Agamemnon, which I speed-skimmed along with the rest of the Oresteia the night before an exam more than 20 years ago (I earned an A; you can move off the edge of your seats), forcefully reminds me how I often find myself increasingly happier with my reading the further I go back in time. Rightly or wrongly, I just feel less encumbered when I read Shakespeare or the Ancient Greeks, like there’s a more direct access to the purer stuff that makes writing interesting.
Agamemnon is a great example. It’s just so powerful and lyrical and– I don’t know– pure? Each character speaks with powerful rhetoric, black and white, out of which emerges a complex picture rife with shades of gray. Agamemnon, cold and hard (but who wouldn’t be given what he has gone through?); Clytaemestra, vengeful; Aegisthus, arrogant and shallow; and poor Cassandra, filled with foreboding. There are no half-measures taken here between ten years of war, the sacrifice (and unknowing eating) of children, seduction and murder… yet ultimately the entire play is one of critical ambiguity. We learn of what kind of man Agamemnon was, but not necessarily what he has become. We learn much of the decade-long war, but it’s unclear whether the long war was ultimately worth it to anyone. Clytaemestra’s revenge is warranted, but how much is the influenced by the power-hungry Aegisthus? We have to trust the Chorus for much of what we know of events and people (most critically Helen), but how reliable are they when they are completely gobsmacked by Cassandra’s predictions and Clytaemestra’s actions?
More thoughts in my usual, scattered, semi-random style:
Look for quite a few excerpts from Agamemnon to find their way to my Commonplace Book… there were so many powerful moments.
It seems exceedingly important that Clytaemestra is the one who murders Agamemnon rather than the conniving Aegisthus who claims “it was I who pieced together the fell plot.” Not only does this drive the plot forward mercilessly (it is conceivable that the cycle of blood revenge could be ended if Clytaemestra had killed as a result of Iphigeneia’s sacrifice, as her real quarrel would be with the gods), but it emphasizes that Clytaemestra is more masculine in her actions than Aegisthus… or most men of the time. Indeed, the watchman, opening the play, notes Clytaemestra’s “male strength of heart.”
Although her presence in the play is brief (though not as brief as that of the title character!), I find Cassandra the most fascinating character. Ill-treated from the start, equally gifted and cursed by the gods, Cassandra tragically sees the clearest of all both her fate and man’s.
The timing of some of the events in the play is oddly compressed. Given that Agamemnon was gone 10 years fighting a way many hundreds of miles away, how is it that Clytaemestra sees the fire beacons signaling victory (somewhat believable) and then Agamemnon appear the very next day (pretty much impossible)? Actually, I guess the question isn’t how those events are possible, but why the impossibility is presented without being simply accounted for through a division of the play into multiple acts or some indication of a passage of time… not to mention why Clytaemestra saw the signal fires the watchman did not. Is all this supposed to mean something?
If I were staging Agamemnon, I’d be tempted to play up some of the potentially comic elements, if only to provide a bit of relief from the unrelenting bleakness and sustained tragic intensity. I’m thinking primarily of the Chorus, which sounds so confident an authoritative at the start of the play– when dealing with historical events– but becomes increasingly confused and panicked as the play proceeds and they are confronted by Cassandra’s predictions and then the subsequent events… and Cassandra who is at the climactic point of her own existence but who has to repeat and finally dumb down her words so that the confused old men of the Chorus can understand her.