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Hubris in Aeschylus 'Agamemnon'

Updated: Nov 11, 2021


Since the 5th century BCE Greek drama has captivated its audience through its diverse genres of tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays. The Greek playwrights were originally produced to compete in competitive theatre festivals that were state run. The main theatre festival was in the province of Attica in the city of Athens. The festival was known as the great Dionysia which occurred in March. We are limited in our knowledge of Greek drama because very few documents survived through the trials of time. To gain a better understanding of Greek dramas, modern day scholars analyze and gain knowledge from the surviving fragmentations of Greek plays. These fragmentations consist of surviving written documents and visual representations (ie. vase paintings). One of the most intact and completed works to survive from 5th century is Aeschylus tragic play The Oresteia. Aeschylus play the Oresteia was produced in Dionysia in 458 BCE and won first prize.[1] The Oresteia is a tetralogy consisting of three plays, the Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides.[2] The Oresteia is the only surviving complete version of an Athenian tragic trilogy (with the acceptation of a few missing lines in Libation Bearers).[3] A tetralogy should be followed by a satyr play but Aeschylus Oresteia satyr play does not have a surviving copy. What little is known of Aeschylus Oresteia satyr drama is the name; Proteus.[4] The Oresteia is a tragic play based on the homecoming of the mythological king of Argos, Agamemnon. Agamemnon is a famous Greek king from Homers epic poem the Iliad. In the Iliad, he is portrayed as one of the most powerful and successful kings in Greece.

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Agamemnon is viewed as a respectful figure in ancient Greek literature but in the Oresteia, he is doomed to a tragic disrespectful death. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra does not possess the virtuous features of a traditional Greek wife, she is part of the root causes that leads to the death of Agamemnon. Clytemnestra seeks revenge on her husband for the death of their daughter Iphigeneia. Before the Trojan war, Agamemnon needed the favor of the gods for good winds on the journey to Troy. To gain the favor of the gods, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. We hear of this inhuman deed by the elderly men of Argos chorus. The chorus hints of the killing of Iphigenia by stating that “what followed I did not see and do not say; but the skilled prophecies of Calchas do not fail of fulfilment.”[5] The horrid deed was done and Agamemnon got the favor of the winds and the prophecy of victory by Calchas. This was the beginning of the end for Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Agamemnon would go off to Troy to successfully destroy the Trojans thus gaining an over abundance of praise and honour. During the span of the Trojan war Clytemnestra began her unhealthy obsession with seeking revenge on her husband and gaining power over his kingdom. Throughout the Agamemnon these two characters display signs of hubris. Hubris is a minor Greek deity that is the personification mortal pride, arrogance, and the loss of virtue.[6] When hubris is displayed it “provokes the wrath of the gods and precipitates their intervention.”[7] Hubris is a re-occurring theme in Aeschylus Oresteia, but it is predominantly found in Agamemnon, the first book in the Oresteia. This blog will analyze how the presence of Hubris through Agamemnon’s mortal pride and Clytemnestra’s loss of virtue foreshadows the characters’ tragic fate in Aeschylus Agamemnon.


From the time of Iphigenia’s sacrifice Agamemnon was set up for failure. The demise of Agamemnon started with the sacrifice of Iphigenia, then the excessive praise from the successes of the Trojan War, and his mortal pride was the final and fatal action that led to his death. Per Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Agamemnon had no choice in sacrificing his daughter.[8] Zeus was angered by the action of the Trojan prince Paris who broke the custom of Xenia (hospitality) and ordered an expedition for the Greeks to go to Troy and lay down proper justice.[9] With the unfavorable winds Agamemnon had no choice in sacrificing his daughter because the expedition had to sail.[10] The sacrifice of Iphigenia was not the first tragedy to pollute the house of Agamemnon, his father Atreus killed his brothers children and served them for dinner. The crime that was committed by his father dammed Agamemnon in his suffering because as per Hugh Lloyd-Jones “evil deeds alone bring down divine justice either on their doer or on his descendent after him.”[11] Agamemnon’s house was polluted by the unjust spilling of blood and remained polluted until it was purified by his son Orestes. The chorus acknowledges the unfortunate fate of Agamemnon’s house when they stat that “the family is glued fast the ruin.”[12] Agamemnon was obeying the commands on Zeus when he scarified his daughter but unknowingly created a new enemy which would later be the root cause of his death.


