This conflict between justice and the Furies builds to the clash between the king and queen at the centre of the play. Agamemnon is a mass of contradictions. The old men salute him as the scourge of Troy and the saviour of Argos, and despite his excesses in the past, they see him as the hero of the Mean who can distinguish enemies from friends - he will have to now, they warn him - and they praise him as the shepherd of his flock. As an Athenian audience would have known however, he is a brave but reckless king in the Iliad, and Aeschylus presents him here as majestic in his power but inhuman. His destruction of Troy is a sacrilege equal to Xerxes’ desecration of the Acropolis. Worse, he may even be the archetype of the native tyrant so recently expelled from Greece. More than the justice of the gods, he has become a law to himself. He reduces his gods to
, now lieutenants who must insure his lasting triumph - and so, in less than an hour, they insure his death. His royal We unites him with his fathers - ‘our bloody lion lapped its fill, /gorging on the blood of kings’ - while he exceeds his father’s fatal pride and downfall. Certain he can restore his city as conclusively as he demolished Priam’s, he calls for a trial to test his people, appealing to Victory to ‘speed [him] to the last’ And Clytaemnestra
She is the far more potent force - like Milton’s Satan in her ingeniousness, her arrogance, though Milton gradually undermines Satan’s heroic energies while Aeschylus is building Clytaemnestra’s. Not only does she have the right of retaliation on her side; she is one of the towering figures in European drama, diabolic yet strangely touching as her ironies portray her here. In self-defence she testifies to ‘how she loves the man’, and the man must be Aegisthus, unless it is also Agamemnon, for she reveals an embattled love for him. It is the war she fights at home, within herself, and has been losing. For all her resistance to solitude, her love for Agamemnon has yielded to infidelity, then to resentment, but it has not ceased to be a kind of love as well. It lingers between her lines like one of the old men’s memories that brings delight and pain:
I’d watch till late at night, my eyes still burn,
I sobbed by the torch I lit for you alone.
I never let it die . . . but in my dreams
the high thin wail of a gnat would rouse me,
piercing like a trumpet - I could see you
suffer more than all
the hours that slept with me could ever bear.
The torch goes to the heart of Clytaemnestra’s darkness, flickering like her feeling for her husband - now the lamp beside their bed, now the light for her paramour, now the beacon burning for revenge.
In dreams begin the queen’s responsibilities and a vision of their price. Again she means what she says, but now her meanings multiply and blend. ‘If he took one wound for each report/to penetrate these walls, he’s gashed like a dragnet, /more, if he had only died . . .’ Her extravagant pity becomes a death threat and, as if just breathed in a half-line, the wish that he had died at Troy and she were spared the dreadful work at home. Through her war she gains what he has lost through his: sympathy for the victim and something even deeper. Empowered by a love that makes her hatred stronger - by an admiration for his prowess that makes her prove ‘that heaven had made her such a man’ - she manipulates her husband, the elders and ourselves:
our child is gone, not standing by our side,
the bond of our dearest pledges, mine and yours;
by all rights our child should be here . . .
In defending herself for the absence of their son, she suspends his name until we recall their daughter Iphigeneia too, and so she indicts the king for murder. He is the victim of irony, she is the master. She ‘would salute’ him as a public defender, but he is indefensible, and he is standing trial in her court.
Clytaemnestra’s welcome, the tapestries she spreads before him are the grounds for his incrimination. These were fabrics sacred to the gods; to walk on them would be an Oriental excess and, to a man like Agamemnon, a strong temptation. They glitter with silver embroidery ; they are also dyed with the red dye from the Murex snail, ‘sea-purple’ dark as blood - a visual paradox of deadliness and richness. At first Agamemnon rejects the queen’s temptation. He knows
when he sees it, he reveres the gods. He protests too much. Clytaemnestra knows hypocrisy when she sees it. Turn that piety inwards, you have self-destructive pride. She overpowers him in a tense, brusque dialogue - less than a minute in performance - that seals Agamemnon’s doom.
