Sunday, September 6, 2015

Agamemnon by Aeschylus (trans. R. Lattimore)

King of the ships, who tore up Ilion by the roots,
what does he know of this accursed bitch, who licks
his hand, who fawns on him with lifted ears, who like
a secret death shall strike the coward's stroke, nor fail?
In my last blog post I was lamenting a lack of sincere emotion in so much of our contemporary culture.  Well, where better to look for genuine feeling than in Greek Tragedy?  My personal library of classical books is in storage, so, on a trip to the South branch of the Des Moines library primarily devoted to borrowing Kinks and Portishead CDs, I checked out a 1958 printing of a 1947 collection edited by Dudley Fitts entitled Greek Plays in Modern Translation.  First up, Agamemnon by Aeschylus, translated by Richard Lattimore.

I read the three plays that make up the Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides) in the 1990s, I believe in a Penguin paperback edition.  I can't remember who the translator was.  I don't know any Greek, so of course I can't judge the faithfulness of the Lattimore translation of Agamemnon that I read this weekend, but I can say I quite enjoyed it.  The plot is full of people driven to extreme actions and emotion, I like the themes of curses, vengeance, treachery and envy, and I thought the poetry good, featuring a number of great metaphors.

Frederic Lord Leighton's depiction of
Clytemnestra watching for the signal fires 
The play is set in the Greek city of Argos. Agamemnon, King of Argos, has been gone for ten years, leading the Greeks in their siege of Troy, but today the fires that signal his return have been sighted. In the first half of the play the chorus (consisting of the elders of Argos), Klytaimnestra (Agamemnon's wife) and a herald arriving ahead of the king, all describe the hardships they have endured due to the long and destructive war. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that before the Greek fleet could depart those ten years ago, the gods required a human sacrifice, and Agamemnon laid his and Klytaimnestra's own daughter, Iphigenia, on the altar and sacrificed her, but every citizen of Argos has suffered.  Many houses have received shipment from Troy of an urn full of ashes, the last remains of a son or husband killed on the Asian battlefield, and the chorus asserts that life in Argos has been precarious in the absence of its leaders.  The herald, who fought at Troy, describes the horror of battle and the dreadful conditions in which the fighting men of Greece have been living for years.  Both the herald and the chorus members admit that during the war they asked the gods for death as a release from their misery, and Klytaimnestra claims to have attempted suicide.

The people of Argos resent Paris, Helen, and Agamemnon for getting them into this terrible war.  I liked how Helen was described as being like a lion cub, fostered in a home, an adorable playmate for the kids, only to grow up and repay the people's kindness by becoming "a priest of Destruction" who killed its benefactors' sheep and turned the home into an abattoir.

Halfway through the drama Agamemnon arrives on a chariot, Kassandra, the Trojan prophetess whom he has taken as his mistress, riding at his side.  Klytaimnestra literally lays out a red carpet for him, so that he need not touch the ground between his chariot and his palace.  Here's a neat bit of foreshadowing from Klytaimnestra:
                                               ...My maidens there!
Why this delay? Your task has been appointed you,
to strew the ground before his feet with tapestries.
Let there spring up into the house he never hoped
to see, where Justice leads him in, a crimson path.
Agamemnon is reluctant to walk on the valuable tapestries that make up the red carpet, warning that such veneration is fit only for the gods, and will excite a dangerous envy among the people, but after a little intermarital spat he agrees. Klytaimnestra tries to convince Kassandra to also enter the palace, but the Trojan prophetess refuses.

In a good series of passages Kassandra receives a terrible prophecy, that Agamemnon will be murdered, and that she will suffer the same fate.  In one of my favorite metaphors she describes the adulterous Klytemnestra as a lioness (again with the lions):
This is the woman-lioness, who goes to bed
with the wolf, when her proud lion ranges far away,
and she will cut me down...
Recognizing that she is unable to escape the verdict of fate, Kassandra enters the mansion, but not before prophesying that her murder (and that of Agamemnon) will be avenged in turn.  The chorus hears Agamemnon's cries of pain, and when the palace doors open it is revealed that Klytaimnestra has murdered her husband while he sat in a bath, after tossing heavy robes on him to impede his movements, and also dispatched poor Kassandra.  

The chorus of elders is aghast at this horrible crime, but Klytaimnestra explains that she has merely exacted justice for her husband's own atrocity:
No shame, I think, in the death given
this man. And did he not
first of all in this house wreak death
by treachery?
The flower of this man's love and mine,
Iphigenia of the tears
he dealt with even as he has suffered.
Let his speech in death's house be not loud.
With the sword he struck,
with the sword he paid for his own act.
Roger Payne's rendering of Clytemnestra
murdering Agamemnon; hey, where are the robes?
Klytaimnestra's lover, Aigisthos, appears, and explains that he planned the assassination.  He too asserts that his act has been just; Agamemnon's father murdered Aigisthos's brothers when he was but a baby, and cunningly cut up their flesh and fed it to Aigisthos's father.  Murdering Agamemnon has been the fulfillment of Aigosthos's father's vow of vengeance. The play ends with the chorus calling Aigisthos a coward for having a woman do his dirty work, Aigisthos threatening the old men, and further foreshadowing of the fact that Orestes, Agamemnon's son, is going to avenge the king.

Besides the lion metaphors, there are several great metaphors built around nets, perhaps reminding us that we are all trapped by fate (and how important fishing is to the Greek economy.)  Early in the play Zeus is said to have "slung above the bastions of Troy/ the binding net, that none" might escape "enslavement and final disaster."  Klytaimnestra lists as one of the hardships she has suffered in her husband's absence all the unfounded rumors that he has been wounded or killed:
                             ...Had Agamemnon taken all
the wounds the tale whereof was carried home to me,
he had been cut full of gashes like a fishing net.
Both Klytaimnestra and Aigosthos describe Agamemnon as having been caught in a net:
Klytaimnestra:  That he might not escape nor beat beat aside his death,
as fishermen cast their huge circling nets, I spread
deadly abundance of rich robes, and caught him fast.
(I like the phrase "deadly abundance of rich robes," which reminds the reader of one of the minor themes of the play, the idea that a display of wealth on the part of the upper classes can inspire envy and revolution among the lower orders.)
Aigisthos: Now I can say once more that the high gods look down
on mortal crimes to vindicate the right at last,
now that I see this man--sweet sight--before me here
sprawled in the tangling nets of fury, to atone
the calculated evil of his father's hand.
John Collier depicts Clytemnestra after
having committed the deed.; everybody
has his own idea what weapon she used
Agamemnon, only 50 pages in this edition, is a great little melodrama, packed full of the kind of sad wisdom about how people are all jerks ("In few men is it part of nature to respect/ a friend's prosperity without begrudging him") and we are all doomed that appeals to your humble blogger, as well as some solid poetry. Definitely worth the reader's time.

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