Published: 458 BC
The first play in Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, this tragedy tells of Agamemnon's less than triumphant return home from the Trojan War and his subsequent demise at the hand of his wife, Clytaemestra and her lover, Aegisthus who is his cousin.
The Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) often used their work to expound on the characters that had their source in Homer's epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. This trilogy is a perfect example.
Long story short, the house of Atreus (father of Agamemnon and Menelaus) had been cursed by his brother, Aegisthus' father. Really icky story that involves seduction, jealous rage, unforgiveness, infanticide and cannibalism.
It is Menelaus' wife, Helen who was abducted (or went willingly) to Troy which started the Trojan War. Agamemnon led the expedition to retrieve Helen, but faced obstacles from the onset. The entire fleet was held at port due to weather and when Agamemnon was told he needed to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the goddess Artemis' wrath, he did it, albeit reluctantly. Clytaemestra never forgot nor forgave and nursed her bitterness through ten long years of war.
The themes in this play are big: the sacrifices of war and price paid by all; the affects of war on the home which can lead to a domestic-type warfare and the love of a child that feeds a mother's revenge so big that nothing short of a bloody death can satiate.
I am a huge Lord of the Rings movie fan and was fascinated to read about the beacons in Agamemnon which were used to signal the fall of Troy. This is how Clytaemestra and the people of Argos knew to prepare for Agamemnon's homecoming. I wonder if this was the source of Tolkien's beacons of Gondor.
This quote tells of the steep price of two brother's pride to get one woman back - thousands dead, widowed and fatherless and whole cities sacked.
The god of war, money changersI have put down two translations of the same passage - Clytaemestra's speech after the bloody deed - to show that a reader may prefer one translation to another.
of dead bodies,
held the balance of his spear in the fighting,
and from the corpse-fires at Ilium
sent to the dearest the dust
heavy and bitter with tears shed
packing smooth the urns with
ashes that once were men.
Richmond Lattimore's translation:
Thus he went down, and the life struggled out of him;
and as he died he spattered me with the dark red
and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood
to make me glad, as garden stand among the showers
of God in glory at the birth time of the buds...
Were it religion to pour wine above the slain,
this man deserved, more than deserved; such sacrament.
He filled our cup with evil things unspeakable
and now himself come home has drunk it to the dregs...
That man is Agamemnon,
My husband; he is dead; the work of this right hand
that struck in strength of righteousness. And that is that.
Robert Fagles' translation:
So he goes down, and the life is bursting out of him -
great sprays of blood, and the murderous shower
wounds me, dyes me black and I, I revel
like the Earth when the spring rains come down,
the blessed gift of gods, and the new green spear
splits the sheath and rips to birth in glory...
And if I pour upon his body the libation
it deserves, what wine could match my words?
It is right and more than right. He flooded
the vessel of our proud house with misery,
with the vintage of the curse and now
he drains the dregs. My lord is home at last...
Here is Agamemnon, my husband made a corpseIn this instance, I prefer the Fagles' translation as it is more dramatic and powerful. This teaches me that word choice can make a big difference.
by this right hand - a masterpiece of Justice.
Done is done.