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A Commentary on the Complete Greek Tragedies
By James C. Hogan
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1984 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
THE PART OF A GREEK PLAY that precedes the entrance of the chorus (the parodos, which in the Agamemnon begins at line 40) is traditionally called the prologue (Aristotle, Poetics, chap. 12). Neither the Persians nor the Suppliants has a prologue, and only in the Eumenides and Prometheus Bound is it more than a monologue. This watchman will not appear again in the Agamemnon, though the actor who plays him will reappear in the roles of the messenger and Cassandra (cf. the priestess in the Eumenides). Unlike some Euripidean prologues, all initial scenes in Aeschylus' plays are fully dramatic. While this watchman conveys essential information concerning place, time, and his own function (lines 3, 5, and 8), he also takes on some shape as a character: he is tired, a little impatient, intimidated, hopeful, and loyal but cautious. His most important function, however, is to hint at Clytaemestra's treachery and thus to establish through metaphor and image the themes and motifs that will pervade the trilogy. He speaks, that is to say, in the dramatic language of the play and not in a personal idiom; though he is a credible character, his primary function is to initiate the action and the conceptual language of the play.
It is often assumed that the watchman is on the roof of the stage building (the skene). The textual evidence for this staging (line 3) has been disputed. Arnott argues that he might be on the ground before the palace (Arnott, pp. 118 f.), but the language does not forbid use of the roof.
2 The expedition to Troy lasted ten years (line 40). Various expressions for time, timeliness, opportunity, and crisis run through the play. See 40, 196, 727, 785–87, 1356, 1378.
3 Atreidae means "the sons of Atreus." Lines 399–402 indicate that Aeschylus thought of the brothers as occupying the same house. Both the Homeric and later tradition gave them separate homes, Agamemnon in Argos (or Mycenae, as in Homer), Menelaus in Sparta.
10 f. Aeschylus likes to highlight themes by means of figures of speech. Here the oxymoron (a figure that uses antithesis and contradiction for emphasis, as in lady's male) introduces a frequent motif, i.e., Clytaemestra's usurpation of the male role. See also 348 ff., 479–84, 592, 606–12, 918, 940, 1231 f.
16 For metaphorical language from medicine see the note on 1170. Mince refers to incising a wound to effect healing.
19–21 In the Greek, "redemption from distress" = "respite from weariness" (1). Such repetition of a word or phrase, known as ring composition, is a frequent literary phenomenon from Homer to Herodotus. Ring composition articulates parts of a speech or narrative, marks transition, and stresses ideas and form.
One reason for differences among translations stems from Aeschylean ambiguity. For example, in line 20 from the blackness is one sense of the adjective, while another and common sense is simply "black," as in Euripides' "blackest night" (Orestes 1225). The second sense cancels the good augury (no "black flame" would be a "good augury"). Of course the watchman "intends" the meaning in our translation, but any Greek who knew Homer's "murky night" would hear the ominous connotation "indistinct."
Torch races were common in Athenian festivals (see on 281 ff.). The trilogy begins and ends with torches (Eum 1005, 1022). The usual connotations of light are evident here and from Ag 522 and 602, but its natural association with the hearth (Ag 1435) and sacrifice (Ag 594–97) allows this imagery to become perverse and treacherous, as at 387 f.
The double spacing between lines 20 and 21 indicates a slight pause before the watchman sees the light. The italicized notes in parentheses are the translator's, which often, as here, also reflect the views of the ancient commentators (the scholiasts).
24 Argos: in the Homeric epics Agamemnon's home is Mycenae, Menelaus' is Sparta. Since Athens had made an alliance with Argos in 462/1, most scholars see topical political references in this change. See further on Eum 290, 670–73.
28 Ilium = Troy. Ilus founded the city and gave it his name.
32 In a game similar to our backgammon, three dice were thrown to determine the player's move. The watchman celebrates his master's perfect cast.
35 The ox on the tongue is proverbial. Cf. Theognis (late sixth century):
An ox has stepped on my strong tongue and checks my chatter, though I know well enough. (815–16; my trans.)
36 The house itself represents more than personification, for the house is identified with the vital interests of the living and the dead. House and family are often interchangeable: both are cursed as a result of the crimes of Tantalus, Pelops, Atreus, and Thyestes. Cf. 1090–93. At LB 12 f. Orestes speaks of the house taking a "new wound." On this theme see Jones, pp. 82 ff. For the sentient house, see Euripides' Andromache 923 f. and Hippolytus 418 f. and 1074 f.
