“Agamemnon”

Themes

Quotations from Aeschylus are taken from A. H. Sommerstein (2008), Aeschylus II: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London.

Quotations from Ritsos’ Agamemnon  are from P. Green and B. Bardsley’s translation of the Fourth Dimension (Princeton N.J, 1993), unless otherwise stated.

 

Plot  

Ritsos’ poem draws on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon; after a ten-year absence Agamemnon returns to Argos, only to be slain by Clytemnestra, his wife, and Aegisthus, her lover. Whereas the story remains more or less the same, Ritsos diverges from the tragic play on a number of points. In Aeschylus, Agamemnon’s return is prepared by the Watchman’s speech, Clytemnestra’s dream and beacon speech, as well as by the Herald’s report of his imminent arrival. Agamemnon’s speech and confrontation with Clytemnestra take place quite late (in lines 810-974) outside of the palace. Ritsos omits all these preparatory events (even though at the opening stage-directions he refers to Agamemnon’s triumphal reception by the crowd that had gathered outside the palace in order to welcome him) and focuses on the moment when Agamemnon enters the palace with Clytemnestra. Agamemnon’s dramatic monologue takes place in the dining room, after he has removed his military uniform and helmet — a symbolic act which predisposes us for the ‘unheroic’ stance that he will adopt throughout his monologue.

 

Page 49Opening Stage-Directions

His wife bends down to unfasten his sandals, showing a humility incompatible with her style. 

Clytemnestra shows similar ‘humility’ in front of her husband when she welcomes him back home (Aesch. Ag. 855-913) and presents herself as a loyal widow. In fact, her humility is noticed and commented upon by Agamemnon himself (919-20).

  

 Page 49

You order them to be quiet. I beg you.

There is tragic irony in Agamemnon’s opening entreat to Clytemnestra, in so far as in Aeschylus it is she who encourages the celebrations. Ritsos leaves it unclear whether his Clytemnestra was actively involved in all this.

 

Page 49

Why are they still shouting?

For whom are they applauding? What are they cheering for? Their

    executioners, maybe? Their corpses?

Agamemnon’s censure of the applause and hurrah of his people is in contrast with his return speech in Aeschylus and brings to mind the Chorus’ remarks on the absurdity of war in lines 429-55.

 

Page 50: …not to care if my face is as severe as it should be or if the muscles 

in my belly and my arms have gone slack

Page 51: How much blood was shed — 

I never learned why — ….the bread was crimson

Page 53: How we’ve let our hours slip by and vanish, struggling foolishly

 to assure ourselves a place in the consciousness of others. Not one

second  of our own,  in all those long summers, to watch

a bird’s shadow above the wheat — a tiny trireme

on a golden sea —  we could have been sailing in it

for silent trophies, for more glorious conquests. We did not sail.   

 Page 55:  The others fell —  true warriors…. Such heroics are far from me

Ritsos’ Agamemnon is an exhausted and tired hero. He muses upon the vanity and absurdity of war and reflects in distaste upon his glorious triumph at Troy. This antiheroic image is a far cry from his portrait in Aeschylus, where he arrogantly boasts of his military victory (810-28) and even dares to claim the gods of Argos as his associates (μεταιτίους 811) in the sack of Troy.

 

Page 50

Prepare me a hot bath, very hot – have you prepared it already?

With leaves of mastic and myrtle? I remember their scent,

Pungent, tonic —  a release, as if once more you smelled

Your childhood, with trees, rivers, cicadas.

Page 52: That’s why I asked you to prepare me

a hot bath. That shiver — glass, glass — you know,

no one wants to die, no matter how tired he is.  

Page 54: Before I get into the bath….I can even sense the approximate hour of my death.

Page 59: Tell me, has the water you prepared for me cooled?

Page 60: To the bath, to the bath, the water will cool, it will have cooled.

The bath, where Agamemnon is murdered and which is mentioned twice by Cassandra in Aeschylus (Ag. 1109, 1129), holds a central place in Ritsos and, as becomes clear in the epilogue, it is the place where his Agamemnon is slain as well.

The reference to the bath also alludes to the Choephori, where Orestes, standing on his father’s tomb, reminds Agamemnon of his fatal bath (λουτρῶν οἷς ἐνοσφίσθης 491).  

