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Marx defines the “underclass” as a social group, conscious of itself, that is being oppressed and exploited by the ruling class and thus possesses a common hostility towards this higher class. This concept is reflected in various literature from throughout history and can also be seen in modern societies all around the world. In Greek drama the powerless underclass is, for the most part, disregarded and seen as a mass without individual identities. Yet, in both Greek literature and our contemporary society the lower classes serve very significant purposes. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon, upon his return from the battle of Troy, features an extremely important and meaningful underclass. Besides the simple function of narrating the background of the play, the powerless underclass in Agamemnon, represented by the chorus and the watchman, also serves several important thematic purposes, namely portraying both the disregarded individual and the oppressed masses, as well as emphasizing negative aspects of the main characters by offering a sharp contrast.
One of the purposes of the underclass is that it reflects the situation of the disregarded individuals who lack the power to influence the course of action and who suffer from a lack of individual identity. This lack of individual identity is portrayed through the watchman at the beginning of the play, when he explains his elation about the victory in Troy by saying that his “master’s luck is [his]” (34). The watchman has no control over his personal desires. His happiness is dependent on the situation of his superiors and of the society in general. The suppression of the individuals who freely express their thoughts and thus attempt to actively take part in the action becomes apparent in a dialogue between the chorus leader and the herald. They are debating the glorious victory in Troy when the chorus leader starts hinting at certain suspicions about Clytemnestra and of how life has been since the departure of Agamemnon:
“Leader: For years now only my silence kept me from harm.
Herald: What, with the kings gone did someone threaten you?
Leader: So much… now as you say, it would be good to die.” (538-541)
He not only hints at his fears that the conflict about the sacrificing of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, hasn’t been resolved yet, but he also suggests that the freedom of the individual to express his opinion has been oppressed and that one must be careful with what one says. The climax of the disrespect towards the underclass, however, is reached after Agamemnon’s death, when the chorus is arguing against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In a mournful speech, they chant,
All plans dashed, all hope! I cannot think […]
“You can dare this?
To kill your lord with your own hand.” (1560, 1571-1572)
Because the chorus is using the first person singular, one can conclude that it is, in this case, speaking as an individual. This individual is expressing his worry and confusion about his king’s death and is verbally attacking his rulers. However, he is disrespected and oppressed by the ruling elite. The powerless individual thus has no say in the plot and illustrates the oppression of the underclass.
What lends additional importance to the powerless underclass in Agamemnon, beyond the significance of representing disregarded individuals, is its role as a representation of the oppressed masses. A first indication that the people of Argos are being oppressed is the watchman’s complaint about the hash conditions that he has faced under Clytemnestra’s rule.
“So she commands […]
That woman -she manoeuvres like a man.” (12-13)
By comparing her to a man, the watchman is indicating that she does not follow the stereotype of the loving woman, but that she is rather a strict and disciplined absolute ruler. The actual oppression doesn’t occur until after Agamemnon’s death and after Clytemnestra and Aegisthus claim the throne. After the masses have expressed their strong objection to all this, Aegisthus replies:
“You slaves at the oars -while the master on the benches cracks the whip?
You’ll learn, in your late age
How much it hurts to teach old bones their place.” (1659-1663)
It now becomes apparent that Aegisthus is willing to use severe physical punishments and other measures to threaten the people and to keep the masses in line. Furthermore, in later a dispute with the chorus leader about Agamemnon’s murder and the future of Argos, he expresses his intentions to become the ruler.
“We’ll see if the world comes dancing to your song […]
I’ll make you dance, I’ll bring you all to heel.” (1663, 1665)
One can tell that the schism between the two parties, the masses and the rulers, has deepened. In this case, the chorus leader is trying to rally the masses against the newly self-proclaimed rulers but the oppressed passive underclass stands no chance against the tyrannous regime of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.
Finally, the most important role of the underclass in Agamemnon is to offer a harsh contrast to the culprits and thus emphasize their evil characteristics. In order to accomplish this, the underclass is portrayed as being extremely kind, caring and loyal people. This can be seen in the watchman’s speech after he has realized that the king will soon be returning.
“Just bring him home.
My king, I’ll take your loving hand in mine and then… “(36, 37)
Here one can not only detect the intimate bond that the king has to his subjects, but also the subjects’ loyalty and their dedication to the king’s well being. Unlike Clytemnestra, who is merely acting as if all were well in order to deceive Agamemnon and murder him, the underclass shows true devotion. When the king arrives, the chorus hints at the disloyalty of the rulers.
“Search, my king, and learn at last who stayed at home and kept their faith
And who betrayed the city.” (792-794)
Though the chorus does not directly accuse anybody, it is apparent to the reader that those who remained loyal were the underclass and that those who betrayed the city were Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Without the good-hearted underclass to provide the contrast to these actions, however, the role of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus would appear significantly more human and understandable. This division between “good” and “bad” reaches its climax after Agamemnon’s death. The underclass takes on a course of direct confrontation with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and accuses them of having committed terrible acts.
“Leader: You appal me, you, your brazen words
exulting over your fallen king.” (1424-1425)
Again, without the contrast that the chorus offers, the reader would be more inclined to accept Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ actions as a result of human emotions and perhaps even consider the revenge to be justified. Through the good example of the underclass in the play, however, the reader automatically identifies more with them and condemns the murder of Agamemnon as being unjust and inhumane. The powerless underclass thus presents a contrast to the murderers of Agamemnon and consequently acts to portray them as malevolent characters.
Therefore, although the underclass serves no active role in the plot, they do have important thematic purposes, depicting both the disregarded individual and the oppressed masses, and presenting a positive contrast to the immoral main characters and thus helping to deliver the intended message to the reader. These characteristics of the lower classes in Greek drama have contributed to motivating historians, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers to intensely study Greek drama and draw comparisons to contemporary societies. For, indeed, many of these characteristics can be seen in today’s cultures, as well as in various pieces of literature and have therefore often been identified as basic human patterns. In large masses of people, the importance of the individual is often easily lost, especially when the mass consists of people of the lower classes of society, especially when the ruling class is additionally oppressing these people. Also, when the ruling class is acting against the needs and benefits of their population, the masses will automatically shift their views to represent a radical opposition to the ruling class and are thus often perceived as being more sympathetic. So, though interpretations of Agamemnon and other Greek plays may vary, one belief has been almost unanimously confirmed by literary analysts: the Greek drama offers an excellent reflection of true human nature.
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