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The trilogy called Oresteia, of which Agamemnon is the first play, deals with the succession of crimes and their retribution in the house of Atreus. The series had started, before the action of Agamemnon begins, when Atreus had unfairly kept his brother Thyestes from the throne of Argos. In Agamemnon Thyestes' son Aegisthus and Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra murder Agamemnon and seize his throne. In Choephoroe, the second play of the trilogy, Orestes avenges his father Agamemnon's murder by murdering Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In Eumenides, the third play, hereditary blood vengeance is ended when a newly instituted court acquits Orestes. Other crimes antecedent to its action are involved in the problems of Agamemnon: the abduction of Helen, the war of reprisal against Troy, Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to raise the winds for the Greek fleet becalmed at Aulis. It was during Agamemnon's absence at Troy that Aegisthus and Clytemnestra formed their illicit relationship and plotted his murder.
The tragedy of Agamemnon involves war and politics as well as a domestic triangle, and in none of its aspects is an unqualified right opposed to an unqualified wrong. It was wrong for Trojan Paris to abduct Helen, and right for the crime to be punished; but Helen was an evil woman, and Argives murmured at the slaughter of their young men in a war for an evil woman's sake. The chorus, consistently loyal to Agamemnon, elaborates, on the horror of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the waywardness of Helen, and the cost of the war in Argive blood. The dissatisfaction of the Argives as well as his hereditary claim provide at least the appearance of justification for Aegisthus' usurpation. Nor is the behavior of Clytemnestra, who is at once described as a woman with the temper of a man, wholly without justification. Agamemnon had earned her hatred, she says, when he wantonly sacrificed her first-born; he had been unfaithful to her in his stay at Troy, and had even brought Cassandra home with him as a concubine; and finally, she was not herself the murderer but only the instrument of fate. In the end she hopes for a peaceful rule for herself and Aegisthus.
The rich and subtle poetry of Agamemnon is a perfect medium for its problems and insights. Recurrent images and verbal patterns create implicit connections in themes separate in time and place and provide psychological background for the action in hand. The tone of foreboding is set by the nameless watchman speaking on the roof of the palace at dawn, and the old men of the chorus weave a psychological backdrop in their majestic ode on the moral implications of the Trojan War and the sacrifice of Iphigenia, a backdrop elaborated by subsequent lyrics on the curse of Helen and the horrors of war and by Cassandra's prophetic danse macabre when she steps from Agamemnon's chariot. The swiftness and the drama of the action is introduced by the beacon speech. Spectacle itself produced high drama in the carpet scene, which not only supplies full and complete characterization of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra but communicates utter doom when Agamemnon treads the blood-colored carpet across the wide orchestra and into the palace doors which close behind him.
CHORUS OF ARGIVE ELDERS
CLYTEMNESTRA, wife of Agamemnon
AGAMEMNON, King of Argos
CASSANDRA, daughter of Priam and slave of Agamemnon
AEGISTHUS, son of Thyestes and cousin of Agamemnon
SCENE: Palace at Argos
Translated by A. W. Verrall
WATCHMAN: (on palace roof): A whole long year of watch have I prayed heaven for release, a year that, like a dog, I have made my bed in the embrace of this palace roof, till I know all the nightly company of the stars, and chiefly those chief signs that, marked by their brightness for the princes of the sky, bring summer and winter to man, all their wanings and their risings. And still I am watching for the token-flame, the beacon-blaze which is to carry the news from Troy, the tidings of the capture! This it is to be commanded by a woman, who brings her quick hopes into the business of men! When I have found my bed, rain-wetted, restless, and safer than some are from the visit of dreams (for instead of sleep comes the fear that sleeping might close my eyes forever), and when the fancy comes to whistle or sing by way of a salve for drowsiness, then tears arise of sorrow for what has befallen this house, now put to no such good work as in the old days. But ah, this time may the blessed release be given, the blessed beacon dawn with its message from the dark.
O joy! O welcome blaze, that shows in night as it were a dawn, you harbinger of many a dance, that shall be set in Argos for this good fortune! What ho! What ho! Lady of Agamemnon, I cry you loud: Up from the dark couch, quick, up, and raise the morning-hymn of your house in honor of yonder fire, if, as the signal manifestly announces, Troy town is taken indeed. Aye, and myself at least will prelude the dancing; for my score shall profit by my master's game, the treble-six, thrown me by yonder fire-signal.
