Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 1.

Barbara Goward, Aeschylus: Agamemnon. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy . London: Duckworth, 2005. Pp.160. ISBN 0-7156-3385-6. UK£11.99.

Helen Van Noorden
Clare College, Cambridge

As one of the ‘accessible introductions’ in the series of Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy, Barbara Goward’s presentation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon combines basic orientation to the play with stimulating accounts of its dramatic effects. At 160 pages, this volume is one of the shorter contributions to the series,[[1]] and its wide-ranging discussion sometimes becomes allusive. Overall, however, Goward’s analyses, like those of Simon Goldhill’s earlier introduction to the whole Oresteia,[[2]] effectively convey why Aeschylus’ daunting play is so often selected for undergraduate study.

Over six chapters, Goward introduces cultural and literary contexts, issues of staging, thematic and linguistic concerns, and the reception of the Agamemnon. Since each chapter ranges over the whole play, the analysis involves a certain amount of repetition. On the whole, this is not a problem (indeed, in allowing an impression of the play to build up slowly, such amplification matches Goward’s emphasis on the process of revelation within the Agamemnon). Goward has made the odd choice, however, to present the main summary of the play’s action as an appendix (pp. 138-43),[[3]] with the result that one finds early references to characters whose role in the play is not yet explained -- for example, Cassandra (pp. 20, 23) and Aegisthus (pp. 7, 10, 35 -- his connection with Clytemnestra is not recorded until p. 44).

Chapter 1, ‘Orientation: Aeschylus, Athens and Dramatic Poetry’ (pp. 9-23), and Chapter 2, ‘Theatrical Space’ (pp. 24-42), swiftly sketch the cultural and physical contexts of production, with very few endnotes; they contain important reminders of limitations we face in attempts to reconstruct a contemporary experience of tragic performance (pp. 16, 28, 30). The presentation of the Greek theatre is more basic than in other Duckworth companions, but Goward justifies her focus on the use of space, describing Aeschylus’ Agamemnon as ‘the first play to create such a powerful contrast between inside and outside’ (p. 26). There follows an enjoyable tour of the play’s action from this perspective, emphasizing the visual power of the chariot entry, lure murder, silence, offstage cries and tableaux of corpses. Goward’s command of the whole corpus of tragedy is well deployed in noting how these features were developed by Sophocles and Euripides (pp. 39-40). The emphasis on Aeschylus as innovator is equally strong in Chapter 3, ‘The Story: Myth and Narrative Technique’ (pp. 43-68). After describing treatments of the story in Homer and the epic cycle, Goward focuses on the Aeschylean presentation, organising her discussion under the headings of suspense, time, the problem of causality and the ‘narrative voices’ of the chorus and Clytemnestra. These sections, based on Goward’s earlier work,[[4]] are particularly stimulating to read; they make use of Goward’s assumption that her target audience will have already encountered Euripidean drama.

It is really only in Chapter 4, however, that Goward’s analysis offers a sample of different kinds of criticism on the Agamemnon. Her 21-page discussion (pp. 69- 90), entitled ‘Gods and Humans’, runs through a range of scholarly approaches to Zeus, Justice and the delineation of human character in tragedy (pp. 73-83, 90). In addition, Goward sets Aeschylus’ play in the context of earlier religious exploration by Hesiod, and interesting observations on the conceptual pairing of female characters in Aeschylus lead into a wider discussion of gender. The scope is impressive, although, as in the previous chapters, the style sometimes veers sharply between basic or detailed explanation and swifter, rather cryptic notes.[[5]]

In Chapter 5, ‘Language, Speech and Silence, Style, Imagery’ (pp. 91-108), Goward focuses on Aeschylus’ fusion of choral and civic language and the different powers of silence and persuasion, then highlights compound adjectives and (as samples) images of trampling and the net. In making use of non-Classical literary theory to characterise Aeschylean language and imagery, Goward’s discussion again conveys the sense that larger worlds of ideas are accessible through close study of the play’s texture. The analysis is increasingly compressed, however, and overall does not seem to add much to previous chapters; on the language front, Goldhill’s introduction is more satisfying.

