|Detail of The Death of Seneca by Paul Peter Rubens (1615).|
I started reading Seneca the Younger last year and I thoroughly enjoy his works: such is my devotion in fact I decided to read the works I didn't own online and I hate reading long pieces online. Hate it. But I can't resist, I'm just too curious, so this year I have two plays of his to be read online: The Phoenician Women and Agamemnon. And, because I hate doing it so much I can't say that reading Agamemnon was a wholly fun experience yet I plodded through and I did get some enjoyment out of it (and I was grateful for the opportunity to do so).
Agamemnon was written around 55 A.D. and it's a story I know very well from Aeschylus. The story goes that Agamemnon, the king of Argos, returns home after ten years fighting in the Trojan war, and during those ten years he sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods. Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra is, understandably, furious; she's also not been faithful - she and her lover Aegisthus (Agamemnon's cousin) have been ruling Argos together and would be very happy indeed without Agamemnon.
Seneca's play begins with a prophecy from Thyestes, Agamemnon's dead uncle. He foresees the death of Agamemnon -
But at length, though late and coming after death, the promise of dim prophecy is fulfilled to me, worn with my woes; that king of kings, that leader of leaders, Agamemnon, following whose banner a thousand ships once covered the Trojan waters with their sails, now that, after ten courses of Phoebus, Ilium is o’erthrown, now is he near at hand – to give his throat into his wife’s power. Now, now shall this house swim in blood other than mine; swords, axes, spears, a king’s head cleft with the axe’s heavy stroke, I see; now crimes are near, now treachery, slaughter, gore – feasts are being spread.
Clytemnestra meanwhile is plotting her revenge for her husband's murder of their daughter, and she also is in fear of Agamemnon's mistress Cassandra. Seneca shows a divided Clytemnestra, she is not as hell bent on killing Agamemnon as she is portrayed in other plays, simply she reluctantly takes the decision that it would be the right thing to do. As for Cassandra; like Thyestes, she also forsesees Agamemnon being killed and it is her who describes the murder of Agamemnon by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.
It's a brilliant play and unlike the other versions I've read: Seneca portrays Clytemnestra as very changeable, unable to quite decide what to do and acting not so much reluctantly as almost impetuously. We see the death of Agamemnon through her eyes as she makes her decision, and then through the eyes of Cassandra as she has her vision: Agamemnon himself, though a central figure, does not appear as much as one would have thought. It's a play more about the mind than action, which I think is in keeping with Seneca's other works. A great play, and one day I will have to get a print version, which I think would enable me to enjoy it a great deal more.
And that was my third title for this year's Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - To the Queen by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.