Agamemnon of Aeschylus

Entrance of the chorus

AGAMEM40 (click to hear)

40-59 (scroll down for translation)

Greek text of selection

It is now the tenth year since Priam’s great opponent,
King Menelaus, and with him Agamemnon,
in twin-throned, twin-sceptred honor, mighty yoke team
of Zeus, the Atreidae, sped from this land
a thousand ships of Argives, the mustered fleet in arms,

with a great cry of War, out of rage like that of vultures
who in wild, lost pain from their desolate nest
wheel high and wide, feathery oars pumping,
their nest-bed toils for their chicks all lost;

till one of those on high, Apollo, Pan, or Zeus,
hearing the shrill bird-wails of high heaven’s visitors,
in late vengeance sends the Fury on the head of the transgressor.

Hymn to Zeus

agamem160 (click to hear)

160-183 (scroll down for translation)

Greek text of selection
Zeus, whoever he may be,
if so it please him to be named,
so I do address him.
I find no other image,
though I ponder all,
than Zeus, if from my mind this senseless burden
truly must be thrown.

Nor will whoever once was great,
bursting in his battle pride,
be counted as having been.
And he who next arose
was thrice thrown and is gone.
But who with lusty song cries Zeus the victor
hits the soul of wisdom.

He steered the mortal mind to thought,
making one law: suffer and learn.
Drop by drop on hearts in sleep
falls pain, remembering woes;
and so to the unwilling
comes wisdom when it comes.
Violent is the grace of powers
at the terrible helm.

Clytaemestra to Agamemnon

agamem958 (click to hear)

958-974 (scroll down for translation)

Greek text of selection
There is a sea —and who will drain it dry?—
Breeding fresh purple in a staunchless ooze,
Worth any silver, to dip garments in.
Your house, king, heaven sees to it, never lacks
Such things. No, poverty it never learned.
Many’s the garment I’d have vowed to trample,
If that were what the oracles required,
In order to contrive this one soul’s ransom.
For while there’s root, the house will have new leaf,
To pitch a shade against the dog days’ heat.
So you now, coming to your household hearth,
Signal the warmth that comes in wintertime;
And when from bitter grape Zeus makes the wine,
Then suddenly a coolness fills the house,
As in its halls the prime man walks once more.
Zeus, Zeus, fulfiller of all! Fulfill my prayers!
Keep in your care all you shall soon fulfill!

(Greek text: H. Weir Smyth, Loeb Classical Library)

translations © 2011 Alan Shaw

The three excerpts from the Agamemnon recited here may give some idea of the rhythmic variety and potency of Greek dramatic verse. It should be borne in mind that these probably represent three distinct styles of delivery, which we could roughly characterize as chanted, sung, and spoken, respectively.

The first is chanted by the chorus of Argive elders as they enter, immediately after the watchman’s prologue. The meter is anapestic, a marching rhythm in Greek, which was often used for choral entrances and exits, and in this case suits the martial subject as well.

The second excerpt, sung later in the same parodos, or opening chorus, is the famous “Hymn to Zeus.” Like several of the other choral songs in the play, metrically the hymn consists of variations on a seven-syllable rhythmic pattern called a lekuthion, which goes: dum-ti-dum-ti-dum-ti-dum (with dum representing long and ti representing short).

The third excerpt is Clytaemestra’s speech to the returning Agamemnon as she leads him barefoot up the carpet of blood-red garments into the house to murder him. He has chided her for wasting the house’s costly Tyrian-dyed cloth on such a gesture, and this is her reply. The speech – like virtually all of the spoken parts of Greek drama – is in a meter resembling English blank verse.

Naturally a spoken rendition of verses that were chanted or sung can’t really recreate the total effect. But it can at least give a sense of the music already latent in the ancient poet’s words. In opera the libretto is a sort of mannequin, clothed in glorious sounds. The words of a Greek play are not so self-effacing: they are what gave form and movement to the music and dance (which the poet himself composed), and you can be sure that their musical and choreographic clothing left their own profound shapeliness and rhythmic vitality very much in evidence.

We don’t know how well the music and dances of these plays were remembered in the first few centuries after they were performed, but we do know that the plays themselves were still read. And reading then, and for a long time after, meant reading aloud. It was only the slow growth of silent reading, along with a complete change in the rhythm of spoken Greek, that finally made the words of these wonderful old plays what they have mostly remained since, mere text on a page.