Background and Questions for the Oresteia
(Meineck translation)

For a general background on the legends on which the play Agamemnon is based, read the Introduction, "The Myth" (vii-ix) and the "Agamemnon" handout. Reading the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, The Libation Bearers, will be optional. I have provided you with a summary of that play (packet). Read also "The Theatrical Context" (xi-xvii). When you finish the play, read the rest of the introduction, pp. xvii-xl.

Agamemnon, First Choral Ode [Read "Interpreting Aeschylean Choruses" xxxvi-xl.]

After the Watchman's speech about seeing the beacon fires that indicate the capture of Troy, Agamemnon starts with the longest choral ode in Greek tragedy. It is helpful to know what these old men are talking about. They don't know about the beacons' message, and they start the ode with a poetic account of the events that led to the Trojan war. A middle passage with the refrain "Cry the song sorrow, sorrow..." (lines 104-159) tells of an omen at Aulis (two eagles strike down a pregnant hare). The seer Calchas interprets this omen: the Greeks will take Troy, but an angry Artemis could delay the ships with adverse winds. (Contrast a similar omen in the Iliad pp. 29-30, in which a sparrows, not hares are killed. Note that Homer says nothing about Iphigeneia and that Calchas interprets the omen quite differently.) That other "sacrifice, / unspeakable, uneatable" (lines 149-50) refers to the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. The chorus then interrupts their narrative to sing a hymn to Zeus (lines 160-83). The third strophe of this hymn (lines 176-183) can be applied to the trilogy as a whole. In lines 179-183, the image is one of old men wakened by pains in their sleep. These pains remind them to behave in a more moderate manner. [See introduction xxvii.] After the hymn, the chorus returns to telling of the events that led up to the sacrifice of Iphigeneia.

Agamemnon, Cassandra's Story

Cassandra has been cowering in Agamemnon's chariot, looking on while Clytemnestra has been giving him the red-carpet treatment in order to lure him to his death inside the palace (lines 782-974). Clytemnestra asks Cassandra to enter also, but the Trojan seeress is silent (lines 1035-68). When Clytemnestra re-enters the palace, Cassandra starts prophesying Agamemnon's murder to the chorus, who take a long time to catch on. Why are they a little dense here? The Greek audience knew the reason. Apollo had fallen in love with Cassandra, daughter of Priam, but in spite of his giving her the gift of prophecy, she would not yield to him (47-8, lines 1202-1213). Angry at her refusal, Apollo cursed her: she would always foretell truly, but she would never be believed. So her warnings about the fall of Troy and about Agamemnon's murder went unheeded. (Homer, by the way, says nothing of this story.) Cassandra had been torn from the sanctuary of Athena during the sack of Troy. This impious act angered Athena, who caused troubles for the Greeks on their return.

Notes on Agamemnon

(7, line 110) Hellas = Greece.
(9, line 167) Ouranus = "Sky," one of the first Greek gods. See packet, p. 10-11.
(12, line 257) Argos —Aeschylus locates the action in the city of Argos, not Mycenae.
(18, line 403) she left behind = Helen caused destruction, etc.
(18, lines 412-13) a man / dishonored = Menelaus
(28, lines 687-88) her name . . . hell to ships The chorus makes a pun here—Helena = Hele ["sail," "drive away," or "strike"] + na ["ships"].
(29, line 718) a lion cub --In a reverse simile, Helen is compared to a lion cub.
(37, line 958) There is the sea . . . Clytemnestra refers to the very costly purple-red dye for the carpet or tapestries made from the shell of the Murex snail.
(42, lines 1080-81) Apollo! . . . my destroyer –a good pun on apollon, or "destroying."

Agamemnon Questions
1. As you read the Agamemnon, find images of dark and light (fire), night and day, silence and speech, of justice as revenge, or as blood ("Fury") or ashes (urns). Look also for images of entanglement (nets, curbs, bits, yokes, gags) and of dreams, prophecy and sacrifice. Why do you think Aeschylus returns (sometimes with a difference) to these image clusters? For example, who is described as entangled and why? Refer to specific lines in your answer. (Read "Language and Imagery" xxi-xxvii.)

