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Theatre / Agamemnon

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As the play is Older Than Feudalism, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
Golden Mask from Mycene, known as the "Mask of Agamemnon"

"I say Agamemnon shall lie dead before your eyes."

The ancient Greek play Agamemnon is the first of a series of tragedies in the trilogy The Oresteia by Aeschylus. The story is based on the aftermath of the Trojan War from Greek mythology.

Agamemnon himself is the King of Argos, who is returning home from the The Trojan War after enslaving Cassandra, the daughter of the Trojan king, Priam. Cassandra is forced into being his concubine. Much to the distress of his wife, Clytemnestra, he finally returns home and she welcomes him back as if nothing is wrong, but she is unable to keep the bitterness out of her tone when she speaks of how long he had been gone. Stringing out extravagant tales of how much she missed him, in an attempt to make him feel uneasy and guilt stricken, she then orders maids to retrieve a purple cloth from his chariot, and spread it on the palace floor beneath his feet. But Agamemnon refuses to step on it.

When Clytemnestra speaks to him later she tries to convince him to walk on the purple carpet, comparing it to the sea. However, to her the carpet is symbolic. The 'Sea' she speaks of is the family feud, and the 'purple dye' is blood shed for revenge. She continues to speak in thinly veiled metaphors of his impending fate, however Agamemnon never catches on. He finally re-enters the palace after much berating from Clytemnestra, when he is out of sight she then utters a terrifying cry of triumph that her plan is coming together. She quickly gives a prayer to Zeus so that her vendetta goes off without a hitch, and she follows him. She had been planning her husband's murder in the ten year long absence he was fighting in the war, during which she was having an affair with his cousin Aegisthus, who believes himself to be the rightful ruler. Clytemnestra is also vengeful against her husband for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia.

Meanwhile we learn that Cassandra became possessed by the god Apollo, who gifted Cassandra with the power of clairvoyance so that she can foresee future events, after she promised to return his love. But when she broke her promise, Apollo cursed her so that no one who hears her prophesies will believe them until it's too late.

Cassandra has a vision of the walls of the palace dripping blood, Agamemnon's dead body and a sword in Clytemnestra's grasp. She also sees her own dead body lying still beside the king. She tries to warn the Elders of this horrible prophecy, but they are unable to understand what she's saying. Cassandra resigns to her fate, prays that she is given a quick death and enters the palace. Soon after the death-shriek of the king is heard; the Elders debate rapidly what to do; and the palace doors open to reveal Clytemnestra and the bleeding corpses of Cassandra and Agamemnon. Even though the Elders know that they should condemn Clytemnestra for her actions, the situation of her grief and suffering for years are making them unsure.

Aegisthus arrives to the scene and offers thanks to the gods. He is described by the Elders as a coward who refused to serve in the war, a lecher who seduced the king's wife in order to steal the throne back. However, he tells the horrifying story of what Agamemnon's father, Atreus, did to his father Thyestes, we realize that the same obligation which drove him to plot vengeance on the son of Atreus is exactly the same as that which now lies upon Orestes.

Aeschylus does not praise or excuse Aegisthus; but his insistence on presenting his case fairly ensures that the urgency of the central theme: What is justice? This is further heightened by the closing scene of the play.

Challenged by the Elders, Aegisthus makes a show of force; Clytemnestra pleads for restraint; and the Elders withdraw, shouting threats and defiance.

