Aeschylus’s play, Agamemnon, begins with a watchman waiting for the time “When shall stream up the glow of signal-flame, / the bale-fire bright, and tell its Trojan tale— / Troy town is ta’en:” (48). From the viewpoint of the Trojan war, this play begins at the end. But, with strophe I, after the first chorus, it returns to the beginning. The chorus gives us some background, setting and the amount of time that has passed since the Achaeans have gone to war in Ilion.
Aeschylus, in the antistrophe I, after the first chorus, takes us further back, takes us to the time when the sons of Atreus and the Greeks were waiting to sail for Troy. Then, the fateful omen of the birds and its interpretation. The omen, which is contained the antistrophe I and the epode, says, basically, that Agamemnon has to offer his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to get the wind blowing so the ships can leave. But, it also clearly says that revenge will fall on his head!
Now, right there Agamemnon should have said, “You know what, Menelaus, you can go after your two-timing wife yourself, because this whole thing sounds like a really messed up deal for me and mine.”
But, blood is thinner than honor. Agamemnon, like all the other Greek leaders, had made an oath to help Menelaus retrieve Helen should she be “kidnapped.” That’s not in this play, but it is convenient that it was there. I have a sneaking suspicion that it was added later as a way of reconciling the idiocy of all the Greek city-states (or clans or whatever you want to call them) going to war just to get back an adulterous woman. The oath makes it a matter of honor, not to mention there is the opportunity for power and for glory. So, Agamemnon becomes a monster:
And so he steeled his heart—ah, well-a-day—That's just abhorrent. Agamemnon struggled with this! A father slays an innocent child—and his own innocent child, at that—to get back an adulterous slut! Aeschylus is nice and merely calls her a “false woman.” That name is too kind and I could call her much worse than I have, but I will refrain for my readers’ sake.
Aiding a war for one false woman’s sake,
His child to slay,
And with her spilt blood make
An offering, to speed the ships on their way!
It seems I have given away what is happening in this play up to antistrophe 6 (after the first chorus). This drama is Aeschylus’s way of dealing with choices. He is facing the idea of choices and, as we will see later, investigating the outcomes and consequences of the choices that people make. War is a choice. The agreement made with Menelaus to help get Helen back is not contained here, so Aeschylus’s immediate and contemporary audience must have been familiar with it, or else some of the action would seem strange. It seems strange anyway. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter because some guy tells him that is what the two eagles doing their feeding dance in the sky means, and because he has his honor to uphold. That being said, Agamemnon still had a choice. He chose honor over Iphigenia. He chose power over the love of his family. He chose his brother’s wrecked marriage with a whore wife over his own marriage.
The concept of choice, consequence and outcome is an important one in much of Classical Literature, and we will encounter it again later, when we’re looking at the Iliad, so it is important to keep in mind. Honor, power and glory are also very important concepts which I will try to remember to look at as I come to them.
Near the end of the first chorus, the consequences of Agamemnon’s choices are already foretold, and with that I will continue next time.
As a reminder, I am reading E. D. A. Morshead’s translation of Agamemnon from Seven Famous Greek Plays, edited, with introductions, by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr.