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an introduction to the play by Aeschylus

AGAMEMNON is the first play of a trilogy, of three pieces dealing with successive stages of a tragic story. This is the only Greek trilogy which survives complete. It was not brought out until B.C. 485, possibly after the poet's death. The story of the whole trilogy has a striking similarity to that of Hamlet, as it presents the murder of a king by the paramour of the queen, and the subsequent vengeance taken by the son of the murdered man. In the Agamemnon, we see the king return from Troy, to be welcomed treacherously by his false wife and to be slain by her and her accomplice. In the second play of the series, the Choëphori, we are made spectators to the vengeance of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, with the slaying of the assassins; and in the third piece, the Eumenides, we see the atonement made by Orestes for his matricide. Of all the extant tragedies of Aeschylus, the Agamemnon is probably the most effective when acted before a modern audience. Simple as the plot is, it abounds in moments of tense suspense; and the thick horror of the unseen murder of the king can be paralleled only by the similar moment in Macbeth.

In reading the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides an attempt should be made to visualize a performance at Athens with thousands of citizens seated in tiers on the sides of the hill on which the Acropolis still stands. In the center of the semicircular orchestra stood the altar; and in this leveled space the actors and the chorus stood and moved, spoke and chanted, their figures relieved against the long, narrow building which took the place of a stage. On the roof of this building stood the solitary Watchman, waiting and looking for the distant beacon-fire which announced the fall of Troy. A central door in this building served as the entrance to the palace of the king.

Although the Attic dramatist could people his play with as many characters as he chose, he was allowed only three actors; and he had so to construct his plot that no more than three persons should appear at once. The protagonist or most important actor would impersonate the most important character, although he might also undertake one or more of the minor parts. The other characters were divided between the deuteragonist and the tritagonist. In Agamemnon, there can be but little doubt that the protagonist impersonated only Clytemnestra, leaving the deuteragonist the briefer parts of the Herald, Cassandra, and Ægisthus, and to the tritagonist the Watchman and Agamemnon.

This article is reprinted from The Chief European Dramatists. Ed. Brander Matthews. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916.


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