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Fate and the Gods Theme Analysis

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Throughout the play, very little happens that hasn’t already been prophesized or predetermined. The Chorus often expresses the idea that ultimately the gods have total control over the fates of the mortals who populate the story. The first major prophecy occurs before the play even begins, when Agamemnon is advised to sacrifice his daughter in order to get the advantage in the Trojan War. This prophecy and Agamemnon’s reaction to it create the given circumstances of the play. Afterwards, many characters sense a foreboding unrest in Argos, and this feeling is then illuminated by the most important prophecy in the play: Cassandra’s prediction of the murders that will take place.

Agamemnon is concerned with pleasing the gods, and when he is convinced to ignore this instinct, his downfall begins. By giving the goddess Artemis a sacrifice, Agamemnon is able to win the Trojan War. When he returns home, however, Clytemnestra convinces Agamemnon to walk on the purple cloths, making him seem unfavorably arrogant to the gods, and thus deserving of their wrath. Cassandra’s prophecy also alludes to punishment for an old injustice in the House of Atreus, which Aegisthus later clarifies is Atreus’ grisly murder of his nephews. No matter his individual actions, Agamemnon is always fated to pay for his father’s misdeeds.

Perhaps the most fascinating type of predetermination or fate in the play relates to those ever-present cycles of revenge. The philosophy behind Agamemnon and the rest of The Oresteia seems to make the case that once the cycle has begun, one revenge will inevitably cause another—because each revenge involves the necessity of punishing someone who broke some divine law—and yet each act of revenge itself then breaks another divine law. This cause and effect relationship, in some sense, functions as a kind of destiny for all mortals caught up within it, and can only end when some external, non-mortal force ends the cycle. Artemis’ revenge on Agamemnon and the steps necessary to quell it cause the events of this play, while Clytemnestra’s revenge on Agamemnon causes the events of the next play, and so forth. The treatment of these revenges as an inevitability makes the debate of gods (fate) versus free will secondary to the act of revenge itself.

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Fate and the Gods Quotes in Agamemnon

Below you will find the important quotes in Agamemnon related to the theme of Fate and the Gods.
Lines 1-354 Quotes

But I hope

the master of this house may come home soon,
so I can grasp his welcome hand in mine.
As for all the rest, I’m saying nothing.
A great ox stands on my tongue. But this house,
if it could speak, might tell some stories.
I speak to those who know about these things.
For those who don’t, there’s nothing I remember.

Related Characters: The Watchman (speaker), Agamemnon
Page Number: 33-39
Explanation and Analysis:

As the play begins, the Watchman sets the scene for a complex, multi-generational tragedy. The Watchman waits for his king, Agamemnon, to return from the Trojan War. And yet he feels a deep sense of unease--not so much about Agamemnon but about Agamemnon's home. Greek audiences would have understood that the Watchman is referring to the curse of Agamemnon's family--a curse that began when Agamemnon's father cooked his brother's own children and fed them to his brother. The gods vowed to punish Agamemnon's entire family (the House of Atreus) for the evil act. Now, it seems, the god's punishment has extended to Agamemnon himself--and this is foreshadowed because all the people of Argos know that something is wrong in the royal house.


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Then Agamemnon, the older king, spoke up:
“It’s harsh not to obey this fate—
but to go through with it is harsh as well,
to kill my child, the glory of my house,
to stain a father’s hands before the altar
with streams of virgin’s blood.
Which of my options is not evil?
How can I just leave this fleet,
and let my fellow warriors down?
Their passionate demand for sacrifice
to calm the winds lies within their rights—
even the sacrifice of virgin blood.
So be it. All may be well.”

