A summary and analysis of the dramatic trilogy by Aeschylus

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 78-104.

Introduction · Agamemnon · Libation Bearers · Eumenides · Overview


In the Agamemnon Aeschylus wished to exhibit to us the sudden downfall from the very summit of prosperity and renown to the abyss of ruin. The ruler, the hero, the commander of the collected hosts of Greece at the very instant of his success in that most glorious achievement, the destruction of Troy, for which his fame was to be reëchoed in time present and time to come, in the very act of crossing the threshold of the house for which he has so long been sighing, and amidst the careless preparations for a festive banquet, is murdered, as Homer expresses it, "like an ox beside his crib," murdered by his faithless wife; his throne is seized upon by her worthless paramour, his children are consigned to banishment or helpless servitude.

In the view of giving a striking effect to so terrific a reverse of fortune, the poet was obliged in the first place to give additional splendor to the conquest of Troy. This he has done in the first half of the piece, in a peculiar fashion but certainly with great impressiveness, and in a manner that arrests the imagination. It is of consequence to Clytemnestra that she should not be surprised by her husband's return. She has, therefore, taken measures to have an unbroken line of beacon-fires from Troy to Mycenæ, to announce to her the great event. The play opens with the speech of a watchman, who supplicates of the gods a deliverance from his toils, since now for ten years exposed to the cold night-dews, he has seen the alternating stars passing above him, and ever in vain been waiting for the signal; at the same time he sighs in secret over the ruin which is at work in the royal house. At this moment he sees the wished-for flame blaze up, and hastens to announce it to his lady.

A chorus of old men appears, and in its ode exhibits the war of Troy in all its fateful relations, traces it back to its origin, to all the prophecies connected with it at the time, to the sacrifice of Iphigenia, with which the Greeks were constrained to purchase their departure on the expedition. Clytemnestra explains to the chorus the reasons for her joyful sacrifice. Presently enters the herald Talthybius, who relates all as an eye-witness; the spectacle of the conquered, plundered, flame-devoted city, the triumph of the host, and the glory of its commander. Reluctantly, however, as unwilling to interrupt his prayers for their posterity by evil tidings, he relates the subsequent mishaps of the Greeks, their dispersion, and the shipwreck suffered by many of them--calamities wherein the wrath of the gods had begun to reveal itself.

Now comes Agamemnon himself seated on a triumphal chariot. On another chariot, laden with spoils, follows Cassandra, his captive concubine, according to the laws of war in those times. Clytemnestra greets him with a hypocritical show of joy and veneration, bids her maidens spread forth the purple carpets of the costliest golden embroidery, that the foot of the conqueror may not touch the ground. Agamemnon with wise moderation refuses to accept this honor, which belongs only to the gods. At last he complies with her solicitations, and follows her into the house. The chorus begins to entertain dark forebodings. Clytemnestra returns to entice Cassandra, by friendly persuasion, to the same destruction. She remains dumb and immovable. But scarcely is the queen away when, seized by prophetic rage, she breaks out into confused indistinct wailings. Presently, she reveals her predictions to the chorus more clearly; she beholds, in spirit, all the atrocities which have been perpetrated within this house: that Thyestean banquet in which the children were served up to the father, and from which the son turned away his eye; the shades of the mangled children appear to her on the battlements of the palace. She sees also the murder which is in readiness for her lord, and though shuddering at the reek of death, she rushes like a maniac into the house to meet her inevitable destruction. Behind the scenes are heard the groans of the dying Agamemnon.

The palace is thrown open; Clytemnestra stands beside the corpse of her king and husband, like an insolent criminal who not only acknowledges the deed but glories in it, and would justify it as a righteous act of requital for Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia to his own ambition. Her jealousy of Cassandra and guilty union with the worthless Ægisthus, who does not make his appearance till the end of the piece, are scarcely touched upon as motives, and remain quite in the background. This was necessary to preserve the dignity of the subject. But in other respects also Clytemnestra was not to be depicted as a frail, seduced woman, but with the traits of that heroic age which is so rich in bloody catastrophes, in which all passions were so impetuous, and men, both in good and evil, exceeded the common standard of later ages. What is more revolting, what proves a deeper degeneracy of human nature than the conception of horrible crimes in the bosom of cowardly effeminacy? If the poet be called upon to depict such crimes, he must by no means seek to palliate them, or to mitigate our detestation of them. The bringing the sacrifice of Iphigenia so close to us has also the advantage of obviating too much bitterness of indignation at the fall of Agamemnon. He is, at the best, not guiltless; former crime recoils on his own head. Moreover, according to the religious notions of the Greeks, an ancient curse weighed heavily on his house; Ægisthus, the author of his overthrow, is a son of that very Thyestes on whom his father Atreus had taken so unnatural a revenge, and this fateful connection was vividly brought before our minds by the choral odes, but especially by the prophecies of Cassandra.

