Thursday, July 9, 2015

Revisiting Agamemnon Must Die

Agamemnon Must Die tells the story that Aeschylus did in his Oresteia. This was a work that belonged very much to Athens in the fifth century B. C. It was written in lyric form as a drama that followed rules governing such works. The playwright made some innovations but not many. The actor declaimed and the chorus explained the "action." Even so, it was based on stories that belong to the cycle of songs or stories about the Trojan War. Archaeological remains from Mycenae during that era (about 1200 B. C.) strongly suggest a rich, perhaps a heroic culture.

Two artifacts belonging to that time and place and now in the possession of the Louvre are here reproduced, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The first is of a "sauce-boat" and the second is of an earring. They do not prove the existence of Agamemnon or the reality of the Trojan War, but I accept them as strongly indicative of a society that could very well have waged such a war. 

The Homeric poems and similar stories cannot be dated with certainty any earlier than the eighth century B. C. They do suggest to me a continuity of oral tradition that informed Aeschylus. What is certain is that Aeschylus did not himself make up the stories as other playwrights also used the same materials. Euripides criticized sections of the Oresteia, and Aristophanes made fun of it. Sophocles is said to reflect, in his plays, knowledge of the Agamemnon stories.

My own telling or retelling of the story takes as given that Agamemnon was murdered upon his return from Troy and that he was avenged by his son Orestes seven years later. I felt it necessary to change some of the characters for what I considered to be sufficient cause. 

Clytemnestra appears almost shrewish in Aeschylus' drama. This I find impossible to accept. If the legends guide us correctly, Agamemnon and his brother were taken to the house of Tyndareus, king of Sparta and father of Helen and Clytemnestra. As the older brother, Agamemnon's claim would surely have superseded that of Menelaus. Yet he chose Clytemnestra just as Odysseus declined to compete for Helen because his heart was set on Penelope. I concluded that Agamemnon was not totally clueless about his choice and saw something beyond Helen's beauty.

Similarly, Aigisthos was portrayed as weak and effeminate by Aeschylus and other retailers of these tales. It seemed inconceivable to me that Clytemnestra would have chosen such a person to allow into her chambers.

Menelaus is said by Homer to have made his way back to Greece in the eighth year after the Trojan War. I could not resist changing that to six years so that I could place him in an argument with Orestes over whether or not he should pursue the path of vengeance against Agamemnon's killers.

For more, I encourage readers of this blog to read my book.

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