Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, March 01, 2010

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon

The plot of the story is simple. Ten years ago Agamemnon learned that he had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia if he wanted to lead the Greek army to sack Troy. He did both. Now he’s coming back home. His wife Clytemnestra has grieved all this time for Iphigenia and she promptly kills Agamemnon as soon as he sets foot in the house. Then Clytemnestra ends with a speech that basically says “He needed killing.” End of play. What’s going on here? What’s the point of all this killing and revenge? The plot is just the surface of the story. The real meaning takes place in the depths of the human mind. Aeschylus is not only the West’s first great dramatist; he’s also one of its first great psychologists.

The very start of the play gives us the clue to figure out its meaning. Before any of the major characters have even entered the stage we get a sense that something bad has happened here before. And something bad will happen here again. There’s a brooding tone that settles over the reader (or the audience). The presence of some unknown force lurks just beneath the surface and will soon wreak havoc. The watchman informs us that the house and these old stones, give them a voice and what a tale they’d tell. Bad things have obviously happened in this “house of Atreus.” Of course the house can’t talk and the watchman merely says I speak to those who know. That’s not us. We’re the ones who don’t know. So for us the watchman replies: to those who don’t know my mind’s a blank. I never say a word. He knows something we don’t and he’s not telling. We have to figure out the truth for ourselves. And what we learn isn’t pleasant. It’s a hard lesson. The Chorus is the teacher and here’s our lesson: in the end it goes as it goes. That’s typical of the hard-headed Greeks to merely state the obvious. Of course life goes as it goes. Any fool can tell you that. A spade is a spade too. Modern Americans believe that just as much as the ancient Greeks did. That’s because we’re both practical cultures based on reason and commerce. But here’s where we part company with the Greeks. The Chorus goes on to say where it ends is Fate… Unlike the ancient Greeks very few modern Americans believe in the concept of Fate. Most of us believe we shape our own destinies through the decisions we make. Why did the Greeks think differently? Were they superstitious or any less rational than us? Who in their right mind could believe in a god as childish as Zeus?

Actually they were at least as smart as we are. They just approached life on different terms. When Americans come up against something we don’t understand we tend to turn to science and technology for answers. The ancient Greeks also used science and technology. But they probed deeper into the psyche than modern Americans tend to do. There’s something about the human condition that defies even the latest science and the best technology. Do I have a purpose in life? Why do bad things happen to good people? What will happen to me after I die? Science and technology have no answers to these questions. The Greeks didn’t always have the answer either, but they had a word for it: Zeus. Aeschylus put it this way: Zeus, great nameless all in all, if that name will gain his favor, I will call him Zeus. I have no words to do him justice, weighing all in the balance, all I have is Zeus, Zeus… We don’t use the term “Zeus” but we face roughly the same thing when we talk about the unknown. There are some things simply beyond human comprehension. For the Greeks this was the realm of the gods and this is the brooding presence that hovers over the play. There’s an ancient crime that cries out for the revenge of blood. Clytemnestra tries to explain herself more clearly to those of us who have been formed in the rational ways of science and technology. She says that Three generations feed the spirit in the race. Deep in the veins he feeds our bloodlust… The sins of the fathers will be taken out on the children. This is absolutely contrary to the American legal system. No matter. The gods will not be denied. Clytemnestra has killed Agamemnon. But that’s only the surface action. To understand what has really taken place we have to dig deeper; deeper into the motives of the human mind and the ways of the gods. Clytemnestra sees clearly what has really happened: You claim the work is mine, call me Agamemnon’s wife. You are wrong. Fleshed in the wife of this dead man, the spirit lives within me; our savage ancient spirit of revenge. Clytemnestra says she’s only a fleshed-out spirit doing the will of the gods. They’re merely using her as a tool to accomplish their ends. This is her Fate. We no longer believe things like that. The message of Aeschylus seems to be: too bad for you. The gods will not be denied.


Blogger Jeremy said...

Some of the most beautiful writing ever written is contained in this work. The depth of human bonds is examined in all of its instinctive ingenuity.

5/18/2011 7:35 PM  

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