 

 Page 50

Our daughters

seemed confused to me —did you notice?– One of them

touched my chin through my beard like a blind girl / You did well

to send them to their rooms – I couldn’t look at them.

In Aeschylus Agamemnon’s daughters are not present at the welcoming scene. Ritsos imparts a domestic, familial hue to the return scene, with Electra and Chrysothemis hugging and touching their long-absent father.

 

Page 50

And the woman howling on the stairs, take her as your slave

Or nurse for our son (where is he, in fact? – I didn’t

see him) —  not for my bed, no

In Aeschylus, Agamemnon introduces Cassandra as his concubine and orders Clytemnestra to welcome her in the palace with kindness (951-2). He even refers to Cassandra as the ‘choice flower’ of the booty they got from Troy. In Ritsos, Agamemnon speaks with indifference about Cassandra and indeed stresses specifically that he does not want her as his mistress.  

Ritsos’ Agamemnon specifically asks about Orestes, albeit fleetingly. Even though his question remains unanswered, it points by its very omission to the explanation provided by Clytemnestra in Aesch. Ag. 877-82, where she informs Agamemnon that Orestes was sent to Strophius, King of Phocea, for protection.

 

Page 52

How strange your eyes look; and your voice was strange, when you

   said:

‘Slave-women, why are you standing around like that? Have you forgotten my order?

I told you to lay the carpets from carriage to house so the pathway

Would be

All crimson for my lord’s passage’. Inside your voice

Was a deep river, and it was as if I were floating upon it. When I walked

On those purple carpets my knees grew weak. I looked behind me

And saw the dusty prints of my sandals on the bright crimson

like those fishermen’s corks that float

above hidden, submerged nets. Before me I saw the slave-girls

unrolling still more crimson carpets, as it they were pushing the crimson wheels of fate. 

A shiver ran up my spine.

Clytemnestra’s order to her slave-women is a clear allusion to Aesch. Ag. 908-11: ‘Servants, why are you waiting, when you have been assigned the duty of spreading fine fabrics over the ground in his path? Let his way forthwith be spread with crimson’.

Just like his Aeschylean counterpart Ritsos’ Agamemnon enters the palace treading on a red carpet that Clytemnestra orders to spread on the ground for him. However, whereas in Aeschylus Agamemnon’s treading on the carpet is associated with hybris and the transcendence of human limits (909-46), in Ritsos no such connotations are in evidence.

Moreover, whereas in Aeschylus Agamemnon steps on the red fabrics with bare feet (944-5), in Ritsos he wears his sandals. The ‘dusty tracks’ from his sandals on the carpet are compared to ‘the fishermen’s corks that float over the hidden, sunken net’, an association that conjures up both the ‘net’ imagery recurrent in Aeschylus (1114-5, 1611), and the deathly connotations of the red carpet. Furthermore, this image also brings to mind Aesch. Cho. 505-7, where one’s children are compared to the corks that float over a sunken net: ‘For to a dead man his children are the fame that preserves him; like corks they bear the net up, keeping safe the spun flax that stretches up from the depths.’

Even though in Aeschylus Agamemnon is at first reluctant to step on the red-carpet, he easily succumbs to Clytemnestra’s exhortations. Ritsos’ Agamemnon does not show any such reluctance; rather, he is afraid (‘my knees buckled / A chill ran down my spine’), because in a way he senses that his death lurks nearby.

 

Page 53

How we’ve let our hours slip by and vanish, struggling foolishly

to assure ourselves a place in the consciousness of others. Not one second

 of our own…. 

Agamemnon’s remark on one’s public image alludes to Ag. 938: ‘All the same, the buzz of popular talk is something very powerful’; cf. Ag. 456-7.

  

Page 53

like a child’s pared nails – like our other daughter’s – remember? – 

when you cut them in the bathhouse doorway –  she didn’t like it; she

       cried – so many years ago   

In Aeschylus Agamemnon is reticent about Iphigenia; it is the Chorus that refers to the events leading to her sacrifice, and to her desperate cries and pleas to her father (228-30). In Ritsos, Iphigenia’s cries are poignantly domesticized as those of a little girl who dislikes having her nails cut. Note that Ritsos’ Agamemnon does not refer to Iphigenia by name, but rather with the vague locution ‘the other daughter’.

