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Study Questions: Aeschylus' Agamemnon

Concepts: anagnorisis, antagonist, catastrophe, catharsis, choragos, chorus, deuteragonist, drama, dramatic irony, dramatis personae, foreshadowing, leit-motif, hamartia, patron, peripeteia, protagonist, theme, tragedy, tritagonist

Introduction: In terms of historical background, in what ways is the Classical Greek period different from the Heroic or Homeric Age? What are some ways Classical theater differed from modern drama? How were ancient plays financed, and (closely related question) who got the honor of being the lead singer in the chorus?

What job did Aeschylus have as a young man before he became a playwright? According to legend, wha caused him to change careers and take up writing plays? What are some of his innovations or changes he made to plays that made him become "the father of tragedy?"

Why was the House of Atreus considered cursed? Where is the play set? Before the play begins, what war was Agamemnon involved in and why did he get involved in it? What is Agamemnon's relationship to Menelaus? How is Agamemnon's nostos different from Odysseus's nostos? What special power and curse did Cassandra have?

Identify the following characters:

the Watchman, Agamemnon, Calchas (referred to by other characters) Clytaemnestra, the Herald, Cassandra, Aegisthus, Iphigeneia, Orestes (referred to by other characters); the Furies. (Arguably, the Chorus is a collective character in its own right, symbolizing public opinion in the city of Mycenae/Argos).

Reading Questions:

