Agamemnon (lines 1348-1372)
Agamemnon: Help, help! I am wounded, murdered, here in the inner room!
Chorus: Hush, listen! Who cried ‘Murder’? Do you know that voice?
Agamemnon: Help, help again! Murder – a second, mortal blow!
Chorus 1. That groan tells me the deed is done. It was the king.
Come, let’s decide together on the safest plan.
2. This is what I advise – to send a herald round
Bidding the citizens assemble here in arms.
3. Too slow. I say we should burst in at once, and catch
Murder in the act, before the blood dries on the sword.
4. I share your feeling – that is what we ought to do,
Or something of that kind. Now is the time to act.
5. It’s plain what this beginning points to: the assassins
Mean to establish a tyrannical regime.
6. Yes – while we talk and talk; but action, spurning sleep,
Tramples the gentle face of caution in the dust.
7. I can suggest no plan that might prove practical.
I say, let those who took this step propose the next.
8. I am of the same opinion. If the king is dead,
I know no way to make him live by argument.
9. Then shall we patiently drag out our servile years
Governed by these disgraces of our royal house?
10. No, no! Intolerable! Who would not rather die?
A milder fate than living under tyranny!
11. Wait; not too fast. What is our evidence? Those groans?
Are we to prophecy from them that the king’s dead?
12. We must be certain; this excitement’s premature.
Guessing and certain knowledge are two different things.
Chorus: I find this view supported on all sides: that we
Make full enquiry what has happened to the king.
[translated from the Greek by Philip Vellacott]
It’s perfect, isn’t it?
Here it is, the moment “when Agamemnon cried aloud”. The rightful ruler of the Argives, returned triumphant from Troy, is treacherously assassinated by his wife and her lover. As his death cries echo, Aeschylus traces, in 28 unforgettable lines, the way the initial outrage of the citizenry, their call for rebellion, is tempered and compromised until it becomes little more than meek acquiescence. This failure of the Chorus to act will leave the land in the grip of a tyranny from which only the return of Orestes, in the second play of the trilogy, will rescue it. This is how freedom is lost.
What I love about these lines is partly the sheer theatricality of the scene (the way Aeschylus, by splitting up the Chorus, creates a sense of panic and confusion, bringing this hurried and ultimately ineffective council to life); partly the Beckett like dialogue (“Now is the time to act” says one citizen, another, in words that will shortly seem prophetic says “action, spurning sleep, / tramples the gentle face of caution in the dust” – yet they all do nothing); but mostly the incredible accuracy of Aeschylus’ portrayal, his insight into human nature, which ensures that some 2,500 years after these lines were written, they seem just as relevant, just as real.