Agamemnon provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have affairs during the former's absence during the Trojan war.
  • Asshole Victim: Agamemnon.
  • Bad Boss: Aegisthus, who refuses to listen to the elders and threatened to starve them or put them in chains to punish them for disobeying.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia because of this, and Cassandra rushes to her death at the hands of Clytemnestra since it's useless to delay it.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The fourth and fifth of five messed-up generations.
  • Blood-Splattered Warrior: Clytemnestra is covered in Agamemnon's blood after killing him.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Agamemnon cries for help from inside the palace (i.e. offstage). The Chorus stands around arguing about whether they should do something and if there's anything they can do until it's too late to do anything.
  • The Cassandra: Literally.
  • Cassandra Truth: The original one, since it comes from the Trope Namer. She tells the chorus exactly what's going to happen, but they of course don't believe her.
  • Deadly Bath: Agamemnon is killed in the bath.
  • Death of the Old Gods: The Chorus describes how Ouranos was defeated by Kronos, and Kronos in turn was defeated by Zeus.
  • Downer Ending: It ends with both Agamemnon and Cassandra dead.
  • Due to the Dead: It's a big deal that the bodies of some Greek soldiers were left in Troy without a proper burial.
  • Doublespeak: Many of Clytemnestra's speeches have double meanings, including a speech about how happy she is that Agamemnon is returning alive which foreshadows her intention to murder him, and references to her absent child which are ostensibly about her living son Orestes, who is being fostered in another city, but also apply equally to the dead Iphigenia.
  • Double Tap: Clytemnestra strikes Agamemnon twice and then, though he seems dead, a third time as a thanks to Hades.
  • Dying Curse: The chorus describes how Iphigenia tried to desperately curse her family before she was killed, but had a bit forced in her mouth so as to stop her from polluting her own sacrifice.
  • Elective Mute: Cassandra just straight-up refuses to talk the entire time she and Clytemnestra are on stage together.
  • Face Death with Dignity: What Cassandra decides to do, since it was foreseen anyway.
  • Foreshadowing: Mainly done by the Chorus and Cassandra. Not only does she foresee Agamemnon's and her own demise, she also predicts the events of The Libation Bearers which is Orestes' vengeance upon Clytemnestra.
  • Genre Savvy: Subverted. Agamemnon initially refuses to step on the carpet because it seems to him an obvious case of hubris and thinking one is better than the gods, which will lead to his demise. Clytemnestra, however, soon convinces him otherwise.
  • Get It Over With: Not directly to the person who kills her (due to her death being offstage), but Cassandra, knowing she is going to die, addresses the underworld to pray that she is killed quickly and easily.
  • Great Offscreen War: The chorus talks a lot about the Trojan War as a backdrop for the story, but it of course doesn't appear onstage (not that there wasn't other media at the time that did portray it onstage).
  • Greek Chorus: This is basically the role of the Eldest of Argos in the story.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Clytemnestra, though she's not explicitly a bad ruler, the Elders just don't like her because she's too crafty for their liking. And, well, a woman.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Two in the backstory: Thyestes, who was tricked by his brother Atreus into eating his own sons, has raped his own daughter in order to raise a son who would kill Atreus. Furthermore, his son/grandson Aegisthos was raised as a weapon of vengeance, so it's not surprising he became an unpleasant character himself.
  • Historical Fantasy: Archaeologists have found circumstantial evidence that there was a real Agamemnon. Whether he was killed by his cousin and avenged by his children (as well as whether Atreus was as evil as depicted in Classical Mythology or subjected to a Historical Villain Upgrade) cannot be known.
  • Hostile Weather: The Greek fleet is plagued by storms.
  • Hysterical Woman: The chorus thinks Clytemnestra is this when she says that the Greeks are returning, even though she saw real evidence (the beacon). She calls them out for this.
  • I Will Wait for You: What Agamemnon expected from Clytemnestra. She didn't.
  • Keep the Home Fires Burning: The play as a whole shows how this can go wrong, since after being left at home Clytemnestra was left to wallow in her hatred of her husband and had time to plot his murder and take his cousin as her lover.
  • Killed Offscreen: Agamemnon and Cassandra, due to the nature of Greek staging not allowing for onstage murders.
  • Misblamed: A footnote in one translation notes that the Chorus does this to Helen, claiming that she was ultimately responsible for the war. Clytemnestra also accuses the chorus of putting too much of the blame solely on Helen.
  • Made a Slave: Cassandra, after Troy is captured.
  • Meaningful Name: The chorus says that Helen has one, because it is close to the Greek word for "destruction" and that's what she brought everyone through the Trojan war.
  • Moral Myopia: Clytemnestra is happy to cheat on her husband with Aegisthus, but is so outraged when he does the same with his Sex Slave Cassandra that she murders her.
  • Mr. Exposition: The Watchman and Cassandra herself as she starts narrating the story of Agamemnon's ancestors.
  • Noble Bird of Prey: Bird symbolism is used throughout the play.
  • Non Violent Initial Confrontation: Clytemnestra confronts Agamemnon and convinces him to step on a carpet to celebrate his victory in Troy despite Agamemnon's misgivings, symbolizing her later offstage murder of Agamemnon.
  • Offing the Offspring: Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia before he left for Troy is part of the reason Clytemnestra plots his murder, especially since he tricked Clytemnestra into sending their daughter to him under the pretext of marrying her to Achilles and only revealed his true intentions once it was too late.
  • The Ophelia: Subverted. The Elders think Cassandra is one of these and treat her as a madwoman at first, but then she starts talking about the Royally Screwed Up story of Argos as if she had been there...
  • Pride: Agamemnon. Clytemnestra encourages him to commit hubris, but he could have said no.
  • Psychic Powers: Cassandra's clairvoyance, given to her by Apollo.
  • Purple Is Powerful: Clytemnestra gets Agamemnon to step on a purple carpet, representing power and luxury. Agamemnon initially refuses on the grounds that it would be hubris to walk on such an exaggerated display of power.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Agamemnon and the rest of the Greek army when they sack Troy. The chorus even calls Agamemnon out on it when he returns.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Clytemnestra tells Agamemnon that she has heard many false reports of his death during the war.
  • Royally Screwed Up: The Atreides were the poster guys of this trope in Classical Mythology. All the madness started with Tantalus serving his own son to the gods to prove they're not omniscient, continued with the feud between brothers Atreus and Thyestes, and know the feud continues with their respective sons Agamemnon and Aegisthus.
  • Sadistic Choice: Agamemnon had to choose between killing his own daughter and abandoning the war expedition, letting down his people and Artemis.
  • Secondary Character Title: Despite being the character of the title, Agamemnon isn't given much action (aside from his murder) and the true protagonist is Clytemnestra.
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: The Greek Chorus and Cassandra are the main source of the antecedents.
  • Straw Feminist: A possible interpretation of Clytemnestra's character.
  • Skepticism Failure: Happens to everyone who hears Cassandra's claims (not by their own fault though, but because of the curse Apollo placed on her).
  • Sound-Only Death: Agamemnon dies offstage, and we only hear him saying he has been hit. Cassandra doesn't even say anything.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: According to Aristophanes. "Phlattothrattophlattothrat..."
  • Til Murder Do Us Part: Clytemnestra kills her husband, Agamemnon.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: For a given definition of hero. The chorus respects Agamemnon but they are disgusted by his actions in Troy, and aren't afraid to say so.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Agamemnon kills one of his daughters, Iphigenia, for a favorable wind in order to go to war.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Clytemnestra's justification for her actions. Once Agamemnon killed their daughter, he sealed his own fate.