CHARACTERS: Watchman, Klytaimestra, Messenger, Agamemnon, Kassandra, Aigisthos
CHORUS: elders of Argos
SETTING: the palace at Argos
A watchman on the roof of the palace at Argos sees the beacon announcing that Troy has fallen to the Greeks. The chorus in flashback narrate the fateful omen that attended the departure of the army, the dilemma of Agamemnon (sacrifice his daughter or abandon the expedition), and her awful murder at Aulis. Klytaimestra describes how the news of Troy has reached Greece. The chorus sing of the wrath of the gods against Troy in language that shifts to suggest their anger at Agamemnon over the war with Troy. A messenger announces that Agamemnon will shortly be home, but that Menelaos and his ships have vanished in a storm. As the chorus proclaim that Justice “brings all things to fulfillment,” Agamemnon enters with his captive mistress, Kassandra. Klytaimestra persuades him to enter the house walking on a purple carpet, a symbol of the blood that he has shed. Kassandra laments her fate, formerly virgin servant of Apollo and now a king’s concubine. She tells of the murder of Thyestes’ children by Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, and predicts the death of Agamemnon at Klytaimestra’s hands. She goes inside and we hear the death cry of Agamemnon. The doors open to reveal Klytaimestra standing over the bodies of her victims, claiming vengeance for the murder of her daughter. Her lover, Aigisthos, Thyestes’ only surviving son, enters to join in the triumph, but the chorus insist that this matter is not over.
Aeschylus’ Klytaimestra dominates this drama. This is a magnificent portrait of a woman with power, a figure that must have terrified the audience and yet earns our grudging respect. The chorus, who have half of the lines, create the moral universe in which “the doer must pay; that is law”: this is Dike or Justice. Agamemnon is essentially a minor character, and when he enters his doom must already be sealed; the chorus show that he too is guilty of moral offences and must pay. Much of the power of the play is carried by the patterns of imagery, of which dark/light, hunting and animals (especially the lion, the eagle, the dog, and the snake), and the dripping of liquids (tears, blood) recur in various fashions, flickering in and out with subtle shades of meaning. Kassandra stands at the intersection of past, present, and future, looking back to past horrors, and ahead to more. The play turns greatly on gender themes, for we see the harsh treatment of women by men (Iphigeneia, the women of Troy, Kassandra) and the reaction by the female. Klytaimestra dominates all the men in the play, and only Kassandra does not move at her beck and call.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005