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Lines 1-502 Notes from Agamemnon

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Agamemnon Lines 1-502

King Agamemnon from the Greek city of Argos has been gone for ten years. During this time, the Trojan War is being waged at Troy between the Greeks and the Trojans in a fight to take Helen back to Greece. She is the wife of Menelaus, but she was kidnapped by a Trojan guest named Paris; Menelaus asked his brother Agamemnon to help him to gather an army of Greeks from all of the different city-states in the land in order to go to Troy and kidnap Helen. After a large army was assembled however, none of the ships could sail from the port city of Aulis until Agamemnon sacrificed his eldest daughter Iphigenia. After this was done, the goddess Artemis was appeased, sending wind down from the heavens so that the Greek ships could sail off to fight in Troy. Agamemnon's wife Clytaemnestra was outraged that he violated their family by killing his own daughter. Clytaemnestra did not agree with this decision, but Agamemnon did not ask her opinion before he committed the sacrifice. To him, the importance of helping out his brother Menelaus was greater than the love that he might feel toward his daughter or wife.

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Time went on and, as the Trojan War was being fought in a city that is very far away, a Watchman has sat waiting on the roof of King Agamemnon's palace to see if there is any signal that the war has ended, especially for a sign that the Greeks are victorious. When the war is finally over after ten long years of harsh fighting, the Greeks sail home again. The Watchman is laments to himself that he has waited for so long, with no sign at all from Agamemnon's men. Suddenly, he sights a blaze of light out in the distance, recognizing this for the signal that he has awaited all of these years. Excited, he proclaims aloud, "I cry the news aloud to Agamemnon's queen/that she may rise up from her bed of state with speed/to raise the rumor of gladness welcoming this beacon,/and singing rise, if truly the city of [Troy]/has fallen, as the shining of this fire proclaims" Lines 25-29. As the Watchman rushes off to tell Clytaemnestra that her husband is finally returning from the Trojan War, the Chorus of Elders enters and recalls past events about what caused the Trojan War.

The Chorus mentions that Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus are very similar to each other, "twin throned, twin sceptered, in twofold power" and they are also called the "Atreidae" because they both have the same father, Atreus. These men wonder what shall be the outcome of the war, for they have not yet spoken to the Watchman about the signal he has witnessed; they express some disdain that the war is fought all for the sake of one woman, Helen, saying that it is all for "one woman's promiscuous sake." Helen is not very respected by the Chorus, since she is called "promiscuous" for going so willingly with the Trojan Paris after he kidnapped her from Menelaus' palace at Sparta. These men also feel excluded from the joys of fighting because they are so old, "dishonored in our old bones,/[we] cast off even then from the gathering horde,/stay here, to prop up/on staves the strength of a baby./Since the young vigor that urges/inward to the heart/is frail as age, no warcraft yet perfect,/while beyond age, leaf/withered, man goes three footed/no stronger than a child is,/a dream that falters in daylight" Lines 72-82. Because these men are so old and weak, they are unable to be the great soldiers they perhaps were once in their youth; they have "the strength of a baby." Even though these men are filled with the impulse to go and fight this "vigor" is limited by the physical strength that is left in their bones. In old age, men have three feet, because of the third "foot" that is their walking stick or cane; the Chorus accepts its own mortality and realizes how death approaches them. They are "a dream that falters in daylight," for they are slowly fading away as their bodies grow until death shall consume them all. As a result, they are somewhat bitter that they are old, jealous of the younger men who are still able to fight.

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Clytaemnestra approaches the Chorus as they speak, but she does not disturb them or make her presence known. Continuing, they lament again how sad it is that the Greeks have attacked Troy, and it is worse still that the war has gone on for ten years without any information about what has happened to those who left so long ago. They recall the prophesy that a soothsayer named Calchas had once made about the future. After observing a hound devouring a pregnant rabbit, the Chorus warns that although Troy will fall and many innocents shall be killed (implied due to the unborn young inside of the rabbit), some gods will be angry, such as Artemis, and may wish to punish the Greeks for destroying the city of Troy. They pray that her brother Apollo will protect the Greeks from any danger that his sister may cause, such as stopping the winds from blowing and forcing Agamemnon to make another sacrifice, as he did when he killed Iphigenia. The Chorus praises the wisdom of the king of the gods, Zeus, knowing that he will watch over them all in dealing with any dilemma.