  • How would you characterize the attitude of the watchman toward his job in the opening scene of Agamemnon? Why is that attitude understandable? How about his attitude toward Queen Clytaemnestra? Does he admire her? Despise her? What hints does the text give us here?
  • What does the light the watchman sees in the east indicate?
  • When the chorus comes on stage, and the old men of Argos learn of the signal flare, they describe how much time has passed. How long has it been since the men of Argos went off to war? How many ships did Menelaus and Agamemnon command?
  • Just before Clytaemnestra first appears on stage with her entourage, the Chorus makes an allusion to "a stabbing Fury" that is "true to revenge." Who or what are the three Furies in Greek mythology and what is their task? Why is that relevant given the past choices of Agamemnon and upcoming events in the play?
  • Just before Clytaemnestra lights the altar fires, the men sing of how "manhood drains" and the "spear snaps in the first blood rites." How might these lines be a reaction to Clytaemnestra? Are there signs of a battle of the sexes between men and women in the play?
  • After Clytaemnestra continues her altar rituals on lines 111 et passim, the chorus mentions a number of omens they have seen when Atreus' sons Agamemnon and Menelaus were still boys. What were these omens?
  • In lines154-215, the Chorus speaks of an ancient pain before the Trojan War, when Agamemnon had difficulties getting his ships to sail. What prevented him from sailing? According to Calchas, what goddess is angry and holding back the winds? What must the brothers do with their daughter/niece to appease this goddess? Do they agree or disagree?
  • When Clytaemnestra reveals that Troy has fallen, what are the reactions of the citizens?
  • When Clytaemnestra calls for a new day to dawn, she refers to a Greek proverb in lines 263-64, which states that Eos (dawn) is the child of Nox (Mother Night). Given the conflicts and later events in the play, why do you suppose she prays mostly to goddesses rather than gods? Why does she pray to a goddess of darkness who is associated with the three Furies?
  • When the chorus discusses Agamemnon's decision to kill Iphigeneia, in lines 360-405, they sing of how Zeus punishes those who violate the laws of hospitality, using Paris as an example. Why is Paris a good example of a man who violates the laws of hospitality? (i.e., what doesAeschylus mean when he states that Paris shamed the table spread for guests in the dining hall? What did Paris and Helen physically do on top of the dining room table that was shocking?)
  • In lines 412 onward, the chorus says, "I see him, unavenging and unavenged, / the stun of his desolation is so clear--/ he longs for the one who lies across the sea / until her phantom seems to sway the house." Who is the "he" that cannot avenge Iphigeneia's death and cannot himself be avenged?
  • After the Herald confirms Clytaemnestra's claim that the war is over, he discusses some of the sufferings the Mycenaeans of Argos endured in war as they besieged Troy. What are some of those sufferings?
  • When Clytaemnestra sends the Herald to fetch Agamemnon home, she states that she has been "faithful to the last" and remaiend "true at hall" (lines 603-04). For Greek audiences, they would think of another faithful wife who waited for her husband to return from the Trojan Wars. Who would that faithful wife be? Is Clytaemnestra's comparison a good one or not? Why?
  • In lines 697-710, the Chorus sings about "Troy's Blood Wedding Day," and ends by singing about "dirges." What are dirges or where would one normally hear a dirge performed? Why is this movement from weddings to funerals appropriate or inappropriate for this story?
  • In lines 755 onward, the chorus sings of how "Violence longs to breed." Why would violence want to have sex and give birth to new children? How does one act of violence begat another?
  • In line 815 onward, when the women of the house bring forth tapestries, they are "dark red" in color. [Greek purpuros can be either dark red or purple.] Our translation chooses English "red" here. Why is that a better or worse choice than making them purple? How would the symbolism of red be different from the symbolism of purple?
  • In lines 850-865-ish, Clytaemnestra talks about how she suffered apart from her husband. She states, "there were times they cut me down" and times "they eased my throat from the [rope]." What is she talking about here?
  • In lines 853-68, Clytaemnestra states that "our child should be here . . ./ Orestes. You seem startled." Why would Agamemnon be startled or uncomfortable when Clytaemnestra complains about a missing child? (i.e., what child did Agamemnon initially think she meant before Clytaemnestra adds "Orestes"?)
  • In lines 878-880, , Clytaemnestra refers to the torch she kept lit for Agamemnon alone as she cried herself to sleep each night during the war. Do you believe her? Or do you think she is lying? Torches have many implications for Greek audiences. When Greek couples were married, for instance, they carried torches together as part of a procession. Even today we talk about "burning love" or being "on fire" for someone. Why do you think she emphasizes the torch was "lit for you [Agamemnon] alone"? On the other hand, Greek would also light fires and then stand before them to pray to the gods. If Clytaemnestra was crying and praying each night before a torch, do you think she was praying for Agamemnon's safety? Or praying for something else to happen to him?
  • What do Clytaemnestra's servants do with the red tapestries that makes Agamemnon uncomfortable? What do they ask him to do?
  • When Clytaemnestra convinces Agamemnon to walk on the fine red tapestries, she compares him to Zeus, saying, "And you are Zeus when Zeus tramples the bitter virgin grape for new wine." Given the god Zeus's relationship with Hera and his Olympian family, should we read this as praising the kingly general or condemning him? Symbolically, who or what might be the "bitter" virginal fruit he has already crushed?
  • After Agamemnon has gone inside and the tapestries have been removed, what do all the old men of the city do when they see Clytaemnestra praying according to the stage directions? Why are they reacting that way?
  • What vehicle brings Cassandra to the house? Why has she been carried in that rather than, say, an ox-cart or ride on horseback?
  • When the Leader of the Chorus (the choragos) identifies the palace as the "House of Atreus," Cassandra corrects him. What does she say about the palace?
  • When Cassandra declares, "No no, look there!--what's that? Some net flung out of hell--No, she is the snare, the bedmate, deathmate, murder's strong right arm!" Who or what is Cassandra seeing in her vision? As she procedes to describe the crime, what is the "caulrdon" she refers to? How does she mix sexuality and gore in her description?
  • When Cassandra looks at the roof of the palace, what spirits does she dancing on top of the building? Why can't anyone else see them?
  • Later in line 1225, onward, Clytaemnestra sees another vision of cannibalism. What is this crime she sees? (Hint: review the introduction for the history of the House of Atreus.) Why do you suppose her visions are intermixed with past, present, and future events?
  • Where does Clytaemnestra kill Agamemnon? How does Clytaemnestra trap Agamemnon so that he cannot make use of his superior physical strength when she attacks him?
  • When the people of Argos express horror at Clytaemnestra's actions, they discuss banishing her. What is her reaction? Who does she think should have been banished instead of her?
  • Clytaemnestra reveals she has taken a lover while Agamemnon is gone. Who is her secret lover?
  • Under the rule of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, how is the political situation going to change around Argos? Examine the dialogue between Aegithus and the leader of the Chorus in lines 1605 onward. How do Aegisthus' words characterize him?
  • Why do you suppose the people of Argos ascquiesce to Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra taking control of the city? Is this a happy ending or unhappy ending? Why?
  • Who do you think the tragic hero is? What is that hero's tragic flaw that makes him or her noble, but ends up destroying the character?
  • What do you think is the moment of peripeteia in the play, the moment when fortune changes from good to bad for the tragic hero?
  • What do you think is the line of anagnorisis in the play, the line or passage in which the tragic hero recognizes his or her fault and admits responsibility?

Sample Passage Identifications:

A. Dear gods, set me free from all the pain,
the long watch I keep, one whole year awake . . .
propped on my arms, crouched on the roofs of Atreus
like a dog.
I know the stars by heart,
the armies of the night.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Our great blazing kings of the sky,
I know them, when they rise and when they fall. . .
and now I watch for the light, the signal-fire
breaking out of Troy, shouting Troy is taken.
So she commands, full of her high hopes.
That woman--she maneuvers like a man.

B. Look alive, sentry!
And I try to pick out tunes, I hum a little,
a good cure for sleep, and the tears start,
I cry for the hard times come to the house,
no longer run like the great place of old. .

