BMCR 2006.02.48

Aeschylus: Agamemnon

, Aeschylus - Agamemnon. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2005. 158 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715633856. £11.99.

Barbara Goward’s (G.’s) Aeschylus: Agamemnon forms part of the growing Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy series. The aim of this series is to provide ‘accessible introductions to ancient tragedies’.1 As such the book is mostly successful in its aims. The text is very lucid and contains much that is of use to readers approaching this play for the first time. Although selective in her choice of material (as must be expected in a volume of this size), G. provides a good basic outline of some important topics associated with the play, the trilogy and its context. However, I have some reservations about the value of this book, following as it does in the wake of Simon Goldhill’s excellent guide to the trilogy as a whole.2

G.’s book is divided into 6 chapters: 1. Orientation: Aeschylus, Athens and Dramatic Poetry; 2. Theatrical Space; 3. The Story: Myth and Narrative Technique; 4. Gods and Humans; 5. Language, Speech and Silence, Style, Imagery; and 6. The Reception of Agamemnon. There are also some general notes at the end of the book, including an outline of the Agamemnon, a basic chronology and a glossary of terms.

Of these chapters the first, which gives only the most brief and basic outline of the context of the play, is the least useful. The text is particularly assertive and descriptive in this chapter, and G. does not tend to discuss in any depth problems in interpretation or differences of opinion among scholars. Although this assertive style is typical in ‘companions’ of this nature, a more balanced and critical approach would perhaps be preferable in a book aimed at a student audience.

The central chapters of the book contain much that a novice approaching this play for the first time needs to consider. G. is particularly good when raising themes which were explored in her 1999 monograph.3 Particularly stimulating are her discussion of ‘lure murders’ (pp. 33-6) and ‘gender-horror’ (p. 90) and her account of the way in which Aeschylus disrupts the natural sequence of events in time in order to invoke suspense (p. 51-2). G.’s strong emphasis on the performance aspect of the play, which is set out in Chapter 2, is commendable, although this aspect is perhaps overemphasised in Chapter 3’s discussion of the myth’s progression from Homer to Aeschylus (cf. p. 47). Although staging considerations would clearly have influenced Aeschylus’ presentation of the myth, other notions such as the difference between heroic epic and tragedy or the difference in social context at the time of composition are equally, if not more, important.

Chapter 5 refers fleetingly to many issues of style, imagery and language, with a particularly good section on Aeschylus’ use of silence and of persuasion (pp. 93-9). However, to devote such a significant and detailed section of this chapter to Aeschylus’ use of Greek (pp. 97-103) seems a little out of place in a book aimed at readers with no knowledge of Greek. This kind of material would perhaps be better presented in a commentary on the play. Further, while it is fair to transliterate occasional Greek words in books aimed at the student / non-specialist audience, here even whole quotations are transliterated to little obvious purpose (e.g. p. 78). Cutting down on these elements might perhaps have allowed some room to discuss in greater depth key imagery such as the theme of light and darkness, which is mentioned (p. 104), but is not explored, apparently because of lack of space.

Arguably, the final chapter on reception contains the most fresh and interesting material. It certainly refers to the most recent piece of bibliography cited in the volume, 2005’s Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004.4 Nevertheless, the contents of this volume are not discussed in any detail as a deliberate policy (pp.110-11), and much attention is given to Seneca’s Agamemnon instead (pp. 114-23).

Although G.’s book contains some valuable material for novices, a key question arises about the necessity of this volume. First, the decision to award a separate volume to the first play of the trilogy on its own is somewhat questionable. On the positive side, the play gets more room, (although this companion still seems to run out of space in places, as noted above regarding key imagery). On the other hand, the notion of discussing the Agamemnon on its own without the Libation-Bearers and the Eumenides is a questionable exercise. Indeed, in almost every chapter of this volume, the material discussed is of as much relevance to the trilogy as a whole as to the individual play.5 Second, G. does not take any significant departure from Goldhill’s views. Indeed he is much cited throughout the volume.

So on the positive side, this book is for the most part very lucid and accessible, containing many thought-provoking and useful sections. The book is also very nicely produced and I noted only very few typographical errors. On the negative side, it is not entirely clear that this volume has advanced significantly on Goldhill’s recently reissued guide to the Oresteia. It would also have been preferable to see more overt discussion of the differences in scholarly opinion surrounding this play.


1. Quotation taken from the back cover.

2. Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia. Landmarks of World Literature Series (CUP, 1992; 2nd edition, 2004). BMCR 04.03.06.

3. Barbara Goward, Telling Tragedy: Narrative Technique in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (Duckworth, 1999).

4. Fiona Macintosh, (ed.) Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004 (OUP, 2005). Unfortunately, this book is cited in the bibliography as Agamemnon Staged: Proceedings of the Agamemnon Conference 2001 (also as AS).

5. Interestingly, Goldhill elects to refer to the Oresteia trilogy as ‘the play’ in his book, a choice which is indicative of his sensible approach to the trilogy as a unity.