How Guilty is Agamemnon?

How Guilty is Agamemnon?

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It is important to assess the character of Agamemnon that is presented in the works of Homer. More importantly one does have to ask how much of Homer's character has been transplanted into Aeschylus' Orestia. Does Aeschylus' character have similar character traits to the original? Does Aeschylus alter the emphasis of Agamemnon's character and his guilt as he has altered the theme of his murder?

Agamemnon's Character

Firstly one must examine the character of Agamemnon, which Homer presents to his readers. The Homeric Agamemnon character is one of a man who has enormous power and social position, but he is depicted as a man who is not necessarily the best-qualified man for such power and position. Agamemnon constantly needs to receive the advice of his council. Homer's Agamemnon allows, on many occasions, his over-wrought emotions to govern major and critical decisions.

Perhaps it would be true to say that Agamemnon is trapped within a role greater than his ability. While there are serious failures in Agamemnon's character he does show great devotion to and concern for his brother, Menelaos.

Yet Agamemnon is extremely conscious that the structure of his society rests upon the return of Helen to his brother. He is totally aware of the critical importance of family order in his society and that Helen must be returned by any means necessary if his society is to remain strong and cohesive.

What is clear from Homer's representation of Agamemnon is that he is a deeply flawed character. One of his greatest faults is his inability to realise that as a king he must not succumb to his own desires and emotions. He refuses to accept that the position of authority that he finds himself in demands responsibility and that his personal whims and desires should be secondary to the needs of his community.

Even though Agamemnon is a highly accomplished warrior, as a king he often exhibits, contrary to the ideal of kingship: stubbornness, cowardice and at certain times even immaturity. The epic itself presents the character of Agamemnon as a character who is righteous in a sense, but very flawed morally.

Over the course of The Iliad, however, Agamemnon does seem to learn, eventually, from his many mistakes and by the time of its closing passages Agamemnon has evolved into a much greater leader than he previously was.

Agamemnon in The Odyssey

In Homer's Odyssey, Agamemnon is once again present, this time however, in a greatly limited form. It is in book III where Agamemnon is mentioned for the first time. Nestor recounts the events leading up to Agamemnon's murder. What is interesting to note here is where the emphasis is placed for Agamemnon's murder. Clearly it is Aegisthus who is blamed for his death. Motivated by greed and lust Aegisthus betrayed the trust of Agamemnon and seduced his wife Clytemnestra.

Homer repeats the telling of the fall of Agamemnon many times throughout the epic. The most likely reason for this is that the story of Agamemnon's betrayal and assassination are used to contrast the murderous infidelity of Clytemnestra with that of the dedicated loyalty of Penelope.

Aeschylus however, is not concerned with Penelope. His plays of the Orestia are completely devoted to the murder of Agamemnon and its consequences. Aeschylus' Agamemnon does have similar character traits to the Homeric version of the character. During his brief appearance on stage his behaviour demonstrates his arrogant and boorish Homeric roots.

In the opening stages of the Agamemnon the chorus describes Agamemnon as a great and courageous warrior, one who destroyed the mighty army and city of Troy. Yet after praising the character of Agamemnon, the chorus recounts that in order to change the winds in order to get to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. One is immediately presented with the crucial problem of Agamemnon's character. Is he a man who is virtuous and ambitious or cruel and guilty of his daughter's murder?

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a complicated issue. It is clear that Agamemnon was in an unenviable position before sailing to Troy. In order to have his revenge for Paris' crime, and in order to aid his brother he must commit a further, perhaps worse crime. Iphigenia, Agamemnon's daughter has to be sacrificed so that the battle fleet of the Greek forces can avenge the reckless actions of Paris and Helen. In this context, the act of sacrificing one's kin for the sake of the state could indeed be deemed a righteous act. Agamemnon's decision to sacrifice his daughter could be deemed a logical decision, especially since the sacrifice was for the sack of Troy and the victory of the Greek army.

Despite this apparent justification, perhaps Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter was a flawed and wrong action. One could argue that he sacrifices his daughter on the altar of his own ambition. What is clear, however, is Agamemnon is responsible for the blood that he has spilled and that his drive and ambition, which can be witnessed in Homer, does seem to have been a factor in the sacrifice.

Despite the ill-fated decisions of Agamemnon's driving ambition, he is depicted by the chorus as virtuous nonetheless. The chorus presents Agamemnon as a moral character, a man who faced the dilemma of whether or not to kill his own daughter for the good of the state. Agamemnon fought the city of Troy for the sake of virtue and for the state; therefore he has to be a virtuous character.

