Agamemnon (Murray 1920)/Notes


The chief characters in the play belong to one family, as is shown by the two genealogies:—

Electra of Euripides (Murray) Chart I.png

(Also, a sister of Agamemnon, name variously given, married Strophios, and was the mother of Pylades.)

Electra of Euripides (Murray) Chart II.png

P. 1. l. 1.]—The Watchman, like most characters in Greek tragedy, comes from the Homeric tradition, though in Homer (Od. iv. 524) he is merely a servant of Aigisthos.

P. 2, l. 28, Women's triumph cry.]—This cry of the women recurs several times in the play: cf. p. 26, ll. 587 ff., p. 55, l. 1234. It is conventionally represented by "ololû"; as the cry to Apollo, Paian is "I-ê," l. 146, and Cassandra's sob is "ototoi" or "otototoi," p. 47.

Pp. 3 f., ll. 40 ff.]—With this silent scene of Clytemnestra's, compare the long silence of Cassandra below, and the silence of Prometheus in that play until his torturers have left him. See the criticism of Aeschylus in Aristophanes, Frogs, ll. 911–920, pp. 68, 69 in my translation.

P. 5, l. 104, Sign of the War-Way.]—i.e. an ominous sign seen by the army as it started on its journey. In Homer, Iliad, ll. 305–329, it is a snake which eats the nine young of a mother bird and then the mother, and is turned into stone afterwards.—All through this chorus the language of the prophet Calchas is intentionally obscure and riddling—the style of prophesy.

P. 7, l. 146, But I-ê, i-ê.]—(Pronounce Ee-ay.) Calchas, catching sight in his vision of the further consequences which Artemis will exact if she fulfils the sign, calls on Apollo Paian, the Healer, to check her.

P. 7, l. 160, Zeus, whate'er He be.]—This conception of Zeus is expressed also in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, and was probably developed in the Prometheus Trilogy. See my Rise of the Greek Epic, p. 291 (Ed. 2).

It is connected with the common Greek conception of the Tritos Sôtêr—the Saviour Third. First, He who sins; next, He who avenges; third. He who saves. In vegetation worship it is the Old Year who has committed Hubris, the sin of pride, in summer; the Winter who slays him; the New Year which shall save. In mythology the three successive Rulers of Heaven are given by Hesiod as Ouranos, Kronos, Zeus (cf. Prometheus, 965 ff.), but we cannot tell if Aeschylus accepted the Hesiodic story. Cf. note on l. 246, and Clytemnestra's blasphemy at l. 1387, p. 63.

P. 9, l. 192, Winds from Strymon.]—From the great river gorge of Thrace, NNE; cf. below, l. 1418.

P. 9, l. 201, Artemis.]—Her name was terrible, because of its suggestion. She demanded the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenîa. (See Euripides' two plays, Iphigenia in Tauris and Iphigenia in Aulis.) In other poets Agamemnon has generally committed some definite sin against Artemis, but in Aeschylus the death of Iphigenîa seems to be merely one of the results of his acceptance of the Sign.

P. 10, l. 215, 'Tis a Rite of old.]—Literally "it is Themis." Human sacrifice had had a place in the primitive religion of Greece; hence Agamemnon could not reject the demand of the soldiers as an obvious crime. See Rise of Greek Epic, pp. 150–157.

P. 11, l. 246, The Third Cup.]—Regularly poured to Zeus Sôtêr, the Saviour, and accompanied by a paean or cry of joy.

P. 11, l. 256, This Heart of Argos, this frail Tower:]—i.e. themselves.

P. 11, l. 264, Glad-voiced.]—Clytemnestra is in extreme suspense, as the return of Agamemnon will mean either her destruction or her deliverance. At such a moment there must be no ill-omened word, so she challenges fate.

P. 12, l, 276, A word within that hovereth without wings.]—i.e. a presentiment. "Winged words" are words spoken, which fly from speaker to hearer. A 'wingless' word is unspoken. The phrase occurs in Homer.