Well, may the king return, may I clasp his welcome hand in mine. The rest shall be unspoken (my tongue has upon it an ox-foot weight), though the house itself, if it could find a voice, might declare it plain enough; for I mean to be, for my part, clear to who knows and to him who knows not blind. (Exit.)
CHORUS: Tis now the tenth year since, to urge their powerful right against Priam, King Menelaus and King Agamemnon, the mighty sons of Atreus, paired in the honor of throne and scepter derived from Zeus, put forth from this land with an Argive armament, a thousand crews of fighting men, summoned to their aid.
Loud rang their angry battle-cry, as the scream of vultures who, vexed by boys in the supreme solitudes where they nest, wheel with beating pinions round and round, when they miss the young brood whose bed it was their care to watch. And the shrill sad cry of the birds is heard by ears supreme, by Apollo belike or Pan or Zeus, who to avenge the licensed sojourners of their dwelling-place, sends soon or late on the offenders the ministers of punishment. Even such ministers are the sons of Atreus, sent to punish the triumph of Paris by their mightier Zeus, guardian of hospitality, that so for a woman whom many could win there should be wrestlings many and weary, where the knee is pressed in the dust and the shaft, the spousal shaft, is snapped, between suffering Greek and Trojan suffering too.
The cause is this day no further: the end will be as it must. By no increase of fuel or libation, and by no tears, shalt thou overcome the stubbornness of a sacrifice that will not burn.
As for us, whose worn thews could not render their service, that martial gathering left us behind, and here we bide, on guiding-staves supporting our childish strength. For if the young breast, where the sap is rising, is no better than eld but in this, that the spirit of war is not there, oh what is man, when he is more than old? His leaf is withered, and with his three feet he wanders, weak as a child, a day-lit dream.
But what of thee, daughter of Tyndareus, Queen Clytemnestra? What chance? What news? On what intelligence, what convincing report are thy messengers gone round bidding sacrifice? To all the gods that dwell in Argos, upper and nether gods, the high gods and the low, the altars blaze with gifts, while on all sides the flames soar up to the sky, yielding to the innocent spell and soft persuasion of hallowed oil, rich from the store of kings. All this (so far as thou canst and mayest consent) do thou explain, and thus cure my present care, which vexes me now anon, although at whiles the sacrifices call up a kindly hope and drive from my mind the unsated thought that still returns to the prey.
It is my right to tell--it is an encouragement upon their way permitted to them whose vigor is past, that still at their years they draw from heaven that winning inspiration, which is the strength of song--how the twin-throned Achaean Kings, concordant leaders of Hellas' youth, were sped with avenging arm and spear to the Teucrian land by a gallant omen, when to the kings of ships appeared the black king of birds and the white-backed king together, seen near the palace on the spear-hand in conspicuous place, feasting on hares, then full of young, stayed one course short of home.
Be sorrow, sorrow spoken, but still let the good prevail!
Then the good seer, who followed the host, when he saw how the two brave Atridae were in temper twain, took cognizance of those hare-devouring birds and of the princely captains, and thus he spake interpreting: After long time they that here go forth must win King Priam's town, though ere they pass the wall all their cattle, their public store, shall perforce be divided and consumed. Only may no divine displeasure foresmite and overcloud the gathering of the host, whose might should bridle Troy. For the wrath of holy Artemis rests on the house of those winged coursers of her sire, who sacrifice a trembling mother with all her young unborn. She loathes such a feast of eagles.
Be sorrow, sorrow spoken, but still let the good prevail!
Yea, fair one, loving though thou art unto the uncouth whelps of many a fierce breed, and sweet to the suckling young of all that roam the field, yet to this sign thou art prayed to let the event accord. Auspicious are these eagle-omens, but not without a flaw. But oh, in the blessed name of the Healer, raise thou not hindering winds, long to delay from the seas the Argive fleet; urge not a second sacrifice, foul offering of forbidden meat, which shall put hate between flesh and bone and break marital awe. For patient, terrible, never to be laid, is the wrath of the wife still plotting at home revenge for the unforgotten child.
Thus Calchas crossed his chant of high promise to the royal house from the omens of the march: and so with according burden
Be sorrow, sorrow spoken, but still let the good prevail!