C. Zeus has led us on to know,
the Helmsman lays it down as law
that we must suffer, suffer into truth.
We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
The pain of pain remembered comes again,
and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.

D: Weatherbound we could not sail,
our stores exhausted, fighting strength hard-pressed
and the squadrons rode in the shallows off Chalkis
where the riptide crashes, drags,
and the winds from the north pinned down our hulls at Aulis.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Calchas cried,
"My captains, Artemis must have blood!"--
So harsh the sons of Atreus
dashed their sceptres on the rocks,
could not hold back the tears,

and I still can hear the older warlord saying,
"Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will crush me!--
Oh but doom will crush me
once I rend my child,
the glory of my house--
a father's hands are stained,
blood of a young girl streaks the altar.
Pain both ways and what is worse?
Desert the fleets, fail the alliance?

E. Yes, he had the heart
to sacrifice his daughter,
to bless the war that avenged a woman's loss. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Her father called his henchmen on,
on with a prayer.
"Hoist her over the altar
like a yearling, give it all your strength!
She's fainting!--lift her.
Sweep her robes around her,
but slip this strap in her gentle curving lips . . .
Here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house."

F. Speaker one: "Let the new day shine--as the proverb says--
glorious from the womb of Mother Night. . . .
You will hear a joy beyond your hopes.
Priam's citadel--the Greeks have taken Troy!"

Speaker two: No, what do you mean? I can't believe it!
The joy of it, stealing over me, calling up my tears!

G. I see him, unavenging and unavenged,
the stun of his desolation is so clear--
he longs for the one who lies across the sea
until her phantom seems to sway the house."

H. "Tell him . . . and have him come with speed,
the people's darling--how they long for him.
And [as] for his wife,
May he return and find her true at hall,
just as the day he left her, faithful to the last. . . .
I have not changed.
The strains of time can never break our seal.
In love with a new lord, in ill repute I am
as practised as I am in dyeing bronze.
That is my boast, teeming with the truth.
I am proud, a woman of my nobility--
I'd hurl it from the roofs!"

I: Only the reckless act
can breed impiety, multiplying crime upon crime,
while the house kept straight and just
is blessed with radiant children.
But ancient Violence longs to breed,
new Violence comes
when its fatal hour comes, the demon comes
to take her toll--no war, no force, nor prayer
can hinder the midnight Fury stamped
with parent Fury moving through the house.

J: And so our child is gone, not standing by our side.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
by all rights, our child should be here . . .
Orestes. You seem startled.
You needn't be.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For me, the tears that welled
Like springs are dry. I have no tears to spare.
I'd watch till late at night, my eyes still burn,
I sobbed by the torch, lit for you alone.

K. [They begin to spread the crimson tapestries between the king and the palace doors.]
"Quickly, let the red stream flow and bear him home
to the home he never hoped to see--Justice,
lead him in!"

L. Speaker One: "[This is] the House of Atreus and his sons. Really--
don't you know? It's true. See for yourself."

Speaker Two: "No, the house that hates god,
an echoing womb of guilt, kinsmen
torturing kinsmen, severed heads,
slaughterhouse of heroes, soil streaming blood."

M. "These roofs--look up--there is a dancing troupe
that never leaves. And they have their harmony,
but it is harsh; their words are harsh; they drink
beyond the limit. Flushed on the blood of men
their spirit grows and none can turn away
their revel breeding in the veins--the Furies!
They cling ot the house for life."

N. Speaker One: "Murder. The house breathes with murder--bloody shambles!
Speaker Two: "No, no, only the victims at the hearth."
Speaker One: "I know that odour. I smell the open grave."
Speaker Two: "But the Syrian myrrh, it fills the halls with splendour,
Can't you sense it?"

O. Words, endless words I've said to serve the moment--
Now it makes me proud to tell the truth.
How else to prepare a death for deadly men
who seem to love you? How to rig the nets
of pain so high no man can overleap them?
I brooded on this trial, this ancient blood fued
year by year. At last my hour came.
Here I stand and here I struck
and here my work is done. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And now you sentence me?--
you banish me from the city, curses breathing
down my neck? But he--
name one charge you brought against him then.
He thought no more of it than killing a beast,
. . . . but he sacrificed his own child, our daughter,
the agony I laboured into love
to charm away the savage winds of Thrace.
Didn't the law demand you banish him?
Hunt him from the land fo rall his guilt?

P. Speaker One: No Greek worth his salt would grovel at your feet.
Not if the spirit brings Orestes home.

Speaker Two: I promise you, you'll pay, old fools--in good time, too!

Speaker Three: Let them howl--they're impotent. You and I have power now.
We will set the house in order once for all.


 

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