I’ve been talking about reading Agamemnon the first play of Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy for long enough. Now that I have read two different translations of it, two very different introductions, and let a few days pass so it could all sink in, it’s time to get down to business. But first, some background is required.
Agamemnon is a member of the House of Atreus. Not only has he inherited the throne of Argos but he has also inherited a curse. Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, has a brother, Thyestes. The two are rivals. Thyestes is in exile from Argos but Atreus, wanting to secure the throne for himself hatches a horrible, horrible plan. He calls Thyestes back to Argos on the premise that he wants to let bygones be bygones. Thyestes shows up with his family willing to make amends. Atreus feasts Thyestes handsomely. But can you guess what he feasts him on? If you said Thyestes own sons, then you get a gold star!
Thyestes is chowing down on the best stew ever. The meat is so sweet and tender; yum, yum, can I have seconds? And then he gets to the bottom of the bowl where there are recognizable body parts. After Thyestes finishes barfing, he curses the House of Atreus. Of course there is one son who escaped. Aegisthus was an infant at the time and safe with his mother instead of playing in Atreus’ courtyard with his brothers.
Fast forward and Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, loses his beautiful wife, Helen, to the Trojan Paris. Agamemnon gets up an army to take back his brother’s woman. Unfortunately, the winds are blowing against them and the ships are stuck in the harbor with the army morale sinking fast. A soothsayer reads the signs and declares a sacrifice has to be made–Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon is willing to do whatever it takes to get to Troy and win glory. He performs the sacrifice himself. The winds change and off he goes to Troy, little thinking that while he is away the chickens will come home to roost.
His wife, Clytaemtnestra,, who is Helen’s sister, plans vengeance against her husband for murdering their daughter. She sends their son, Orestes, far away so he can’t stop her. Aegisthus then shows up with his own plans for vengeance and he and Clytaemnestra hit it off. Of course the pair also jump into the sack because vengeance and sex are two great things that go great together.
Now, finally, the wait is over. Clytaemnestra had a signal fire relay set up between Argos and Troy so that when Troy fell, she would know it well in advance of Agamemnon arriving home. And here the play Agamemnon opens with the watchman on the roof of the palace. He has been watching for the signal fire every night since the ships sailed for Troy. When it appears in the darkness he can hardly believe his eyes. When he is sure that what he is seeing is real he cries for joy and calls out to wake up the house. But before he leaves the stage he gives us what I imagine as an almost Hamlet-like moment:
O if these walls had a voice,
what tales they could tell.
As for me,
I speak to those who know,
To those who don’t,
He knows something is rotten in the state of Denmark but, as he says, “an ox sits on my tongue.” It is best to keep his mouth shut, but we, the audience have been warned that something big is going to happen.
I’m going to leave you with a cliff hanger otherwise this post would be way to long. Come back for part 2 tomorrow!