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The Cassandra Scene in Aeschylus' Agamemnon

  • Seth L. Schein
Extract

The Cassandra scene in Aeschylus' Agamemnon occupies over 250 lines, yet scholars and critics, preoccupied with such large issues as the changing conception of justice in the Oresteia and the male/female and Chthonic/Olympian conflicts, have tended to give it relatively little attention. In a sense this is understandable: the scene in no way Advances the action of the drama, and critics who have learned from Aristotle that the ‘plot’ is the ‘soul’ of a tragedy might well feel that it is unnecessary to bother about a scene which could be omitted with no effect on the movement of the story. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that Aeschylus would have inserted so long and unexpected a scene in his play, just at the point when the audience would expect Agamemnon to be murdered, if it did not have an important dramatic purpose. Furthermore, in actual performance, Cassandra frequently rivets our attention more than any other character; on stage her scene can be the most gripping and affecting part of the play. In this essay I shall try to account for the powerful effect that the Cassandra scene has on the audience; then I shall discuss its place and function in the Agamemnon and the trilogy as a whole.

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Notes

1. The best discussion of the scene is by Knox, Bernard, Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (Baltimore and London, 1979), pp. 4255. See too the briefer remarks of Lebeck, Anne, The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure (Washington, D.C., 1971), pp. 52–8.

2. This was true for me at two productions of Agamemnon: that of the National Theatre of Greece in the ancient theatre at Epidaurus in 1965 and that directed by Andrei Serban in New York in 1977. For a different reaction to the Cassandra scene in the latter production, see Knox, , op. cit., pp. 75–6.

3. Cf. Knox, , op. cit., p. 46: ‘The language and figure of the prophet are the same from age to age and nation to nation. The clarity of his vision and the burden of his knowledge are too great a load for human senses, and the disbelief and mockery of his hearers tip the balance so that what might have been merely a strange urgency comes close to madness; the apocalyptic vision is expressed in magnificent but unconnected images which to the workaday mind of the hearer seem only to confirm the suspicion that the prophet is deranged.’

4. Taplin, Oliver, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford, 1977), p. 316. In this and the next paragraph I follow closely pp. 316–22 of Taplin's instructive book.

5. Most recently Taplin, , op. cit., pp. 321–2, building on Reinhardt, Karl, Aischylos als Regisseur und Theologe (Bern, 1949), pp. 90105, esp. pp. 102–4.

6. Kleine Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie, I (Roma, 1964), p. 345; cf. pp. 381–2. On the Cassandra scene generally, see pp. 344–8, 375–87.

7. Cf. Lebeck, , op. cit., p. 3.

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Greece & Rome
  • ISSN: 0017-3835
  • EISSN: 1477-4550
  • URL: /core/journals/greece-and-rome
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