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.
Fate and the Gods ThemeTracker
Fate and the Gods Quotes in Agamemnon
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.
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…
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.