She begins by challenging him as the man who knows his limits. She asks him if he will speak his mind frankly. ‘You may be sure,’ he replies indignantly, ‘I shall not destroy [or “violate” : the Greek could carry a military or a sexual metaphor) the principles I have just expressed.’ By gaining this promise - Agamemnon is too vain to refuse it - Clytaemnestra makes his mind as vulnerable to her verbal thrusts as his body soon will be to her weapon. ‘Suppose you had been afraid of some disaster,’ she continues, ‘would you have sworn to the gods to do the kind of thing that I am asking?’ Agamemnon admits he would, if a person skilled in such matters prescribed such a ritual - as Calchas had, we remember, to appease Artemis at Aulis. Clytaemnestra then attacks on another front, turning adroitly to the war itself, and asks, ‘What would Priam have done if he had had your success?’ Certainly, Agamemnon thinks, almost with a trace of envy, he would have walked on the tapestries. Clytaemnestra is too skilful to draw the obvious conclusion - ‘Why not you, then?’ She draws things out, eager for him to excel his enemy in hypocrisy as well. He seems to fear popular condemnation, she insinuates, but would Priam? Agamemnon is superior to Priam, isn’t he? Indeed he is, as he replies. He is morally superior, and he stands his ground in good democratic style. He respects the
‘Well, the man who won’t risk envy will never be enviable.’ Here she strikes a nerve: Agamemnon did risk public criticism for glory in the past; argue the point, and the pose of the democrat may collapse, so he resorts to other platitudes. ‘A woman shouldn’t want to fight this way.’ He is losing his grip on the first issue and playing into Clytaemnestra’s ‘man-designing’ hands.
Now she takes the offensive, as only a woman can. A victorious soldier can quite properly yield to a woman, she insists, and her appeal from apparent weakness to apparent strength makes him waver: ‘Do you really value victory in this contest of ours?’ ‘Do be persuaded,’ she replies, and then with brilliant insight - since Agamemnon was always the man to have it both ways - she adds, ‘because if you willingly yield you are really the victor.’ How irresistible for him to satisfy her whims and at the same time, by her own admission, to be the true superior! The shifts of the queen’s attack have outwitted him. The victor of the ten-year siege of Troy is defeated in a moment of psychological warfare with his wife.
It is all so swift, so simple. Yet behind the king’s clichés we hear his sacrifice of Iphigeneia and his own imminent death, more terrible than Priam’s. Behind the queen’s cajolery we hear the great impersonator play the prophet Calchas, while dominating this struggle between male and female, justice and the Furies. As her final imperative suggests (
‘be persuaded!’), she personifies
but not in the manner of her sister Helen; she is not compulsion but temptation, deft, insinuating, luring Agamemnon to expose himself in all his guilt. As he consents, idly hoping to appease the gods by taking off his boots before he treads their vestments, he demonstrates his moral blindness once again. Yet at Aulis he had to choose between two acts of outrage, both fatal to himself, as well he knew, and so the choice was torment. At Argos, ten years later, he may choose an act of abstinence. It will not save him, but it will not incriminate him either. Instead he chooses outrage because it seems so innocent - a scrap of ceremony, not the flash and stab of a knife. This outrage, thanks to the insight of the queen, can appear as superficial as the conscience of the king has actually become. The war has deified the man. His potential as a tragic hero is defeated. With his first step on the fabrics he displays Cassandra as the model of his piety, unaware that her abduction is a sacrilege and her presence is an insult to the queen. The ‘flower and pride of all the wealth [he] won’, Cassandra epitomizes what he always does with wealth. He triumphs over it, lending it fatal power over himself, and he does so of his own free will.
Only after he consents does Clytaemnestra rise, in a wild, whirling speech, and speed him to the last:
There is the sea
and who will drain it dry? Precious as silver,
inexhaustible, ever-new, it breeds the more we reap it - tides on tides of crimson dye our robes blood-red.
The sea is both the reservoir of their riches and the incarnation of their never-ending strife, a harvest and a grisly reaping both. Thus the sea reflects the tapestries and Clytaemnestra’s victim, the deadliness beneath the surface grandeur of the fabrics and the man. The sinuous red line they form is in the vein of Agamemnon - they fuse his slaughters and his bloodline, his will and his hereditary guilt. And at every step he takes upon them he exceeds his limits and retraces his descent; he commits an Olympian outrage that will be punished by the forces of the Earth. For as he tramples on the gods he re-enacts his trampling on the innocents of Troy and on his daughter - just as his forebear trampled on the banquet of his children - and so the king reactivates the curse. As if caught in a slow-motion camera, all his murderous acts dissolve into a single act, deliberate and majestic and profane, that accelerates towards the murder that awaits him.