40 The parodos is the entry of the chorus. Twelve men, accompanied by a flutist, recite anapestic lines (40–103) as they take their places for the lyric proper (104 ff.). These anapests were delivered in a chant or recitative. Both the Persians and the Suppliants begin with these marching anapests, but they are not required, as the subsequent plays in this trilogy show. What follows is the longest choral utterance in extant Greek tragedy.
Contestants is a law term (= "adversary in a trial"). The kings are viewed as one in this joint venture for revenge on Priam, king of Troy, whose son Paris carried off Helen.
44 Kings have their scepters and power from Zeus (Iliad 2.100–108, of Agamemnon's inherited scepter), or, in Hesiod's straightforward way, "kings are from Zeus" (Theogony 96). Though the Athenians and many other Greek states had long since given up monarchy, their mythical past was aristocratic and monarchic, so that something very like the divine right of kings is an implicit social rule in most plays. Thus as kings the Atreidae claim Zeus's help, but they also can claim that support for another reason: Zeus protects guests and oversees the reciprocal rights of host and guest. Since Paris has violated Menelaus' hospitality by abducting Helen, he has incurred the moral wrath of Zeus (see on line 60).
48 ff. Since the eagle is the bird of Zeus (cf. PB 1022 and, below, 135) as well as a martial predator, a comparison of the king to eagles stricken offers several analogies: they are famed for their shrill cry, for their valor, and as birds of omen from Zeus himself. These eagles also have literary antecedents; in the Odyssey, Telemachus and Odysseus
... cried shrill in a pulsing voice, even more than the outcry of birds, ospreys or vultures with hooked claws, whose children were stolen away by the men of the fields, before their wings grew strong; such was their pitiful cry and the tears their eyes wept. (Odyssey 16. 216–19)
The word translated as "vultures" in these lines is the same as the one rendered here as "eagle" (in line 49; apparently identified with the more common word for eagle, which appears at 137). Aeschylus seems to have borrowed the motif of the young perished from Homer; but whereas Homer keeps distinct the two men and the birds of the simile, Aeschylus fuses them. When the Fury (59) is introduced, we realize that the distinction has collapsed, i.e., the formal comparison of the simile ("as eagles") has come round to a new view of the kings, who, first compared to suffering birds, have now become agents of vengeance for the birds and for themselves. Much of Aeschylean imagery derives its dynamics from this kind of interpenetration.
56 Neither Apollo nor Pan, god of the mountains and wild animals, seems to have any place in the moral argument, and the disjunctive or dissipates the force of the image a little, although the manner is natural to Greek poetry (cf. "ospreys or vultures" in the Homeric simile cited in the note to 49). Clinton suggests that the audience would think of shrines of Apollo and Pan on the northwest of the Acropolis, but that is the wrong slope for an actor's gesture, even if a shrine to Apollo was there.
59 Fury (Erinys)—here singular but often plural—is the spirit of vengeance regularly associated with bloodguilt (so Cassandra at 1190, the chorus at LB 650 f.). The chorus of the Eumenides is composed of Furies. They are also mentioned in the Agememnon at 463, 645, 749 ("a vengeance"), 991, 1119 ("demon"), 1190, 1581. According to Aeschylus they are children of Night (Eum 321), whereas Hesiod says they sprang from the blood of the mutilated Uranus, who had been castrated by his son Cronus (Theogony 178–85). Hesiod's genealogy suits their function, the punishment of those who have slain kin (cf. LB 276 ff.). The present passage, like 749, where Helen is a Fury ("a vengeance"), metaphorically extends their function to righteous retribution generally, as in Antigone 1076–77.
60 "Zeus Protector of Strangers" (Odyssey 14. 283–84) is the great guest god; he is "hospitable" (748), god "of the guests" (362), who looks after "the guest's right" (402). Yet drives (57 and 60) may be a little strong if it implies in English that Zeus forces or commands the expedition (note the chorus's criticism in promiscuous, 62). "Sends" is also a possible translation, and the point becomes critical for our understanding of Agamemnon, at least as the chorus sees him, if with Peradotto (Phoenix 23, p. 251) we observe that, while Zeus sends them (we might say the god "gives them his blessing"), he does not command them to pursue Paris (= Alexander: Homer also uses both names for the son of Priam). Agamemnon, as reported by the chorus (205–16), would seem to have convinced himself that he must make the expedition. But Greek moral thought did not see man used by the gods as a scourge to punish other men; the gods were able and willing to punish if they saw fit to do so (cf. the prologues to Hippolytus and Bacchae). So we should not confuse, as Agamemnon may have, the righteousness of the cause with the necessity of the expedition. For example, according to legend, the Greeks who went to Troy were bound by an oath, made at the time of the courting of Helen, to "defend the favoured bridegroom against any wrong that might be done him in respect of his marriage" (Apollodorus, The Library 3. 10. 9). In the Iliad Hera and Athene do everything they can to further the Greek cause; but neither they nor Zeus, who often seems more favorably disposed to the Trojans, has required the Greeks to seek vengeance.
