Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, November 09, 2013

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon (Poetic Justice)

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the Clerk says: “This story was not told so that wives will follow Griselda's example in humility, for that would be intolerable even if they wanted to, but so that everyone, according to his station, will be steadfast in adversity as Griselda was.” In other words, he tells the reader how his story should be read. How should we read Aeschylus’ play about Agamemnon? There aren’t any cue cards. Is Clytemnestra being steadfast in her adversity like Griselda, only in a different way? Why do these two women react so differently regarding their daughters? Is each one of them merely reacting according to her station in life? Does it matter that both of them are queens (one of noble birth and the other of peasant birth)? Are Greek women and English women so very different? Are women and men so very different?
There are so many questions; so many different ways to read this story; so many different interpretations of this play. Where should we start? Maybe with a simple question: was Clytemnestra a good wife and mother? Clytemnestra knows how a good wife (and queen) acts when her husband (and lord) is away from home for ten years: “And for his wife, may he return and find her true at hall, just as the day he left her, faithful to the last. A watchdog gentle to him alone, savage to those who cross his path. I have not changed.” Clytemnestra knows how to be a good wife and queen. But she also knows how to be a good mother. Before Agamemnon left for Troy he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to complete his mission. Clytemnestra wasn’t angry, she was livid. There’s a prophetic undercurrent in her blunt statement that “I have not changed.” And it’s true, she hasn’t changed. So when Agamemnon comes back home after ten long years of war the first thing Clytemnestra does is kill him. And she is totally unrepentant. She says “I brooded on this trial, this ancient blood feud year by year. At last my hour came. Here I stand and here I struck and here my work is done. I did it all.”
Is the reader supposed to take this as a reasonable act of proper justice or as a cruel act of raw vengeance? It’s a very tangled web. Who is ultimately responsible for Agamemnon’s death? The easy answer is, Clytemnestra of course. And that’s true. But the poet in Aeschylus points out that “…the architect of vengeance growing strong in the house with no fear of the husband / here she waits / the terror raging back and back in the future / the stealth, the law of the hearth, the mother / Memory womb of Fury child-avenging Fury!” Clytemnestra was the architect of vengeance. She planned it, she carried it out. But Agamemnon broke a sacred law of the hearth; he killed his own child. As the mother who carried that child in her own womb, Clytemnestra is overwhelmed with the “Memory womb of Fury child-avenging Fury.” The memory womb of child-avenging fury may be a reflection of the will of the Greek gods. Aeschylus says “the gods are deaf to the one who turns to crime, they tear him down. / So Paris (a prince from Troy) learned: he came to Atreus' house (Menelaos & Agamemnon were sons of Atreus) and shamed the tables spread for guests, he stole away the queen. And she (Helen, wife of Menelaos) left her land chaos, clanging shields, companions tramping, bronze prows, men in bronze, and she came to Troy with a dowry, death…” Clytemnestra’s hand held the knife. But behind her act is the ancient and bloody curse on the house of Atreus; a Trojan prince abducting a Greek queen; Menelaos willing to kill innocent people to punish the Trojans for taking his wife; Helen (willingly?) taking her “dowry” of death with her to the shores of Troy; and the Greek soldiers themselves, willing to sacrifice an innocent Greek girl (Clytemnestra’s daughter) for their own greed and blood lust. This is a very tangled web. Philosophers have long debated what justice is. Aeschylus is a poet and shows us what it looks like in a flawed world of flesh and blood.


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