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Seminar Greek: Aeschylus Agamemnon


Admission requirements

This class can be taken in fulfilment of the requirements of both the MA and the RMA program in Classics and Ancient Civilization (track Classics), with differential requirements. It is open to students admitted to those programs.


Understanding Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is one of the most famous plays in world literature. In this course we will supplement a close reading in Greek of selected key passages from this play by discussion of the play’s function within the Oresteia (read in English or Dutch) and its performance context in the Athenian theatre of Dionysus in 458 BCE.

Note: the instructor, Professor Edith Hall, is this term’s Spinoza Visiting Researcher. She’s a world-famous expert in Greek tragedy and is currently preparing an edition with commentary of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

Course objectives

  • A thorough knowledge of selected passages of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in ancient Greek and the ability to explain the grammar and syntax of those passages.

  • An understanding of the entirety of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, studied in translation: its historical context, political content, major themes, and effect in performance.

  • A knowledge of the major conventions of Greek tragic theatre (chorus, actors, form, physical context, religion, types of speech and song, use of ekkuklema etc.)

  • The ability to understand, synthesise, compare and critique advanced secondary scholarly works about Greek tragedy.

  • A basic understanding of the significance of Agamemnon in terms of Aeschylus’ output, fifth-century Greek literature, and the history of theatre.


Please consult the Classics and Ancient Civilizations website.

Mode of instruction:

  • Seminar

Course Load

The course is taught in concentrated fashion within one half semester (4 hours per week)

  • 6 weeks, 2x2 hours per week = 24 hours

  • Preparation for each seminar, including revision for oral exam = 58 hours.

  • Thematic oral presentation with one-to-two page abstract (hand-out): 56 hours

  • Consultations with instructor and oral exam; 2 hours.

Seminar 1

Introduction: Why the Oresteia Matters
A brief history of the performance and influence of the play in antiquity and more modern times. Explanation of the course’s aims and structure. Discussion of what is expected of each student and assessment methods. Explanation of bibliographical and online resources.

Seminar 2: Opening a Tragedy

Read: lines 1-103 of Agamemnon in Greek. Compare with the prologue and parodos in both Choephori and Erinyes (read in English or Dutch). Consider how the poet combines the necessity to give the audience basic information with the creation of mood and atmosphere. How does the choice of identity of the character delivering the prologue and the chorus members affect our perspective on the subsequent action? How does Aeschylus use linguistic register to characterize the watchman and the chorus?

Seminar 3: Introducing a Protagonist

Read lines 218-279 and 320-354 of Agamemnon in Greek. Consider the presentation of time and memory in the later part of the chorus’ parodos song and in their first dialogue with Clytemnestra. What picture of Agamemnon has the audience been offered before they first hear Clytemnestra speak and how does this affect their perception of her first speeches? How does the imagery and rhetoric set up the issue of gender roles in the trilogy?

Seminar 4: The Justice of Zeus

Read Agamemnon 355-489 in Greek. What picture of the functions and roles of Zeus in ancient Greek religion emerges from the chorus’ invocations and ruminations? How does he interact with Dike? Does the account of theodicy in this choral ode correspond with other references to Zeus and to Justice in the trilogy, especially in choral passages? What other gods are prominent in Agamemnon and the Oresteiai

Seminar 5: Articulating Emotion

Read Agamemnon 588-680 in Greek. What picture of the psychological states of the messenger, the chorus and Clytemnestra respectively is conveyed by their dialogues? How does Aeschyus explore the relationship of different social classes through the perspecives of minor characters in the play, including the messenger? Is the messenger’s account of the wreck of the Argive fleet effective emotionally? Do the emotional states of the messenger and the chorus serve a political function? Compare the language used to describe emotions and sensations by the messenger and by Clytemnestra.