  

Page 55

                                                                   Ι look at my hand –

neither for the sword nor for the soft caress – on its own, tied

-tied how? – to invisible strings, like the rhapsode’s

hand on a great lyre – if you

take hold of it for a moment,

the music will stop in amazement; and the half-finished sound

forgives neither the one nor the other; like a silver ring,

hung in the air by a string, it taps you, mysteriously, on the shoulder.

The musical imagery alludes to Ag. 990-1000: ‘yet still within me my soul, self-taught, / sings out the Fury’s lyreless lament – / it is completely devoid / of its natural confident hope. / And my inwards, my heart whirling / in eddies that betoken fulfilment / around the mind that understands justice, do not speak in vain.’

 

Page 58

On the voyage home, in the Aegean, one night in a great storm

the helm broke. Then I felt a terrified sense of freedom

right at the heart of this lack of direction. I peered

with unbelievably clear vision through the darkness; saw

a life ring tossing on the waves. I was able, indeed,

in the dim torchlight, to make out on it the word ‘Lachesis’.

The incident narrated by Agamemnon brings to mind the Herald’s description of the wreck in Ag. 653-6. In both cases the rudder breaks because of a hurricane. In Aeschylus Agamemnon’s ship is steered by Fortune (661-4); in Ritsos the ship remains ungoverned.

 

 Page 59

Tell me, has the water

you prepared for me cooled? No need for you to come with me;

I can manage by myself – I got used to it back there; and perhaps it’s

      better that way.

And besides, to tell you the truth, I would be embarrassed in front of you. 

So many years have passed – we’re out of the habit, we’ve forgotten.

Agamemnon’s statement is in contrast with Clytemnestra’s words in 855-8: ‘Men of the city, you assembled Argive elders, I will not be ashamed to speak to you of my feelings of love for my husband: with the passing of time, fear dies away in the human mind.’

 

Page 61 – Closing Stage-Directions

In Aeschylus Cassandra reveals the past, the present and the future of Atreus’ house to the Chorus. In Ritsos she addresses the people of Argos and we only hear her screaming at the exact moment of Agamemnon’s murder. As in Aeschylus, Cassandra alludes to the murder by employing the metaphor of a fish that is caught in the net. The net is a recurrent image in the Aeschylean play (see e.g. Ag. 1115-6, 1382).

 

Page 61 – Closing stage Directions

Α man, handsome, bare-headed, wearing a military cloak, with a huge bloody sword in hand, comes into the empty room. With his left hand he picks up the helmet from the side table. He wears it back to front, the horsetail plume in his face. Like a mask. He goes out.

The appearance of Aegisthus holding the bloodstained sword is a clear indication that Ritsos follows the Homeric version of the myth, according to which Agamemnon was murdered by Aegisthus. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon the murder is committed by Clytemnestra (1380-98).

Aegisthus’ wearing of Agamemnon’s helmet is symbolical and seems to allude to the end of the Aeschylean play, where Aegisthus arrogantly presents himself as the new ruler of the house (1624, 1638-9, 1662-4).

The awkward way in which Aegisthus puts on Agamemnon’s helmet (backwards, with the horsetail in his face) could symbolically allude both to his problematic status as the new ruler and to his cowardice, for which he is scolded by the Chorus at the end of the Aeschylean play (‘Brag away confidently, like a cock standing next to his hen!’ 1671); cf. Ag. 1224, where Cassandra calls Aegisthus a ‘cowardly  wolf’.

 

Language 

 Page 51

like a marvellous statue (σὰν ἄγαλμα ὑπέροχο)

Αgamemnon’s comparison of Clytemnestra to a statue (ἄγαλμα) alludes to Aesch. Ag. 207 where, just before the sacrifice, Agamemnon calls Iphigenia a ‘delight of my house’ (δόμων ἄγαλμα).  Helen is also described as an ‘adornment of wealth’ (ἄγαλμα πλούτου) in Ag. 741 

 

Page 51

As for the other things, keep them — including the heavy diamond

      —crusted scepter (σκῆπτρο)— 

especially that –

The word σκῆπτρο, symbol of royalty, echoes the adjective δίσκηπτρον (twin sceptres) in Aesch. Ag. 43.                                                     

 

Page 52

Purple carpets (Πορφυρά χαλιά)

πορφυρός alludes to Ag. 910 (πορφυρόστρωτος πόρος) and 957, 959 (πορφύρας).

