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  • Reticence and Phobos in Aeschylus's Agamemnon
  • Guido Avezzù (bio)

Στείχετε μακαρίων / ὀψόμενοι τυράννων / φάσματα δείματα. (Come and see the dreadful signs of our blessed tyrants.)1

Euripides, Electra 709–11.


The soliloquy delivered by the Watchman at the outset of Agamemnon (1–39) offers the first significant instance in this play of what has been called its "special focus on language" and of the "role of language itself in the process of the communication on stage."2 Expressions belonging to the semantic field of fear are very frequent not only in this prologue, but also, and even more so, in the words of the Chorus, who besides singing alone in the orchestra, unheard by the other characters offstage, also dialogue with some of them onstage through their leader. Those expressions range from an indefinite "concern" (μέριμνα), to "fear" (φόβος), "terror" (δεῖμα, δεινός, the verb δέδοικα), "horror" (στύγος; LSJ: "gloom," but also "hatred" and "abomination"), and also include the effect of "fleeing away" caused by fear, as in the case of the verb τρέω.3 It should be noticed that this fearful condition is often presented as being objectless, and this has a precise dramatic consequence. Mentioning one's psychological condition but not its cause and keeping the object of one's dread (δεῖμα) unsaid, as the Chorus do in the third stasimon (975–1034), emphasize the oppressive climate weighing heavily on the action since the prologue. It should also be noticed that in this play fear is first and foremost induced by tyrannical power in the citizens of Argos, who resort to a variety of discursive strategies of indirection in order to avoid speaking openly, [End Page 23] which culminates in the Chorus's highly self-censoring third stasimon. Interestingly, their reticence and/or covert allusiveness not only questions forms of communication typical of parliamentary monarchy—a type of government Aeschylus had already presented in his Suppliant Women five years before the Oresteia—but also the communicative processes onstage. It is as if the old playwright wished to offer a radical rethinking of what could and could not be said and shown in a theatre. On the one hand, reticence, combined with an apt use of metaphorical and euphemistic language, intensifies the audience's expectation of actions they already know about from the myth, but also know that will not be shown onstage because conventionally forbidden. Thus, reticence prefigures their horror, while possibly enhancing it. On the other hand, as will be seen, stagecraft and a strategic use of the language of fear collaborate in questioning the linearity and irreversibility of the temporal dimension intrinsic in the construction and solution of the tragic plot.

Traditionally, murder is not staged in Attic drama,4 and violent deaths are the stock subject of the messengers' reports.5 Consequently, Agamemnon accurately avoids the contamination (μίασμα) deriving from the murder carried out coram populo.6 And yet, Aeschylus lets it sneak into the "vision" Cassandra experiences onstage and shares with the Chorus and the audience "as in a mirror."7 In a tragedy which originates in the chain of fire relays announcing the fall of Troy, extensively described by Clytemnestra at 281–316, the same Cassandra becomes herself a "messenger," offering a dramatic variation on the reliability of signs and narratives. Like a trustworthy envoy, she unveils the truth, reporting the exact sequence of the actions leading to the accomplishment of Agamemnon's murder; but, differently from traditional messengers and from the chain of fires organized by Clytemnestra, she anticipates the deed. Cassandra objectifies the action verbally, and yet, unlike typical messengers' speeches, her report coincides with a vision that she experiences onstage as a "live event," but slightly ahead of the time of its actual occurrence. In the illusory simultaneity of that vision, she enables the Chorus and the audience to enter the palace, and penetrate inside, down to the bathroom where the murder will take place. This temporal dimension, diffracted into the narrative anticipation of the act (1100–29) [End Page 24] and its actual occurrence (1331–45), will finally re-coalesce into one in Agamemnon's cry, when he receives the first blow (1343) and "validates" acoustically, from the invisible inside of the palace, what Cassandra has just "seen" outside it at 1126–29...


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