Aeschylus, Agamemnon teaching notes

  AESCHYLUS: ORESTEIA

 

Agamemnon:  Discussion Questions

 

How to proceed?  Read the play first, familiarizing yourself with the plot and the major thematic points.  Then go back through it slowly, taking into account the following questions (and coming up with your own).

 

  1. Prologue pp. 103-4 1-43F (1-39)

Watchman’s monologue

 

  1. What mood is established in this scene? What specific emotions are mentioned?

 

  1. What do you make of his remarks about being familiar with the night sky? How might this be connected to Clytemnestra’s “manoeuvring like a man”?

 

  1. He awaits a signal fire: what is its purpose? With what symbolism is it invested, by the watchman here, by the Chorus in the parodos, and by Clytemnestra in the first episode?

 

  1. Consider, too, the rising of the sun– also a fire in the night– as a “signal” (but of what?).

 

***You should consult Fagles’ notes (starting on p. 285), as well as keep a list of symbols you notice:  doing both will help you navigate the trilogy much better.  Note that, on line 25 (“dawn of the darkness”), for instance, Fagles draws your attention to Agamemnon, lines 264; 596; 970; 1183; 1650;  Libation Bearers 950n (“n” after a number means see the notes);  and Eumenides 7n.  I would also look at Agamemnon 657-659, about the dawn breaking on the shipwreck.

 

  1. Parodos pp. 105-12 44-258F (40-257)

Parodos: choral song sung as chorus enters the stage.  Many important images are introduced in the parodos, so let us go through it carefully.  I would subdivide the parodos into five parts, as follows:

 

  1. Introduction (44-77)

 

  1. Note that the Trojan War began because Agamemnon was “our great avenger.” Keep an eye on vengeance throughout the trilogy (it will become increasingly obvious). Remember that is the role of the Furies to seek revenge (see lines 65 and 78).

 

  1. Agamemnon and Menelaus are “like vultures robbed of their young, etc.” How is this whole stanza symbolic, how ironic, and how proleptic? [Do not ask me in class what “proleptic” means]

 

  1. They fought for “a woman manned by many.” Is this Helen? Who else might it be?  What connections might we draw?  What is the significance of the “first blood rites that marry Greece and Troy”?  Consider this passage in light of the Helen Ode in the second stasimon.

 

  1. Fire: The Victory over Troy (78-111)

 

  1. Connect their remarks to the Watchman’s about fire. Is it good or bad? Note how Clytemnestra ignores them.

 

  1. The omen of the eagles: victory and defeat (111-160)

 

  1. The sense of victory reminds the Chorus of a portent at the war’s beginning, which was what? What is the source of Artemis’ anger, and what is its manifestation? (Look especially at Fagles’ notes here). Interpret lines 147-150 in the broadest possible sense, including Thyestes. Line 156 is a mantra for the play.

 

  1. Hymn to Zeus (161-184)

 

  1. Some of you may be familiar with the succession of chief gods in Greek mythology: Ouranos was undone by his son Kronos, whom Zeus, his son, later overthrew. The three generations of activity will be reflected in the story of Atreus, Agamemnon, and Orestes.

 

  1. Lines 177- 179 express an important idea in the trilogy, “suffering into truth.” Truth comes from suffering, and suffering comes from … where? We shall see.  The gods express “a violent love.”  Who suffers, who learns?

 

  1. Agamemnon caught between Zeus and Artemis (185-258)

 

  1. Agamemnon must act, and so he slips on the “strap of Fate” (217). Does this make him guilty (or, if you prefer, responsible)?  Scholars have debated this point, as shall we– come with an opinion.  You may want to think again about Iliad One, and Agamemnon’s actions there:  Aeschylus is probing this very issue, so our answers from Homer will be exercised considerably.

 

  1. The final lines of the parodos are a significant statement about Justice (250-255). What exactly constitutes Justice, in your opinion? I will ask in class, so please be prepared.  Note again “the light of day”:  is this good or bad?  Or is this dichotomy irrelevant?

 

 

 

  1. First episode pp. 112-16 259-358F (258-354)

 

  1. Clytemnestra announces the victory of Troy: why is she happy? Sketch out the ramifications of maternal imagery with thoughts of Night (darkness) and Day (light) inherent in 264-265.  Connect these thoughts with the Beacon speech (281-318):  fire is spreading, but what does it mean?

 

  1. “Spoken like a man,” the Chorus responds. How do you take this?

 

  1. First stasimon pp. 117-21 359-492F (355-487)

Stasimon: standing choral song

 

  1. Night cast it nets over Troy, the Chorus states. With what ideas might you associate this observation?

 

  1. The Chorus delivers a song of joy and thanks for the victory over Troy. They then review the causes and events of the war. Trampling the untouchable is specifically decried in 374-377:  to whom does this refer?  Note how the Chorus’ remarks tend to universalize specific situations.  Consider other places where this happens.