Although we are told of his act against his daughter Iphigenia, we are given insight on Agamemnon's moral dilemma in the early stages of the play, therefore one is given the impression that this character does in fact have a sense of virtue and principles. Agamemnon contemplation of his situation is described with much grief. He illustrates his internal conflict in his speeches; "What do I become? A monster to myself, to the whole world, And to all future time, a monster, Wearing my daughter's blood". In a sense, Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter is somewhat justified in that if he did not obey the command of the goddess Artemis, it would have led to utter destruction of his army and of the honour code he must follow in order to be a noble ruler.

In spite of the virtuous and honourable picture that the chorus presents of Agamemnon, it is not long before we see that Agamemnon is flawed yet again. When Agamemnon makes his victorious return from Troy he proudly parades Cassandra, his mistress, before his wife and the chorus. Agamemnon is represented as a man who is extremely arrogant and disrespectful to his wife, of whose infidelity he must be ignorant. Agamemnon speaks to his wife disrespectfully and with contempt.

Here Agamemnon's actions are dishonourable. Despite Agamemnon's long absence from Argos, he does not greet his wife with words of delight as she does to him. Instead, he embarrasses her in front of the chorus and his new mistress, Cassandra. His language here is particularly blunt. It does seem that Agamemnon considered acting over-masculine in these opening passages.

Agamemnon presents to us another dishonourable flaw during the dialogue between himself and his wife. Although he does initially refuse to step on the carpet Clytemnestra has had prepared for him, she cunningly induces him to do so, thereby coercing him to go against his principles. This is a key scene in the play because originally Agamemnon refuses to walk the carpet because he does not want to be hailed as a god. Clytemnestra finally convinces -- thanks to her linguistic manipulation -- Agamemnon to walk on the carpet. Because of this Agamemnon defies his principles and transgresses from just being an arrogant king to a king suffering from hubris.

Family Guilt

The greatest aspect of Agamemnon's guilt is that of his family's guilt. (From House of Atreus)

The god-defying descendants of Tantalus committed unspeakable crimes that cried out for revenge, ultimately turning brother against brother, father against son, father against daughter and son against mother.

It began with Tantalus who served his son Pelops as a meal to the gods to test their omniscience. Demeter alone failed the test and so, when Pelops was restored to life, he had to make do with an ivory shoulder.

When it came time for Pelops to marry, he chose Hippodamia, the daughter of Oenomaus, king of Pisa. Unfortunately, the king lusted after his own daughter and contrived to murder all her more appropriate suitors during a race that he had fixed. Pelops had to win this race to Mount Olympus in order to win his bride, and he did by loosening the lynchpins in Oenomaus' chariot, thereby killing his would-be father-in-law.

Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons, Thyestes and Atreus, who murdered an illegitimate son of Pelops to please their mother. Then they went into exile in Mycenae, where their brother-in-law held the throne. When he died, Atreus finagled control of the kingdom, but Thyestes seduced Atreus' wife, Aerope, and stole Atreus' golden fleece. As a result Thyestes once again went into exile.

Believing that he had been forgiven by his brother Thyestes eventually he returned and dined at the meal his brother had provided him. When the final course was brought in, the identity of Thyestes' meal was revealed, for the platter contained the heads of all his children except the infant, Aegisthus. Thyestes cursed his brother and fled.

Agamemnon's Fate

Agamemnon's fate is directly linked with his violent family past. His death appears to be the result of several different patterns of revenge. Upon his death, Clytemnestra does remark that she hopes that "the thrice gorged demon of the family" can be appeased.

As the ruler of all of Argos and husband to the duplicitous Clytemnestra, Agamemnon is highly a complicated character and it is very difficult to distinguish whether he is virtuous or immoral. There are many multi-facets of Agamemnon as a character. At times he is depicted as being very moral, and at other times, completely immoral. Although his presence in the play is very brief, his actions are the roots and the reasons for much of the conflict in all three plays of the trilogy. Not only that, but Agamemnon's hopeless dilemma to seek vengeance through the use of violence sets the stage for much of the dilemmas yet to come in the trilogy, thereby making Agamemnon an essential character in Oresteia.

Due to Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter for the sake of ambition and the curse of the House of Atreus, both crimes ignite a spark in the Oresteia that compels the characters to seek a revenge that has no end. Both crimes seem to indicate Agamemnon's guilt, some of it as a result of his own actions but conversely another portion of his guilt is that of his father's and his ancestors. One could argue that had not Agamemnon and Atreus sparked the initial flame to the curses, this vicious cycle would have been less likely to occur and such bloodshed would have not transpired. However, it seems from the Oresteia that these brutal murderous actions were required as some form of blood sacrifice to appease divine anger with the house of Atreus. When one reaches the close of the trilogy it appears that the hunger of "the thrice gorged demon" has finally been satisfied.

Agamemnon Bibliography

Michael Gagarin - Aeschylean Drama - Berkeley University of California Press - 1976
Simon Goldhill - The Oresteia - Cambridge University Press - 1992
Simon Bennett - Tragic drama & the family - Yale University Press - 1993

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