2. What do you think the chorus is praying for in lines 160-183? (See introduction xxvii-xxix and "Interpreting Aeschylean Choruses" xxxvi-xl.) According to the chorus, why was Iphigeneia sacrificed? Why was she gagged (11-12)?

3. Name some ways in which the chorus' refrain of "Cry the song of sorrow, sorrow..." (line 121) and its hymn to Zeus (lines 160-83) be applied to the trilogy as a whole. For example, compare / contrast to Clytemnestra's ironic lines 345-350.

4. If "Man must learn by suffering!" (line 178) and "Justice will tip the scales, / to bring learning by suffering" (lines 250-251), then Justice seems to be simply a system of revenge, an eye for an eye. Do you see any hope for ending the cycle of revenge? (see also lines 1563-66).

5. What does the chorus tell us about how Helen and the Trojan War are viewed by the people? (See pp. 17-20, 28-30.) Do you think they agree with what they say is the people's opinion (19-20)? Compare and contrast the herald's three speeches (21-22, 23-24, 26-28). How would you characterize this man's attitude towards the Trojan war?

6. What section of society do you think the chorus in Agamemnon represents? What do you think is their opinion of Agamemnon (31)? Why do you suppose they do not warn Agamemnon of possible danger from Clytemnestra and Aegisthus?

7. According to the chorus, how are poverty and riches related to Justice? (See pp. 17-20, 30 and relate to the red carpet scene, pp. 35-39.) Why do you think the citizens are murmuring dangerously in line 456? Who do you think "the man who unjustly prospers" (line 464) could be? (For some possibilities see p. 18, lines 379-403.)

8. Why do you suppose Aeschylus makes such a big deal of whether or not Agamemnon will walk on the carpet (34-38)? What could its red or purple color symbolize?

9. Since the audience knows of Clytemnestra's murderous intentions, Aeschylus can plant many double meanings (dramatic irony) in her speeches (see pp. xxvi, 16, 24-25, 33-35, 36-37, 40). Find as many of these ironies as you can and comment on their meanings.

10. What do you think are some of Clytemnestra's motives for her actions? What kind of woman do you think she is?  Do you think she is justified in killing Agamemnon? (Notice how she justifes herself and how the chorus responds, pp. 55-62.)

11. Who do you think is in the right, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, both, or neither?  Give reasons to support your answers. (See comments on Justice, pp. 9, 12, 30, 57, 60-61.)

12. Name some ways in which Agamemnon could be responsible for his own death. In what ways is the curse on the house of Atreus responsible? What might hubris, revenge, and the curse have to do with the justice of Zeus?

13. Why do you think Cassandra goes willingly to her death? Why do you think she strips off her prophetic robes and symbols (50-1)? In what ways is Cassandra like or unlike Iphigeneia? (Note how they are described on pp. 11-12, 40-41, and 51-2.)

14. If Cassandra is a captive Trojan with no reason to love Agamemnon, why doesn't she support Clytemnestra's murderous intentions? Why do you think Aeschylus included this long section on Cassandra? Vase painting: Cassandra captured by Ajax (before the statue of Athena—Perseus).

Hesiod on Justice

In his Works and Days, the poet Hesiod exhorts his wayward brother Perses to follow Justice:

Perses, hearken to Justice and don’t honor Hybris
Hybris is a bad thing for the poor man, for not even the rich man
easily bears it but staggers under its burdensome weight and
meets with calamity. Better it is to go on the road
in the other direction to Justice. Justice wins over Hybris,
finally coming in victor. The fool by suffering learns this.
Compare with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, lines 176-178, 248-252, 374-384, 456-474, 750-781, 910-911, 1399-1406, 1431-33, and 1560-66.