 

  1. Persuasion works on men’s minds– see Fagles’ note on 378 ff.

 

  1. The old men of Argos here sound in the middle part of the stasimon (403-462) like the old men of Troy in Iliad Three. Noting their tendency to universalize, what would you say they see in the pursuit of Helen and the deaths that followed?

 

  1. What is the point of their final doubts about the veracity of the beacon?

 

  1. Second episode pp. 121-29 493-683F (488-683)

 

  1. The herald “salutes the land of Greece, the light of day.” How is this symbolic, ironic, and proleptic?

 

  1. What do you make of Clytemnestra’s remark, “What dawn can feast a woman’s eyes like this” (596)? Reflect specifically upon dawn, feasting, woman, and eyes. What does she mean by “the Saving god”?  Saved whom, for what?  Discuss the sexual imagery of the gates (perhaps Helen in Odyssey Four will come to mind).

 

  1. The Herald reveals that Menelaus has been lost at sea. In the same way that discussion of Helen often reflects upon Clytemnestra, so Menelaus can represent Agamemnon. What of the Night and the black waves which are thought to destroy him (650ff.)?  (The sea will be mentioned again later, a different color though).

 

  1. Second stasimon pp. 129-31 684-767F (684-781)

The Helen Ode

 

  1. Helen is “the bride of spears” (line 686), a Fury, an agent of Destruction. What should we make of these descriptions? The lion cub image (713-730) ends in a bloody feast:  what other ideas would you draw upon to explain this?

 

  1. The juxtposition of Violence and Justice (755-766) is of tremendous importance: Troy has paid for its misdeeds, but is it just, or merely violent? Think about this as Agamemnon enters, the victor over Troy and slaughterer of Iphigenia.

 

  1. Third episode pp. 132-40 768- 975F (782-975)

Enter Agamemnon with Cassandra, his war-prize, both in a chariot

 

  1. In Agamemnon’s speech (794-841), sketch out the ideas as best as possible: for instance, what does he mean by “with justice” (795), or “the bloody lion” (813), and what other meanings might they bear?

 

  1. Clytemnestra bemoans the many rumors of Agamemnon’s death and wounds, and says she frequently tried to hang herself for despair. Is this true? Note the line, “he’s gashed like a dragnet” (856).  What do you make of this?  She also states that “I sobbed by the torch I lit for you alone” (880), meaning what?

 

  1. “Our child is gone” Clytemnestra says (865). Who? And what does it mean?

 

  1. Clytemnestra bids him approach without touching the earth (why?), and lays out the red carpet for him, saying, “Let the red stream flow… Justice, lead him in” (901ff). We will discuss this.  Agamemnon demurs (why?), and refers to the carpet “dyed red in the sea” at line 943 (because shellfish used for red pigment come from the sea).   He steps down on the crimson anyway (revealing Cassandra, by the way), at which point Clytemnestra delivers the chilling line, “There is the sea, and who will drain it dry? …” (957).  It is expensive, but no price is too high to all to retrieve that “dear life” (965):  what meanings might these statements bear?  How does the “bitter virgin grape” fit in (972)?

 

 

  1. Third stasimon pp. 141-42 975-1031 F (975-1034)

 

  1. Note that the Chorus cannot shake its sense of foreboding, and they can actually hear the dirge of the Erinyes (Furies).

 

  1. Fourth episode & first kommos pp. 143-58 1032-1354F (1035-1330)

Cassandra’s vision

 

  1. Cassandra’s outburst is perhaps the most electrifying moment in all Greek drama. Trace the images in her speech to those that precede. What does she “see”?  How are all these things connected in a chain of necessary actions?  Why must she die as well?  Is her final stanza a satisfactory closing to her vision (1350-1354)?

 

  1. Fifth episode & second kommos pp. 158-68 1355-1604F (1331-1576)

 

  1. The doors open to reveal Clytemnestra, with the bloody corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra’s remarks (1391ff.) are, as Fagles states (p. 303), “a phantasmagoria of Homeric images, distorted in a witch’s mirror.” Look to the images she employs (nets, blood, etc.)  Consider the ramifications of what she glories in.  The final line here, “My lord is home at last” (1423) is very cold, no?  We shall discuss the justice of her actions.

 

  1. Exodos pp. 168-72 1605-1708F (1577-1673)

                                               

  1. Aegisthus enters, and he too is in glory. What justice is there in his activities?

 

  1. The themes of the play are vast: Murder, Revenge, and Justice.  Consider this:  if Agamemnon died for murdering Iphigenia, must Clytemnestra die too?  Must Orestes too?  Where can it end?