The following is the chorus of Argive elders singing of the death of Iphigenia, whom her father, Agamemnon, had consented to sacrifice, but at the last moment Artemis substituted a hart and carried Iphigenia to the country of Tauri (the Crimea) as her priestess:

Power is upon me now, to sing the awful sign
That crossed the warrior monarchs on their road;
Heaven breathes within the 'suasive song divine,
And strength through my rapt soul is pour'd abroad.
The birds I sing, whose fateful flight
Sent forth the twin-throned Argive might,
And all the youth of Greece, a gallant crew,
With spear in each avenging hand,
Against the guilty Trojan land.
Even at the threshold of the palace, flew
The king of birds o'er either king,
One black, and one with snow-white wing,
Right-ward, on the hand that grasps the spear,
Down through the glittering courts they steer,
Swooping the hare's prolific brood,
No more to crop its grassy food.
Ring out the dolorous hymn, yet triumph still the good!
But the wise seer, in his prophetic view--
When he the twin-soul'd sons of Atreus saw,
At once the feasters on the hares he knew,
Those leaders of the host, then broke his words of awe--
"In time old Priam's city wall
Before the conquering host shall fall,
And all within her towers lie waste;
Her teeming wealth of man and beast
Shall Fate in her dire violence destroy;
May ne'er heaven's envy, like a cloud,
So darken o'er that army proud,
The fine-forged curb of Troy!
For Artemis, with jealous ire,
Beholds the wingéd hounds of her great sire
Swooping the innocent leverets' scarce-born brood,
And loathes the eagles' feast of blood.
Ring out the dolorous hymn, yet triumph still the good!
"Such is that beauteous Goddess' love
To the strong lion's callow brood,
And all that the green meadows wont to rove,
From the full udder quaff the liquid food.
O Goddess! though thy wrath reprove
Those savage birds, yet turn those awful signs to good!
But, Io Pæan! Now I cry;
May ne'er her injured deity
With adverse fleet-imprisoning blast
The unpropitious sky o'ercast;
Hastening that other sacrifice--
That darker sacrifice, unblest
By music or jocund feast:
Whence sad domestic strife shall rise,
And, dreadless of her lord, fierce woman's hate;
Whose child-avenging wrath in sullen state
Broods, wily housewife, in her chamber's gloom,
Over that unforgotten doom."
Such were the words that Calchas clanged abroad,
When crossed those ominous birds the onward road
Of that twice royal brotherhood:
A mingled doom
Of glory and of gloom.
Ring out the dolorous hymn, yet triumph still the good!
Whoe'er thou art, Great Power above,
If that dread name thou best approve,
All duly weighed I cannot find,
Unburthening my o'erloaded mind,
A mightier name than that of mightiest Jove.
He, that so great of old
Branched out in strength invincible and bold,
Is nothing now. Who after came,
Before the victor sank to shame:
Most wise is he who sings the all-conquering might of Jove--
Jove, that great god
Who taught to mortals wisdom's road;
By whose eternal rule
Adversity is grave instruction's school.
In the calm hour of sleep
Conscience, the sad remembrancer, will creep
To the inmost heart, and there enforce
On the reluctant spirit the wisdom of remorse.
Mighty the grace of those dread deities,
Throned on their judgement bench, high in the empyrean skies!
Nor then did the elder chief, in sooth,
Of all the Achean youth,
Dare brand with blame the holy seer;
When adverse fortune 'gan to veer,
Emprisoning that becalmed host
On Chalcis' coast,
Where the heavy refluent billows roar
'Gainst Aulis rock-bound shore.
And long and long from wintry Strymon blew
The weary, hungry, anchor-straining blasts,
The winds that wandering seamen dearly rue,
Nor spared the cables worn, and groaning masts;
And, lingering on in indolent delay,
Slow wasted all the strength of Greece away.
But when the shrill-voiced prophet 'gan proclaim
That remedy more dismal and more dread
Than the drear weather blackening overhead;
And spoke in Artemis' most awful name,
The sons of Atreus, 'mid their armed peers,
Their sceptres dashed to earth, and each broke out in tears.
And thus the elder king began to say:
"Dire doom! to disobey the gods' command!
More dire, my child, my house's pride, to slay,
Dabbling in virgin blood a father's hands.
Alas! alas! which way to fly?
As base deserter quit the host,
The pride and strength of our great league all lost?
Should I the storm-appeasing rite deny,
Will not their wrathfulest wrath rage up and swell--
Exact the virgin's blood?--oh, would 'twere o'er and well!"
So 'neath Necessity's stern yoke he passed,
And his lost soul, with impious impulsive veering,
Surrendered to the accurst unholy blast,
Warped to the dire extreme of human daring.
The frenzy of affliction still
Maddens, dire counsellor, man's soul to ill.
So he endured to be the priest
In that child-slaughtering rite unblest,
The first-fruit offering of that host
In fatal war for a bad woman lost.
The prayers, the mute appeal to her hard sire,
Her youth, her virgin beauty,
Nought heeded they, the chiefs for war on fire.
So to the ministers of that dire duty
(First having prayed) the father gave the sign,
Like some soft kid, to lift her to the shrine.
There lay she prone,
Her graceful garments round her throne;
But first her beauteous mouth around
Their violent bonds they wound,
Lest her dread curse the fated house should smite
With their rude inarticulate might.
But she her saffron robe to earth let fall;
The shaft of pity from her eye
Transpierced that awful priesthood--one and all.
Lovely as in a picture stood she by
As she would speak. Thus at her father's feasts
The virgin, 'mid the revelling guests,
Was wont with her chaste voice to supplicate
For her dear father an auspicious fate.
I saw no more! to speak more is not mine;
Not unfulfilled was Calchas' lore divine.
Eternal justice still will bring
Wisdom out of suffering.
So to the fond desire farewell,
The inevitable future to foretell;
'Tis but our woe to antedate;
Joint knit with joint, expands the full-formed fate.
Yet at the end of these dark days
May prospering weal return at length;
Thus in his spirit prays
He of the Apian land the sole remaining strength.

