Electra will avenge their father’s murder by murdering their mother in the next play of the trilogy. It is important to note the unstoppable cycle produced by revenge. One wrong is remedied by another wrong that must be remedied by yet another wrong, etc. Revenge never achieves its desired effect of Justice. “The slayer of today shall die tomorrow.”

This leads us to the question, “What is the difference between Revenge and Justice?” When a criminal is convicted of murder, a judge sentences the criminal to imprisonment, death, or some other form of punishment. Is not this a form of revenge – using violence to redress past violence? Perhaps there are two types of revenge – Just Revenge and Unjust Revenge – and therefore we can conclude that there is no difference between Just Revenge and Justice, but there is a difference between Unjust Revenge and Justice.

But individuals often differ about whether a punishment is Just. For example, one may believe that Clytemnestra’s act of revenge is justified because Agamemnon killed her daughter; this person may advocate an eye-for-an-eye type of justice. While others may conclude that her revenge was unjust because murder is never justified, regardless of the situation. An agreement regarding Justice cannot be reached in some circumstances.

Another prevalent theme in this play is Fate. Aeschylus portrays characters in Agamemnon as possessing free will, but he shows that their life is ultimately governed by Fate. For example, Fate has ordained that Agamemnon will suffer because of his ancestors’ past transgressions. He has the free will to sacrifice his daughter or abandon the Trojan War, but regardless of his decision he will ultimately suffer. If he had chosen to abandon the Trojan War, perhaps he would have been tortured and killed by his brother Menelaus and the other Greek troops.

Finally, the ancient Greek phrase “philos-aphilos” is particularly significant in this play. Philos-aphilos roughly means hate in love. In other words, the most intense hatred often springs from the most intense love. Clytemnestra’s love for Iphigenia is replaced by a loathing for Agamemnon. She displays just how much anger and hatred she bears to Agamemnon when she gloats over his murdered corpse. She describes how she butchered him with an axe. “I trapped him in a robe, and then smote him. At each wound, he cried aloud. Each dying breath flung swift bubbling jets of gore from his breast. And the dark sprinklings of the rain of blood fell upon me. And I rejoiced to feel that dew.”

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