Agamemnon by Aeschylus.
♔ The Oresteia (458 B.C.) ♔
|An Audience in Athens during 'Agamemnon' by Aeschylus by William Blake Richmond (1884).|
Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων) is the first play in Aeschylus' trilogy the Oresteia (Ὀρέστεια), which was first performed in 458 B.C. I think it is the darkest, most atmospheric book I've ever read.
Like The Odyssey, Agamemnon describes a home-coming from Troy: the play begins with the declaration that the Trojan War (which lasted ten years according to Aeschylus' play) has finally ended. The play opens with commentary from a watchman:
Dear gods, set me free from all the pain,
the long watch I keep, one whole year awake...
propped on my arms, crouched on the roofs of Atreus
like a dog.
I know the stars by heart,
the armies of the night, and there in the lead
the ones that bring us snow or the crops of summer,
bring us all we have -
our great blazing kings of the sky,
I know them, when they rise and when they fall...
and now I watch for the light, the signal fire
breaking out of Troy, shouting Troy is taken.
So she commands, full of her high hopes.
That woman - she manoeuvres like a man.
And when I keep to my bed, soaked in dew,
and the thoughts go drifting through the night
and the good dreams that used to guard my sleep....
not here, it's the old comrade, terror, at my neck.
I mustn't sleep, no -
But then the signal comes - the war is over, the Greeks have won; and as the Chorus explains, shouts of joy are heard from Clytaemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, king of Argos. But, unlike Odysseus' Penelope, she has not waited in hope for her husband's return: she has taken a lover, Aegisthus, and she waits to kill Agamemnon so that she may be with Aegisthus, and out of revenge for Agamemnon's killing of their daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice for a safe voyage to Troy.
in After the Murder by John Collier (1882).
When Agamemnon returns he brings with him Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and priestess of Apollo whom he has enslaved. On the face of it, Clytaemnestra welcomes them, but the play is largely about the underlying struggle between husband and wife as she plots then finally kills him. Cassandra predicts all of this in a deeply unsettling monologue that portrays the house, the House of Atreus, as a house already with a curse upon it, and knows she will be killed too when she returns to the palace. She is right: the two are dismembered and their bodies brought out. Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus rejoice, Clytaemnestra ending the play by saying, "We will set the house in order once for all" despite warnings from the Chorus that Agamemnon's son Orestes will return for revenge, which we will see in the second play The Libation Bearers.
This play is remarkably dark and disturbing - as I said at the beginning it is perhaps the darkest and most atmospheric play I've ever read. Sophocles' wrote on this theme in Electra (410 B.C.) and I did find that play a little more 'accessible' (for the want of a better word); Agamemnon was a tough play to read (I read it first in November I think and struggled with it, but I felt better equipped now having read Electra). Even so, it is is well-worth the effort, and I can see from this why Aeschylus is regarded as one of the greatest tragedians. The violence in it seems blacker than any other tragedy I've come across, with the bleak message that violence truly does beget violence, and the path to vengeance is murky: Clytaemnestra is a cold character, but she is bereft at her daughter's death. She kills Agamemnon as a result, and she too will be killed by her son Orestes. But that is not to say she is a sympathetic character: the play and its themes are far too complicated for such easy answers. It is an outstanding play, and I am very much looking forward to reading The Libation Bearers later this week.