“Give Us Freedom from our Toils”: Reading Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” Online

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1369

“Conjecture is not knowledge.”

τὸ γὰρ τοπάζειν τοῦ σάφ᾽ εἰδέναι δίχα.

The Center for Hellenic Studies , the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre has been presenting scenes from Greek tragedy on the ‘small screen’ since the beginning of the US lockdown in March. As our director Paul O’Mahony has put it, since we are “unable to explore the outside world, we have no option but to explore further the inner one.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 855-860

“Citizens, this elder pride of Argives,
I will feel not shame at revealing
my spousal love to you. In time, human fear
turns to dust. I will tell you of my own
miserable live, not something I learned from others,
all that time when this man was below the city of Troy.”

ἄνδρες πολῖται, πρέσβος Ἀργείων τόδε,
οὐκ αἰσχυνοῦμαι τοὺς φιλάνορας τρόπους
λέξαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς· ἐν χρόνῳ δ᾿ ἀποφθίνει
τὸ τάρβος ἀνθρώποισιν. οὐκ ἄλλων πάρα
μαθοῦσ᾿ ἐμαυτῆς δύσφορον λέξω βίον
τοσόνδ᾿ ὁσόνπερ οὗτος ἦν ὑπ᾿ Ἰλίῳ

This week we turn to the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the Agamemnon. How famous is the story of Orestes and his father? So famous that it is the story Zeus contemplates at the beginning of the Homeric Odyssey as he looks down in frustration on the man who murdered Agamemnon. Atreus’ son, Agamemnon, appears in the middle of the epic (book 11) and at its end, complaining at each point bitterly about his disloyal wife, Klytemnestra, and praising the vengeance meted out by his son Orestes.

The story of the family of Agamemnon, however, extends before the Trojan War and then after until the death of Achilles’ son Neoptolemos. it starts back with Tantalos and Pelops in Asia Minor before it moves to the Peloponnese through sacrilegious meals, infanticide and fraternal war, all themes highlighted in the main cause of Klytemnestra’s rage, the killing of their daughter Iphigenia at Aulis.

If this story sounds familiar, it is because it is! In this series, we have heard variations of this tale from Sophocles and Euripides, contemplating both its beginnings and its ends. Indeed, ancient audiences would have been as familiar with the story as Zeus at the beginning of the Odyssey, shaking their heads and wondering how this version will play out.

This play begins with Agamemnon’s return home, but focuses on Klytemnestra’s anger and her power. It features some of the most challenging and memorable choral odes extant from the ancient world. It has a raving, yet lucid Kassandra. And at the core of the play, a murderous king’s bloody return home.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 914-917

“Child of Leda, guardian of my home,

“You have spoken aptly to my absence,
Since you have gone on at length. But proper praise
Ought to be a prize won from different sources.”

Λήδας γένεθλον, δωμάτων ἐμῶν φύλαξ,
ἀπουσίᾳ μὲν εἶπας εἰκότως ἐμῇ·
μακρὰν γὰρ ἐξέτεινας· ἀλλ᾿ ἐναισίμως
αἰνεῖν, παρ᾿ ἄλλων χρὴ τόδ᾿ ἔρχεσθαι γέρα

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 902

“It is a pleasing thing to escape from all necessity.”

τερπνὸν δὲ τἀναγκαῖον ἐκφυγεῖν ἅπαν

Scenes (from Oliver Taplin’s Translation)

1-254: Watchman, Chorus
810-1240; 1305-1405: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Chorus, Cassandra
1515-end: Chorus, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus

Performers

Agamemnon/Aegisthus – Tim Delap
Watchman/Cassandra – Evelyn Miler
Clytemnestra – Eunice Roberts
Chorus – Carlos Bellato and Tamieka Chavis
Special Guests: Fiona Macintosh and Oliver Taplin
Special Director: Toph Marshall

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 684-696

“Whoever pronounced a name
So thoroughly true?
Wasn’t it someone we’d not see
Guiding the tongue with luck
From a foreknowledge of fate?
Who named the spear-bride,
Struggled-over woman
Helen?
For, appropriately,
That ship-killer [hele-nas], man-killer [hel-andros]
City-killer [hele-ptolis], sailed
From her fine-spun, curtains
On the breath of great Zephyr
and many-manned bands
Of shield-bearers followed
The vanished journey struck
By the oars to the banks
Of leafy Simois