Pp. 13 ff., ll. 281 ff.]—Beacon Speech. There is no need to inquire curiously into the practical possibility of this chain of beacons. Greek tragedies do not care to be exact about this kind of detail. There may well have been a tradition that Agamemnon, like the Great King of Persia, used a chain of beacons across the Aegean.—Note how vividly Clytemnestra's imagination is working in her excitement. She seems to see before her every leaping light in the chain, just as in the next speech she imagines the scene in Troy almost with the intensity of a vision.

P. 14, l. 314, Victory in the first as in the last.]—All are Victory beacons; the spirit of Victory infects them all equally. Cf. l. 854 below, where Agamemnon prays that the Victory which is now with him, or in him, may abide.

P. 15, l. 348, A woman's word.]—Her hatred and fear of Agamemnon, making her feel vividly the horrors of the sack and the peril overhanging the conquerors, have carried her dangerously far. She checks herself and apologizes for her womanlike anxiety. Cf. l. 1661, p. 77.

P. 18, ll. 409 ff., Seers they saw visions.]—A difficult and uncertain passage. I think the seers attached to the royal household (cf. Libation-Bearers, l. 37, where they are summoned to read a dream) were rather like what we call clairvoyants. Being consulted, they look into some pool of liquid or the like; there they see gradually emerging the palace, the injured King, the deserted room, and at last a wraith of Helen herself, haunting the place.

P. 21, l. 487.]—This break in the action, covering a space of several days, was first pointed out by Dr. Walter Headlam. Incidentally it removes the gravest of the difficulties raised by Dr. Verrall in his famous essay upon the plot of the Agamemnon.

P. 21, l, 495, Dry dust, own brother to the mire of war.]—i.e. "I can see by the state of his clothes, caked with dry dust which was once the mire of battle, that he comes straight from the war and can speak with knowledge." The Herald is probably (though perhaps not quite consistently) conceived as having rushed post-haste with his news.

Pp. 22 ff., Herald.] — The Herald bursts in overcome with excitement and delight, full of love for his home and everything he sees. A marked contrast to Agamemnon, ll. 810 ff. Note that his first speech confirms all the worst fears suggested by Clytemnestra. Agamemnon has committed all the sins she prayed against, and more. The terrible lines 527 ff., "Till her Gods' Houses, etc.," are very like a passage in the Persae, 811 ff., where exactly the same acts by the Persian invaders of Greece make their future punishment inevitable.

P. 22, l. 509, Pythian Lord.]—Apollo is often a sinister figure in tragedy. Cf. Sophocles Oedipus, ll. 915 ff., pp. 52 f., and the similar scene, Electra, 655 ff. Here it is a shock to the Herald to come suddenly on the god who was the chief enemy of the Greeks at Troy. One feels Apollo an evil presence also in the Cassandra scene, ll. 1071 ff., pp. 47 ff.

P. 23, l. 530, Happy among men.]—The crown of his triumph! Early Greek thought was always asking the question. What is human happiness? To the Herald Agamemnon has achieved happiness if any one ever did. Cf. the well-known story of Croesus asking Solon who was the happiest man in the world (Herodotus, I. 30–33).

P. 24, ll. 551 ff., Herald's second speech.]—The connexion of thought is: "After all, why should either of us wish to die? All has ended well." This vivid description of the actualities of war can be better appreciated now than it could in 1913.

P. 25, l. 577, These spoils.]—Spoils purporting to come from the Trojan War were extant in Greek temples in Aeschylus' day and later.

P. 26, l. 595, Our women's joy-cry.]—There seems to have been in Argos an old popular festival, celebrating with joy or mockery the supposed death of a man and a woman. Homer (Od. iii. 309 f.) derives it from a rejoicing by Orestes over Aigisthos and Clytemnestra; cf. below, ll. 1316 ff., p. 59; Aeschylus here and Sophocles in the Electra, from a celebration by Clytemnestra of the deaths of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Probably it was really some ordinary New Year and Old Year celebration to which the poets give a tragic touch. It seems to have had a woman's "Ololugmos" in it, perhaps uttered by men. See Kaibel's note, Soph. Electra 277–281.

