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Aeschylus poses two impossible tasks for his heroes Eteocles in Seven Against Thebes and Agamemnon in Agamemnon. Their decisions in these moral dilemmas rest on the split between family and politics. Aeschylus presents a vision in which politics and family cannot be separated leading to the downfall of these men, yet their calls to action distinguish them in sympathy. In order to splice these decisions open, we must look at how each decision is presented on the stage, as well as their particular motivations.
The theatrical presentation of Agamemnon’s decision, the play’s inciting incident, does not take place with him on stage; instead the chorus presents it to the audience as a history. The decision to sacrifice Iphigenia in order to propel his ships to Argos has been executed before the Watchman’s opening monologue. This changes the veracity of the history, for it is not simply happening before us. Therefore, we must examine who is telling us this oral history and what benefits or biases they have in recounting it this way.
The chorus is comprised of old men, who served as political advisors to Clytemnestra while Agamemnon was away fighting the war. This eliminates them from the infallible; they are essentially politicians serving the King and Queen. Their version of Agamemnon’s sacrifice focuses on his gut-wrenching decision and preparation for death (206-237). These are vivid descriptions to be sure, yet at the crucial moment of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the actual deed, the chorus sings, “What happened next, I did not see and I cannot tell” (248). They have skimmed over it, simply repeating “The prophecies of Calchas are always fulfilled” (249). Why leave out the final moment of execution after such strong description of her pleading for him to stop (L228)? The retelling demonstrates a strong bias in Agamemnon’s favor, for it does not recount the actual murder and instead focuses on Agamemnon’s heroic decision in the sacrifice of his own daughter. This is not to say they are not critical of his decision, they talk of how he “veered on an impious course” ( L219). But in the moment when they could describe the actual death, they don’t. Their slight criticism also disappears when Agamemnon arrives back home: “my mind painted an ugly picture of you, I don’t deny it. I thought you must have lost all grip on your senses when you dared that sacrifice, to save your dying men. But now, from a heart loyal and true I say: “Well done to all who wrought this joyful end.” (801-806). They are playing the field, and if this was not enough they also mention the unfaithfulness of others as if to excuse themselves: “you will soon find out for yourself, which of your citizens, who stayed at home, were just and which abused your absence.” (807-810). Therefore, in order to examine the motivation of an Agamemnon decision, we must pay close attention to the only action he truly takes upon stage.
The decisive moment in whether or not to have sympathy for Agamemnon rests on his arrival home from the war. The chorus mentions the sacrifice of Iphigenia, but Agamemnon’s response lacks any reference to the sacrifice (810-854). Instead he focuses on thanking the Gods and then dealing with political matters of those who were unloyal when he was away. There is a denial on his part of it happening mirrors the chorus skipping over it earlier. He has chosen to move on and his political concerns now outweigh his familial concerns. Even when his wife arrives there is no mention of the sacrifice or even an apology issued. Instead, we witness Agamemnon’s last decision and the one, which defines his sympathy.
His wife puts an offer forth that he trample on the red carpets; ones that only gods can touch. At first he denies her request, explaining that perhaps because he feels he can achieve no more power at this point, “ you do need add to my fame with these foot-cloths and fine fabrics.” (925) However, if a seer, essentially a political advisor, told him it would be ok he would do it (934). Eventually, Clytemnestra convinces him and he says, “Well if you want this so much.” But does he truly care about her needs? No or he never would have killed his daughter in the first place, therefore his act can only be only maintained in terms of power and glory. He has conquered the unconquerable Troy and now he has a chance to do as the Gods do, he does not need much convincing at all to trample the carpets. The last stage of power is to be Godly and Agamemnon goes for it and is killed. He sacrificed many of the young members of his community for glory and politics because of his power hunger. Yes, he sacrificed his daughter, but he essentially denies it, the weight of it gone. He loses his sympathy in the quest for power.
Unlike Agamemnon, Eteocles’ decision to face his brother at the 7th gate takes place before the audience. There is no political twist or considerations made toward political hierarchy, because his actions are dramatized and not recounted by a biased Chorus of old men. In fact this chorus of women provides the history after Eteocles has already made his decision, therefore allowing us to understand after the fact, rather than in the moment (720-790). With this history comes an understanding not of politics, but of fate and its hold on man.
Oedipus the father of Polynices and Eteocles placed a curse upon the brothers, “they might divide with iron-wielding hand his own possessions. (788-790). The curse has destined them to face each other for the city of Thebes. Eteocles hears about a champion at all six gates saving the last one for himself and then finds it is his brother, who will be fighting there (631-675). “Ah, my father’s curses are now fulfilled! But from me no crying and no lamentation,” says Eteocles (655-656). Eteocles faces his decision with a dignity that Agamemnon lacks, he is accepting of what is going to happen to him or may happen to him, while Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter so that he will not die at sea. Eteocles has a chance to run away and the Chorus mentions that he will not be called the “Coward” (700-705). But Eteocles replies “We are already past the care of gods. For them our death is the admirable offering why then delay, cringing at final destruction? (702-704). His sense of fate allows him to be brave, he knows his end will come, but he does not avoid it.
His decision although more based in fate, has political repercussions. His family is the enemy; he must be destroyed so his city can thrive, which reflects Agamemnon’s turning into a beast when he is about to slaughter Iphigenia. However, Eteocles knows that he will also parish in the fight, which involves a self-sacrifice that Agamemnon never would do. His theory is that since it is fate that he fight his brother, why shed innocent blood before he and his brother must fight. By doing this, he is breaking from the very structure of his family’s history in order to do this. They have always been interested in power dating back to Laos who tried to kill Oedipus. This is the first occasion of self-sacrifice for a greater good, that of the people. And in the end is worshipped for his decision. His is the ultimate show of humility and acceptance, which creates a sympathy, for he knows he has to die and goes for with dignity in order to reset the curse of the city of Thebes which his family brought upon them.
Agamemnon’s decision is more politically based, while Eteocles’ wishes to restore the honor to a family that has been bathed in blood for years. Aeschylus in both plays poses the question of family versus politics. His contention appears to be that how you deal politically may affect your view of your family and how your family life certainly affects your political life. Politically, your family is your enemy, in both plays they do not allow you to bask in the power you have accumulated. Yet, killing a family member results in the death of both of the heroes, yet in the case of Eteocles he has adopted his city as his family, a noble virtue, while Agamemnon concern is for himself.
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