The Argive elders here sing of the punishment of Troy for its protection of Alexander, better known as Paris, after he had outraged the laws of hospitality by seducing Helen, the wife of his host Menelaus. The story of Helen's flight leads the chorus to sing her husband's sorrow, and from this they pass on to bewail the havoc caused by the long war.

Zeus, Lord of Heaven! and welcome Night
Of Victory, thou hast our might
With all the glories crowned!
On towers of Ilion, free no more,
Hast flung the mighty mesh of war,
And closely girt them round,
Till neither warrior may 'scape,
Nor stripling lightly overleap
The trammels as they close and close,
Till with the grip of doom our foes
In slavery's coil are bound!
Zeus, Lord of Hospitality!
In grateful awe I bend to thee--
'Tis thou hast struck the blow!
At Alexander long ago
We marked thee bend thy vengeful bow,
But long and warily withhold
The eager shaft, which, uncontrolled
And loosed too soon or launched too high,
Had wandered bloodless through the sky!
Zeus, the high god! whate'er be dim in doubt,
This can our thought track out--
The blow that fells the sinner is of God,
And as he wills, the rod
Of vengeance smiteth sore. One said of old,
"The gods list not to hold
A reckoning with him whose feet oppress
The grace of holiness."
An impious word! for whensoe'er the sire
Breathed forth rebellious fire--
What time his household overflowed the measure
Of bliss and health and treasure--
His children's children read the reckoning plain,
At last in tears and pain!
On me let weal that brings no woe be sent,
And therewithal content;
Who spurns the shrine of Right, nor wealth nor power
Shall be to him a tower,
To guard him from the gulf; there lies his lot,
Where all things are forgot!
Lust drives him on--lust, desperate and wild,
Fate's sin-contriving child--
And cure is none; beyond concealment clear,
Kindles Sin's baleful glare
As an ill coin beneath the wearing touch
Betrays, by stain and smutch
Its false metal--such is the sinful wight,
Before, on pinions light,
Fair pleasure flits, and lures him childlike on,
While home and kin make moan,
Beneath the grinding burden of his crime;
Till, in the end of time,
Cast down of heaven, he pours forth fruitless prayer
To powers that will not hear.
And such did Paris come
Unto Atrides' home
And thence, with sin and shame his welcome to repay,
Ravished the wife away.
And she, faithless unto her country and her kin,
Leaving the clash of shields and spears and arming ships,
And bearing unto Troy destruction for a dower,
And overbold in sin,
Went fleetly through the gates at midnight hour.
Oft, from the prophet's lips,
Moaned out the warning and the wail, Ah, woe!
Woe for the home, the home! and for the chieftains woe!
Woe for the bride-bed warm
Yet from the lovely limbs, the impress of the form
Of her who loved her lord a while ago!
And woe for him who stands
Shamed, silent, unreproachful, stretching hands
That find her not, and sees, yet, will not see
That she is far away!
And his sad fancy, yearning o'er the sea,
Shall summon and recall
Her wraith, once more to queen it in his hall.
And sad with many memories,
The fair, cold beauty of each sculptured face--
And all to hatefulness is turned their grace,
Seen blankly by forlorn and hungering eyes!
And when the night is deep,
Come visions, sweet and sad, and bearing pain
Of hopings in vain--
Void, void and vain, for scarce the sleeping sight
Has seen its old delight,
When thro' the grasps of love that bid it stay
It vanishes away
On silent wings that roam adown the realms of sleep!