Most of the final chapter, ‘The Reception of Agamemnon’ (pp. 109-30), focuses on Seneca’s Agamemnon and on Hamlet. Unlike some of the Duckworth companions in this series, this conclusion does not discuss critical readings as ‘receptions’ alongside dramatic adaptations. Although there is much of interest in Goward’s analyses of Seneca and Shakespeare, prior discussion of the Libation-Bearers and Eumenides would have been helpful and more to the point than a summary of Roman theatrical culture (pp. 113f.) let alone that of the Elizabethan period (pp. 124f.). Further, Goward’s evidently mixed reaction to Seneca’s play in its own right (summary and discussion cover nine pages) distracts attention from the important question with which she begins, of what we can distinguish of [Aeschylus’] Agamemnon in its reception (p. 111). In the following discussion of English Renaissance revenge drama, Aeschylus re-emerges only two pages from the end.

Endnotes and a useful list of the extant and attested plays of Aeschylus precede the appended 'Outline of Agamemnon'. Bibliography, chronology, glossary, and index end the volume. The bibliography is remarkably short, even when compared to the other contributions in this series, and the absence of any ‘guide to further reading’ marks an opportunity missed. It is a pity, too, that the ‘chronology’, derived from the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama database, is restricted to productions of the Agamemnon and has only five entries under ‘BC’; given that the volumes in this series are billed as ‘addressing the play’s historical context’, the ancient Agamemnons, at least, would have been better presented within a list of contemporary literary and political events. Throughout the main text, however, cross-references to later tragedies elegantly indicate the extent of Aeschylus’ dramatic influence in antiquity.

Readers just starting to engage with the difficulty of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon will find this book comforting and helpful. The clarity and insight with which Goward discusses Aeschylus’ use of the chorus, in particular, merits a place on the reading list, but overall, this volume needs to be supplemented by other introductions to cover basic essay points. The level of analysis is rather uneven and the discussions are not as clearly organised as those in Goldhill’s guide to the whole Oresteia; the exposition is marred, too, by some odd or misleading phrases.[[6]] Undoubtedly, however, both students and teachers will find much of value in Goward’s presentation of this play as the most innovative of dramas.


[[1]] Contrast Jon Hesk, Sophocles: Ajax (London 2004) and David Rosenbloom, Aeschylus: Persians (London 2006), both over 200 pages.

[[2]] Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia (Cambridge 1992, reissued 2004).

[[3]] Most volumes in this series give a plan of the play early on; indeed, Goward indicates that this is needed on pp. 22f., introducing the structure of tragedy (wrongly headed ‘Structure of Agamemnon’). At least one phrase, however, may mislead those who check the Outline at this point, since it states (p. 138) simply that when the chorus in their first ode query Clytemnestra's level of knowledge, 'she is silent'; the existence of a scholarly debate about her presence emerges, however, on pp. 29f., and on p. 60, Goward describes her as offstage in the first choral ode.

[[4]] Cf. Barbara Goward, Telling Tragedy: Narrative Technique in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (London 1999).

[[5]] For example, there are full discussions of ‘suspense’ and the distinction between ‘drama’ and narrative, but Goward does not explain what she means by ‘epic length’ or ‘dialectical’ and defines ‘metonymy’ only in an endnote. Again, Goward carefully introduces the epic cycle and polytheism, but then alludes fleetingly to Orphism, to the female role in the Eumenides, and (in the final chapter) to much intertextual terminology, to Livius Andronicus and Accius, and to the mss. tradition.

[[6]] For example, ‘both chorus and Clytemnestra come to agree that the daimôn . . . was active in the murder’ (p. 41); ‘if Aeschylus had followed the . . . technique of Euripides’ [then, comparing Hippolytus,] but ‘Aeschylus’ narrative strategy works in exactly the opposite way’. Cassandra (I think) is described as Aeschylus’ ‘heroine’ (p. 49); one might quibble too with the idea that ‘Aeschylus ‘avoids dead metaphors unless he can startle us by reinventing them’ (p. 104) -- can we tell which images were originally ‘dead metaphors’ for Aeschylus?