Analyse the theme of hereditary guilt in the play Agamemnon

How far does Clytemnestra draw the readers’ sympathy in Agamemnon?

AgamemnonAnswer: Agamemnon is treated as the masterpiece of Aeschylus.Agamemnon, the first play of the ‘Oresteian Trilogy’ is considered the best of all Greek dramas. Aeschylus was the first successful tragedian and his ‘Oresteia’ was the only surviving trilogy of the ancient world of which the first play ‘Agamemnon’ is considered the greatest of all Greek dramas. The primary theme of the ‘Oresteia’ is the continual destruction, inherited from generation to generation but as an individual play the subject of ‘Agamemnon’ is the vengeance which Clytemnestra takes upon Agamemnon because, he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, at Aulis ten years previously. Clytemnestra is often given the bloody attributes for this murder. But if we take the matter neutrally, we shall find that she is not altogether responsible for this murder. Clytemnestra’s taking vengeance can be justified on several grounds, because the things that contributed most in killing Agamemnon are the hereditary guilt, Agamemnon’s murder of ‘Iphigenia’, pride , conceited elements in his character etc. It is Agamemnon and his fate which are mostly responsible for his tragedy in the play Agamemnon.


Let’s start our discussion with the analysis of Clytemnestra’s personality. In Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon the character of Clytemnestra is portrayed as strong willed woman. This characteristic is not necessarily typical of women of her time. As a result, the reader must take a deeper look into the understanding of Clytemnestra. In Agamemnon she dominates the action. Her most important characteristic is like the watchman calls it, male strength of heart. She is a strong woman, and her strength is evident on many occasions is the play. Clytemnestra is Agamemnon’s wife and has ruled Argos in his absence. She plans his murder with ruthless determination, and feels no guilt after his death; she is convinced of her own rectitude and of the justice of killing the man who killed her daughter. She is, a sympathetic character in many respects.

In the first place, Clytemnestra is not a murderess but she is an executioner. She is the personification of an old curse which haunts over the house of Atreus. Atreus , son of Pelops, had a brother named Thyestes. Atreus and Thyestes quarreled about succession to the throne of Argos. Moreover, Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife. So, Atreus wanted to make Thyestes commit some unclear or sacrilegious act which would render him permanently taboo in the eyes of the Argine citizens. He secretly murdered Thyestes’ two young sons, and served their flesh to Thyestes at a banquet. Atreus himself got away with the murder; but such debts are not forgotten. His eldest son  Agamemnon inherited the throne of Argos, and with it the curse that had settled on the family. So, sooner or later Agamemnon must die to pay for the sin of his father. There is a ‘Fate’ above which determines the life of everyman. And Clytemnestra during her debate with the chorus puts forward this argument that she is not one to be blamed for the murder. In her words-

Dressed in my form, a phantom
of vengeance, old and bitter
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– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Has poured this blood in payment.

Through these exulted words Clytemnestra tries to convince the chorus that an old curse ‘dressed in her form’ has poured this blood. And we, the audience see the ruin which the gods, in their mysterious will, sent down upon the house of Atreus stands visible in Clytemnestra.

But apart form this hereditary guilt, Agamemnon’s own wrongdoing is also no less responsible for his downfall. When Agamemnon found himself faced with a fearful dilemma, he made the wrong choice- to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis. ‘Fate’ always confronts man with a choice, and if man chooses wrongly the sin in his. Agamemnon chooses wrongly, so the sin in his. In his ‘Agamemnon’ Aeschylus gives us a different kind of justice, which can be called the ‘Avenging justice’, the successful and triumphant wrongdoing by the strong against the helpless finally becomes intolerable to the gods. The shedder of much blood does not escape the eyes of the gods and the wrath and power of the house of Atreus are no defense against the indignant pity of the gods. So, to pay for the sin of slaying Iphigenia Agamemnon must die- the slayer must be slain.

The weaknesses in Agamemnon’s character are also to an outstanding degree responsible for his tragedy. Pride or conceit is the striking characteristic in Agamemnon’s character, which according to the ancient belief, invites the envy and wrath of heaven. Agamemnon’s pride is spectacularly symbolized by his triumphant entrance in his chariot with followers and fanfare, and in his subsequent walking on the red-carpet which greatly evokes the disgust and hatred of men and the vengeance of the gods.

Besides these arguments, there are other grounds on which the Clytemnestra’s murder can be considered with sympathy. We can look at Clytemnestra from two different perspectives namely, as a mother and as an individual woman. When we consider Clytemnestra as a mother, it becomes our duty to defend her. She appears at her superhuman height when she comes forth with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. She confesses her former deception with no shame or compunction. And in the impassioned clash with the chorus these plausible words come out of Clytemnestra-

The guile I used to kill him
He used himself the first,
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When on my virgin daughter
His savage sword descended,
My tears in rivers ran.

Clytemnestra’s defense is a mother’s defense. Her defense is convincing, as such a cold-blooded murder can be compensated only by another cold-blooded murder. Agamemnon slew her daughter and at the same time violated the motherly feelings. So, we can rightly say that the penalty matches the deed.

We can also consider Clytemnestra from another perspective namely as a Grecian woman. We see the whole magnificent file of the heroines in Greek tragedies such as Clytemnestra, Artigone, Polysena, Jocasta, Phaedra and even Medea. They were free women, free in thought and spirit. But the difference between Clytemnestra and other women of that age lies in the fact that she had more individuality and personality than any of the women. But Agamemnon, the muddle-headed king gave little heed to this facet of Clytemnestra. Agamemnon cheated Clytemnestra when he had taken Iphigenia from her bosom by giving her a false promise. So when her individuality is at stake, Clytemnestra takes up the weapon for Agamemnon. She appears as a monster for violating her womanliness and motherly feelings.

However, it can be argued that Clytemnestra’s illicit relation with Aegisthus induced her to kill Agamemnon. But in growing the relationship up Agamemnon’s contributions are no less responsible. Aegisthus honored Clytemnestra and her personality. On the other hand, Agamemnon wronged her. Agamemnon’s indifference to Clytemnestra’s personality was responsible for her perverted behavior. It is hard to say whether she would kill Agamemnon, if she had proper assessment of her personality from him.

Concluding our discussion we can say that we have no strong ground to blame Clytemnestra as a cruel murderess. She lays before us certain premises which contain the truth. She speaks of the revenge for Iphigenia’s death and all feel convinced. She draws a grim picture of the Furies of Erinnys, hovering over the house of Atreus. We feel once again that Agamemnon must die sooner and later because of the hereditary guilt. And finally, we are told of two of the concubines of Agamemnon, namely Chyseis and Cassandra, we again lend our moral support to Clytemnestra.