Agamemnon's Homecoming

The Oresteia - Aeschylus, Robert Fagles, William Bedell Stanford

Now, my argument in relation to this trilogy is that it is not so much three plays but a single three act play. In saying this I will then suggest that this is the only extant play (not counting the Persians as I am not sure whether that is part of a trilogy) of Aeschylus that we have since the other three plays also form part of a trilogy, of which the other sections have been lost. It is quite a shame that the ancient copyists did not consider the trilogies to be single unifying plays as what we do have is sort of like having one book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In a way the play is not complete (and this is very noticeable with Prometheus Bound, as we only have the first, and the play ends with Prometheus being cast down into the underworld).


Grecian plays tended to be a whole day affair, with four plays being performed: the trilogy and what is termed a Satyr play. Each of the plays would be performed, with a break between the parts, sort of like an interlude in our modern theatre. They were performed outside (all of the theatres were outside) and I suspect they would have been performed during the day. It raises the question of how would the Athenians balance their work life and be able to attend the plays. The first answer is that the plays were performed during a festival, so the Athenians (usually the wealthier class) would be able to attend. Secondly, the Athenians did not like to work, that is what slaves and Metics were for. Work to the Athenians was simply owning business interests and earning money from them. It was also the case with the wealthier farms (though the poorer citizens would have to work their own land, though even they would own slaves). So, having slaves do the actual work freed up the Athenian citizens to go to the theatre.


The second thing that I wish to discuss is this whole idea of sympathy lying with Clytaemnestra. I put it here because she is the main character in the play, and she is also the villain. I have read reviews where people have claimed that Clytaemnestra did the right thing in killing her husband, and it was Orestes, acting on the command of a god, that was the foolish one. Simply put, this was not what the Greeks would have thought. While we may see here as seeking revenge against Agamemon murdering her daughter, and then staying away from home for some ten odd years, to the Greeks she was usurping the natural order of things, or at least the order that the Greeks would see it. Secondly she was murdering a king. It doesn't matter whether he was her husband or not, he was still the king, and it is clear that this act was an act of pure ambition (at least on Aegisthius' part, since he does drive Orestes into exile and takes the throne instead).


Now, consider Apollo's charge against Clytaemnestra:


Zeus so ordained, and Zeus was right. For their two deaths

are in no way to be compared. He was a king

wielding an honoured sceptre by divine command.

A woman killed him: such death might be honourable

in battle, dealt by an arrow from an Amazon's bow.

but you shall hear, Pallas and you who judge this case,

how Clytemnestra killed her husband. When he came

home from the war, for the most part successful, and

performed his ritual cleansing, she stood by his side;

the ritual ended, as he left the silver bath,

she threw on him a robe's interminable folds.


So there it is, Agamemnon was a divinely appointed king, and was killed dishonourably by his wife while he was basically in prayer.

Let us also consider this, also from the mouth of Apollo:


The mother is not the true parent of the child

which is called hers. She is a nurse who tends the growth

of young seed planted by his true parent, the male.


From this line it is clear that the argument is that the crime of matricide does not exist as the mother is not even strictly a parent, she is little more than a nursemaid caring for the father's child. It is clear from this line that Aeschylus' view of women was a very conservative view, namely that they had no rights whatsoever. The woman is the child bearer and that is it, that is all the role that she plays. Not something that my modern mind agrees with, or considers to be right, but this is not a modern play.


Another thing I wish to consider is bringing this play into a more modern context. In a way it is also a story of homecoming from war and how war can have an adverse, even destructive, effect upon a family. In this play the family has been torn apart by the war, the wife has taken a lover, killed the husband, and banished the children to perpetual slavery. In seeking vengeance the child is then dragged through the courts, protesting his innocence. It is a theme that, while not necessarily working in a modern context the way it is written, can work. This is the idea that I thought up last night, of a three act play based upon the Orestea.


1) Agamemnon returns home from a tour of duty in the army where he watched friends died and has been left with PTSD. While at home he has a flashback, kills his wife and two of his children, and flees.

  1. 2) The son grows up, angered at his father for killing his mother, and goes out on a quest to find and kill him.
  2. 3) The son, after succeeding, is then arrested and charged with murder, convicted, and then sentenced to death.


It is different, and quite bleak and depressing (and unlikely to appeal to a 21st century audience) but in a way this how the play would run, particularly if we are focusing on the homecoming and the destruction that war brings to families, even far from the front line.