Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, a Greek town near Athens, in 525 B.C. He was the first of the great Greek tragedians, preceding both Sophocles and Euripides, and is credited by many as having invented tragic drama. Prior to Aeschylus, plays were more rudimentary, consisting of a single actor and a chorus offering commentary. In his works, Aeschylus added a "second actor" (often more than one), creating a new range of dramatic possibilities. He lived until 456 B.C., fighting in the wars against Persia, and attaining great acclaim in the world of the Athenian theater.
Aeschylus wrote nearly ninety plays. However, only seven have survived to the modern era, including such famous works as Prometheus Bound and The Seven Against Thebes. Agamemnon is the first of a trilogy, the Oresteia, the other two parts of which are The Libation-Bearers and The Eumenides. The trilogy--the only such work to survive from Ancient Greece--is considered by many critics to be the greatest Athenian tragedy ever written, because of its poetry and the strength of its characters.
Agamemnon depicts the assassination of the title character by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. The Libation-Bearers continues the story with the return of Agamemnon's son, Orestes, who kills his mother and avenges his father. In The Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the Furies in punishment for his matricide, and finally finds refuge in Athens, where the god Athena relieves him of his persecution.
The events of Agamemnon take place against a backdrop that would have been familiar to an Athenian audience. Agamemnon is returning from his victory at Troy, which has been besieged for ten years by Greek armies attempting to recover Helen, Agamemnon's brother's wife, who was stolen by the treacherous Trojan Prince, Paris. (The events of the Trojan War are recounted in Homer's Iliad.) The tragedies of the play occur as a result of the crimes committed by Agamemnon's family. His father, Atreus, boiled the children of his own brother, Thyestes, and served them to him. Clytemnestra's lover, Aegisthus (Thyestes's only surviving son), seeks revenge for that crime. Moreover, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to gain a favorable wind to Troy, and Clytemnestra murders him to avenge her death. The weight of history and heritage becomes a major theme of the play, and indeed the entire trilogy, for the family it depicts cannot escape the cursed cycle of bloodshed propagated by its past.