For a bloody strife.”
Χο. τίς ποτ’ ὠνόμαξεν ὧδ’
ἐς τὸ πᾶν ἐτητύμως—
μή τις ὅντιν’ οὐχ ὁρῶ-
μεν προνοί-
αισι τοῦ πεπρωμένου
γλῶσσαν ἐν τύχᾳ νέμων; —τὰν
δορίγαμβρον ἀμφινεικῆ
θ’ ῾Ελέναν; ἐπεὶ πρεπόντως
ἑλένας, ἕλανδρος, ἑλέ-
πτολις, ἐκ τῶν ἁβροπήνων
προκαλυμμάτων ἔπλευσε
Ζεφύρου γίγαντος αὔρᾳ,
πολύανδροί
τε φεράσπιδες κυναγοὶ
κατ’ ἴχνος πλατᾶν ἄφαντον
κελσάντων Σιμόεντος
ἀκτὰς ἐπ’ ἀεξιφύλλους
δι’ ἔριν αἱματόεσσαν.

Producers and Crew

Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre)
Associate Director: Liz Fisher
Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University)
Dramaturg: Emma Pauly
Executive Producer: Lanah Koelle (Center for Hellenic Studies)
Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society)
Poster Artist: John Koelle
Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)

Aristophanes, Assemblywomen 176-183

“[Zeus] puts mortals on
The journey of comprehension.
And made this the powerful law:
We learn by suffering.
Pain-recalling trouble trickles
Through the heart in sleep—
And wisdom comes just so
To the unwilling.
The gods seated on their sacred seats
Bestow a hard grace I think.”

Ζῆνα δέ τις προφρόνως ἐπινίκια κλάζων
τεύξεται φρενῶν τὸ πᾶν,
τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
στάζει δ’ ἀνθ’ ὕπνου πρὸ καρδίας
μνησιπήμων πόνος· καὶ παρ’ ἄ-
κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος
σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.

Upcoming Episodes (Go to CHS Project Page for more information)

October 28 Libation Bearers, Aeschylus; translation by O. Taplin

November 4 Eumenides, Aeschylus
with Ellen McLaughlin (Barnard College) and Andrew Simpson (Catholic Univeristy of America); translation by O. Taplin

November 11 Medea, Euripides
with Fiona Macintosh (University of Oxford)

Virginia Woolf, On Not Knowing Greek

If then in Sophocles the play is concentrated in the figures themselves, and in Euripides is to be retrieved from flashes of poetry and questions far flung and unanswered, Aeschylus makes these little dramas (the Agamemnon has 1663 lines; Lear about 2600) tremendous by stretching every phrase to the utmost, by sending them floating forth in metaphors, by bidding them rise up and stalk eyeless and majestic through the scene. To understand him it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one separately is too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of the mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means. Take this from the Agamemnon for instance–

      ὀμμάτων δ’ ἐν ἀχηνίαις

          ἔρρει πᾶσ’ ᾿Αφροδίτα.

The meaning is just on the far side of language. It is the meaning which in moments of astonishing excitement and stress we perceive in our minds without words; it is the meaning that Dostoevsky (hampered as he was by prose and as we are by translation) leads us to by some astonishing run up the scale of emotions and points at but cannot indicate; the meaning that Shakespeare succeeds in snaring.

Aeschylus thus will not give, as Sophocles gives, the very words that people might have spoken, only so arranged that they have in some mysterious way a general force, a symbolic power, nor like Euripides will he combine incongruities and thus enlarge his little space, as a small room is enlarged by mirrors in odd corners. By the bold and running use of metaphor he will amplify and give us, not the thing itself, but the reverberation and reflection which, taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough to the original to illustrate it, remote enough to heighten, enlarge, and make splendid.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 37-39

“This house itself, if it found a voice,
Would be able to speak most clearly. I am talking
Willingly to those who know and forget for those who know nothing.”

…οἶκος δ᾿ αὐτός, εἰ φθογγὴν λάβοι,
σαφέστατ᾿ ἂν λέξειεν· ὡς ἑκὼν ἐγὼ
μαθοῦσιν αὐδῶ κοὐ μαθοῦσι λήθομαι.

2 thoughts on ““Give Us Freedom from our Toils”: Reading Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” Online

  1. A rogue reference to Aristophanes, Assemblywomen 176-183 instead of to Aeschylus, Agamemnon 174-183?

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