 

Page 52

like those fishermen’s corks (φελλοὺς) that float

above hidden, submerged nets (βυθισμένο δίχτυ)

Αn allusion to Aesch. Cho. 506-7: ‘like corks (φελλοὶ) they bear the net (δίκτυον) up, keeping safe the spun flax that stretches up from the depths (ἐκ βυθοῦ)’.

  

Page 54

and suddenly I

     understood

 how it happens that you sacrifice (θυσιάσεις) a human being for a little favorable

    wind

An allusion to Ag. 224-7, where the Chorus declares that Agamemnon became a sacrificer (θυτήρ) of his daughter for the sake of the voyaging of the fleet (προτέλεια ναῶν).

  

Page 55

the renown as

     they say, the glory

 that, alas, might even perhaps redeem,

 with changing and counterfeit coin, our silence for ten real years,

 thousands of murders, covert and overt, thousands of errors and graves.

This remark echoes Ag. 437-8, where Ares, the god of war, is described as ‘moneychanger (χρυσαμοιβός) of bodies’ and ‘holder of scales’ (ταλαντοῦχος).

 

Page 58

The next day, the Aegean grew calm. I saw the life ring floating

amid the wrecked ships and splintered wood.

Agamemnon’s recollection of the sea-storm recalls the Herald’s words in Ag. 658-60: ‘When the brilliant light of the sun came up, we saw the Aegean Sea carpeted with the bodies of Achaean men and the wreckage of ships.’

 

Page 60

Τo the bath (λουτρό) to the bath (λουτρό),

 the water will cool, it will have cooled.  I’m going. You stay here – it’s

        not necessary. You insist? – Come.

In Agamemnon Clytemnestra also attends her husband in the bath (see 1109).

Ritsos uses for the bath the word λουτρό (see also p. 58 ζεστὸ λουτρό), the same word used by Cassandra in Ag. 1109.

  

Page 61 – Closing Stage Directions

Citizens of Argos, citizens of Argos, the large goldfish in the black net (δίχτυ), and the sword uplifted, two-tongued, citizens of Argos, citizens…

Cassandra’s reference to the ‘net’ alludes to her counterpart’s prophecy in Ag. 1114-5: τί τόδε φαίνεται; / ἦ δίκτυόν τί γ’ Ἅιδου (What is this I see? / Is it, is it, a net of death?)

The sword by which Agamemnon is murdered is described as ‘two-edged’ (ἀμφήκει δορί 1149) in Agamemnon as well.

  

Mythic Characters

In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon there are seven dramatis personae; three principal (Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Cassandra) and four minor ones (the Herald, the Watchman, Aegisthus and the Chorus). Ritsos keeps only the first three: Agamemnon (the only speaking character), Clytemnestra (a mute person) and Cassandra (we only hear her voice – implicitly in the monologue and explicitly in the closing stage-directions). Some of the other characters are also mentioned in passing: Aegisthus (implicitly in the epilogue, p. 61); Orestes (by name on p. 50), Chrysothemis and Electra (through the invocation ‘our daughters’ in p. 50), and Iphigenia (referred to as ‘the other daughter’ in p. 53).

 

Agamemnon

Even though in Aeschylus Agamemnon’s speech extends to only 81 lines, in Ritsos he is the only speaking person and focal point of the poem. Unlike his Aeschylean counterpart, Ritsos’ Agamemnon appears to be less heroic and belligerent. He is portrayed as an exhausted and tired man, who, finally realising the vanity of war, seeks only peace and a carefree life away from the pursuit of glory.

 

Clytemnestra

Clytemnestra is the silent recipient of Agamemnon’s dramatic monologue, even though, as Ritsos notes in the prologue, it is not clear whether she pays attention to what her husband says (p. 50). She is described as a ‘beautiful, austere, imposing’ woman, characterisations that are in par with the portrait of her Aeschylean counterpart.  

 

Cassandra

In the opening stage-directions (p. 50) Cassandra is outside the palace, lying at the bottom of the stairs. She is portrayed as a ‘crazed woman’ who speaks ‘incomprehensible utterances in a foreign tongue’.

 

Aegisthus

Aegisthus is mentioned only in the closing stage-directions (p. 61). He is described as ‘handsome’ and ‘bare-headed’. Even though he is not explicitly named, his identity is established by the bloody sword he holds in his hand after Agamemnon’s murder.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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