Home  |  Archived Pages  |  Syllabus  |  Course Info  |  Email Instructor |  Go to Discussion       

Aeschylus, Agamemnon
(click here for continuation of Oresteia)


Buy this book at Amazon.com!

The Birth of Tragedy
It seems amazing, given the privileged position of oral performance in Ancient Greek culture, but drama evolved relatively late—around the mid-6th century B.C.E.

The theatre of Ancient Greece evolved from religious rites associated with the cult of Dionysus. Dionysus' cult, which evolved later than those of the original 12 Olympian gods, came from the East (cf. Herodotus!) and was not immediately accepted in many Greek cities, including Athens. As we'll see when we read the Bacchae, the cult involved controversial practices such as uninhibited dancing and emotional displays that created an altered mental state (ecstasis). While the wilder orgiastic practices did not die out, as the cult of Dionysus spread and became more mainstream, it acquired more formal, civilized rites. By 600 BC they were practiced every Spring throughout much of Greece.

The myth goes that when the god came to Athens the citizens did not recognize him, so he punished them by making all the males impotent. An oracle told them to carry giant phalloi (model penises) and place them at the god's shrine and in private homes. Out of this procession grew the City Dionysia, the festival at which (eventually) plays like those of Aeschylus were presented.

Tragedy (literally, "goat-song," from tragos, goat + aeidein, to sing) evolved from the dithyramb, an ode to Dionysus sung at the festival. Dithyrambs were usually performed by a chorus of fifty men dressed as satyrs--mythological half-human, half-goat servants of Dionysus. They played drums, lyres and flutes, and chanted as they danced around an effigy of Dionysus. Some time around 550 B.C.E., Thespis of Attica (> mod. Eng. "thespian") added dramatic speeches, spoken by a single actor (protagonist), who interacted with the chorus. Around 484 B.C.E., Aeschylus added a second actor (the antagonist) , introduced props and scenery and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12. (Aeschylus' Persians, written in 472 B.C.E., is the earliest play still extant. His Oresteia was presented--and won the competition--in 458 B.C.E.)

Formal characteristics of tragedy
Although the genre of tragedy had been formed by making changes to a previous genre, it followed (at least in Aeschylus's time) strict formal rules. Its subjects were always taken from events that were geographically and temporally remote from the here-and-now (preferably, from mythology/ancient history); like epic, it was heroic; and violence was never depicted on stage. (By the way, based on these criteria, current events--no matter how sad--can never accurately be described as "tragedy." Food for thought.) Tragedies were structured as follows:

  • Prologue, describing the situation and setting the scene
  • Parados, an ode sung by the chorus as it made its entrance
  • Five dramatic scenes, each followed by a komos, an exchange of laments by the chorus and the protagonist
  • Exodus, the climax and conclusion

They were performed in sets of three (trilogies), together with a satyr play, which would satirize the events of the tragedies they accompanied, by way of comic relief. Though thousands of tragedies were written, very few survive. The Oresteia is the only trilogy to have survived intact.

The formality of drama was part of what made it a "safe" space in which to question and challenge the city and its most sacred values. The forbidden could be revealed and played out in this strenuously "unreal" format, and people's emotional and visceral reactions could be tested. The ecstasis of the original Dionysian rites from which drama evolved was preserved in theater, which came to be seen as a way of releasing powerful emotions.

Aeschylus and the theatrical space
The action moved between the orchestra (platform in front of the stage where the chorus stood) and the skenai door, which marked the entrance to the private, elite space (whither the audience's gaze could not penetrate). Aeschylus plays on the tension between these two spaces in the Agamemnon, using the skenai as a marker of the domestic, "feminine" domain (oikos), and the orchestra as the public, "masculine" domain (polis). When Clytaemestra sallies forth to greet Agamemnon in the polis space, therefore, the effect is shocking (rather lost on a modern audience--sadly for Aeschylus, but happily for modern women, on the whole).

On one side of the stage would be a statue of Dionysus; on the other, an odion with a pointed roof, a symbol of Persian defeat. The conflict of the Agamemnon would thus take place between these respective symbols of Greek and "barbarian" culture (see Herodotus!)

The audience would also have been able to see the world outside the (outdoor) theater--including (about 40 meters behind the stage) a sacrificial altar, where sacrifices were enacted and dances performed. Agamemnon and Kassandra, when they enter the skenai doors (never to emerge...), are thus walking towards this altar....creepy.

Other interesting aspects of the Dionysia
The Dionysia and its attendant drama competition was held in early spring, when seas were once again navigable. The audience thus consisted of both Athenian citizens (for whom this was a major civic holiday, comparable to the Fourth of July) and foreigners. Attendance was cheap and subsidized by the government, so could more or less be considered a civic duty: to be an Athenian citizen was to be a theatergoer.
After the plays, there would be:

  • a presentation of tribute (paid to Athens by other states in its empire) by foreign representatives, who would come up and place it on the stage
  • a procession of war orphans, who were being raised at state expense, and would parade in hoplite (soldier) costumes.
  • a presentation of wreaths to city benefactors.

Thus, the tragedies were framed by a commemoration of civic gains--and losses--due to its military power; and by a reminder that private wealth was best used for the benefit of the polis.

*          *          *          

The Oresteia
--A couple of quick study questions.

  1. Keep in mind the spatial considerations I outlined above. How does Aeschylus make symbolic and structural use of space in the Agamemnon?
  2. Keep thinking about the dynamic of "crime and punishment" we started discussing with respect to Herodotus.--NB: a favorite cliché of classics scholars is the dichotomy between "shame cultures" (the Greeks) and "guilt cultures" (us; that is, Christianity-based morality). We've seen from Herodotus that the mechanics of "justice" do not operate quite the same way in a 5th-century Athens worldview as in ours. Track the way justice and problem-solving are handled in the Oresteia.
  3. According to Lattimore's Introduction to our translation (pp 10-11), the Oresteia works on 4 main levels at once, in order of importance: (1) domestic tragedy, (2) tragedy of war, (3) political tragedy, (4) dynastic tragedy. Homer focused on #4, to the exclusion of 1, 2, 3; as you read the Oresteia, try to keep track of how the tragedy works on all these levels simultaneously.
  4. Look closely at:
    --the proem (watchman's speech, ll. 1-39). What themes does it introduce?
    --the parados (first chorus, ll. 40-257).           "        "          "    "      "
    --the confrontation between Clytaemestra and Agamemnon (ll. 794-975). What conflicting claims/archetypes do they represent?
  Creative Commons License  All the original content on these pages is licensed under a Creative Commons License.  Under this license, you may copy, alter, and redistribute any of the original content on this site to your heart's content, provided that you (a) credit me and/or link back to this page; and (b) allow others to make similarly free use of any work you create that is based on material from these pages. In other words, share the love. You might also like to drop me a line and let me know if you're using my stuff -- it's the nice thing to do!
  Home  |  Archived Pages  |  Syllabus  |  Course Info  |  Email Instructor |  Go to Discussion  
  Other Resources  |  Go to the Literature Humanities Homepage at Columbia