Sunday, July 24, 2016

Agamemnon by Aeschylus; translated by Robert Fagles

A seething queen lies in wait to kill the king

For ten years, Clytaemnestra has been anticipating her husband’s return from the Trojan War.  Outwardly rejoicing at his arrival, inwardly she murderously resents his decision to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia at the war's outset, in order to propitiate the goddess Artemis and summon the winds to blow the Greek fleet to Troy.  To make things worse, Agamemnon has brought back a present for himself, one of the spoils of Troy, Priam’s daughter, Apollo’s priestess, Cassandra the prophet.  Clytaemnestra honors her husband by laying down precious crimson tapestries for him to tread upon as he enters the house.  At first the King demurs, then acquiesces to the presumptuous idea.  Cassandra, dressed as a priestess of Apollo, refuses to speak.  The Queen enters the house, then Cassandra has a prophetic vision of death, her death, Agamemnon’s death, and all the previous deaths that have occurred in the house of Atreus.  She rips off her priestly garments, curses Apollo and goes inside.  The door to the house opens, revealing a ghastly scene.  Meanwhile, a chorus of old men comment on the action.

This was amazingly good, so profound, so angry at the evil in the world, and studded with amazing imagery.  The play is about war and the legacy of war.  There is also a strong feminist streak.  Clytaemnestra has had enough – she is going to overthrow the patriarchy.  The Athenian audience would contrast her with Penelope – one gone half mad with vindictive hatred and the other with hopeful loyalty.  The truths this 2,500 year old play tells about war and human nature are the same truths today.  The joy of the warrior at returning home; the resentment of the women at being pawns.  Women bear the brunt of the brutality.

The poetry is excellent, written by a soldier writing about war. One of the first images is the truly terrifying one of a gagged Iphigenia hoisted up like a goat to be slaughtered.  The echoes in the plot and the imagery are found in the framing story of the House of Atreus – the child murders.  The play is riddled with net and yoke images, of people trapped by fate and their own choices.  The King walks on the tapestries, the Queen stabs him to death.  The violence at home echoes the violence at Troy.

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