AGAMEMNON

Legendary Greek king

Agamemnon, fabled ruler of Mycenae, is a prominent figure in the epics of the Greek poet Homer, and he is the subject of the play by L Aeschylus that bears his name and begins the Oresteia trilogy. Homer depicts Agamemnon as a courageous man, but one who is easily discouraged and lacking in resolution. Aeschylus portrays him as a selfconfident, but insensitive, man.

According to myth, Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus and suffered tragic fates because of a curse laid by the gods on their grandfather, Pelops. Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, and they had three children—Orestes, Electra, and Iphigenia. In Homer’s story, Agamemnon, supreme commander of the Achaean forces heading for the Trojan War, sails from the port of Aulis with a great contingent of troops aboard a hundred ships. Aeschylus adds another detail—when Agamemnon offends Artemis by boasting that he is a better hunter than she, the goddess stills the wind, making it impossible for the fleet to sail. The priest Calchas counsels him to appease Artemis by sacrificing Iphigenia. He does so, and the winds blow again.

The nine-year war begins. Though a brave and able leader, Agamemnon unwisely quarrels with a rival chieftain, Achilles, over the possession of a captive princess, Briseis. Achilles refuses to fight and takes his troops out of the war. Achilles later allows his friend Patroclus to wear his armor and lead his troops in support of the Greeks. When the Trojan leader Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles in grief and rage returns to fight,' slays Hector, is wounded, and dies. After long years of war, Troy finally falls.

After his long absence, Agamemnon returns to Mycenae, where Clytemnestra has taken Aegisthus as her lover. Aeschylus tells how, to avenge Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, Clytemnestra kills him and his companion, Cassandra. Aegisthus is her willing accomplice in this deed. Aeschylus recounts in Libation Bearers (the second part of the Oresteia) that the pair are, in turn, killed by Orestes to avenge his father’s death.

Agamemnon is portrayed quite differently by the ancient writers. Homer casts Agamemnon as a man of personal integrity, though lacking in determination and easily discouraged. In the Odyssey, he contrasts the unhappy homecoming of Agamemnon with the happy return of Odysseus to his faithful wife, Penelope. Aeschylus shows Agamemnon in a much less favorable light—blinded by his high opinion of himself, foolish in his boastfulness, and cruel enough to murder his own daughter. In modern literature, Agamemnon, as a father and husband figure, is the model for a central character in Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), as well as in T. S. Eliot’s play The Family Reunion (1939). (See also Drama, Greek.)

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