Monday, January 28, 2008

Agamemnon Analysis

Well Im taking a Classics course this semester and I quickly realized I was in way over my head, as the majority of the class seems to be familiar with ancient greek, so that our class discussions revolved around disputed translations which are accused of being -mis, but Im going to tough it out and see how I fair, cause I love the subject matter. Anyways we were asked to write a 500 word post on an assigned passage and here's the rough draft I have thus far. Comments and criticisms are welcome. Post in the comments section below. Thanks!

There is, I think, a grace that comes by violence from the gods
seated upon the dread bench of the helmsman.

These two lines, which appear early on in Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia trilogy, are extraordinarily pertinent to our overall understanding and interpretation of this particular play, because they simultaneously resurrect the underlying theme of justice and reflect the semantic ambiguities, which are so prevalent throughout the play. We are even warranted in thinking of this passage as a key, permitting us to enter one of the rooms—one of the interpretations—that has been built up after a careful and exhaustive study of this play. We must, however, be guarded against and self-critical towards the themes, meanings, and interpretations we extract from the play, because our modernist lens often distorts the true and essential character of the play—with regards to the historical context it was originally written and meant for. That said it is necessary to first dissect the passage into two significant parts, before we move onto an overall and overarching interpretation and explanation of what the play is about: both explicitly and implicitly.

The first important part of the passage that needs to be addressed is found in the string of words 'a grace that comes by violence'. This phrase immediately triggers a lexical hiccup in our minds, since 'grace', which roughly defined is an endowment of fortune/favor, usually by divine entities, is not commonly associated with coming about through the means of violence and calamity. In Agamemnon, however, this idea of suffering being for the betterment of mankind is a repeated conviction. In lines 176-178 it is suggested that it is the ignorant who, having disobeyed the gods' will, become disfavorably familiar with suffering—the gods' preferred method of teaching man a lesson, to hopefully be learned from. “Justice always defeats Hybris in the end”, says Hesiod in a passage from Works and Days (218f.), and goes on to say, “it is only the foolish man who learns by suffering.” Thus, as Hugh Lloyd-Jones puts it, in summation “the wise man, it is implied, understands that it is foolish to defy the will of Zeus; the foolish man who fails to understand when he is warned, will learn only when disaster teaches him” (p. 38). If Lloyd-Jones is correct in his interpretation of this passage—and I will concede that he is, based on the grounds of his own scholarly dedication to and familiarity with the topic in general and this play in particular, of which I, confessedly, lack excessively—then it is this concept of justice that we must base the rest of our analysis of the play upon. Out of constraint of space I will just briefly mention one important question that this concept of justice contributes to and complexifies.

One of the central questions that is often asked by scholars who have read the play concerns Agamemnon's guilt, more pointedly, is Agemnon responsible for the fate that befalls him, or is he merely an ill-fated puppet helplessly serving and fulfilling the will of the gods? If Lloyd-Jones' interpretation of Aeschylus' concept of justice is correct, that suffering/misfortune occurs by disobeying the will of the gods, then it would seem Agamemnon suffered needlessly, and was merely a sacrificial pawn in the gods' or, more accurately, Zeus' divine strategy. Is this, then, the correct interpretation of the interaction between divine and human justice? That the former trumps the interests of the latter, for the goodness and ultimate betterment of the latter? It is difficult to say, with confidence, that this is the case, and I unfortunately do not have the luxury of space to elaborate further on what my answer to this particular question is.

The second part of the passage which requires our attention (and is pertinently related to the first part and certainly contributes to our overall understanding of that part) is in the entire second line: 'seated upon the dread bench of the helmsman'. According to our author, the “helmsman's bench” is a metaphor for “the seat of power”, which implies that the gods are in charge of the reigns of the universe and thus, to borrow a metaphor from Aeschylus, are also in control of the (motivating) bit that rests in the mouths of man (and as the play reveals, man and woman alike are only all too eager to place the responsibility of their actions, decisions, and behaviors into the laps of the gods). But doesn't this conflict with the notion mentioned earlier that it is the fools who suffer whilst the wise men prosper? It would seem so, for if the gods are the captains behind the helm of destiny, what effect, if any, do the spontaneous decisions, which arise from man's conviction of free will, play on the outcomes of his ultimate fate?

These are difficult questions to answer and are made even more enigmatic by the limited means we have available to aid us in our endeavor to try and address these questions with the subtle clues that we uncover. Perhaps the reason there seems to be no clear cut answer to our questions is owed to the fact that the ancient Greeks themselves found these questions as puzzling as we ourselves do and didn't have answers, so much as opinions. My knowledge of ancient Greek culture is extremely limited, but perhaps they were just as unsure about the dynamic interaction between a man's fate and a gods' will, as we ourselves are when we try to uncover how, exactly, they saw and interpreted this dynamic. If this is indeed the case then the pursuit of answers to these deep seeded questions is a frivolous affair, because the answers we seek are, ironically, the very questions that we are asking when we read plays such as the Agamemnon (space provided to recollect the tatters of your mind which has now been blown).

1 comment:

dj-jas said...

lol, good paper. i haven't taken a classics class in a while, but your arguments seem good to me. the only suggestions i have are: first sentence reads a bit too long; you spelled agamemnon wrong in the 3rd paragraph; and i wouldn't bring up your limited knowledge of ancient greece. you also might want to look into the "heroic code" (as mostly put forth by homer, but still pertinent).

also, just in case you might want to analyze the oresteia from a feminist lens at some point (i know you want to!), here are some old notes i found.. see if you can make sense of them (i also have some more and an essay on clytemnestra; holler if you want the rest):
- Civilization as ultimate conflict between opposing forces: oikos & polis
- Every action stems from female: catalyst
- Control of women as necessary for survival of the polis
- Events: Woman rises up against male authority
Slays husband, chooses own sexual partner – shatters social norms
Demands & usurps male power
Son slays mother for retribution for father
Mother's Erinyes pursue son in retribution
Clytemnestra allied with archaic, primitive, regressive through Erinyes
Her independence specifically linked to desire to rule
While female does not initiate hostilities, her response exceeds Agamemnon's crime
- Limbo: overvaluing maternal bond -> undervaluing marriage bond (what makes her female causes the limbo)
- Erinyes pose ideological problem of fertility vs. sexuality
- Solution established marriage as institution that controls sexuality and ensures fertility
- Orestes's matricide becomes his rite of passage
- Seeks new birth at Delphi in supplicating Athena (herself born of Zeus's head)
- Final triumph over female = Athena rules in favor of Orestes and in ultimate male rationality uses law to decide