Seminar 6: Red Carpet Treatment

Read Agamemnon 855-957 in Greek. How does Aeschylus characterize the relationship between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon through their language? What kind of political constitution is Argos and how does it compare with the political situations in the other two plays of the trilogy? Are they talking to each other or trying to impress the chorus? How does the spectacle and stage action affect the meaning of the encounter? Why is Clytemnestra so anxious to make Agamemnon walk on the carpet? How is the polarity between Greek and barbarbian instrumental? Where else in the trilogy do the theme of weaving and actual textiles perform important functions?

Seminar 7: The Language of Cassandra

Read 1055-1135 in Greek. How does Aeschylus build up the tenxion through Cassandra’s prolonged silence? What impact would her first words have made? How would this scene have been performed musically and bodily? What picture of events going on backstage does Cassandra offer? What range of vocabulary is used for madness, delusion, divine possession, interpretation and understanding—psychology and epistemology? How does it compare with the portrayal of Orestes’ psychosis later in the trilogy? What does the animal imagery add to the poetic and psychological effect?

Seminar 8: Apollo and Prophecy

Read Agamemnon 1214-1330 in Greek. What picture of Cassandra’s relationship with Apollo emerges? Compare it with what we learn about the Delphic oracle in the rest of the trilogy. How does Aeschylus’ script help an actor play a character in a prophetic frenzy? How is the audience to understand what the chorus are making of Cassandra? How much does her special mental status allow her to fill out the ‘back story’ of the family of the Atreidai?

Seminar 9: Murder Most Foul

Read Agamemnon 1331-1425 in Greek. How far can we reconstruct what the audience at the original production of the tragedy could see, and how did the spectacle affect their responses? What functions do blood and other liquids perform in the poetry? How does the persistent comparison with animal sacrifice ritual operate, and how does this link with the rituals and ritual imagery elsewhere in the trilogy? Why does Aeschylus make Clytemnestra perform her own messenger speech? How does this scene compare with the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in Choephori? Why don’t the chorus arrest Clytemnestra?

Seeminar 10: Clytemnestra versus Argos

Read Agamemnon 1425-1576 in Greek. How does Aeschylus build up the tension in the ‘face-off’ between Clytemnestra and the chorus? How persuasively does she defend herself? What functions do Helen, Iphigenia and the issue of gender perform in the adversarial debate? Why don’t the chorus arrest Clytemnestra? How does Clytemnestra understand the history of the household, the curse upon it, and her own role as punitive agent? How has the legal language in this confrontation been foreshadowed earlier in the play and how does it connect with the trial scene in Eumenides?

Seminar 11

1577-1673: Stasis and Coup d’Etat
How far, if at all, has the audience been prepared for the appearance of Aegisthus? Do we believe his claim to have been directly involved in the murder? How does his description of the Thyestean feast link back to passages involving children or paedogonic and anthropophagic imagery earlier in the play? How does Aeschylus use language and visual stagecraft, especially violence, to characterize his relationship with the Argives as citizens? How does change of metre affect the atmosphere? How does Aeschylus create an atmosphere of numinous foreboding? Could this play have been performed alone, separately from the rest of the trilogy?

Seminar 12

Opportunity for any student who has not yet given a prepared-topic presentation to do so. Opportunity to re-read any particularly problematic bits of the Greek text. Discussion of how the Agamemnon sets up the themes for the whole trilogy.

Week 7 of the block is reserved for self-study and revision.

Assessment method

When taken for 5 ects:

  • Active participation, class preparation 10%

  • Abstract, oral presentation.; evaluated both on presentation and command of the primary sources. 40%

  • Oral exam at the end of the course. 50%
    When taken for 10 ects:

  • Active participation, class preparation 10%

  • Abstract, oral presentation.; evaluated both on presentation and command of the primary sources. 20%

  • Oral exam at the end of the course. 30%

  • Written research paper on topic of the student’s choice, related to the theme of the seminar, in consultation with instructor: 50%

The requirements for MA and RMA students are differentiated:RMA students are expected to come up with their own original research topic, find literature, and write a scholarly report; MA students may expect more help in choosing their topic and their papers may consist of an assessment of the status quaestionis on a given question.


Blackboard will not be used.

