In The Agamemnon as in other plays, Aeschylus grasps the fundamental issues of life and death and presents the problems of the vicissitudes of human fortune, of man’s prosperity and disaster. Man works according to his nature, but behind his actions there are dark and inexorable forces, which wirepull man. The hereditary curse in the expression of the will of the gods and goddesses. “Aeschylus thus presents us with the familiar paradox that, though men think themselves to be acting by free choice, their actual decisions are determined by forces beyond their control and almost beyond their knowledge.”
Aeschylus has introduced in all his plays, (and The Agamemnon is on exception), the theme of free will and determinism. He seems to emphasize that man, proud man, dressed in brief little authority, makes independent decisions; and has the over-weening confidence that he is the arbiter of his destiny, as of others, whom he imagines to be subordinate to him. But the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus laugh at man’s pride and indiscretion, and reshape everything. That explains why Aeschylus’ plots are at once individual and universal. But his divinities are not Lucretian in their conception. As an intensely religious person, Aeschylus knows that out of evil will emerge good.
The Oresteia a trilogy consisting of The Agamemnon, Eumenides, and choephorae is the highest achievement in ancient Greek drama. “It has all the splendor of language and the lyrical magic of the early plays, the old, almost superhuman grandeur of outline, while it is as sharp and deep in character-drawing, as keenly dramatic, as the finest work of Sophocles. The Cassandra scene in The Agamemnon, where the doomed prophetess, whom none may believe, sees the vision of her own death and the king’s, awaiting her the palace, is simply appalling on the stage, while in private study many a scholar will testify to its eternal freshness.”
The tragedies of Aeschylus are an epitome of his religious and moral ideas. “On many perhaps make out rather more strongly in Aeschylus than in other writers three characteristic ways of looking at life. His tragedies come, as perhaps all great tragedies do, from some Hubris, some self-assertion of a strong will, in the way of intellect or emotion or passion, against stronger outside forces, circumstances or laws or gods. Aeschylus was essentially the man to feel the impassable bars against which human nature battles; and the overthrow of the great king was the one thought that was in every Greek mind at the time. Thus the peril of human hubris and the “jealousy of god, i.e. the fact that man’s will aims further than his power can reach-is one rather conspicuous principle in Aeschylus.”
Aeschylus has often been charged with fatalism. Gilbert Murray, however, thinks that his fatalism is exactly a reflection that is borne in on most people considering any grave calamity that it is the natural consequence of many things that have happened before. Agamemnon’s ancestors had been proud, if not violent. Crime and sin were in their blood. As soon as blood is spilt, it clamors for blood. The wrong-doers beget children, who revel in wrong-doing. The curse-spirit, known as Ara, broods over the scene of the wrong, and the children from generation to generation become sinners, for the sins of the fathers visit upon the children. In many cases the sinning races have become totally extinct.
Aeschylus was the demiurge of ancient dramatic art. In all his plays, his creative art has been exhibited on a grand scale. He infused life even into the inanimate objects of Nature. The mountains and the Ocean, the waves and the winds could speak and share human sentiments, Justice, Insolence, and Ate were on longer mere abstractions. They became the potent ministers of Zeus. Aeschylus had a massive imagination with which he recreated the Greek pantheon. The characters in his plays are all cast in a heroic mould His style is broad and sweeping. He could not, or did not confine himself to a single play. Only a trilogy could capture the grand sweep of his imagination.
A Titan Aeschylus wielded a titanic chisel to hew the mountain into statues. Sophocles and Euripides could not even concern the grandeur of the Aeschylus design and execution It let quality that at times he has been called Asiatic. He seemed to be a prophet of the East, rather than of Athens. Like the prophet of the East. Aeschylus had a deep and mystical sense of life. As a soldier in the battle of Marathon Aeschylus was heroic in his outlook, and could have no compromise with the idyllic aspect of love. The relation that existed between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus was not of love, but filthy sex and adultery. He perhaps thought that romantic love would strike a note of discord in a heroic tragedy. The brotherly feelings and filial sentiments are to be found in his plays. But it is vain to seek the healthy affection that unwedded youngmen and youngwomen experience.