Zeus--power unknown, whom, since so to be called is his own pleasure, I by that name address. When I ponder upon all things, I can conjecture nought but Zeus to fit the need, if the burden of vanity is in very truth to be cast from the soul. Not he, who perhaps was strong of yore and flushed with victorious pride, could now be so much as proved to have had being: and he that came next hath found his conqueror and is gone. But whoso to Zeus by forethought giveth titles of victory, the guess of his thought shall be right. And Zeus it is who leadeth men to understanding under this law, that they learn a truth by the smart thereof. The wound, where it lies dormant, will bleed, and its aching keep before the mind the memory of the hurt, so that wisdom comes to them without their will. And it is perhaps a mercy from a Power, who came by struggle to his majestic seat.
Thus it was with the Achaean admiral, the elder of the twain. A prophet, thought he, is not to blame, so he bent before the blast. But when his folk began to weary of hindering wind and empty cask, still lying over against Chalcis, where the tides of Aulis rush to and fro, while still the gales blew thwart from Strymon, stayed them and starved them, and penned them in port, grinding the men and making of ship and tackle a prodigal waste, and with lapse of time, doubled over and over, still withering the flower of Argos away; then at last, when the prophet's voice pointed to Artemis and told of yet one more means to cure the tempest's bane, a means pressing more on the princes, which made the sons of Atreus beat their staves upon the ground and let the tear roll down--the elder then of the twain found voice and said:
"Sore is my fate if I obey not, and sore if I must slay my child, the jewel of my home, staining paternal hands with virgin stream from the victim at the altar's side. Are not the two ways woeful both? How can I fail my fleet and lose my soldiery? For eager is their craving that to stay the winds her virgin blood should be offered up, and well they may desire it. May it be for the best!"
So, having put on his neck the harness of Necessity, his spirit set to the new quarter, impious, wicked, unholy, and from that moment he took to his heart unflinching resolve. For to put faith in the shedding of blood is an obstinate delusion, whose base suggestion is the beginning of sin. Howsoever he did not shrink from slaying a victim daughter in aid of war waged for a stolen wife, a spousalrite to bind unto him his fleet!
Her prayers, her cries to her father, mere life-breath of a girl, the spectators, eager for war, regarded not at all. Her father, after prayer, gave word to the ministers, while casting her robes about her she bowed herself desperately down, to lift her, as it were a kid, over the altar, and, for prevention of her beautiful lips, to stop the voice that might curse his house with the dumb cruel violence of the gag.
And she, as she let fall to earth her saffron robe, smote each one of the sacrificers with glance of eye that sought their pity, and seemed like as in a painting, fain to speak: for oft had she sung where men were met at her father's noble board, with pure voice virginally doing dear honor to the grace and blessing that crowned her father's feast.
What followed I saw not, neither do I tell. The rede of Calchas doth not lack fulfillment. Yet it is the law that only to experience knowledge should fall: when the future comes, then thou mayest hear of it; ere that, I care not for the hearing, which is but anticipating sorrows; it will come clear enough, and with it the proof of the rede itself. Enough: let us pray for such immediate good, as the present matter needs. Here is our nearest concern, this fortress, sole protection of the Argive land.
I am come, Clytemnestra, in observance of your command. It is right to render obedience to the sovereign and queen, when the husband's throne is empty. Now whether tidings good or not good have moved you by this ceremony to announce good hope, I would gladly learn from you: though if you would keep the secret, I am content.
CLYTEMNESTRA: For "good," as says the proverb, may the kind morn announce it from her kind mother night. But "hope" is something short of the joy you will hear. The Argive army has taken Priam's town.
CHORUS: How say you? I scarce caught the words, so incredible they were.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I said that Troy is ours. Do I speak clear?
CHORUS: It is joy that surprises me and commands its tear.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Yes, it is a loyal gladness of which your eye accuses you.
CHORUS: And what then is the proof? Have you evidence of this?
CLYTEMNESTRA: I have indeed, if miracle deceive me not.
CHORUS: Is it a dream-sign that commands your easy credence?
CLYTEMNESTRA: Not sight-proof would I accept from a brain bemused.
CHORUS: Yet can you have taken cheer from some uncertified presage?
CLYTEMNESTRA: You hold my sense as low as it were a babe's.
CHORUS: And what sort of time is it since the city fell?
CLYTEMNESTRA: It fell, I say, in the night whence yonder light is this moment born.
CHORUS: But what messenger could arrive so quick?
From the Paperback edition.