15 December 2011

Agamemnon Part III – The Consequences of Sacrifice

In my last post, I wrote about the silencing of the voice of the victim.  That same idea is carried into the first antistrophe 5, which says, “Lusting for war, the bloody arbiters / Closed heart and ears, and would not heed / The girl-voice plead.”  Those carrying her to the slaughter, those who had been guests in her father’s house and had known her from an infant, closed their ears and their hearts.  Agamemnon goes a step further.  At the end of antistrophe 5, he “Bade them, as with the bit that mutely tames the steed, / Her fair lips’ speech refrain, / Lest she should speak a curse on Atreus’ home and seed.” 
This was unnecessary.  For the curse has already been spoken; at the end of the epode, after the first antistrophe, we find, “At home there tarries like a lurking snake, / Biding its time, a wrath unreconciled, / A wily watcher, passionate to slake, / In blood, resentment for a murdered child.”  It is fitting that the end of the movement of strophes and antistrophes would also foretell the end of the play itself.  If we go back to the watchman from my first post of this series, we can see that he wants the war with Troy to be over because he is tired of watching day and night.  He believes Clytemnestra to be awaiting her man’s return, in the manner of Odysseus’s wife Penelope.  He says in the beginning of the play:
Let the loud summons ring within the ears
Of Agamemnon’s queen, that she anon
Start from her couch and with a shrill voice cry
A joyous welcome to the beacon-blaze,
For Ilion’s fall ….
Clytemnestra, however, has a completely different reason for wanting Agamemnon to return, and Aeschylus tells us what it is before we even finish the first complete movement of the play.  Her “wrath unreconciled” will barely allow her to pretend joy at the Achaeans’ return, but she must play the part of the good and loyal wife, lest she rouse Agamemnon’s suspicions. 
I want to avoid ruining the entire play for those who have not read it, but I am keeping my initial goal in mind; which is to briefly look at the back story of the Iliad.  During the writing of these posts, I have followed other tangential ideas, but have tried to ensure that they are still connect and not merely touching as they fly by.  Sacrifice, honor, silencing victims and war are all themes that I see that this play shares with the Iliad.  I want to look at the manner in which Agamemnon’s foretold doom is carried out.  Behind the execution of that prophecy is an old, dark presence; revenge.
The idea of revenge is prominent in early poetry and drama.  It is evident in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the play I am now studying, and even in Scandinavian sagas—including Beowulf.  In most cases revenge is carried out by a male character related to a victim.  This play is an exception, in that Agamemnon’s sons do not carry out the pre-ordained and foretold end of the king.  Clytemnestra is key in the orchestration and the fulfillment of the deed, by her hand Agamemnon’s blood is actually shed.  She slakes “in blood” the “resentment for a murdered child.”
Clytemnestra says, after killing Agamemnon:
My guilt thou harpest, o’er and o’er!
I bid thee reckon me no more
As Agamemnon’s spouse.
The old Avenger, stern of mood
for Atreus and his feast of blood,
Hath struck the lord of Atreus’ house,
And in the semblance of his wife
The king hath slain.—
Yea , for the murdered children’s life,
A chieftain’s in requital ta’en.
She claims that the Avenger took her form and struck Agamemnon down.  This is a euphuistic way of saying that she was overcome by vengeance and wrath.  In this short second stanza of this second refrain, Aeschylus makes a connection between Greek drama and the Hebrew religion.  The latter, states in the law, “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21.23-25). 
It seems that the idea of vengeance is strong and deep in the human history.  What drives it?  Agamemnon murdered his own child and, as we will see, goes off to Troy and begins to amass treasure and women slaves.  And while the Iliad was written before Agamemnon, the back story must have been there even while Homer was singing the poem.
Aeschylus’ play covers what happens back home—Agamemnon’s home.  As I hinted earlier, this is the final post in my study of Agamemnon.  Next, I will look at a few parts of The Trojan Women by Euripides, particularly the parts that give us a portrayal of Helen, who Aeschylus calls “one false woman.”
I have a quote from The Trojan Women that fits nicely with the discussion of vengeance.  Cassandra, who was taken prisoner by Agamemnon and who was also killed by Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ play, says this in The Trojan Women:
O Mother, fill mine hair with happy flowers,
And speed me forth. Yea, if my spirit cowers,
Drive me with wrath! So liveth Loxias,
A bloodier bride than ever Helen was
Go I to Agamemnon, Lord most high
Of Hellas!… I shall kill him, mother; I
Shall kill him, and lay waste his house with fire
As he laid ours. My brethren and my sire
Shall win again….
      (Checking herself) But part I must let be,
And speak not. Not the axe that craveth me,
And more than me; not the dark wanderings
Of mother-murder that my bridal brings,
And all the House of Atreus down, down, down….
She dies in Agamemnon, but she had her own plans for letting the old Avenger take her form in order to take vengeance on the king for killing her family.

That's the end....

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