62 Cf. 448 and 800–804 for aspersions on Helen and the expedition; other allusions to Helen occur at 225, 823, 1455 ff. Before her marriage to Menelaus, Helen had been carried off by Theseus (Apollodorus 3. 10. 7); later she was the woman of Paris and, after his death, of Deiphobus, his brother. The chorus is loyal but still critical of the man and the cause.
66 Homer refers to the Greeks as Danaans, Argives, and Achaeans (184); the Danaans take their name from Danaus, king of Argos (see Suppliants 11).
67 f. This tag apparently means something like "that's the way things are." The next sentence (68) means "this business moves toward its necessary end" (in end we have the first of many appearances of the Greek tel-stem; see on 972). The first sentence seems colloquial, like Oedipus' "Well, let my fate go where it will" (Oedipus the King 1458), and it characterizes the chorus as evasive, perhaps afraid to speak; the second sentence is sententious, portentous but noncommittal, and also musical, since Aeschylus repeats words and varies their form and meaning in much the same way as a composer repeats, elaborates, and extends a note or phrase.
70 This line is probably an intrusive gloss. Greek sacrifices were of two classes: things burned, e.g., animal sacrifice, and things unburned, e.g., wine or cakes. Greek tears did not function as atonement. The cryptic Greek phrasing (in which neither the subject nor the gods' is expressed) first attracted a scholiast's marginal note or gloss, and this explanatory note was later incorporated in the text by a scribe who was making a new copy of the manuscript.
72–82 The chorus describes itself as too old to have joined the army, in need of crutches (on staves), very like a baby in that neither the extremely aged man nor the child can manage perfect warcraft (78). Aeschylean metaphor ranges from abstract, personifying figures of thought to the most concrete sorts of metonymy (the substitution of one name for another, e.g., of concrete for abstract or cause for effect). Here young vigor that urges translates Greek words meaning "bone marrow" that "leaps"; with leaf withered compare the imagery at 966 f. and Pers 617 f.
82 Another translation of this line is "a dream, an ephemeral thing, that wanders." See the note to Sophocles' Ajax 126 for other variations on this figure. Cf. Euripides' Heracles 108 ff. for a similar description of old men (especially the imagery of 111 f.). Other imagery from dreaming occurs in the Agamemnon at 420–26, 491, 891–94, 983, 1218.
83 Whether Clytaemestra is in fact onstage now, or indeed before 258, remains disputed. That the chorus addresses her does not, to judge from Greek dramatic practice, indicate that she is necessarily present (cf. Ajax 134 ff.), nor does her silence prove that she is not present (cf. Danaus' silence at the beginning of the Suppliants and Electra's wait through the parodos of the LB). Taplin argues against her presence: her silence is inexplicable, and such a protracted silence would be without parallel in extant tragedy. Others have found her silent presence manipulative. (The loss of so much Greek tragedy makes argument from practice and parallels of uncertain value.)
The possibilities are these: (1) she is offstage now and until 258; (2) onstage now, she departs and returns at 258 (and still more silent entrances and exits may be added); (3) she is onstage now and remains present throughout the song.
To some extent a decision on this problem depends on your view of the style of the trilogy. If Clytaemestra is onstage during all or part of this choral song, she must necessarily distract us from the chorus, and not only from its song and dance but also from the significance of its views. Commentators who think this song essential for defining the tone and thematic lines of the play leave the chorus to dominate the stage; those who think that the actors, and particularly the interaction of chorus and actor (Clytaemestra), are primary are inclined to put the queen onstage, ignoring the chorus, tending to small sacrifices in preparation of one great sacrifice, tacitly manipulating the chorus and the action, as she will later verbally manipulate chorus and king.
89 f. The high and deep spirits are the gods above and below the earth (Olympian and chthonic); cf. Suppl 22. Because to them of the sky (90) appears redundant, it has been emended to "to them of the house (door)."
94 Simple means "guileless," "without duplicity," which is hardly near the mark so far as Clytaemestra's purpose is concerned.
99–103 For healer see on 1248. Hope is a common motif; cf. 262, 266, 505, LB 194.
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