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Agamemnon

Aeschylus

Preface

Summary Preface

Preface


The sense of difficulty, and indeed of awe, with which a scholar
approaches the task of translating the _Agamemnon_ depends directly on its
greatness as poetry. It is in part a matter of diction. The language of
Aeschylus is an extraordinary thing, the syntax stiff and simple, the
vocabulary obscure, unexpected, and steeped in splendour. Its
peculiarities cannot be disregarded, or the translation will be false in
character. Yet not Milton himself could produce in English the same great
music, and a translator who should strive ambitiously to represent the
complex effect of the original would clog his own powers of expression and
strain his instrument to breaking. But, apart from the diction in this
narrower sense, there is a quality of atmosphere surrounding the
_Agamemnon_ which seems almost to defy reproduction in another setting,
because it depends in large measure on the position of the play in the
historical development of Greek literature.


If we accept the view that all Art to some extent, and Greek tragedy in a
very special degree, moves in its course of development from Religion to
Entertainment, from a Service to a Performance, the _Agamemnon_ seems to
stand at a critical point where the balance of the two elements is near
perfection. The drama has come fully to life, but the religion has not yet
faded to a formality. The _Agamemnon_ is not, like Aeschylus' _Suppliant
Women_, a statue half-hewn out of the rock. It is a real play, showing
clash of character and situation, suspense and movement, psychological
depth and subtlety. Yet it still remains something more than a play. Its
atmosphere is not quite of this world. In the long lyrics especially one
feels that the guiding emotion is not the entertainer's wish to thrill an
audience, not even perhaps the pure artist's wish to create beauty, but
something deeper and more prophetic, a passionate contemplation and
expression of truth; though of course the truth in question is something
felt rather than stated, something that pervades life, an eternal and
majestic rhythm like the movement of the stars.


Thus, if Longinus is right in defining Sublimity as "the ring, or
resonance, of greatness of soul," one sees in part where the sublimity of
the _Agamemnon_ comes from. And it is worth noting that the faults which
some critics have found in the play are in harmony with this conclusion.
For the sublimity that is rooted in religion tolerates some faults and
utterly refuses to tolerate others. The _Agamemnon_ may be slow in getting
to work; it may be stiff with antique conventions. It never approaches to
being cheap or insincere or shallow or sentimental or showy. It never
ceases to be genuinely a "criticism of life." The theme which it treats,
for instance, is a great theme in its own right; it is not a made-up story
ingeniously handled.


The trilogy of the _Oresteia_, of which this play is the first part,
centres on the old and everlastingly unsolved problem of


The ancient blinded vengeance and the wrong that amendeth wrong.


Every wrong is justly punished; yet, as the world goes, every punishment
becomes a new wrong, calling for fresh vengeance. And more; every wrong
turns out to be itself rooted in some wrong of old. It is never
gratuitous, never untempted by the working of Peitho (Persuasion), never
merely wicked. The _Oresteia_ first shows the cycle of crime punished by
crime which must be repunished, and then seeks for some gleam of escape,
some breaking of the endless chain of "evil duty." In the old order of
earth and heaven there was no such escape. Each blow called for the return
blow and must do so _ad infinitum_. But, according to Aeschylus, there is
a new Ruler now in heaven, one who has both sinned and suffered and
thereby grown wise. He is Zeus the Third Power, Zeus the Saviour, and his
gift to mankind is the ability through suffering to Learn (pp. 7 f.)


At the opening of the _Agamemnon_ we find Clytemnestra alienated from her
husband and secretly befriended with his ancestral enemy, Aigisthos. The
air is heavy and throbbing with hate; hate which is evil but has its due
cause. Agamemnon, obeying the prophet Calchas, when the fleet lay
storm-bound at Aulis, had given his own daughter, Iphigenîa, as a human
sacrifice. And if we ask how a sane man had consented to such an act, we
are told of his gradual temptation; the deadly excuse offered by ancient
superstition; and above all, the fact that he had already inwardly
accepted the great whole of which this horror was a part. At the first
outset of his expedition against Troy there had appeared an omen, the
bloody sign of two eagles devouring a mother-hare with her unborn
young.... The question was thus put to the Kings and their prophet: Did
they or did they not accept the sign, and wish to be those Eagles? And
they had answered Yes. They would have their vengeance, their full and
extreme victory, and were ready to pay the price. The sign once accepted,
the prophet recoils from the consequences which, in prophetic vision, he
sees following therefrom: but the decision has been taken, and the long
tale of cruelty rolls on, culminating in the triumphant sack of Troy,
which itself becomes not an assertion of Justice but a whirlwind of
godless destruction. And through all these doings of fierce beasts and
angry men the unseen Pity has been alive and watching, the Artemis who
"abhors the Eagles' feast," the "Apollo or Pan or Zeus" who hears the
crying of the robbed vulture; nay, if even the Gods were deaf, the mere
"wrong of the dead" at Troy might waken, groping for some retribution upon
the "Slayer of Many Men" (pp. 15, 20).


