This is Agamemnon

by Vanzetti

She hung up and stared at the phone. Bill had been so desperate, so determined. "I have to tell Fox. It isn't too late."

No, she thought, it was too late. It had been too late years ago when he had persuaded her to let him sacrifice their daughter.

In Teena Mulder's final year at prep school the winter play had been a Greek tragedy: Aeschylus' Agamemnon. She played the title role. The play didn't make much sense to them. Or rather, the play itself made sense: Nancy Williams, who played Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra and was the most popular girl in school, indicated her support for her character. "She was right to kill him. He murdered their daughter! And then, after ten years at Troy, he brings home his mistress." All the girls agreed.

It was the rest that was confusing: why Agamemnon had agreed to sacrifice Iphigenia in the first place, just to reach Troy. She can remember watching the chorus acting out the sacrifice and turning to Miss Harwood, the drama teacher. "But why did he agree to kill his own daughter? Why did he have to go to Troy, if that was the cost?"

Miss Harwood had no answer. She attempted a little speech about honor and duty, but Teena could tell that her heart wasn't in it.

Her best friend at Bryn Mawr explained it differently, outside one night under the stars, cigarette smoke sinking into their cashmere sweaters. "It was all about the men," she said. "Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Cassandra, they weren't the real story. Aegisthus had to kill Agamemnon, because of what Atreus did to Aegisthus' father, making him eat his own children. It's all about the curse on the descendents of Tantalus. The male descendents, of course." She gestured with a lipstick-stained cigarette. "The women were just tools. Let that be a lesson to us all."

Years later Teena heard another speech, not about honor or duty but about survival and sacrifice. Maybe Agamemnon had also believed that if he didn't sacrifice his daughter, the Trojans would come and burn Mycenae to the ground.

Maybe they would, and maybe they wouldn't. He had, Teena thought, destroyed himself as well as the Trojans. Whose vengeance had it been, in the play, when Agamemnon was struck down? Aegisthus? Clytemnestra? Did it even matter?

Had she too sat up late, waiting for the sun to rise, hating herself for the decision she had let her husband make?

"I can't go on," Bill had said. "I have to tell Fox. He's going to find out anyway..." She had cursed him and hung up before he could say anything else. He had already sacrificed one of her children. That was enough.

She lifted the phone again and dialed a familiar number. "Charles," she said. "I've just spoken to Bill. He says he's going to tell Fox everything. Charles, you're going to have to take care of it."




Author's notes:

"You question me as if I were a thoughtless woman,
but I speak with unshaken heart to those
who understand. Whether you with to praise me or to blame,
it is the same to me. This is Agamemnon, my husband,
now a corpse, the work of this right hand of mine,
maker of vengeance..."
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1401-1406.

In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus kill her husband Agamemnon when he returns from Troy. In the play, Clytemnestra's desire for revenge is emphasized: she kills Agamemnon because he sacrificed their eldest daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, to allow the Greek fleet to sail to Troy. But Agamemnon's murder is overdetermined: Clytemnestra's lover is also Agamemnon's first cousin, the only surviving son of Thyestes, the brother of Agamemnon's father Atreus. Atreus had murdered Thyestes' other sons and fed their bodies to Thyestes, so Aegisthus was fated to kill Atreus' son.

Clytemnestra and Agamemnon had a son, Orestes. When Orestes grew up he came back to Mycenae and killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in revenge for his father's death.

In one version of the story, Artemis spared Iphigenia's life at the last moment and sent her to live as a priestess among the Tauroi, far away from Greece. She was found there and rescued by Orestes and his faithful companion, Pylades.

Why does Artemis demand that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter in order to get to Troy? The best explanation I ever heard was this: if Agamemnon wishes to be the kind of man who will destroy the city of Troy, he must first become the kind of man who can sacrifice his eldest daughter.

"A heavy doom if I do not obey,
but heavy, too, if
I kill my daughter, the glory of my house,
staining a father's hands
with spurts of maiden-slaying blood before
the altar. Which of these is without evil?
How can I become a deserter of ships,
betraying those who fight alongside me?"
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 206-213.

Translations my own.

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