Reading list

Primary Text:

Alan H. Sommerstein (ed.) and transl.), Aeschylus, Volume II, Oresteia: Agamemnon. Libation-Bearers. Eumenides (Cambridge, Mass./London: Loeb Classical Library, volume 146, 2009).


J. D. Denniston and D. Page, Aeschylus, Agamemnon (Oxford, 1957).
D. Raeburn and O. Thomas, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: a Commentary for Students (Oxford, 2011).

Secondary Bibliography (General):

  • Goldhill, Simon, Aeschylus: The Oresteia (2nd edition, Landmarks of World Literature, Cambridge, 2010).

  • Edith Hall, Greek Tragedy: Suffering under the Sun (Oxford, 2010), especially ch. 5.

  • T. Gantz ‘Inherited guilt in Aeschylus’ Classical Journal 78 (1982) 1-23.

  • John Herington, Aeschylus (New Haven, CT, 1986).

  • A.Lebeck, The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Culture (Washington, DC, 1971).

  • Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Art of Aeschylus (Berkeley, CA, 1982).

  • Oliver Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford, 1977).

  • R.P. Winnington-Ingram, Studies in Aeschylus (Cambridge, 1983).

Secondary Bibliography (Specific to Individual Seminars):

  • F. Budelmann and P. Easterling ‘Reading minds in Greek tragedy’, Greece & Rome, 57 (2010) 289-303.

  • G. Ferrari, ‘Figures in the Text: Metaphors and Riddles in the Agamemnon’, CP 92 (1997) 1-45.

  • John Heath, ‘The Omen of the Eagles and Hare (Agamemnon 104-59): From Aulis to Argos and Back Again’, Classical Quarterly, 51 (2001) 18-22.

  • Lavery, John (2004) ‘Clytemnestra’s negatives and the final line of Agamemnon’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 47 (2004) 57-77.

  • Sarah Mace ‘Why the "Oresteia"'s Sleeping Dead Won't Lie. Part I: Agamemnon’, The Classical Journal 98, (2002) 35-56.

  • Fiona Macintosh, Pantelis Michelakis, Edith Hall, Oliver Taplin (eds.) Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004 (Oxrord, 2005).

  • L. McNeil, 'Bridal cloths, cover-ups, and kharis: the "carpet scene" in Aeschylus' Agamemnon', G&R 52 (2005) 1-16.

  • R. Mitchell-Boyask (2006), 'The marriage of Cassandra and the Oresteia: text, image, performance', TAPA 136, 269-97.

  • Seth Schein, ‘The Cassandra Scene in Aeschylus' Agamemnon,’ G&R 29 (1982) 11-16.

  • Seaford, R. (1984) 'The last bath of Agamemnon', CQ 34, 247-54.

  • Smith, Peter M. On the Hymn to Zeus in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Scholars Press, 1980.

  • D. Steiner, ‘The measures of praise: the epinician celebration of Agamemnon’s return’, Hermes 138 (2010) 22-37.

  • S.V. Tracy, ‘Darkness from Light: The Beacon Fire in the Agamemnon.’ CQ 36 (1986) 257-60.

  • W. Blake Tyrrell, ‘Zeus and Agamemnon at Aulis.’ CJ 71 (1976) 328-334 .

  • W. Whallon, ‘Why is Artemis Angry?" AJP 82 (1961) 78-88..

  • R.P. Winnington-Ingram ‘Clytemnestra and the vote of Athena’ JHS 68 (1948) 130-47, reprinted in E. Segal (ed.) Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy (Oxford 1983) 84-103.

  • F.I. Zeitlin, ‘The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth & Mythmaking in the Oresteia’, Arethusa 11 (1978) 149-184.

  • F. I. Zeitlin, “The Motif of the Corrupted. Sacrifice in Aeschylus' Oresteia,” TAPA 96 (1965) 463–508.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in [English]) and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Professor Edith Hall

or Professor Ineke Sluiter


It is recommended in preparation for this course that students watch the British National Theatre performance of Agamemnon, directed by Peter Hall and translated by Tony Harrison, on youtube