The Furies (Eumenides) Notes and Questions
[Re-read "Apollo" (packet 13-14).]

Eumenides = "the kindly ones." In the course of the play, the chorus of Furies turns into the kinder, gentler Eumenides. At the first production of the play, the Furies' costumes were reportedly so terrifying that they caused several members of the audience to faint.

The vase painting at right depicts Orestes sitting in front of the omphalos stone at Delphi. He still holds the sword he used to kill Clytemnestra. Apollo purifies him of the blood-guilt (miasma) by dousing Orestes with the blood of a pig. The Furies lie sleeping at the left--at the far left you can just see Clytemnestra's ghost trying to wake them and rouse them to action. 

(117, lines 2-8) Gaia . . . Themis . . . Phoebe For a commentary on this myth making, see the introduction, pp. vii-viii. Read "Apollo" (packet 13-14) for the more usual version of how Apollo came into possession of the oracle at Delphi.
(121, line 79) the city of Athena = Athens.
(124, line 166) the center stone = the omphalos, or navel-stone at Delphi.
(125, line181) winged serpents = arrows. Note snake imagery.
(line 189) mutilated = cutting off hands, nose, etc.
(129, line 281) The mark of mother-killing has been washed out. Orestes has been purified by Apollo. Remember that the word used in Greek to describe religious purification or purging is catharsis.
(131, line 322) Leto's child = Apollo.
(lines 397-98) Scamander's / shores = environs of Troy. Athena says she recently took possession of newly-conquered Troy.
(139, line 534) Outrage is Impiety's true child. = Hubris comes from not obeying the gods.
(147, line 717) Ixion = first murderer (like Cain), he was pardoned by Zeus. Later, he tried to rape Zeus’ wife Hera, for which he was perpetually punished.
(158, line 1011) guests = metoikoi or "metics," foreigners living in Athens (not full citizens) who were yearly clad in crimson robes and allowed to march in the Panathenaic procession, as do the Furies (now Eumenides) in lines 1025-1031. At this annual festival. a new robe was carried in procession to the goddess Athena's temple-home (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis. Compare / contrast to Agammenon's red carpet and bloody robe.

1. Often in this play, the Furies and Apollo act like lawyers arguing a case. Which client does each represent and why?

2. Why won't the Furies accept Apollo's purification? (See pp. 129, 136-7.) Why do you think the Furies are outcasts among the gods? Do you agree with their charge that Apollo is the one who bears all the blame (line 200)?

3. What will establishing a court do for Athens?  In what ways might it change the system of justice? (See pp. 125-135, 141-45.)

4. If the Furies and Apollo are lawyers, what role do you think Athena plays?  Is it a suitable role for her?

5. Outline the main arguments of the Furies (126-29, 138-40), Orestes (128-29, 136-37, 142-43), and Apollo (143-45). According to the Furies, what would happen if Orestes were allowed to go free (137-9, 147)? Do you think these are good arguments? What do you think of Apollo's ideas in lines 625-673? In what ways does Apollo act like or unlike the god that Cassandra described in the Agamemnon?

6. What do you think of the reasons Athena gives (lines 734-41) for her decision? Do you think her decision is the right one? Why or why not? [See introduction xxxiii-xxxvi and note the jury-tampering on pp. 147-48.]

7. Take a vote to decide whether you think Orestes should be acquitted. Why do you think he's guilty or not guilty? (In our terms? In Greek terms?)

8. Why do you suppose the Furies decide to accept the position Athena offers them? What calms their anger? (Remember Achilles.)

9. How could you see Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes as tragic heroes? What are their reversals and do any of them undergo what Aristotle calls "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate"?

10. What do the gods want in this trilogy?

11. How many kinds of justice are presented in the trilogy? Which is the best kind, according to Aeschylus?

12. Compare and contrast the notions of justice and revenge presented in Aeschylus' trilogy with those depicted at the end of the Odyssey.

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