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How Guilty is Agamemnon?

Euripides, the Oresteia, and the Character of Agamemnon

By Ciarán Lynch

Aeschylus - Greek Playwright Aeschylus

Aeschylus - Greek Playwright Aeschylus

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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 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.

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