If we ask why men are so blind, seeking their welfare thus through
incessant evil, Aeschylus will tell us that the cause lies in the
infection of old sin, old cruelty. There is no doubt somewhere a
_[Greek: prôtarchos hAtê ]_, a "first blind deed of wrong," but in
practice every wrong is the result of another. And the Children of Atreus
are steeped to the lips in them. When the prophetess Cassandra, out of her
first vague horror at the evil House, begins to grope towards some
definite image, first and most haunting comes the sound of the weeping of
two little children, murdered long ago, in a feud that was not theirs.
From that point, more than any other, the Daemon or Genius of the
House--more than its "Luck," a little less than its Guardian
Angel--becomes an Alastor or embodied Curse, a "Red Slayer" which cries
ever for peace and cleansing, but can seek them only in the same blind
way, through vengeance, and, when that fails, then through more vengeance
(p. 69).


This awful conception of a race intent upon its own wrongs, and blindly
groping towards the very terror it is trying to avoid, is typified, as it
were, in the Cassandra story. That daughter of Priam was beloved by
Apollo, who gave her the power of true prophecy. In some way that we know
not, she broke her promise to the God; and, since his gift could not be
recalled, he added to it the curse that, while she should always foresee
and foretell the truth, none should believe her. The Cassandra scene is a
creation beyond praise or criticism. The old scholiast speaks of the "pity
and amazement" which it causes. The Elders who talk with her wish to
believe, they try to understand, they are really convinced of Cassandra's
powers. But the curse is too strong. The special thing which Cassandra
tries again and again to say always eludes them, and they can raise no
finger to prevent the disaster happening. And when it does happen they
are, as they have described themselves, weak and very old, "dreams
wandering in the daylight."


The characters of this play seem, in a sense, to arise out of the theme
and consequently to have, amid all their dramatic solidity, a further
significance which is almost symbolic. Cassandra is, as it were, the
incarnation of that knowledge which Herodotus describes as the crown of
sorrow, the knowledge which sees and warns and cannot help (Hdt. ix. 16).
Agamemnon himself, the King of Kings, triumphant and doomed, is a symbol
of pride and the fall of pride. We must not think of him as bad or
specially cruel. The watchman loved him (ll. 34 f.), and the lamentations
of the Elders over his death have a note of personal affection (pp. 66
ff.). But I suspect that Aeschylus, a believer in the mystic meaning of
names, took the name Agamemnon to be a warning that [Greek: Aga mimnei],
"the unseen Wrath abides." _Agâ_, of course, is not exactly wrath; it is
more like Nemesis, the feeling that something is [Greek: agan], "too
much," the condemnation of _Hubris_ (pride or overgrowth) and of all
things that are in excess. _Agâ_ is sometimes called "the jealousy of
God," but such a translation is not happy. It is not the jealousy, nor
even the indignation, of a personal God, but the profound repudiation and
reversal of Hubris which is the very law of the Cosmos. Through all the
triumph of the conqueror, this _Agâ_ abides.


The greatest and most human character of the whole play is Clytemnestra.
She is conceived on the grand Aeschylean scale, a scale which makes even
Lady Macbeth and Beatrice Cenci seem small; she is more the kinswoman of
Brynhild. Yet she is full not only of character, but of subtle psychology.
She is the first and leading example of that time-honoured ornament of the
tragic stage, the sympathetic, or semi-sympathetic, heroine-criminal.
Aeschylus employs none of the devices of later playwrights to make her
interesting. He admits, of course, no approach to a love-scene; he uses no
sophisms; but he does make us see through Clytemnestra's eyes and feel
through her passions. The agony of silent prayer in which, if my
conception is right, we first see her, helps to interpret her speeches
when they come; but every speech needs close study. She dare not speak
sincerely or show her real feelings until Agamemnon is dead; and then she
is practically a mad woman.