P. 26, l. 612, Bronze be dyed like wool.]—Impossible in the literal sense, but there is after all a way of dying a sword red!

P. 27, l. 617, Menelaüs.]—This digression about Menelaüs is due, as similar digressions generally are when they occur in Greek plays, to the poet feeling bound to follow the tradition. Homer begins his longest account of the slaying of Agamemnon by asking "Where was Menelaüs?" (Od. iii. 249). Agamemnon could be safely attacked because he was alone. Menelaüs was away, wrecked or wind-bound.

P. 28, l. 642, Two-fold scourge.]—Ares works his will when spear crosses spear, when man meets man. Hence "two-fold."

P. 29, Chorus. The name Helena.]—There was a controversy in Aeschylus' day whether language, including names, was a matter of Convention or of Nature. Was it mere accident, and could you change the name of anything at will? Or was language a thing rooted in nature and fixed by God from of old? Aeschylus adopts the latter view: Why was this being called Helena? If one had understood God's purpose one would have seen it was because she really was "Helenâs"—Ship-destroyer. (The Herald's story of the shipwreck has suggested this particular idea.) Similarly, if a hero was called Aias, and came to great sorrow, one could see that he was so called from 'Aiai,' "Alas!"—The antistrophe seems to find a meaning in the name Paris or Alexandros, where the etymology is not so clear.

Pp- 33 f.]—Entrance of Agamemnon. The metre of the Chorus indicates marching; so that apparently the procession takes some time to move across the orchestra and get into position. Cassandra would be dressed, as a prophetess, in a robe of white reaching to the feet, covered by an agrênon, or net of wool with large meshes; she would have a staff and certain fillets or crowns. The Leader welcomes the King: he explains that, though he was against the war ten years ago, and has not changed his opinion, he is a faithful servant of the King . . . and that not all are equally so. He gave a similar hint to the Herald above, ll. 546–550, p. 24.

P. 35, Agamemnon.]—A hard, cold speech, full of pride in the earlier part, and turning to ominous threats at the end. Those who have dared to be false shall be broken.—At the end comes a note of fear, like the fear in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. He is so full of triumph and success; he must be very careful not to provoke a fall.—Victory, Nîkê, was to the Greeks a very vivid and infectious thing. It clung to you or it deserted you. And one who was really charged with Victory, like Agamemnon, was very valuable to his friends and people. Hence they made statues of Victory wingless—so that she should not fly away. See Four Stages of Greek Religion, p. 138 note.

P. 36, Clytemnestra.]—A wonderful speech. It seems to me that Aeschylus' imagination realized all the confused passions in Clytemnestra's mind, but that his art was not yet sufficiently developed to make them all clear and explicit. She is in suspense; does Agamemnon know her guilt or not? At least, if she is to die, she wants to say something to justify or excuse herself in the eyes of the world. A touch of hysteria creeps in; why could he not have been killed in all these years? Why must he rise, like some monster from the grave, unkillable? Gradually she recovers her calm, explains clearly the suspicious point of Orestes' absence, and heaps up her words and gestures of welcome to an almost oriental fullness (which Agamemnon rebukes, ll. 918 ff., p. 39). Again, at the end, when she finds that for the time she is safe, her real feelings almost break out.

P. 38].—What is the motive of the Crimson Tapestries? I think the tangling robe must have been in the tradition, as the murder in the bath certainly was. One motive, of course, is obvious: Clytemnestra is tempting Agamemnon to sin or "go too far." He tries to resist, but the splendour of an oriental homecoming seduces him and he yields. But is that enough to account for such a curious trait in the story, and one so strongly emphasized? We are told afterwards that Clytemnestra threw over her victim an "endless web," long and rich (p. 63), to prevent his seeing or using his arms. And I cannot help suspecting that this endless web was the same as the crimson pall.

