Agamemnon is the first play in The Oresteia, Aeschylus’ trilogy of tragedies which portray a set of revenges, each leading to the next in a vicious cycle, in the House of Atreus (the family and descendants of Atreus, Agamemnon’s father). Revenge is the backbone of The Oresteia, and it drives most of the action of Agamemnon. The play’s gradual build towards Clytemnestra’s violent revenge on her husband Agamemnon and the upheaval resulting from that act are the central focus of the play, but simultaneously gods, militaries, and mortals from many generations are also exacting their own vengeances against each other. The play begins as Troy falls and Agamemnon returns home after ten years away at war. The war he is returning from was itself an act of revenge, in which Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus raised an enormous fleet to attack Troy after the Trojan prince Paris stole Menelaus’ wife Helen. Agamemnon’s homecoming, after the Greek victory at Troy, is celebrated by the citizens of Argos as a revenge well executed. However, the celebration does not last for long.
Shortly after his return, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra in a multi-layered act of revenge. On the surface, Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon to avenge the death of their daughter Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon sacrificed before the Trojan War to appease the goddess Artemis, who had stopped Agamemnon’s fleet from being able to reach Troy. In fact, Artemis demanded this tribute from Agamemnon in particular as a way to get revenge on him for once insulting her. Clytemnestra is also upset that Agamemnon has brought Cassandra, a princess and prophet of the god Apollo, from Troy to be his concubine (slave and mistress). Killing her husband is thus also an act of revenge for Agamemnon’s infidelity, despite Clytemnestra’s own infidelity with Aegisthus. Finally, Agamemnon’s death also serves as a kind of multi-generational revenge for Aegisthus (Agamemnon’s cousin)—not just against Agamemnon himself, but also against Agamemnon’s entire family. Decades earlier, Agamemnon’s father Atreus had killed Aegisthus’s brothers and then cooked them as food, which he then served to Aegisthus’ father Thyestes. Agamemnon’s death thus completes that particular cycle of revenge as well.
In Greek drama and mythology, the concept of revenge is often embodied by the Furies. These divine women were said to live beneath the earth and were thought to be responsible for acts of revenge. Throughout Agamemnon, the Chorus’s growing sense of worry and dread often comes from their belief that the action of the play could invoke the wrath of the Furies—especially after Cassandra prophecies that blood will be spilt in the house of Atreus.
As the play draws to a close, both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus describe the murder as a successful offering to the Furies in order to right Agamemnon’s offenses against them—that justice has been served. Yet the fact that the action of the play is preceded and driven by so many interrelated revenges suggests that Clytemnestra’s belief can’t possibly be correct—revenge always leads to more revenge. In fact, the murder of Agamemnon propels the next set of revenges in The Oresteia, and so the cycle of revenge and bloodshed continues.
Revenge Quotes in Agamemnon
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.