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Master of the Hearth: Aegisthus’ Entrance in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

Ryan Masato Baldwin

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Since Oliver Taplin’s seminal work on performance was published in 1978, most scholars have assumed that Aegisthus, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, enters from the side of the stage, rather than from inside the palace doors. Taplin argues that Aegisthus’ entrance foreshadows Orestes’ own return from exile, and points to the word θυραῖος (1608) as proof that Aegisthus was “away from home” at the moment of Agamemnon’s murder (Taplin 1978). This staging is supported by commentators (e.g. Raeburn and Thomas 2011), translators (Meineck 1998, Sommerstein 2014), and directors (Peter Hall, 1983); all agree that Aegisthus enters the stage from outside rather than from inside the palace.

My paper, however, will argue that an entrance from inside the blood-stained palace should be the preferred reading. Here I follow Fagles (1984) and Ruden (2016), who also prefer to see Aegisthus enter from within the palace, but who do not explain their decision. While Fagles and Ruden seem more interested in dramatic and poetic effect than authenticity, their choice leads me to pose three important questions: is an entrance from the palace possible? What can be gained by considering Aegisthus’ entrance in this light? And can it help our understanding of the play?

In order to answer these questions, I will begin with a close reading of Aegisthus’ speech and subsequent lines (1577-1627). By analyzing words such as φέγγος (1577), θυραῖος (1608), and οἰκουρός (1626), I will show that the Greek allows for the possibility of Aegisthus entering from the palace. Second, I will analyze themes that appear throughout the Oresteia, particularly the theme of the hearth (ἑστία) in the first two plays. Through these steps, I hope to show not only that an entrance from the side is unlikely, but that a palace entrance creates a more powerful scene because it illustrates to the audience that Aegisthus is now occupying the palace hearth, “the most sacred place in the house...a place to be guarded from all ‘uncleanness’” (Gould 1973).

When Aegisthus comes out of the house to address the chorus, he compares the conflict between Atreus and Thyestes with that of their offspring, Agamemnon and Aegisthus. But Aegisthus’ speech reflects a telling role reversal: while Thyestes was banished and his children were murdered, in this play, the child (Orestes) was banished and the father (Agamemnon) has been murdered. This parallel is most effective dramatically if it is drawn directly after Aegisthus exits where the murder has just taken place. By appearing from “just inside the palace doors” (another possible translation of θυραῖος, 1608), Aegisthus, like Atreus, is presented, at least temporarily, as the one who masters the hearth and succeeds in his plot; this staging demonstrates Aegisthus’ essential role at this crucial moment. Although labelled a coward, Aegisthus’ presence at the hearth and his entrance from inside the palace make him a much more serious threat, one that must eventually be dealt with in Choephoroi.

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Greek Tragedy (1)

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