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Themes and Colors
Revenge Theme Icon
War and Its Aftermath Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate and the Gods Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Agamemnon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles Theme Icon

Ancient Greek society’s expectations of men and women and the significance of these roles come to the forefront in Agamemnon’s central characters. In this society men were expected to be strong, decisive, and honorable, while women were thought to be passive, and were expected to be subservient and silent. The Watchman, the Chorus, and the Herald laud Agamemnon for fulfilling the duties expected of a man and for being a solid and fair leader, yet his actions don’t always align with societal expectations for men.

Agamemnon shows signs of weakness before the play has even begun. According to the mythology upon which the play is based, Agamemnon at first decides not to sacrifice his daughter, but is then convinced by a prophet to do so. We see a similar situation unfold when Clytemnestra convinces the supposedly steadfast king to walk on the purple cloths when entering the palace, even though Agamemnon senses that the gods will be upset by this action. Agamemnon’s indecisiveness is not considered manly, and consequently leads his downfall.

Clytemnestra’s femininity is also constantly called into question, but she uses those societal expectations to help get her way. Clytemnestra demonstrates an awareness of female gender norms and uses or discards them at will to her own advantage. Nearly every male character in the play criticizes Clytemnestra for exhibiting qualities associated with men, and in the end, these very qualities—decisiveness, aggression, and sense of justice—are in fact what allow her to carry out her revenge plot. At the same time, it is important to note that Clytemnestra is later murdered by her own son Orestes in the next installment of The Oresteia, and that her death can be viewed as a punishment for breaking the conventions of femininity in Ancient Greek society.

Gender Roles ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender Roles appears in each section of Agamemnon. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender Roles Quotes in Agamemnon

Below you will find the important quotes in Agamemnon related to the theme of Gender Roles.
Lines 1-354 Quotes

Is this report reliable? Is there proof?
Of course there is. Unless some god deceives me.
Has some vision persuaded you of this,
something in a dream, perhaps?
Not at all.
As if I’d listen to some dozing brain.
Perhaps some unfledged rumour raised your hopes?
Now you’re insulting my intelligence,
as if I were a youngster, just a child.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Clytemnestra
Page Number: 271-276
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the Greek Chorus asks Queen Clytemnestra for news of the Trojan War. She replies that the war is won: Agamemnon's troops have finally stormed the city and accomplished their goals.

Strangely, the Greek Chorus seems to question the Queen's authority again and again--how is it possible, the Chorus asks, that she could have such specific news of the war? (In the following passage, Clytemnestra replies that a system of signal fires alerted her to Agamemnon's victory).

The Chorus's behavior is unusual in that it seems to be designed to clarify a potential plot-hole. It's a little implausible that Clytemnestra could know what happened in Troy before Agamemnon's return, but her forewarning is crucial to the plot of the play (she's been plotting even before Agamemnon returns). There are even some scholars who have argued that Clytemnestra is lying: she lit the fires herself. Another point to draw from the scene is that Clytemnestra's word is considered automatically questionable because she's a woman: in Clytemnestra's society, women are treated like second-class citizens (indeed, they're not citizens at all).


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Lines 355-782 Quotes

Some time ago I cried out in triumph,
rejoicing when that first messenger arrived,
the fiery herald in the night, who told me
Troy was captured and was being destroyed.
Some people criticized me then, saying,
“How come you’re so easily persuaded
by signal fires Troy’s being demolished?
Isn’t that just like a woman’s heart,
to get so jubilant?”

Related Characters: Clytemnestra (speaker)
Page Number: 586-593
Explanation and Analysis:

Clytemnestra here spells out more distinctions between masculinity and femininity in her society. Although she correctly interprets the signal fires coming from Troy and concludes that Agamemnon has won the Trojan War, her announcement is not welcomed. Rather, people (including the old men who make up the Chorus) question Clytemnestra and suggest that she is jumping to conclusions because she's a woman (and therefore more likely to be flighty in her emotions).