But when Agamemnon strapped on
the harsh yoke of necessity,
his spirits changed, and his intentions
became profane, unholy, unsanctified.
He undertook an act beyond all daring.
Troubles come, above all, from delusions
inciting men to rash designs, to evil.
So Agamemnon steeled his heart
to make his own daughter the sacrifice,
an offering for the Achaean fleet…

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Iphigenia
Page Number: 206-229
Explanation and Analysis:

In this "flashback," we learn from the Greek Chorus that Agamemnon previously sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure a safe voyage to Troy (where he was headed to start the Trojan War). Agamemnon's intentions were noble at first. The goddess Artemis sent winds to stop the Greek ships from reaching Troy, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia was demanded to appease her--but Agamemnon refused to kill his daughter.  Eventually, though, Agamemnon gave into his loyalty to his crew mates, as well as his own selfishness: to ensure that the ships would arrive in Troy (and presumably achieve great glory, riches, and revenge) he killed his own daughter.

The Chorus characterizes Agamemnon's action as ambiguous but ultimately unholy. Agamemnon may have been looking out for his fellow troops and appeasing a goddess, but in doing so, he sacrificed his loyalty to his own family--the ultimate crime in ancient Greece. Just like his father (the source of the curse on Agamemnon's family), Agamemnon has slaughtered his own family members, adding to the cycle of vengeance and punishment that haunts the House of Atreus. He is, in short, inviting punishment from the gods.

Lines 355-782 Quotes

The people’s voice, once angered,
can create dissent, ratifying a curse
which now must have its way.
And so, in my anxiety, I wait,
listening for something murky,
something emerging from the gloom.
For gods aren’t blind to men who kill.
In time, black agents of revenge,
the Furies, wear down and bring to nothing
the fortunes of a man who prospers
in unjust ways. They wear him out,
reverse his luck, and bring him at last
among the dead. There’s no remedy.
To boast too much of one’s success
is dangerous—the high mountain peak
is struck by Zeus’ lightning bolt.
I’d choose wealth no one could envy.
May I never be the sort of man
who puts whole cities to the sword.
Let me never see myself enslaved,
my life in someone else’s power.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Agamemnon, The Furies, Zeus
Page Number: 455-475
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chorus spells out the relationship between pride and tragedy in Greek drama. There is no greater sin in ancient Greece than excessive pride, or hubris. An overly proud man is practically begging for his comeuppance from the gods--as the Chorus explains (in rather personal terms), prideful men, especially men who've gained their fame and success through violence, will be punished by the gods, or in particular the Furies (whom we'll meet later on).

In short, the Chorus sketches a crude system of justice: climb too high in life, and you'll be "struck down" by Zeus (this is echoed in another famous Greek myth--the story of Icarus). The passage is very important because, as we'll see, Agamemnon is guilty of many sins, not the least of which is his fatal pride, the quality that ultimately ensures his doom at the hands of his wife.

Old violent aggression
loves to generate new troubles
among evil men—soon or late,
when it’s fated to be born,
new violence springs forth,
a spirit no one can resist or conquer,
unholy recklessness,
dark ruin on the home,
like the destructiveness
from which it sprang.
But Righteousness shines out
from grimy dwellings, honouring
the man who lives in virtue.
She turns her eyes away
from gold-encrusted mansions
where men’s hands are black,
and moves towards integrity,
rejecting power and wealth,
which, though praised, are counterfeit.
Righteousness leads all things
to well-deserved fulfillment.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 763-782
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the key themes of the play is the idea that evil always causes more evil somewhere down the line. Agamemnon's father's acts of evil and revenge spawn the evil and revenge in this play, as we'll see, and even Helen's abduction from Troy causes the various events of the play (without Helen's abduction, Agamemnon would never have sacrificed his daughter to reach Troy safely, and his wife presumably would never have murdered him). In short, evil and revenge are never ending cycles.

In Greek society at the time, there is a strong code of revenge and "blood for blood." Whenever an evil act is committed, it must be balanced out by another act--which itself causes more acts of vengeance and retribution. The only way to escape from the endless cycle, the Chorus suggests, is to embrace the path of wisdom and morality--foreshadowing the end of the Oresteia.