Obviously Aeschylus had no guiding principle of ethics or morality. But the truth emerges from a critical analysis of his plays that he believed in the indissoluble connection between acts and consequences. Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.” The will of the gods and goddesses is supreme, beside which the human desire and action pale into insignificance. His men and women are free. It may sound paradoxical that their action is overruled by destiny. Man appears to be utterly helpless, and yet there is ample scope for the exercise of his moral judgment.
If Aeschylus’ plots are grand, no less grand is his characterization. For it was through the characters that Aeschylus sought to exhibit a great action. At times the characters are types. “The psychology of his chief characters is, therefore, inherent in their action, and is only calculable in connection with their momentary environments. We have to infer their specific quality less from what they say than from their bearing and their conduct in the crisis of the drama. Only after profound study of the situation of each tragedy, after steeping our imagination in the elementary conditions selected by the poet, can we realise the fulness of their individuality.”
In the light of the above discussion we propose to analyze the Orestelan trilogy in general and the Agamemnon in particular. The trilogy is undoubtedly the masterpiece of Aeschylus as a tragic playwright. It is an integrally connected poem in three magnificent parts. The murder of Agamemnon after his triumphant return from Troy is the theme of the first play. The grim prophecy of Cassandra opens a terrific vista of the horrors accumulated upon the cursed family of Thyestes. “Thus the past was connected with the present, and the intolerable account of guilt which Orestes, the chief actor, was destined in the end, by the help of Heaven, to discharge, was vividly presented to the minds of the audience.” Clytemnestra is frenzied in her rejoicing over the tragic end of her husband. She is jubilant that she has succeeded in avenging the death of her first born, Iphigenia. She is also happy that her adultery with Aegisthus cannot be condemned by her husband. The chorus are rather hostile to Clytemnestra, and, they, therefore, ask her to explain it she really killed her husband to avenge Iphigenia’s death. She refused to give a reply. It was strange that Orestes was pursued by the Furies after the murder of his mother, while Clytemnestra was not husband by the Furies, although she had slain her husband. The reason is not far to seek. The Furies were supposed to take note only of kindred blood. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had no kindred blood, and, therefore, the wife was not haunted. Lady Macbeth chose to be unsexed to fulfill her ambitious de sign. But womanhood asserted itself, and ultimately she had to put an end to herself in a moment of mental aberration. Clytemnestra, however, had no compunctious visitings of nature. But she had yet to reckon with Orestes, living in exile.
Choephora continues the story of blood and revenge. Orestes came back with the sole object of avenging his father. His mother and her paramour Aegisthus must be killed. His sister Electra came to his rescue. Orestes showed his countrymen the robe his father wore while Clytemnestra hit him with an axe. At a moment of triumph Orestes was struck with horror to see the Furies of his mother fast approaching him. Orestes ran in a state of panic.
The third play of the trilogy is The Eumenides. Orestes sought asylum in the temple of Apollo in Delphi. For it was at the behest of the god that he had come all the way to take revenge. He was at the altar with the branch of suppliant olive. The hideous, blood-curding Furies were waiting for an opportunity to seize Orestes. Apollo asked Orestes to proceed to Athens and seek the intervention of Pallas Athene. Orestes was on the way to Athens. But the ghost of Clytemnestra appeared there and urged the sleeping Furies to wake up and pursue her son. Athene was presiding over the court of the Areopagus to decide the issue. Apollo strongly defended Orestes, whom the Furies were determined to doom. The Furies found no extenuating circumstances for shedding the blood of a mother, however wicked. Apollo in his turn had nothing but words of condemnation for the murderers of the husband “In the breasts of the human judges, these three faculties-the instinct which condemns matricide, the instinct which sanctions under any circumstance the punishment of crime, and the reason which holds the balance of impulses are active.” Votes were taken, and it appeared that half decided against Orestes, while half acquitted him. Athene had her casting vote in favour of Orestes. The Furies threaten vengeance against Athene, who placated them by offering a palace of honour in Athens.