The expedition in Troy took ten years to complete, but Agamemnon was successful in sacking the city of Troy. Agamemnon was warned by the prophet Calchas that the expedition would be long but victorious.[13] This success made him well known throughout the Greek community as a hero. The success over the Trojans created a lot of praise and honor to the Argos king. The audience witnesses the excessive praise when the Queen Clytemnestra praised her husband for the success over the Trojans. Clytemnestra knowingly praises her husband because she knows it angers the Gods, but she is warned by the chorus to stop because “to be excessively praised is dangerous: a thunderbolt is launched from the eyes of Zeus.”[14] Clytemnestra shortly after leaves the stage but the Herald enters the scene and makes matters worse for Agamemnon. The herald is happy to be back on home soil and begins to praise the king for everything he has done, he tells the chorus that the king must get a noble welcome because he is deserving of it. He talks about how the city of Troy is in ruin, everything is destroyed even sacred Trojan temples. Lloyd-Jones points out that the destruction of temples provokes divine resentment on Agamemnon. The herald goes as far as to say that Agamemnon should be “honored above all other mortals now alive.”[15]

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Although it is not said, one can gather from the heralds’ remarks that Agamemnon is given a god-like persona which would only further anger the gods. From mythology, we know that the gods do not like to be equal with humans or overshadowed by them. When one looks at the myth of Arachne it is evident that Athena was threatened by Arachne’s weaving abilities, and when Arachne became arrogant Athena punished her. This is like the predicament Agamemnon is facing, he is successful in the expedition of Troy acting as minister of Zeus but he should not be compared or honored to the same stature as Zeus.[16] Mortals cannot be equal to Gods because that would no longer make the gods divine.


The excessive praise is not what was the final blow to Agamemnon tragic life, it was his mortal pride. As the king appears on scene the chorus hints at the evils that plague the kingdom in his absents. The chorus give a general statement toward the audience by saying that “in time you will know by inquiry which of the citizens has acted honestly when staying at home in the city. And which inappropriately.”[17] In this statement the chorus is trying to warn Agamemnon that his wife Clytemnestra has not been acting appropriately in his absence (ie. the plotting of his murder and the affair with Aegisthus). Agamemnon is welcomed when he arrives in front of the palace, but when Clytemnestra appears on scene she welcomes him in a dramatic gesture. She claims that she has missed “her love” for a long time and claims that she was scared in his absence for the safety of the children and sent Orestes away. She urges her husband to leave the carriage but to not touch the ground. She calls upon the servants to layout an expensive tapestry so that his feet may not touch the earth. Clytemnestra is treating Agamemnon like a god which he does not approve of because he later tells his wife “to revere me like a man, not a god.”[18] From this statement one can notice that Agamemnon is aware of the harm it would cause him if he was to accept being treated like a god and tries avoid Clytemnestra first attempt. Clytemnestra wont allow the king to go inside the palace until he walks on the tapestry. She strikes Agamemnon’s’ pride when she states that “Priam would have done, if he had had a success like this?”[19] What Clytemnestra is doing in this scene is “bringing out Agamemnon’s subconscious desire to rival the gods.”[20] Racanana Meridor notes that this statement triggered something within Agamemnon to agree with his wife “without retracting his former arguments.”[21] By Agamemnon walking on the tapestry he is portraying a hubristic man who refuses to get the better of a woman.[22] Agamemnon has now displayed his “fatal flaw, hubristic pride.”[23] As Agamemnon is walking toward the threshold of his palace he is semiconscious of the fact that what he is doing is wrong and says, “as I walk on these purple-dyed robes, may no jealous eye strike me afar!”[24] Agamemnon foreshadowed his death and walks past the threshold and enters the house of Hades, in doing this he has given Clytemnestra her victory.[25]


Unlike Agamemnon who was set up for failure, Clytemnestra was blinded by power and revenge on her husband. In the absence of her husband Clytemnestra developed a masculine persona. Since there were hardly any males around, Clytemnestra took it upon herself to take charge and rule over the kingdom. This was taboo in ancient Greece because women were denied any public role what so ever.[26] To avoid any confrontation, she sent away her only son so that he would not interfere with her rule. We first hear of Clytemnestra from the watchmen in the opening scene. The watchmen automatically persuades the audience against Clytemnestra in his description of her; he refers to her as the masculine minded Queen.[27] The reason why the watchmen is not fond of Clytemnestra is because she rejects the females stereotype in Greek tragedy.[28] When compared to Odysseus wife Penelope, Clytemnestra is the complete opposite. Clytemnestra did not remain faithful in the absence of her husband, she became the ruling figure in the kingdom, and she plots to kill her husband. Clytemnestra is at loss of her female virtue. Clytemnestra displays her masculine features when she is told of the beckon of light. She goes into great extent in explaining how the beckon was summoned thus displaying her brilliance and intellect.[29] Leonard Moss found that through Clytemnestra extensive description she is “outdoing men at their game.”[30] Clytemnestra did not only outdo men in intelligence, but she was a very dominate character. Her dominance is displayed for the audience in the scene of Agamemnon arrival when she controls the threshold of the palace. She dominates over everyone even the “Agamemnon the conqueror of Troy,”[31] and refuses him entry into his own palace.[32] The only way Agamemnon can entre his own palace is if he yields to her demands and walks on the purple fabric.[33] Agamemnon succumbs to her trickery and inevitably walks towards his death.

