The play opens on Agamemnon's palace in Argos. The time is just minutes before the fall of Troy. It is night. A lonely watchman on the roof of the palace, under the starry sky, soliloquizes about his weariness. He has been enlisted by the queen to look out for a beacon of fire, a signal that the war has finally come to an end. The Argive soldiers have been at Troy for ten years now. The Watchman's fatigue and melancholy encapsulate the sentiments of most of Argos. Her citizens have been awaiting the return of their compatriots and progeny for far too long. Many have almost lost hope.
The Watchman sees a light flare up in the distance. He compares it to dawn. He thinks first about the queen and her joy, then about the return of the king. Overcome with eagerness to relay the good news, he leaves to find the queen.
The Chorus enters and relates some history about the war and Argos. They mention Menelaus and Agamemnon, brothers, and describe their departure from Argos. Metaphorically, the war cries of the two kings become the shrieks of eagles after the loss of their young. The ostensible cause of the war-Helen's abduction by Paris-is briefly hinted at. The Chorus speaks ominously; they anticipate some vague reckoning for the house of Atreus (the house of Agamemnon and Menelaus) and thus for Argos.
Clytaemestra enters but does not speak. The Chorus continues its exposition, now directing it toward the queen. They ask about the sacrifices she has ordered in the city. The Chorus is not aware the signal has arrived and the war is over. The portent of the hare-a pregnant hare from whom the fetus was torn out-is discussed. It occurred just before the war, when a seer read it and forecasted disaster for Argos. The Chorus then relates the historical event, the playing out of the portent, in which Agamemnon chose to sacrifice his young daughter Iphigenia for the sake of the war effort. The Chorus narrates that fateful day with words full of pity and regret. Finally, Clytaemestra is addressed directly, when the Chorus commends her on her just rule in Agamemnon's absence.
Clytaemestra announces the end of the war. The Chorus hears the news with reserved joy; they can hardly believe it. The queen follows with a lengthy, poetic account of the transmission of the signal blaze from Troy, from beacon to beacon, and finally to Argos. The Chorus is so excited they ask her to retell it, and she obliges. She imagines what it must be like in Troy at the moment. But she also warns that the Argives must not defile the Trojan gods in their plundering of the city.
The monumental, dramatic timing of the opening of the play, given as "directly after the fall of Troy," verily cannot be ignored. We are on the heels of one of the greatest wars in western history, and without a doubt the greatest in classical antiquity. The Watchman can be thought of as a type; in many ways he represents all those citizens and members of Agamemnon's court who yearn for the return of their estranged king and their countrymen. In his soliloquy, the repetition of words related to restlessness and sleeplessness, to tired vigilance, and to disquiet establishes the mood in Argos. It is one of grieving and longing. Indeed, the Watchman is even weary of the rotations of the stars.
The play's initial tone is melancholy, reflective, and somewhat ponderous. That is, until the blaze is spotted. Then we encounter an important ambiguity. The high excitement for the taking of the Troy is subsequently undermined by anxiety. The Watchman and the Chorus both are concerned about the condition of the returning king and his men and about the return itself. More important is the second concern; it calls our attention to the function of the past and memory in the play. No one in Argos can forget the horrible events leading up to war; particularly, Iphigeneia's sacrifice (see below). An open wound, the memory of this tragic murder seems to be gnawing at everyone's conscience and ruining the celebration. For the sacrifice has tainted the house, the ill-fated House of Atreus (a favorite subject of ancient Greek tragedians), and requires rectification.
Notably, we see in this section the first mention of the queen as a lady with "male strength of heart." This has to do with her role as interim ruler of Argus in the long absence of her husband. Apparently, she has filled his position very well. But there is also some discussion by the Chorus as to whether it is not "unnatural" for a woman to act in the traditional capacity of a man.
With the Chorus, we should be aware that, as a convention of Greek tragedy, they (or frequently, "he") function as a kind of commentator on the action-offering the reasonable, often sagacious perspectives of experienced citizens of the state. At other times the Chorus appears as the actual embodiment of the state, voicing its general hopes and worries. An extended metaphor in one their early speeches seeks to compare prematurely dead Argives, youths killed in battle, with fledglings eagles fallen from the nest. This passage is particularly significant, for it introduces a major theme: "young perished." (see below)
Beginng from line one, when the Watchman sees the fire as a kind of dawn, the play's symbols accumulate and build on one another. A second important symbol is the eagles and the fledglings. A third appears when the Chorus recollects the omen of the hare. The unborn fetus ripped from the hare's womb works equally well as a symbol for Iphigeneia's sacrifice and for the Argive youths who went to war and died under the leadership of Agamemnon (one of the eagles).
Finally, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia warrants explanation. Although the story would be infamous to an ancient audience, it is not necessarily so now. In short, on the day Greek fleet was to set sail for Troy, they met with extremely unfavorable winds and were stuck at port. Morale dropped quickly and supplies began to rot. A seer informed Agamemnon that if he sacrificed his daughter to Artemis, the winds would calm. Agamemnon, anguishing over this dilemma, perceived disaster in both choices. Ultimately, ambition won the day: Iphigeneia was murdered; the winds abated; and the fleet sailed.