Lines 783-1033 Quotes

Daughter of Leda, guardian of my home,
your speech was, like my absence, far too long.
Praise that’s due to us should come from others.
Then it’s worthwhile. All those things you said—
don’t puff me up with such female honours,
or grovel there before me babbling tributes,
like some barbarian. Don’t invite envy
to cross my path by strewing it with cloth.
That’s how we honour gods, not human beings.
For a mortal man to place his foot like this
on rich embroidery is, in my view,
not without some risk. So I’m telling you
honour me as a man, not as a god.
My fame proclaims itself. It does not need
foot mats made out of such embroideries.
Not even to think of doing something bad
is god’s greatest gift. When a man’s life ends
in great prosperity, only then can we declare
that he’s a happy man. Thus, if I act,
in every circumstance, as I ought to now,
there’s nothing I need fear.

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker), Clytemnestra
Related Symbols: The Purple Tapestries
Page Number: 915-930
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, Clytemnestra tries to convince her husband Agamemnon, newly returned from Troy, to walk along a purple tapestry that symbolizes his wealth and power. Agamemnon is highly reluctant to walk along the royal tapestry: he thinks that doing so would be showing off, and would anger the gods excessively. Agamemnon is savvy enough to know that the gods love to punish arrogant, proud people--he's trying to keep his head down to avoid divine retribution.

At the end of his speech, Agamemnon makes an interesting point: we can only measure the happiness of a man's life by waiting to see how his life ends. In other words, a man who is happy and prosperous now might not necessarily die that way. Agamemnon's words (an allusion to the Greek legend of Solon, later repeated in the Histories by Herodotus) are important because they reinforce the play's themes of punishment and uncertainty. Happiness and contentment are never certain at all--they can always be replaced with misery and pain. Agamemnon here tries to escape divine punishment, but as we'll see, his attempts are all in vain.

For, as we know, boundaries
of vigorous health break down—
disease is always pressing hard
the common wall between them.
So with the fate of men.
It holds to a straight course,
then, all at once, can crash
upon a hidden rock of grief.
But if, as a precaution,
men toss overboard
some part of their rich cargo,
and time their throw just right,
the house, though grieving,
will not completely founder,
nor will its hull be swamped.
And Zeus’ bountiful rich gifts
reaped from the furrows every year
hold off the plague of famine.
But once a murdered man’s dark blood
has soaked the ground, who then
can bring him back through song?

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Zeus
Page Number: 1001-1021
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chorus sums up the play's take on fate and human existence. Humans live happy lives--until suddenly, they don't. The gods are always capable of punishing mortals, especially those who disrespect the gods with their pride and arrogance. Even the wealthiest and most powerful man in the world could be struck down by the almighty god, Zeus. The only way to be absolutely certain that a person has lived a fulfilling, happy life is to follow that person all the way to death.

The Chorus alludes to the sacrifice Agamemnon has made: he's tossed off his "cargo" (i.e., his daughter) in order to ensure his own survival and return to his native land. Agamemnon's actions are risky: in the end, the Chorus predicts, he may end up being punished--a process that art and poetry can document, but never change.

Lines 1034-1330 Quotes

Up there on that roof there sits a chorus—
it never leaves. They sing in harmony,
but the song is harsh, predicting doom.
Drinking human blood has made them bold—
they dance in celebration through the house.
The family’s Furies cannot be dislodged.
Sitting in the home, they chant their song,
the madness that began all this, each in turn
cursing that man who defiled his brother’s bed.

Related Characters: Cassandra (speaker), Agamemnon, Atreus, Thyestes, The Furies
Page Number: 1185-1193
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Trojan slave Cassandra, who's been cursed with the ability to see the future and have no one listen to her, talks about the future of Agamemnon's family (the House of Atreus). Agamemnon's father has done some horrible things--murdering children in his own family and feeding them to his brother, in revenge for his brother stealing his kingdom and wife ("the man who defiled his brother's bed"). The gods, Cassandra predicts, will punish Agamemnon, both for his father's sins and for his own.

