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HIST 207: Sample Student Notes

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Dikê in Agamemnon
by Ryan Rodier

The Agamemnon is not just a play about the death of a character. There are many other themes that are explored and contemplated within the text. Aeschylus sets the Agamemnon in a turbid world of corruption and blood vengeance in which he could probe more complex issues in the story of the death of Agamemnon.

The world in the Agamemnon is very dark and gloomy as highlighted in several of the passages in the play. Throughout the play, the symbol of the light or fire represents hope or refuge from looming evilness. The Watchman sees the light as representing the return of Agamemnon and the return to the better days of the past (Agamemnon 17-21). The Chorus also cites the signal of light as an escape from despair in the play (Agamemnon 475). The play, however, is still plagued by the sense of darkness despite the signal lights of hope.

The signal lights that are supposed to provide relief are also contaminated by the darkness that overwhelms the play. When Clytemnestra is speaking with the Chorus, she begins to doubt the promise that the signal light provides by stating that it could be the deception of the gods (Agamemnon 272-273). The Chorus also notes that the fire signals hope but is counterbalanced by the paranoia that the signal could also be a trick from the gods (Agamemnon 477-478). The fear of the looming threat of the gods is echoed throughout the play in terms of the retributive justice of dikê.

Dikê, or divine justice of the gods, is a constant theme throughout the Agamemnon and provides a complex issue to be examined. With dikê, there is a sense of balancing the scales, or retribution for evils. The Chorus illustrates this when speaking of the despair in the play by stating that one thing that one can be sure of is that Zeus is the final judge when it comes to justice (Agamemnon 163-164). This highlights the feeling in the play of the looming fate that is certain to be exacted, but the consequences of which are still unclear. Agamemnon is similarly distressed when debating the sacrifice of his daughter which also illustrates the dominant concern of the threat of divine justice (Agamemnon 205-207). When the Herald speaks, he also testifies to the balancing of the scales in retributive justice when noting that, "Neither Paris, nor the city that shared his guilt, can boast the crime exceeded the punishment" (Agamemnon 532-533). The Herald also notes that "the scales have come down in our favour," suggesting that the gods favoured the Argive army at Troy and contributed to their victory (Agamemnon 573-574). After Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, the Chorus similarly notes that she will most certainly suffer a retributive evil of equal magnitude which also illustrates the balancing of the scales in dikê (Agamemnon 1430). The ultimate example of the balancing of the scales, however, is when Orestes stands over the bodies of his slain mother Clytemnestra and accomplice Aegisthus (The Libation Bearers 973). This scene is clearly meant as the counterpart to the scene where Clytemnestra stands above Agamemnon and Cassandra after killing them (Agamemnon 1372). These two scenes can be seen as an example of the retributive justice of the gods.

The justice of the gods is frequently seen as a major component of the overall dark mood in the play. The idea that the vengeance of the gods is continuously hovering overhead is very unsettling to the characters of the play as they would have been to the contemporary audience. The Chorus highlights this feeling when it states that there is no way to predict the future and that you will know the future only when it happens (Agamemnon 253). This shows the lack of control that people felt they had over their own destinies. The Chorus proclaims the plight of man and the place of the gods again when it states that nothing can be done without Zeus, implying a power and control that the mortals lack in their own lives (Agamemnon 1485-1488). This feeling of despair is also emphasized when the Chorus expresses how the only thing that is certain in life is that "while Zeus sits on the throne, the wrongdoer suffers, that is the sacred law." (Agamemnon 1563-1564). It is emphasized once more how the one sure thing a person can count on is the vengeance of the gods. Despite this feeling that the gods are merely punishers of unsuspecting humans, there is a feeling of frustration on the sides of the gods as well, as accounted by Homer in The Odyssey (The Odyssey 1.26-43). Overall, however, the feeling given in the writings of Aeschylus is one of uncertainty and struggling to make sense of justice in the world. Even in other works of Aeschylus, the feeling toward the justice of the gods is conveyed as uncertain and vague (Suppliant Women 87).

The story of the death of Agamemnon provided Aeschylus with a means for exploring more than the death of a character. The murky atmosphere of the play, and the looming threat of the justice of the gods provides explanations for the actions of the characters. The Agamemnon was truly not a play simply about death, but a play trying to make sense of death.

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