The Leader of the Chorus speaks to Clytemnestra, expressing respect for her power, and asking to know why fires burn on all the altars. She announces that the Greeks have taken Troy. The Leader feels such joy tears come, but can hardly believe the news. Has she believed a vision, or some rumor? She indignantly denies that she could be so foolish. Then when did it happen? During the night just past, she says. Who could have brought the news so quickly? The god of fire, she answers, and describes the signaling of beacon to beacon as the fire itself leaping from mountain top to mountain top, all the way from Troy. (If you saw the last movie of Lord of the Rings, you may remember the beacon fire lit by Pippin in Minas Tirith, and how it seemed to leap from peak to peak, summoning the riders of Rohan.)
The Leader asks to hear the whole story again. Clytemnestra repeats that Troy is taken, and describes what must be going on there, as the conquered weep over the bodies of the slain, and the conquerors rejoice in sleeping in beds and eating decent food, sleeping all night without having to set a watch. If they only reverence the altars of the gods of the city, the conquerors will come home safely-yet even then the agony of the dead may bring new disaster. And so you have heard a woman's words. May the good prevail!
The Leader praises her words as worthy of a wise man, she leaves, and then the Leader turns to lead the Chorus in praise of the gods who have brought this defeat about. They praise Zeus, who has accomplished justice against Paris. Some men say that the gods don't punish those who trample on the grace of what should not be touched, but either those who are guilty of hubris or their descendants will suffer. May I not be such a man. Paris yielded to temptation, bringing unbearable affliction on his city. Helen left Menelaus to long for her in vain, seeing her only in dreams. As everywhere in Greece women have longed for their men who have gone to war, and only urns full of ashes have come back.
The Chorus sing of the anger of the people mourning their dead against the sons of Atreus who fought this war for Helen; the sons of Atreus will have to pay for the people's curses. The gods take note of those who kill many, and the Furies lie in wait for those who succeed unjustly. Such success will not last. I wish for no such success.
Finally they sing that perhaps the beacons have not told the truth-how like a woman to believe so easily. Clytemnestra says that soon they will know whether the beacons deceived them. She sees a herald coming up from the shore, and prays he brings good news.
All Clytemnestra's prayers that good may prevail have an obvious double meaning, and the audience would have known her reason for hoping that at least one of the conquerors should come home safely; the sense of foreboding builds. The audience would also have known that the evil she said she feared had happened by the time she spoke of it-the Greeks did destroy the altars of the gods and in general behaved with such cruel excess that the gods turned against them. And perhaps she was hoping for just that result-a man whom the gods had turned against would be easier to kill.
Other aspects of this scene are stranger to a modern audience used to a more realistic form of drama. The Chorus are skeptical that Troy has really fallen, yet appear to be easily persuaded without any additional proof. The ease with which they are persuaded has been seen as a way of suggesting just how powerful Clytemnestra's presence and eloquence are. It also allows them to start a hymn of praise, then have it turn to foreboding. Yes, justice has been done, but at what a cost? How can a man who has, as the commander of the army, been responsible for the death of so many have a long and happy life? It is another way of reinforcing the theme that it is almost impossible to be the agent of justice, to behave like the Furies in exacting punishment, and not be led into excess, into hubris, the overweening pride that the Greeks saw as so destructive. It was just to punish Paris and the city that shared his guilt by taking him in with his stolen bride,
but those who destroyed that city utterly went too far.
Another difficulty for a modern audience is that during this long choral ode, enough time must have passed that Agamemnon could actually reach home-several days at least. For an audience that did not expect realism, this discrepancy was not a problem. The ode is long enough and covers enough past history that there is a sense of a long time passing, and that is enough.