If one tries to conjecture the origin of this curious story, it is perhaps a clue to realize that the word droitê means both a bath and a sarcophagus, or rather that the thing called droitê, a narrow stone or marble vessel about seven feet long, was in pre-classical and post-classical times used as a sarcophagus, but in classical times chiefly or solely as a bath. If among the prehistoric graves at Mycenae some later peasants discovered a royal mummy or skeleton in a sarcophagus, wrapped in a robe of royal crimson, and showing signs of violent death—such as Schliemann believed that he discovered—would they not say: "We found the body of a King murdered in a bath, and wrapped round and round in a great robe?"

P. 39 f.]—Agamemnon is going through the process of temptation. He protests rather too often and yields.

P. 39, l. 931. Tell me but this.]—This little dialogue is very characteristic of Aeschylus. Euripides would have done it at three times the length and made all the points clear. In Aeschylus the subtlety is there, but it is not easy to follow.

P. 40, l. 945, These bound slaves.]—i.e. his shoes. The metaphor shows the trend of his unconscious mind.

P. 41, l. 950, This princess.]—This is the first time that the attention of the audience is drawn to Cassandra. She too is one of Aeschylus' silent figures. I imagine her pale, staring in front of her, almost as if in a trance, until terror seizes her at Clytemnestra's greeting in l. 1035, p. 45.

P. 41, l. 964, The cry.]—i.e. the cry of the possessed prophetess which rang from the inner sanctuary at Delphi and was intrepreted by the priests.—The last two lines of the speech are plain in their meaning but hard to translate. Literally: "when the full, or fulfilled, man walketh his home.—O Zeus the Fulfiller, fulfil my prayers."

P. 42, l. 976.]—The victim has been drawn into the house; the Chorus sing a low boding song: every audience at a Greek tragedy would expect next to hear a death cry from within, or to see a horrified messenger rush out. Instead of which the door opens and there is Clytemnestra: what does she want? "Come thou also!" One victim is not enough.—In the next scene we must understand the cause of Clytemnestra's impatience. If she stays too long outside, some one will warn Agamemnon; if she leaves Cassandra, she with her second sight will warn the Chorus. If Cassandra could only be got inside all would be safe!

P. 44, l. 1022, "One there was of old."]—Asklêpios, the physician, restored Hippolytus to life, and Zeus blasted him for so oversetting the laws of nature.

P. 45, l. 1040, Alcmêna's son.]—Heracles was made a slave to Omphalê, Queen of Lydia. His grumbles at his insufficient food were a theme of comedy.

P. 45, l. 1049, Belike thou canst not yet.]—Cf. below, ll. 1066 ff. The Elder speaks in sympathy. "Very likely you cannot yet bring yourself to submit."

P. 46, l. 1061, Thou show her.]—It seems odd to think that this passage has for centuries been translated as if it was all addressed to Cassandra: "But if you do not understand what I say, please indicate the same with your barbarous hand!"—What makes Cassandra at last speak? I think that the Elder probably touches her, and the touch as it were breaks the spell.

P. 47, l. 1072, Cassandra.]—"Otototoi" really takes the place of a stage direction: she utters a long low sob.—The exclamation which I have translated "Dreams!" seems to occur when people see ghosts or visions. Alcestis, 261; Prometheus, 567. Cf. Phoenissae 1296.—"Mine enemy!" The name "Apollon" suggested "apollyon," Destroying . . . the form which is actually used in the Book of Revelation (Rev. ix. 11).

Observe how, during the lyric scene, Cassandra's vision grows steadily more definite. First vague horror of the House: then the sobbing of children, slain long ago: then, a new deed of blood coming; a woman in it: a wife: then, with a great effort, an attempt to describe the actual slaying in the bath. Lastly, the sight of herself among the slain. (This last point is greatly developed by Euripedes, Trojan Women, ll. 445 ff., pp. 33 f.)

The story of the Children of Thyestes is given below, ll. 1590 ff., p. 73. Procnê (or Philomêla) was an Attic princess who, in fury against her Thracian husband, Têreus, killed their child Itys, or Itylus, and was changed into a nightingale, to weep for him for ever.

