20 February, 2020 • • 42.6ClassicsTranslations

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Agamemnon 931–43: Purple Soles


Aeschylus’ Agamemnon tells the story of the Greek commander’s homecoming after his victory at Troy. In this passage (see Greek), perhaps the climax of the play, the king stands upon his chariot with the captured Trojan princess, Cassandra. His wife, Clytemnestra, invites him to enter the palace by walking across priceless purple cloths. Such outrageous waste compounds the guilt of Agamemnon: child-killer, city-sacker, treasure-treader. Agamemnon resists, then yields. The cloths ensure his feet never touch home soil: once inside, he will be murdered by his wife. Their exchange takes the form of stichomythia: husband and wife speak alternate lines, knocking each other’s words and arguments back and forth. This verbal sparring is performed before the watching chorus as well as the audience proper. Maud’s response takes this public performance and inverts it into a confession: Clytemnestra’s opening request for the king’s honest thoughts is reversed onto the queen herself, and the poem directs us to watch the images of her words. Picking up Pat Easterling’s famous call to believe in Aeschylus’s characters ‘in a deep and serious way’, Xavier treats his translation as a form of extrapolation, fleshing out the implicit psychology of the scene, sounding its silences. The dynamics of the original, compressed and obscure, are made to bear the expectations of a more naturalistic stage, and Clymnestra’s nihilism is unveiled, with which she exploits Agamemnon’s guilty conscience and vanity. Conversely, this disjointedness is acknowledged but consciously maintained in Leah and Nicolette’s joint venture. By each selecting one character’s lines to translate in isolation, the individual psychologies of the characters are detailed, but even more so the tragic alienation between the two. This unnatural, crafted quality returns us to thoughts of dehumanisation and of performance. On a dramatic level, the scene functions as a staging in miniature of unseen acts: Agamemnon’s walk on the purple echoes his unseen sacrifice of Iphigenia, and Clytemnestra’s deception forebodes her murder of Agamemnon. This sense of omen and of fate is captured in the ornate decoration of Imogen’s blood clot purple rug, which centres on the ominous dual-bladed axe, inspired by Collier’s Clytemnestra.

– Xavier Buxton and Oscar Harrington-Shaw


– Imogen Whiteley


Questions to Fall in Love

CLY: Can we tell each other the truth now, Agamemnon?

AG: In case you were wondering, I didn’t plan on losing it.

CLY: What’s going through your mind right now?

AG: The doctor… I’m not sure I filled my prescription.

CLY: Right then. What do you dream about?

AG: (hesitantly) Sometimes in my sleep, I feel something soft underneath my feet.

CLY: I think I know what you mean. Does it make you wonder if gods…

AG: Pardon?

CLY: If Priam were like you, what would he do?

AG: Seems like the type to burn a Bible.

CLY: (smirking) In that case, who needs an oracle?

AG: Here we are again.

CLY:Since you won’t stop hating yourself for being human.

AG: People talk. The vox populi is not nothing.

CLY: Would it help you to remember you’re nothing without me?

AG: There’s a reason the verb desire takes a genitive.

CLY: We don’t admire a person who isn’t bigger than himself. 

AG: Exactly. Nor should a woman try to stretch language too far.

CLY: From a certain elevation, being conquered is no different than conquering. Two sides of the same coin. And what’s a household other than a shared vase for spare change. Economics, another big concept. Have you ever heard of double det—

AG: Is winning really what you’re after?

CLY: You still don’t get it. Sure— “winning”, if that’s what you want to call it, this “fight”, matters to “me”, if that’s what you want to call us.

AG: Everything I do is my own choice.

CLY: Exactly. Get down, and for once admit you want to.

– Leah Alpern & Nicolette D’Angelo


And Now Tell Me What You’re Thinking

My man comes in late he is
wiping his hands on his thighs.

He has come a long way, who knows
the hard things, the hard things in his life

that keep him up, the night tight
around the hairline pressing the flesh taut

like a rabbit pulled between hands, see here your heart
here your liver, here your stomach pacing on the skin.

Watch a man get into his bath, watch how afraid
he is of the hot water, watch his skin turn red

pathetic really, look at him, his fear of laughter
he will leave his wife with nothing sons with nothing

all inside, all neat packed openable
turn him inside out, lined purple like a good coat.

What has my life taught me?
That this is no world for the weak.

Once I saw a hedgehog baked in clay
to pull the spines off a body pink soft smelling

a white neck bent back and what was it what was this animal
unarmoured, like a body on a battlefield.

It is like that. Exactly like that.

– Maud Mullan


It Doesn’t Feel Right

Agamemnon stands with the enslaved Trojan princess, Cassandra, in a pony-trap at one end of the stage. At the other, Clytemnestra fills the doorway of the palace. Between them stretch twenty yards of embroidered purple cloth. Clytemnestra is mobile, Agamemnon is not.

AG: I can’t.

CLY: You can’t.

AG: It doesn’t feel right.

CLY: It doesn’t feel right. You can’t do it because it doesn’t feel right?

