Oresteia II

The Agamemnon Concluded:

I’ll be very brief with the rest of the Agamemnon in order to discuss, more rapidly, the next two plays, where the moral and political crisis becomes apparent.   The central scene of the play, in dramatic terms, is the confrontation of Clytaemestra and Agamemnon.  She is the complete master of the situation, a man in woman’s body (as the chorus suggests),  and she persuades her husband  to repeat, symbolically, the arrogance and impiety he displayed in  the sack of Troy and sacrifice of Iphigenia.  He knows it is a sign of oriental despotism to walk upon the tapestries, but he does it anyway.   Note the parallel: In v. 248 Iphigenia’s saffron-colored robes spill to the ground like blood; here Clytaemestra  strews crimson oriental tapestries for Ag., persuading him that Priam–who we are told is the worst of sinners–would have done the same.  He knows better–treat me as a man, not as a god he says (925).

Clytaemestra traps her flattered husband in a web of ambiguous words–referring (975 ff.) to her rightful lord, who for her is really Aegisthus, etc.   She then traps him in an actual  net and with her lover stabs him to death.  She leaves, after a few threatening exchanges with Priam’s daughter, the prophetess Cassandra, who, once she is alone,  begins to “freak out”.   This house, she says,  is loathed by heaven, stained with the blood of children, and she is like a hound on the scent of blood.  (But remember the Erinyes/ Furies are also hounds, lurking up on the roof and in the gables–like the watchman who played dog).

Like the chorus in the Parodos, Cassandra is outside time and space–this is in tragedy the  lyric prerogative, which gives tragedy its liturgical dimension.   She sees Agamamnon being murdered in the present or near future, but she also sees the dead children of Thyestes.  The chorus tell her to shut up, fearing that she is stirring up an Erinys, an avenger.  She also sees her own death.  Cassandra, of course, is doomed to tell the truth and be disbelieved–this is Apollo’s revenge on her bad-faith bargain: He offered her prophetic power in exchange for her virginity and she renegged.   The  Chorus don’t quite get the point, but what  Cassandra replies is plain as the blood on Clytaemestra’s hands:  I say you will see the death of Agamemnon (1246).  In a few moments we shall.
If we had any sympathy for Clytaemestra, we lost it as she gloats over bodies of victims.  The Choros says it all happens through Zeus, but that is hard to imagine.  Clytaemestra  is now a demon, taking revenge on the house of Atreus.  A political struggle breaks out, mirroring the moral and political chaos in Argos, until Aegisthus comes in with armed followers for coup d’etat.  He is portrayed as the classic tyrant: proud, bullying, yet insercure. The Choros reproaches him with his unmanliness–a role reversal that also suggests anarchy.
Clytaemestra tells him, at the end, to quit his boasting.  It is important to note that it is she who gives the orders.  She also has the  last word: “You and I ruling together over this house will put things right.”
No one, even a country bumpking who did not know the story, could be persuaded.  The  central problem is that violence begets violence and blood calls for blood.  This is the central theme of the  play.  Atreus kills Thyestes’ children; Agamemnon kills Iphigenia; Aegisthus and Clytaemestra  kill Agamemnon.  Where and how will it end?

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