P. 52, ll. 1178 ff.]—Dialogue. During the lyrics Cassandra has been "possessed" or "entranced": the turn to dialogue marks a conscious attempt to control herself and state plainly her message of warning. In order to prove her power, she first tells the Elders of deeds done in the past which are known to them but cannot have been known to her. When once they are convinced of her true seercraft, she will be able to warn them of what is coming!—The short 'stichomŷthia' (line for line dialogue), dealing in awed whispers with things which can hardly be spoken, leaves the story of Cassandra still a mystery. Then her self-control breaks and the power of the God sweeps irresistibly upon her; cf. below, ll. 1256 ff., where it comes at her like a visible shape of fire, a thing not uncommon with modern clairvoyants.

P. 56, l. 1252, Thou art indeed fallen far astray.]—Because they had said "what man."

P. 56, l. 1265, These wreathed bands, this staff of prophesy.]—Cf. Trojan Women, ll. 451 ff., p. 34.

P. 60, ll. 1343 ff., The death cry; the hesitation of the Elders.]—This scene is often condemned or even ridiculed; I think, through misunderstanding. We knew the Old Men were helpless, like "dreams wandering in the day." It is essential to the story that when the crisis comes they shall be found wanting. But they are neither foolish nor cowardly; each utterance in itself is natural and characteristic, but counsels are divided. One would like to know whether Aeschylus made them speak together confusedly, as would certainly be done on the modern stage, or whether the stately conventions of Greek tragedy preferred that each speaker should finish his say. In any case, what happens is that after a moment or two of confused counsel the Elders determine to break into the Palace, but as they are mounting the steps the great doors are flung open and Clytemnestra confronts them, standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.

The illusion intended is that the Elders have entered the Palace and discovered Clytemnestra. But, as the mechanical arrangements of the Greek stage were not equal to this sudden change of scene, and since also it would, even with perfect machinery, have a tiresome interrupting effect, a slight confusion or inconsistency is allowed. We are supposed to be inside the house; but as a matter of fact the supposition is soon forgotten, and the play goes on without any attention to the particular place of the action. On Clytemnestra's speech see Introduction, p. xiii.

P. 63, l. 1387, A prayer well sped to Zeus of Hell.]—As the third gift or libation was ritually given to Zeus the Saviour, Clytemnestra blasphemously suggests that her third and unnecessary blow was an acceptable gift to a sort of anti-Zeus, a Saviour of Death.

P. 65, l. 1436, Aigisthos.]—At last the name is mentioned which has been in the mind of every one!—Chrysêïs was a prisoner of war, daughter of Chrysês, priest of Apollo. Agamemnon was made to surrender her to her father, and from this arose his quarrel with Achilles, which is the subject of the Iliad.

Pp. 67–72, ll. 1468–1573, Daemon.]—The Genius or guardian spirit of the house has in this House become a Wrath, an 'Alastor' or 'Driver Astray.' See Introduction, pp. x ff.

P. 68, l. 1513, Mourners.]—This attribution of the different speeches or songs to different speakers is, of course, conjectural. Ancient dramas come down to us with no stage directions and very imperfect indications of the speakers.

P. 72, l. 1579, Aigisthos.]—The entry of Aigisthos enlivens the scene again after the brooding and bewildered end of the dialogue between Clytemnestra and the Elders. At the same time, it seems, no doubt by deliberate intention, to reduce it to commonplace. Aigisthos' self-defence is largely justified, but he is no hero.

P. 73, l. 1602, Pleisthenês.]—Apparently one of the ancestors of Atreus, but it is not clear where he comes in the genealogy. He may be identical with Pelops.

P. 74, l. 1617. Oarsman of the nether row.]—On an ancient galley, bireme or trireme, the rowers of the lower bank of oars ranked as inferior to those who used the long oars from the deck.

P. 76, l. 1654.]—Clytemnestra, see Introduction, p. xiii. She longs for peace, yet after all "Had Zimri peace who slew his master?" The end of the play leaves us waiting for the return of Orestes. In the first scene of the Libation-Bearers, he is discovered standing by night at his father's grave.