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The Chorus recalls that it was Artemis who demanded the original sacrifice of Iphigenia, it was she who had taken away their wind for the ships, for the priest Calchas told the Greeks what this goddess wanted. It was a difficult choice for Agamemnon to make, as the man uttered aloud, "My fate is angry if I obey these,/but angry if I slaughter/this child, the beauty of my house,/with maiden blood shed staining/these father's hands beside the altar./What of these things goes now without disaster?/How shall I fail my ships/and lose my faith of battle?" Lines 206-214. The loss of Agamemnon's manliness and the mere thought of being disloyal to his army is the deciding factor; he murders his own daughter so that the army can sail off to Troy, his pride as a general intact, although his role as a good father is destroyed. The Chorus is very disapproving of what Agamemnon has done, since the war is fought just for this one woman, Helen. The men describe the innocent look Iphigenia had before she was sacrificed by her father; how she was lifted up to the altar by all of the soldiers in the army; how she looked out at all of the men with sad, pleading eyes before her father stuck his knife against her. No one came to her rescue or even protested against what was about to be done. In a way, it is as if not only Agamemnon, but also the entire Greek army is responsible for Iphigenia's death.

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Topic Tracking: Justice 1

The Chorus turns to recognize Clytaemnestra, who has been standing nearby listening to them speak. They recognize that, in King Agamemnon's absence, she is the ruler of Argos. They offer her their reverence and respect, asking if she has any good news to bring to them. The queen announces that the city of Troy has been captured by the Greeks, since she has observed the long line of signal fires that have been set ablaze all the way from Troy to within sight of the watchtower at Argos, each after the other, invoking the name of the Greek hearth god, Hephaestus. Obviously, the Watchman has informed her of the signal fire that he has seen. The Chorus is stunned to hear this news, especially since they have waited for the war to end for so many years. They ask their queen to describe in detail what is happening in Troy at the moment, thanking the gods for this great victory.

The queen imagines then, that "I think that the city echoes with a clash of cries.../Trojans are stooping now to gather in their arms/their dead, husbands and brothers; children lean to clasp/the aged who begot them, crying upon the death/of those most dear, from lips that will never be free" Lines 320-329. Rejoicing in this Greek victory and describing the suffering that the Trojan people are no doubt experiencing at that moment, she also prays that the Greeks will not disrespect the gods, lamenting "Let not their passion overwhelm them." Clytaemnestra hopes that the Greek men will not become so caught up in their victory that they will go too far and plunder the gods' altars or ruthlessly rape any of the Trojan women. The queen thus prays for the safe return of her husband Agamemnon and the rest of the Greek army.

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Upon hearing that they have been victorious, the Chorus of Elders changes its attitude a bit about the war, no longer bitter, now that they know it is soon to be over and the men will be returning home. They sing about how great and mighty the god Zeus is, thanking him for bringing victory to the Greeks. They go on to say that Paris Alexander deserved this punishment, to have his city destroyed, because of the wrong he did to the Greeks by taking Helen away from Menelaus while staying in his city as a guest. Paris has received exactly what he deserves, stating that "There is not any armor/in gold against perdition/for him who spurns the high altar/of Justice down into the darkness" Lines 381-384. Even though he is a prince and his father is king of Troy, Paris cannot hide anywhere from the justice that the Greeks have shown to him for the wicked crime of kidnapping his host's wife. The Trojans have gotten exactly what they deserve at the hands of the Greeks.

Yet not all of these Greek soldiers will be fortunate to come back alive, and the Chorus laments those who will die in battle, warning also that some men will be tortured by the gods for sins of excess, "The gods fail not to mark/those who have killed many./The black Furies stalking the man/fortunate beyond all right/wrench back again the set of his life/and drop him to darkness.../Let me attain no envied wealth,/let me not plunder cities,/neither be taken in turn, and face/life in the power of another" Lines 461-474. The Chorus advises that the soldiers must have moderation in the amount of people that they slaughter and in the amount of plunder they will steal from Troy. If the Greek soldiers do not have moderation, then they will be punished by those gods of revenge called the Furies. They also state that it is a very sad life to have to live after being captured, suggesting perhaps that it is better to die than to live controlled by someone else.

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Topic Tracking: Justice 2

Having spoken all of these words together as a group, the Chorus of Elders now each speaks one by one, questioning if this news of Troy's demise is really true, or if Clytaemnestra is mistaken. One of these men comments that "It is like a woman indeed/to take rapture before the fact is shown for true/They believe too easily, are too quick to shift/from ground to ground; and swift indeed/the rumor voiced by a woman dies again" Lines 483-487. Although the Chorus had earlier said that the queen must be treated equally with King Agamemnon since he is away and there is no one else left to rule the city of Argos, now they express some disdain for her simply because she is a woman. The men say that women are impulsive creatures who do not think before they act, and who take rumors to be facts without even making sure that they are really true or not; women are unstable creatures that are "too quick to shift from ground to ground" and as such, women cannot be trusted or relied upon. This discussion about Clytaemnestra is interrupted as a Herald suddenly approaches them from the beach beneath the palace, carrying an olive sprig for peace. The Chorus of Elders waits anxiously for the Herald to arrive so that they can hear what news he brings to them.

Topic Tracking: Gender 4

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