According to Symonds, The Agamemnon is decidedly the noblest in the trilogy. It is the masterpiece of Aeschylus. The three plays are interlinked, and their connection is that of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, “The Agamemnon sets forth the crime of Clytemnestra; the Choephorae exhibits the exceptional conduct of Orestes with regard to that crime; the Eumenides contains his exculpation. The third play offers a reconciliation of the agencies at warfare in the first and second; the curse of the house of Atreus is worked out and set at rest by the hero whose awful duty it was to avenge a father’s murder on a mother. His justification lay in his submission to the divine will. Had he taken the matricidal office on himself in haste or anger, he must have added another link to the chain of crime that hitherto had bound his family through generations. What he did, however, was done with a clear conscience; and, though he suffered the maddening anguish of so terrible an act, he found rest and peace for his soul at last. Thus a new power, unrealized in The Agamemnon and the Choephoroe, was needed for the solution presented in the Eumenides.”
In The Agamemnon, Aeschylus has presented before us a wonderful spectacle of tragic grandeur, which can hardly be rivaled by any tragic playwright, ancient or modern. There are, of course, critics, who complain that the play contains choral odes, which are unusually lengthy, full of abstract thought. This defect, if it is at all a defect, may be ignored when we stand before the grand panorama of life presented in the play with awe and wonder. The dazzling images and the splendid verse are simply adorable and unforgettable. The poet, however, has never been lost in the coloured mist of imagery. He is irresistibly moving towards the terrible climax, i.e. the frantic cry of the king, while he was being murdered by his wife. Aeschylus has not been particular about the introduction of the subtle and delicate beauties in the minor parts. For that we shall have to turn to Shakespeare. But when we watch the Agamemnon on the stage we cannot help admiring and wondering at the massiveness, the vigour of Aeschylus’ conception.
The atmosphere of the Agamemnon is charged with countless sins and crimes. The characters are caught in the meshes, and there is hardly any escape. The inexorable and dark forces are at work. The menacing clouds are rumbling overhead. At last the storm bursts, and the proud king lies in a pool of blood. Cassandra, the helpless prophetess, is also taken to the gallows. Clytemnestra, with her hands stained with blood, looms large before our vision. She is full of diabolical glee and seems to be a phantom of hell. This is however, not the end of the tragedy. The house of Atreus has to be cleaned. The murder of Agamemnon is but a prelude to the ensuing tragedies, which could be visualized only by the blind prophet Tiresias.
The Agamemnon is as remarkable for the splendour of its expression as the dramatic intensity of the soul-stirring, blood-curding scenes. “But it is not merely a great tragedy and a great poem, says Gilbert Murray, it is also an attempt of a powerful mind to think out, in terms that are not quite our terms, one of the deep unsolved mysteries of life-The problem of Sin, Punishment, and Forgiveness.” The play places before the readers and the spectators the problem of moral law. To the sophisticated mind, moral law is a figment of imagination. To Aeschylus, however, moral law is a fact not to be ignored. Confession of sin and penance, often used by the Catholics, were, in a sense, adumbrated in the Aeschylean drama.
Gibert Murray’s admirable analysis of the concept of moral law may be summed up. Every man has to live in the society or community. The Society has to observe certain code or norms, which the Greeks described as Themis. Certain things were, however, tabooed. Whenever the norms are violated, the society is thrown out of gear. Justice or Dike has then to appear to make the society cleaner. One of the deadliest of sins is hubris, or pride or insolence. Murray suggests that hubris and plexonia are almost synonymous terms. Literally, plexonia means the passion for having more. Hubris has to be chastened and punished by Dike. Not Aeschylus alone, but the Greek legends and philosophy, literature and history also have illustrated this basic principle of the Greeks.