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According to H.L. Tracy, “Clytemnestra tried to put herself in the right and put Agamemnon in the wrong,”[34] but in doing so she places herself in the wrong, leading to her tragic end. Clytemnestra anger is driven by the death of her daughter and she attempted to “play the role of avenging angel.”[35] Clytemnestra is trying to play the role of Nemesis (justice) by seeking vengeance for her dead daughter.[36] Once she succeeds in murdering her husband she becomes blinded by her pride and boasts over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. When the chorus comes in and hears her arrogant speech they say, “we are amazed at your language-the arrogance of it-uttering boastful words like these over your husband!”[37] It is at this point where Clytemnestra’s careful planning was destroyed because she displayed arrogance (which is an aspect of hubris.) Clytemnestra sealed her tragic fate with two actions; first when she displayed her loss of virtue as a woman in her masculinity. Second her obsession of revenge blinded her in the moment succession and led to her announcing pride and arrogance in a victory speech.


Aeschylus Agamemnon did portray the reoccurring theme of hubris. Agamemnon was set for failure since the beginning, he succumbed to his wife trickery and walked through the gates of hell, thus solidifying his fate. His wife Clytemnestra did not meet her tragic end in Agamemnon but she displayed many forms of hubris which will evidently lead to her death in book 2: Libation Bearers. Aeschylus Agamemnon was a dramatic production, but all the dramatic situations that took place were due to Clytemnestra’s actions.[38] From the beginning to the end, our attention was focused on Clytemnestra. She embodied every aspect of hubris from pride in the killing of Agamemnon, the arrogance of her power and authority, and her loss of female virtue with her masculine qualities. Unlike Clytemnestra, Agamemnon did not intentionally commit acts of hubris, his dammed family past polluted him to suffer, and he was tricked by his wife to display is hubristic pride. When Agamemnon was displaying his hubristic pride, he knew he was in the wrong. In contrary, Clytemnestra believed that her actions were rational because she was serving justice for her dead daughter. In the end, Clytemnestra’s actions in trying to make herself right and Agamemnon wrong backfired. Clytemnestra succeeded in making Agamemnon showcase his hubristic pride but she failed to control her pride in the making. As stated by the chorus, “an insult comes in return for insult.”[39]


Footnotes

[1] Sommerstein. H.Alan (2008) p.ix [2] Sommerstein. H.Alan (2008) p.ix [3] Sommerstein. H.Alan (2008) p.x [4] Sommerstein. H.Alan (2008) p.ix [5] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.29 lines 248-249 [6] Theoi Project - Hybris [7] Grigoriadis. Ioannis (2011) p.101 [8] Jones-Lloyd. Hugh (1962) p.191 [9] Jones-Lloyd. Hugh (1962) p.191 [10] Jones-Lloyd. Hugh (1962) p.191 [11] Jones-Lloyd. Hugh (1962) p.194 [12] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.191 lines 1566 [13] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.29 lines 246 [14] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.55 lines 468-470 [15] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.63 lines 531 [16] Jones-Lloyd. Hugh (1962) p.195 [17] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.93 lines 807-809 [18] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.107 lines 925 [19] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.109 lines 935 [20] Taplin. O (1978) p.79 [21] Meridor. Racanana (1987) p.38 [22] Meridor. Racanana (1987) p.38 [23] Taplin. O (1978) p.79 [24] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.111 lines 946 [25] Meridor. Racanana (1987) p.40 [26] Moss. Leonard (1988) p.517 [27] Tracy. L.H (1952) p.216 [28] Moss. Leonard (1988) p.517 [29] Moss. Leonard (1988) p.520 [30] Moss. Leonard (1988) p.519 [31] Moss. Leonard (1988) p.519 [32] Meridor. Racanana (1987) p.40 [33] Meridor. Racanana (1987) p.40 [34] Tracy. L.H (1952) p.218 [35] Tracy. L.H (1952) p.215 [36] Tracy. L.H (1952) p.217 [37] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.171 lines 1399-1400 [38] Tracy. L.H (1952) p.216 [39] Aeschylus, Agamemnon pg.191 lines 1561


Bibliography


Aeschylus, and Alan H. Sommerstein. The Oresteia: Agamemnon, Libation-bearers, Eumenides. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Grigoriadis, N. Ioannis. “Greek Tragedy”, Duke University Press 28.2 (Summer 2011): 101-109

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. “The Guilt of Agamemnon”, Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Classical Association 12.2 (November 1962): 187-199

Meridor, Racanana. “Why Does Agamemnon Give In?”, The University of Chicago Press 82.1 (January 1987): 38-43

Moss, Leonard. “The Critique of the Female Stereotype in Greek Tragedy”, Penn State University Press 71.4 (Winter 1988): 515-532

Taplin, Oliver. Greek Tragedy in Action. Berkeley: U of California, 1978. Print.

Theoi. “Theoi Project: Hybris”. Accessed November 20, 2016, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Hybris.html

Tracy, L. H. “Dramatic Art in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon”, The Classical Association of the Middle and South, Inc 47.6 (March 1952): 215-218


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