After hearing the Herald's lamentable news about Menelaus, the Chorus launches into execrations of the adulterous Helen. Next, the Chorus considers the decimation of Troy, saying, basically, that it got what it deserved. For the Trojans had too loudly celebrated the fatal and transgressive marriage. A remarkable parable in which a lion, having been affectionately reared by humans as cub, later reverts to instinct and tears its hosts apart. This is then equated with Helen's sojourn in Troy.
The Chorus finds a new topic in aging pride, and its main folly, daring. A warning against this kind of "dark action" is issued. Finally, the Chorus speaks of righteousness, the inevitable virtue--the one that ultimately wins out--because it is divine. Just as the Chorus reaches this, its characteristic conclusion, Agamemnon enters in chariot. Beside him sits Cassandra, Priam's (King of Troy) daughter.
The Chorus seeks to honor and welcome their long-estranged king. But in the middle of this greeting, the Chorus adds some words about an original displeasure. Though Agamemnon won, the Chorus reminds him that it was not without great cost to everyone, including his citizens. Agamemnon brushes the Chorus aside in order to give thanks to the gods. They are the ones responsible for his victory. Agamemnon orders an assembly so that he may assess the state of Argos. He intends to "burn, or amputate, with kind intention" any degenerate parts of the kingdom.
Clytaemestra enters and at first addresses herself to the assembly. However, her subject is appropriately the return of her beloved husband. The queen's talent for narration resurfaces in this passage, as she delivers a stirring oration. She goes into detail about her suffering in his absence--worrying, waiting, hoping that Agamemnon would survive. Orestes, their son, had to be sent away because of rumors of revolution in Argos. Toward the end, Clytaemestra leaps into grandiloquence. Finally, she asks Agamemnon to walk into the palace on a crimson carpet.
At once Agamemon refuses his wife's invitation on grounds that it befits a god, not a man. Ashamed, Clytaemestra incites an argument with her husband, trying to bend his will to hers. The king ultimately acquiesces; he removes his shoes and treads on the tapestries barefoot. The reunited couple then go into the house together, and the Chorus begins to voice its enduring anxiety.
The Chorus wonders why the Agamemnon's arrival has aggravated rather than relieved their apprehension. Their primary concern is blood revenge, for Iphigeneia's sacrifice has not yet been requited. Clytaemestra, emerging from inside, tells Cassandra she may enter the house as a slave. Cassandra, however, will not move or speak, which strongly angers the queen. Both Clytaemestra and the Chorus speculate on whether Cassandra is deaf, savage, or insolent. Sufficiently frustrated, Clytaemestra leaves the captive alone with the Chorus.
The parable of the lion cub allegorizes the murderous betrayal of hospitable fostering. Reminding us of earlier passages-most commonly spoken by the Chorus-the parable provides further evidence for the host/guest paradigm. In this case, the lion is said to be Helen. She was received joyously by the Trojans, who were enamored with her beauty and charm. Yet, very soon, they discovered that Helen (like the Trojan horse) concealed their doom-that she brought, contrary to those superficial qualities, unimaginable carnage and destruction.
Daring, in its negative, prideful, hubristic sense, is used several times to describe Agamemnon's as well as Helen's (earlier) departure for Troy. This is a fault heavily criticized by the Chorus throughout the play. The Chorus describes "daring" as "dark action," as reckless, selfish, and excessive. Specifically, the quality is associated with mature males who vainly aspire for youthful adventure. Here, we glimpse the central flaw in Agamemnon's character, at least in the eyes of the polity. The king's sacrifice of his daughter perpetuates the curse on the house of Atreus.
At this point, the frequent and repetitive images of light and darkness, night giving birth to dawn, or night as the mother of dawn, should be familiar to the reader. The Watchman speaks of it, as does Clytaemestra numerous times. And there is the Chorus's, "All will come clear in the next dawn's sunlight." Agamemnon is heralded as "bearing light in gloom." In her greeting, Clytaemestra calls him, "splendor of daybreak shining from the night of storm." What this does is build up or accumulate symbols. Thus "night" denotes anything from the sorrowful state of the house of Atreus, to the kingdom, to the war. Light is, on the contrary, everything positive in the play. The return of Agamemnon (as the restoration of leadership), the end of the war, relief from sorrow, rebirth, etc. We should also consider false symbols, for example, the beacon flame. Though light, the fire is perhaps a false "dawn," as opposed to the one the Argives have been awaiting. Furthermore, the resilient skepticism of the Chorus, which repeatedly questions the "reality" of the fire signal, lend support to early doubts.
The tone of Agamemnon's as he enters should be well noted. It is that of an austere soldier, a warrior. Clytaemestra's lavish reception contrasts sharply with her husband's abstemious character and his initial reluctance to tread the red carpet. His accusation that she is trying to "soften" him is also important. Agamemnon is callous insofar as he has executed his daughter. "Will" is mentioned in this section more than once, and we know that ambition and daring are the chief excesses of the will, i.e. of a hardened soldier. In short, Agamemnon's lack of pity is criticized by both the Chorus and his wife.