An entire history of violence marches towards its violent but valid retribution. Clytaemnestra has created a theatrical triumph that is also a solemn moral judgement. Through her words and tapestries the assassination of her husband becomes an execution, a sacrifice. She is the great artist of ritual. And this ritual not only incriminates her victim ; it exhilarates herself with sacramental power - whipping the priestess into fury, even yoking the gods beneath her fury as she drives her husband towards his destination. ‘Arrival’ is her theme. She hails him as a sun-king whose arrival ushers in a greater darkness. He is a prodigy like Zeus, when Zeus
tramples the bitter virgin grape for new wine
and the welcome chill steals through the halls, at last
the master moves among the shadows of his house, fulfilled.
Zeus-Agamemnon has arrived to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. Agamemnon is
or fulfilled, ‘arrived at perfection’ and also ‘ripe for sacrifice’. Zeus is
too, as we hear in the queen’s closing prayer, the lord of fulfilment who will consummate her rites.
Now for the agony of that event. The king and queen go in, the doors close - the sense of disaster is electric, and the old men cry out as never before. They had made deeper and deeper sweeps into the past; now there is no escaping from the present. Their hopes for justice have collided with the Fury that is ‘real, true, no fantasy’, and their song is torn in half. First an explosive dirge the Furies thrust upon them, then a manual of Olympian platitudes. They cling to their old safeguards, the virtue of moderation, the doctrine of the Mean - if only it were asserted now, Agamemnon might be saved. But he has trampled on the Mean, he must pay the price, and so must they. The more they try to exceed their limits, to pour out words that match their feelings, the more they choke and mutter through the nights, while the ‘burning’ in their hearts goes unexpressed. Struck dumb by the gods on one hand, powerless to sing without the Furies on the other, they are at the threshold of a new awareness.
At this point in a Greek tragedy the audience would expect to hear the death-cry ringing out, but Aeschylus will delay it for more than three hundred lines, building its suspense and its significance through Cassandra. Clytaemnestra enters, unctuously invites her to share the sacrifices of thanksgiving for a husband’s safe return - offered to Zeus
who guards the possessions of the house - though of course she means the murder of Agamemnon and his mistress. Cassandra remains impassive, and Clytaemnestra goes inside, exasperated. In this brief clash of wills the silence of Cassandra seems to defeat her argumentative opponent. But she is impervious to outside events, in the grip of a higher power and entranced, like a medium on the verge of vision.
Cassandra breaks her silence with a scream that turns the house of Atreus into an echoing torture-chamber - a scream for Apollo, the god of enlightenment and prophecy, that makes his very name Destruction. And through his seer there flows - in language that could be clear only to ‘those who know’ - a pageant of disaster. The collective, curse-ridden past of the house is streaming into Thyestes’ murdered children, streaming into the murder of Agamemnon, streaming into the murder of Cassandra, into Argos are streaming all the murders done at Troy. At the core of her vision stands the king’s death, and each event that rushes towards it rises in stylistic violence, from the floating wreckage of the house, ‘kinsmen/torturing kinsmen, severed heads’, to a
surfacing into the light like ghosts from a cavern half seen, half moving, ‘babies/wailing ... their flesh charred, the father gorging on their parts’, then to the murder of Agamemnon breaking out of the swirling mists of prophecy, breaking off in horror - Cassandra’s outcries stabbing into the darkness like the wounds that pierce the king. Apollo’s vision is a crescendo of shattering impressions. For all its seeming order of events, each stands out in isolation, unrelated in human terms, unmotivated, unbearable. Through the eyes of Apollo, history is a chronic nightmare, and Cassandra is at the mercy of the god, forced to endure his piling impositions. Her vision breaks apart. She is wrenched from Agamemnon’s death to prophesy her own. And although she subsides into an elegy, her suffering only grows. First Apollo exploits her as his medium, then he destroys her, ‘treads [her] down’ - his service is a rape.