 

*****

 

Libation Bearers: Discussion Questions

Note:  Chorus of captive serving women

 

Time              Seven years after the murder of Agamemnon

Scene              Argos, before Agamemnon’s tomb

 

  1. Prologue: Orestes and Pylades arrive in the Prologue. How does Orestes show his respects to Agamemnon’s grave?

 

  1. Parados: The chorus have torn their cheeks which bleed, and they shed tears (of salt water): where have you seen these images before, and how are they here employed?  Pay close attention to Clytemnestra’s nightmare.  The image of Justice (61ff.) is one of scales– how do scales work, and what does this imply for the main characters?  The blood does not seep but cakes up (65ff.): discuss this image in symbolic terms.  The washing of hands which they discuss links water and blood again.

 

  1. First episode: Electra recognizes Orestes how? (Is this plausible?)  What do you make of the wild creatures woven into the cloth?  At line 250 ff., Agamemnon is described as an eagle, and Clytemnestra as a snake.  What implications are in this?  Consider Orestes’ speech:  is Apollo on his side?  With what other divinely-decreed event might you compare this?

 

  1. First Stasimon: The chant at Agamemnon’s Tomb is a three-sided lyrical passage revealing the motivations of the principals. What are these motivations?  Line 320 is at the heart of the trilogy.  Is Revenge Justice?

 

  1. Second Episode: What symbolism does Clytemnestra’s dream contain? You might wish to consider Herodotus 3.109, who notes the belief that baby snakes had to eat their way out of the womb, killing their mothers.  What is Orestes’ plan?

 

  1. Second Stasimon and Third Episode: Clytemnestra welcomes them with warm baths (!).  Who else was so welcomed?  When Orestes is announced as “dead,” is Clytemnestra’s reaction feigned or real?  The Nurse, so upset, was his wetnurse.  What is her function?

 

  1. Third Stasimon and Fourth Episode: Aegisthus’ death brings few tears, but how about Clytemnestra’s? She bares her breast and begs for mercy:  sentimental claptrap?  Pylades has been silent up to now:  why?  How should he deliver his only line?  Consider again the idea expressed in line 910.

 

  1. Fourth Stasimon and Exodos: So, wait a minute, who’s the snake? The arrival of the Furies– should they be on stage or not?

 

*****

 

Aeschylus, EUMENIDES

Note the strange choral activity in this play

 

Places                   Apollo’s temple at Delphi;  later, the Acropolis, and then the        Areopagus in Athens

Time  Shortly after the murder of Clytemnestra

 

  1. Prologue: the Pythia (Apollo’s priestess at Delphi) speaks of three generations of gods. What conflicts between the ages are expressed in this scene?  How does this work within the trilogy, and how as a statement of Justice?

 

  1. First episode: Apollo stands over Orestes (why?), and bids Hermes shepherd him well (94): how does this animal imagery work?  (Compare Agamemnon 779, however).  The ghost of Clytemnestra enters:  what imagery does she employ?

 

  1. First stasimon: The Furies call Apollo “a younger god.” (Where do they come from, anyway?)  What do you make of line 155:  “Guilt both ways, and who can call it justice?”

 

  1. Second episode, including parodos: This scene is very unusual. The debate between Apollo and the Furies over parenthood will occupy us in class.  Consider the argument as one between blood-relations and ritualized relations.  Apollo declares that Athene will preside over a trial at the Parthenon in Athens.  The scene change at p. 241 is unprecedented in tragedy:  note that the play was performed at the foot of the Acroplis with the temple in view.  What is Aeschylus doing?

 

  1. Second stasimon: The Furies sing a binding song to capture him (consider the weaving imagery of the Odyssey here). What do you mkae of this net imagery?

 

  1. Third episode: Athene hears each side, and appoints a tribunal of Athenians. Why?

 

  1. Third stasimon and fourth episode: I would like those of you in Group A to take the side of the Furies, and those in Group B to take Apollo’s side. We will argue this out. (Please consider lines 655ff alongside St. Paul’s remarks at Acts 17:16-34).  Athena acquits Orestes, and this has bothered everybody ever since.  Consider the following two statements:

 

Albin Lesky, Greek Tragedy (p. 84):  “Man cannot by his own power break away from the bondage of crime and destiny which encircles him, but the xaris [grace] of the gods, in whose hands he is, can release him.”

 

H.D.F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy (p. 96):  “We are given the form, not the substance of debate;  as if to emphasize that, Aeschylus makes Athena give her vote on grounds that are irrelevant.”

 

  1. Fourth stasimon, fifth episode and exodos: the Furies are turned into the Eumenides (the Kindly Ones) by what means? Consider the arguments from 877ff.  (esp. 893-894, 916, and 920ff.).  In thhe final scene, torches were held up by all members of the audience, a symbol of Justice triumphing over Vengeance.  Connect this to the Watchman’s Prologos in the Agamemnon.

 

 

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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