Such are the sights, the sorrows fell,
About our hearth--and worse, whereof I may not tell.
But, all the wide town o'er,
Each home that sent its master far away
From Hellas' shore
Feels the keen thrill of heart, the pang of loss, to-day;
For, truth to say,
The touch of bitter death is manifold!
Familiar was each face, and dear as life,
That went unto the war.
But thither, whence a warrior went of old,
Doth naught return,
Only a spear and sword, and ashes in an urn!
For Ares, lord of strife,
Who doth the swaying scales of battle hold,
War's money-changer, giving dust for gold,
Sends back, to hearts that held them dear,
Scant ash of warriors, wept with many a tear;
Light to the hand, but heavy to the soul;
Yea, fills the light urn full
With what survived the flame--
Death's dusty measure of a hero's fame.
"Alas!" one cries, "and yet alas again!
Our chief is gone, the hero of the spear,
And hath not left his peer!"
"Ah woe!" another moans--"my spouse is slain,
The death of honor, rolled in dust and blood,
Slain for a woman's sin, a false wife's shame!"
Such muttered words of bitter mood
Rise against those who went forth to reclaim;
Yea, jealous wrath creeps on, against th' Atrides' name!
And others, far beneath the Ilian wall,
Sleep their last sleep--the goodly chiefs and tall,
Couched in the foeman's land, whereon they gave
Their breath, and lords of Troy, each in his Trojan grave!

Clytemnestra thus relates to the chorus how she murdered her husband:

And stand where I
Did smite him down, with all my task well done.
So did I it, (the deed deny I not,)
That he could not avert his doom nor flee;
I cast around him a drag-net as for fish,
With not one outlet, evil wealth of robe;
And twice I smote him, and with two deep groans
He dropped his limbs; And when he thus fell down,
I gave him yet a third, thank-offering the true
To Hades of the dark, who guards the dead.
So fallen, he gasps out his struggling soul,
And breathing forth a sharp, quick gush of blood,
He showers dark drops of gory rain on me.
Who no less joy felt in them than the corn,
When the blade bears, in glad shower given of God.
Since this is so, ye Argive elders here,
Ye, as ye will, may hail the deed, but I
Boast of it. And were't fitting now to pour
Libation o'er the dead, 'twere justly done,
Yea more than justly; such a goblet full
Of ills hath he filled up with curses dire
At home, and now has come to drain it off.
We marvel at the boldness of thy tongue,
Who o'er thy husband's corpse speak'st vaunt like this.
Ye test me as a woman weak of mind;
But I with dauntless heart to you that know
Say this, and whether thou dost praise or blame,
Is all alike:--here Agamemnon lies,
My husband, now a corpse, of his right hand,
As artist just, the handiwork; so stands it.

The following fragment from the Agamemnon was translated by the late W.E. Gladstone, whose admiration of Greek literature was attested in several works. The passage describes the treachery of Ægisthus:

Even so, belike, might one
A lion suckling nurse,
Like a foster-son,
To his home a future curse.
In life's beginnings mild,
Dear to sire, and kind to child;
Oft folded in his lord's embrace,
Like an infant of the race.
Sleek and smiling to the hand,
He fawned at want's command.
But in time he showed
The habit of his blood.
His debt of nurture he repaid;
The lowing herds he tore,
A fierce unbidden feast he made,
And the house was foul with gore.
Huge griefs its inmates overshed,
Huge mischief, slaughter widely spread!
A heaven-sent priest of woe
In the palace did he grow.


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