For I think here that there is a point which has not been observed. It is
that Clytemnestra is conceived as being really "possessed" by the Daemon
of the House when she commits her crime. Her statements on p. 69 are not
empty metaphor. A careful study of the scene after the murder will show
that she appears first "possessed" and almost insane with triumph, utterly
dominating the Elders and leaving them no power to answer. Then gradually
the unnatural force dies out from her. The deed that was first an ecstasy
of delight becomes an "affliction" (pp. 72, 76). The strength that defied
the world flags and changes into a longing for peace. She has done her
work. She has purified the House of its madness; now let her go away and
live out her life in quiet. When Aigisthos appears, and the scene suddenly
becomes filled with the wrangling of common men, Clytemnestra fades into a
long silence, from which she only emerges at the very end of the drama to
pray again for Peace, and, strangest of all, to utter the entreaty: "Let
us not stain ourselves with blood!" The splash of her husband's blood was
visible on her face at the time. Had she in her trance-like state actually
forgotten, or did she, even then, not feel that particular blood to be a
stain?


To some readers it will seem a sort of irrelevance, or at least a blurring
of the dramatic edge of this tragedy, to observe that the theme on which
it is founded was itself the central theme both of Greek Tragedy and of
Greek Religion. The fall of Pride, the avenging of wrong by wrong, is no
new subject selected by Aeschylus. It forms both the commonest burden of
the moralising lyrics in Greek tragedy and even of the tragic myths
themselves; and recent writers have shown how the same idea touches the
very heart of the traditional Greek religion. "The life of the
Year-Daemon, who lies at the root of so many Greek gods and heroes, is
normally a story of Pride and Punishment. Each year arrives, waxes great,
commits the sin of Hubris and must therefore die. It is the way of all
Life. As an early philosopher expresses it, "All things pay retribution
for their injustice one to another according to the ordinance of Time."[1]


[Footnote 1: See my _Four Stages of Greek Religion_, p. 47. Cornford,
_From Religion to Philosophy_, Chapter I. See also the fine pages on the
Agamemnon in the same writer's _Thucydides Mythistoricus_, pp. 144, ff.
(E. Arnold 1907). G. M.]


To me this consideration actually increases the interest and beauty of the
_Oresteia_, because it increases its greatness. The majestic art, the
creative genius, the instinctive eloquence of these plays--that eloquence
which is the mere despair of a translator--are all devoted to the
expression of something which Aeschylus felt to be of tremendous import.
It was not his discovery; but it was a truth of which he had an intense
realization. It had become something which he must with all his strength
bring to expression before he died, not in a spirit of self-assertion or
of argument, like a discoverer, but as one devoted to something higher and
greater than himself, in the spirit of an interpreter or prophet.





AGAMEMNON


CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY


AGAMEMNON, _son of Atreus and King of Argos and Mycenae;
Commander-in-Chief of the Greek armies in the War against Troy._

CLYTEMNESTRA, _daughter of Tyndareus, sister of Helen; wife to Agamemnon._

AIGISTHOS, _son of Thyestes, cousin and blood-enemy to Agamemnon
lover to Clytemnestra._

CASSANDRA, _daughter of Priam, King of Troy, a prophetess;
now slave to Agamemnon._

A WATCHMAN.

A HERALD.

CHORUS of Argive Elders, faithful to AGAMEMNON.


CHARACTERS MENTIONED IN THE PLAY

MENELÂÜS, _brother to Agamemnon, husband of Helen, and King of Sparta.
The two sons of Atreus are called the Atreidae._

HELEN, _most beautiful of women; daughter of Tyndareus, wife to
_MENELÂÜS_; beloved and carried off by Paris._

PARIS, _son of Priam, King of Troy, lover of Helen.
Also called_ ALEXANDER.

PRIAM, _the aged King of Troy._

_The Greeks are also referred to as Achaians, Argives, Danaans;
Troy is also called Ilion._

_The play was produced in the archonship if Philocles_ (458 B.C.).
_The first prize was won by Aeschylus with the "Agamemnon",
"Libation-Bearers", "Eumenides", and the Satyr Play "Proteus"_.

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