Composers and their stage works 



458 B.C. - First play in the Oresteia trilogy




Agamemnon deals with the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra. Queen Clytemnestra, plotting with her lover Aegisthus to take her husband's life, has ordered that watch be kept upon the roof of the palace at Argos, because a succession of beacon fires is to bring the news from Troy when the city is captured by Agamemnon. For a whole year a watchman has been on the lookout.

The play opens as the watchman waits in the dead of night. Suddenly he sends out a cry of joy as the signal blazes forth, announcing the imminent return of Agamemnon. But his joy is of short duration: he strikes the first note of approaching calamity by guarded hints and allusions to Clytemnestra's adulterous relation with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's mortal enemy. The chorus of old men enters, reviewing the history of the house of Atreus in a long choral passage. They chant the tale of how the Greeks, led by Agamemnon and Menelaus, sought to take revenge on Paris for having outraged Zeus, the guardian of the rights of hospitality, by his abduction of Helen. Thus, when the Greeks were planning to set out for Troy, a portent appeared before the palace of Argos: two eagles were seen tearing a pregnant hare apart with their talons. The eagles were interpreted to represent Agamemnon and Menelaus; the pregnant hare, the city of Troy teeming with innocent people. Furthermore, Artemis, the goddess of nature, was angry with the kings and sent adverse winds to blow at Aulis, where the Greek Fleet had gathered for the expedition against Troy. The seer Calchas declared that Artemis demanded as appeasement for the destruction of Troy the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia. To realise the just expedition against Troy in the name of Zeus, Agamemnon consented, incurring the rage of Clytemnestra, who thereupon vowed vengeance. The chorus concludes by calling upon Zeus to lead man to the path of knowledge.

Clytemnestra enters, sacrificing to the gods. When the chorus asks why she sacrifices, she answers that she is thankful for the fall of Troy. She pictures the state of the captured city and pretends to hope that the victorious Greeks have not sinned against the gods, who are quick to punish. The chorus gives thanks to Zeus and moralises on the downfall of human pride. A herald appears, announcing that Agamemnon will soon arrive in Argos. While he describes the fall of Troy, he tells of the acts of sacrilege committed by the Greeks against the very temples of the gods. Thus the fears that Clytemnestra has voiced are confirmed. She sends the herald away with her welcome for Agamemnon and speaks of her love for him. The chorus leader hints at the hypocrisy of her words, and the chorus sings of Helen and the fatal power of her beauty.

Agamemnon enters, followed by the prophetess Cassandra, priestess of Apollo, who has become his unwilling mistress. He speaks proudly of his victory, as Clytemnestra greets him with effusiveness and hypocritically reaffirms her conjugal love. Then she persuades him to walk into the palace over a rich purple carpet. He does so unwillingly, knowing that it constitutes an act of hubris. Clytemnestra accompanies him indoors, while the chorus sings of its fears.

Clytemnestra comes out of the palace and commands Cassandra to follow her within, but the prophetess does not answer and Clytemnestra goes in alone. Cassandra, left with the chorus, voices incoherent cries of horror. She recalls the bloody history of the house of Atreus and predicts the death of Agamemnon, as well as her own, and the coming of an avenger. She goes into the palace. After the chorus sings of wicked prosperity, Agamemnon's voice is heard from within, crying that he is being murdered. Another shriek follows, and then silence.

The old men debate on the manner in which they should intervene, but the palace doors are flung open, revealing Clytemnestra standing over the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra with a bloody axe in her hands. She describes how she has killed her husband with the axe, after ensnaring him in the folds of a robe while in his bath. She reveals that all her previous professions of love for her husband were a sham to facilitate his murder. She glories in her deed. When the chorus reproaches her, she answers that she is the personification of the ancestral curse, the family daemon that is now exacting vengeance on Agamemnon for the murder of Thyestes' children by Atreus. She reminds the chorus of Agamemnon's murder of young Iphigenia and the reproach she was made to suffer when Agamemnon took his foreign concubine to live under the same roof with his wedded wife. She further declares her intention to make a pact with the daemon so that it will stop plaguing the family with murder of kin and be satisfied with the blood already shed.

The chorus sees in Agamemnon's death the work of Ate, but it refuses to free Clytemnestra from guilt and predicts her own future punishment. It affirms Zeus's law that the doer must suffer. Aegisthus enters, exulting in Agamemnon's murder as proper vengeance for the murder of Thyestes' children. The chorus warns him and Clytemnestra that Orestes is alive and will soon return to Argos to avenge his father.