AG: Yes – I mean no, it doesn’t feel right. Why do you keep repeating everything I say?

CLY: It doesn’t feel right. Tell me about this feeling.

AG: It’s not a feeling, it’s the truth. It’s not right.

CLY: Right and wrong aren’t true and false. They’re not verifiable concepts. They’re value judgements.

AG: Fine, it’s my ‘judgement’! It’s what I think. And I’ll tell you something which is “verifiable”, as you put it: I will never step on these carpets – not for you, not for anyone.

CLY: Never?

AG: Never. Nothing could make me.

CLY: What if I held a knife to our girl’s throat? What if she begged you to save her?

AG: Don’t do this.

CLY: Tell me, did that “feel right”?

AG: No. But that wasn’t me, it was necessary – I was shouldering the burden of history. In a funny way, I think I was history, or a part of it –

CLY: What? What are you talking about?

AG: It wasn’t me. Calchas, he told me – that wasn’t who I am. And now I’m back, I’m here, I’m Agamemnon, I’m your husband –

CLY: What if you were someone else?

AG: I love you. I’m sorry, I –

CLY: (Impatiently) What if you were someone else, now? Like you were, then, when you murdered our child.

AG: What? Who could I be?

CLY: Anyone. Your best friend. (She draws closer.)

AG: I haven’t got any friends.

CLY: Your worst enemy.

AG: Priam? He’s dead.

CLY: Priam! Yes. Let’s play. (Walking back to the other end of the carpet). I’ll be Hecuba, that old hag, pumped full of botox, caked in make-up, pregnant with our fifty-first son, simpering on a golden throne. And you, over there, you’re Priam, fat and vain, sweating in his new silks, ankles oozing over the top of his embroidered slippers, tottering through a fug of bad perfume.

AG: (Sonorously) “Trojans, we are gathered here today –“

CLY: “… to celebrate our triumph over the Greeks. Priam, I have laid the riches of our house before you. My life, my love, come to me, come to me.”

AG: “My buttercup.”

CLY: “My prize stallion.”

AG: “My little bird.”

CLY: “My King of Kings. Come to me.”

AG: I bet he would, you know, the vulgar bastard. I can picture it, that fat, phony face, all his shining children gathered round. La famiglia. Fuck him.

CLY: Exactly. That fucker, that nobody, he never cared what people thought. He wasn’t scared. Now you’ve smashed him, smashed his family, ground him underfoot. You’re a king. You’re my king. You can do whatever you want.

AG: But it matters, what people say –

CLY: You’ve forgotten how the city works: all publicity is good publicity. Come to me.

AG: Why do you care so much? It’s not like you.

CLY: You’ve forgotten me, too. (With a smile.) I’ll have to re-educate you.

AG: No, but seriously, what is this? What is it to you?

CLY: “What is it to you?” What is it to me? I think that army leather has rubbed off on you. You used to sing to me after dinner. But now you’ve changed – you’ve got old.

AG: Changed? Of course I’ve changed. But I’m still a man of song – a man who men will sing about for centuries to come. I’m a conqueror. I’m the King of Kings.

CLY: And what do they sing? That Agamemnon murdered his daughter, abandoned the rest of his family, all in pursuit of another man’s wife. I hear them, you know, I hear what they’re saying – that Menelaus had you wrapped round his little finger. Menelaus, who couldn’t even keep a woman in his house, persuaded you (his older brother!) to give up everything and spend ten years in a shithole country getting my ditsy sister back. King of Kings my arse – more like a village cop, sent to fetch a cat out of a tree. Ten years? What a joke. Bickering over a slave girl, sulking in tents, oh I heard all about that. And don’t get me started on her (gesturing at Cassandra).

Menelaus, though, he’s played a blinder. And my sister, credit where credit’s due. Ten thousand ships. Nobody will forget that. What a story. But you and me? We’re a sideshow, accessories – a housewife and a diplomat. Don’t you see? This is it. This is what Argives will remember: Agamemnon, home after ten years of national service, welcomed by his faithful wife. No one else gets this – not Priam, not Menelaus, not Odysseus, not Hector, not Achilles– no one but you. This is our one big moment. They’re already minting the souvenir coins.

Do you not see how humiliating this is? For his sister, Menelaus launches a world war, but for me, you won’t even step on some fucking carpets? You’re a barbarian – a brute. I’m standing in front of you, my husband, gone for ten years, asking you to get off your wagon –  with that thing – and walk into our home. I’ve been planning this for years, I’ve put everything out here for you, and you won’t do it because it doesn’t feel right?

AG: Alright, alright! I’m doing it.

– Xavier Buxton


Leah Alpern is reading for an MSt in Classics at Wadham College, Xavier Buxton for a DPhil in Classics at Balliol College, Nicolette D’Angelo for an MPhil in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oscar Harrington-Shaw for an MSt in Classics at Magdalen College, Maud Mullan for a BA in Classics at Brasenose College, and Imogen Whiteley for an MSt in Greek and Roman History at Wadham College.