Cassandra alludes to a chorus, but this is not the chorus of old men that we've met previously. Rather Cassandra is talking about the Furies, the monstrous goddesses who punish the wicked for their sins. The Furies personify the cycle of "blood for blood" that Cassandra has alluded to: as the cycle goes on, generation after generation, the Furies develop a craving for more blood--a gory metaphor that suggests the way that revenge has a way of perpetuating itself over time.

But we’ll not die without the gods’ revenge.
Another man will come and will avenge us,
a son who’ll kill his mother, then pay back
his father’s death, a wanderer in exile,
a man this country’s made a stranger.
He’ll come back and, like a coping stone,
bring the ruin of his family to a close.
For gods have made a powerful promise—
his father’s stretched out corpse will bring him home.

Related Characters: Cassandra (speaker), Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes
Page Number: 1279-1287
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the Trojan prisoner Cassandra goes quietly to be murdered, knowing that nothing she does can prevent her inevitable death. Cassandra sees a "light at the end of the tunnel," however. Even if she herself will be killed, there will eventually come an end to the cycle of death and "blood for blood" that has cursed the House of Atreus. After Agamemnon and Cassandra's death, Orestes will come to avenge his father's murder by killing Clytemnestra. Somehow, Cassandra claims, Orestes' actions will not set off any further cycles of revenge.

Cassandra's allusions to Orestes would be well-known to Aeschylus's original Greek audiences. What's equally interesting is the way Cassandra accepts her fate--all her knowledge of the future isn't enough to save her from murder. Cassandra sees the future, but can't change it; and that's her curse.

Lines 1331-1675 Quotes

To rest unsatisfied amid great wealth
is in the nature of all human beings.
No one can point and order it away
from princely homes by uttering the words
“Dissatisfaction, enter here no more!”
Take Agamemnon. The powers in heaven
permitted him to capture Priam’s town,
to return home honoured by the gods.
But now, if he must pay the penalty
for blood which other men before him shed
and die in retribution for the dead
he killed himself, what mortal human being
who hears all this can boast he lives
a life unscarred by fate?

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Agamemnon, Priam
Page Number: 1331-1343
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chorus tries to come to terms with the dictates of free will and fate. In the past, Agamemnon has clearly had the blessings of the gods--he's won a great victory at Troy, for which he's been rewarded with glory and slaves. And yet Cassandra claims that Agamemnon will soon be punished; furthermore, he'll be punished for his father's acts of murder, not just his own. The Chorus concludes that all of life is predetermined by "fate." There's nothing Agamemnon can do to escape his punishment--no amount of caution or modesty can ever make up for his father's brutality or his own past actions.

The Chorus's observations might seem harsh by modern Western standards. It's a cornerstone of our society that people should only be punished for actions that they committed of their own free will. Agamemnon, by contrast, is being punished partly for actions completely beyond his control (his father's murders). Agamemnon is also being punished for killing his own daughter--and yet the rules of fate and destiny seem indifferent to a person's individual actions and responsibilities.

One disgrace exchanged for yet another,
the struggle to decide is hard.
The man who sins is sinned against,
the killer pays the price.
Yet while Zeus sits upon his throne
this decree from god remains—
the man who acts will suffer.
Who can then cast from this house
its self-perpetuating curse?
This race is wedded to destruction.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Zeus
Page Number: 1560-1569
Explanation and Analysis:

As the play draws to a close, we come back to the same idea we've heard from Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and many of the other characters: balance. Every sin must be balanced out with an act of revenge, and every drop of blood spilled must be canceled out with more blood.

The Chorus isn't satisfied with the endless cycle of murder and revenge--it benefits no one, and actually cripples the House of Atreus. The Chorus prays that someone will come along to end the cycle of revenge. As we'll see in the two sequels to Agamemnon, Orestes at first continues the cycle of revenge by killing his mother, but then at last brings it to a close, changing the nature of the very Furies themselves.