Monday, July 10, 2017

The Agamemnon

The Agamemnon - the classic ancient Greek play by Aeschylus - is another one that has missed my list over the years. While I'm catching up on all the classic sf novels I've missed (see last few posts), I've also been starting to read some of the Greek plays. They invented drama, after all. Over the past year I've scoured all those Greek writers I'm supposed to have read - Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Hesiod - and several explorations of Greek myths, the best by Robert Graves. At any rate, I'm glad I read all that first, because I would not have understood a lot of the clever references in The Agamemnon. This story concerns the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War. He's been gone 10 years, along with most of the other Greek heroes. Many of them have been blown off-course on the way home, but not Agamemnon. He has a different fate waiting. Before the war, he was persuaded to sacrifice his daughter to achieve favorable winds for the fleet. His wife, Clytemnestra, harbored a grudge over this (natural enough). While Agamemnon was gone, she started an affair with his cousin, whose father had been driven out by Agamemnon's dad. When the watchman sees signal-fires announcing the fall of Troy, the entire city is excited about Agamemnon's return. The Chorus of the play (the old men of Argos) explain what the war was about, and why it was stupid to fight one over the return of a wayward cheating wife. They go on to condemn Helen for causing so many deaths. Clytemnestra comes out to greet her husband, but he is cold to her. He's brought home Cassandra, a prize of war, a prophetess who no one believes. Clytemnestra tries to trick her husband into walking on a purple carpet - he says that's the sin of pride and he won't do it, lest the gods get jealous. She brow-beats him into it, and he enters his palace. Clytemnestra orders Cassandra to come in, but is ignored. Cassandra then prophecies Agamemnon's death and her own, but of course, no one believes her. Eventually, knowing she can't escape her fate, she goes into the palace also. Soon enough - too soon, really - the people outside hear the screams of Agamemnon, who has been killed with an axe in the bath by his wife and her lover. They kill Cassandra, too. Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus  display the corpses and are utterly unrepentant, justifying themselves on various pretexts. The chorus of old men then dolefully reminds Clytemnestra that her oldest son with Agamemnon, Orestes, is on his way back to Argos, and will surely bring revenge with him. The tale is continued in The Libation Bearers and The Eumenedes, which I have not yet read. Apparently Aeschylus had all these plays performed one after the other in Athens. They say you've really gotta read all three for The Agamemnon to achieve the best impact. At any rate, I knew most of this story already, so for me the interesting part was one of the themes - that blood vendettas never end. The House of Atreus, from which Agamemnon comes, is haunted by crime and violence and murder. It's also a cautionary tale because at the very beginning of this story, Agamemnon has fame, fortune, power - the world is his oyster. And yet it all comes crashing down in less than a page. None of us stay on top for long. Especially when we sacrifice our daughters. Clytemnestra comes off as a cold, callous, unfeeling woman in this play, but let's not forget her victim killed her own daughter 10 years before. It is Clytemnestra's grief turns that turns her to homicide. She's not the first. At any rate, I'll share the other two books of the play-cycle when I finish them.  

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