Clytemnestra is a proud, fierce woman, but in her society, her innate talents can only get her so far. Her authority is always being questioned and reinterpreted in light of her gender. It's implied at several points that Clytemnestra plots to kill Agamemnon, not just because of her anger over Iphigenia but because of her desire for power--power that her current station (queen) doesn't provide. Furthermore, what's later considered to be Clytemnestra's great crime (killing her husband) is later inextricably linked to her lack of femininity and submission to gender roles.

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.

Lines 1331-1675 Quotes

Before this moment I said many things
to suit my purposes. I’m not ashamed
to contradict them now. How else could I
act on my hate for such a hateful man,
who feigned his love, how else prepare my nets
of agony so high no one could jump them?
I’ve brooded on this struggle many years,
the old blood feud. My moment’s come at last,
though long delayed. I stand now where I struck,
where I achieved what I set out to do.
I did all this. I won’t deny the fact.

Related Characters: Clytemnestra (speaker), Agamemnon
Page Number: 1373-1380
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Clytemnestra dramatically reveals the truth about her actions: she's been plotting for years to kill Agamemnon, who murdered their daughter, Iphigenia. Clytemnestra was sure that she could get away with the murder because Agamemnon was already cursed: the gods were already predisposed to punish the king for his sins.

The passage represents Clytemnestra's greatest moment of pride and assertiveness--and her break from the traditional feminine role of the submissive, loyal wife. She's been planning Agamemnon's murder for years now (Iphigenia was murdered at least ten years earlier), and in this speech, she emphasizes the sheer satisfaction of successfully avenging her daughter and killing her husband. Clytemnestra's speech contrasts markedly with the Chorus's talk of fate and destiny. Clytemnestra, quite aside from being dominated by destiny, has used her own free will and intelligence (putting up a cunning act of being a loyal wife) to achieve her goals. But as Cassandra has already told us, even Clytemnestra isn't free from the rules of fate--in due time, she'll be punished for her act of murder and meet the same fate as her husband. Nobody, it seems, can escape the ironclad law of "blood for blood."


O that some Fate would soon come,
free from suffering and quick,
bringing endless sleep,
our last eternal sleep,
now our gracious lord is dead.
For a woman’s sake
he suffered much, and now
by a woman’s hand he died.

Alas for you, Helen, frantic woman.
On your own, beneath Troy’s walls,
you slaughtered many lives,
and more than many.
Now you wear your final garland—
one long remembered for the blood
which will never wash away.
Back then in this house
lived a spirit of strife,
a power that broke our king.

Don’t torment yourself like this, invoking
death and fate, or redirect your rage
on Helen, as if she killed those men,
all those Danaan lives, all by herself,
and brought us pain past remedy.

Related Characters: Clytemnestra (speaker), The Chorus (speaker), Agamemnon, Helen
Page Number: 1448-1468
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chorus and Clytemnestra argue over the true source of the tragedy that's fallen on the House of Atreus. The Chorus (made up of old, crotchety men) insists that Helen is to blame for the present disaster: if Helen hadn't been abducted, then there would have been no war, and Agamemnon would still be alive. Clytemnestra angrily disagrees with the Chorus--she points out that Helen herself killed no one; it was the soldiers who fought in the Trojan War who truly set in motion the events of the play we've been reading.

The passage illustrates the structures of blame and scapegoating that are closely tied to the rule of "blood for blood." Whenever there's a big tragedy, somebody (usually a woman) gets stuck with the blame--even if that person isn't totally responsible for the tragedy. In this case, Helen is assigned with the blame for the tragedy of the Trojan War. By the same token, whenever a tragedy occurs, the Furies need to know who to punish. Clytemnestra's explanation of the "cause" of the Trojan War is a lot more convincing than the Chorus's, but the Furies would never be satisfied with such a "diffused" explanation (i.e., the explanation that the Trojan War was the result of many different complex motivations and responsibilities): there can only ever be one scapegoat at a time.