This fundamental truth is writ large in the Aeschylean tragedies in general and the Oresteia in particular. “In the Agamemnon it is the inevitability of retribution. Life is a savage struggle, yet the divine pity broods over it. Strong creatures, following their own lusts, do hubris everywhere to weaker things. None of the victims can hit back. All are helpless. But the accumulated tension of wrong done become intolerable. The world cannot bear it. Nameless gods or Erinyes vibrate with indignant pity, and inevitably the storm bursts. It is difficult in the Agamemnon to isolate one particular wrong for which the king is punished, or one particular motive which leads Clytemnestra to her crime; one feels rather the whole cruelty of life turning, like a fire-ringed scorpion, its poison against itself. Behind the wickedness or blindness of this or that particular son of Atreus there is the Daemon of the House, which cannot rest because of all the innocent blood that has been shed, and tries madly to find peace through more blood. Even Clytemnestra, though her conduct can all be thought out as the result of personal grievances, is really a tool caught up in the hand of a greater power and then flung away.”
The murder of Agamemnon has not yet re-established the broken order, Agamemnon suffered for his hubris, but Clytemnestra has no justification for the murder. She has committed adultery Much as she may say that she has murdered her husband to vindicate Iphigenia, it will appear even to a superficial observer that she has sought to keep her adultery undetected. Hence Clytemnestra also deserves punishment. The society at that time was not governed by public law or a systematically formulated penal code. Blood-feud was the order of the day. That is why Orestes has to come as the dispenser of justice. If he does not avenge the death of his father, there will be the triumph of evil and injustice. Filial affection demands that the father must be vindicated.
The question haunts our mind as to why Orestes is pursued by the Furies, although he is the dispenser of Justice. He has done the right. It is Apollo who has asked him to murder his mother. The difficulty has been met by Murray.
“Though every wrong is justly punished, yet, as the world goes, every punishment is itself a new wrong calling for fresh vengeance The law counts all bloodshed as the same: the slayer shall die. Again and again throughout the trilogy Aeschylus studies the psychology of the sinner or wrong-doer, and finds it never to be pure evil. It is the answer to some other wrong, or it is the result of some Eros, or passionate longing, some Peitho, or persuading temptation, some stealing Ate or Delusion, which makes the evil thing seem good.”
Aeschylus has not blindly or slavishly followed the Greek mythology in his Oresteia. We have it on the authority of Herodous that he has made Artemis the daughter of Demeter- an idea drawn upon Egyptian lore. In the Eumenides Artemis is the daughter of the Earth. Aeschylus has taken liberties with the Epic tradition. He has represented Agamemnon and Menelaus as the joint kings of Argos
The woman in Aeschylus’ plays are not very well-drawn. For Aeschylus’ world is essentially masculine. Ho considers men to be infinitely superior to women. Clytemnestra is the only strong character in his portrait-gallery. His Electra appears to be weak and pathetic and deserves to be contrasted with the Electra of Sophocles.
No appreciation of the Agamemnon is complete without a reference to the style. Aeschylus’ style is consistently grand. The actors wore masks and robes, which emphasized their remoteness from the spectators. Their language was also different from that of the people of the time. The dialogue was often stiff and archaic. “The language of Aeschylus,” says Hugh Lloyd-Jones, “abounds with words borrowed from epic or lyric poetry, and he himself freely coined high-sounding compound names and adjectives. Another Important influence on his diction was the language of religious ritual. This mode of speech greatly influenced the hymns, prayers laments, and even the spoken portions of early tragedy. Such language could not be faithfully rendered without some degree of archaism, and, indeed, it was meant to seem archaic even to its original audiences.”
The grand style of Aeschylus lifted the audience from the banalities of everyday existence. The spectacles presented by him had a pageantry. So had his style. His grandeur, however, was not ornate or colourful. It had a kind of simplicity, which was the prerogative of the great masters.