Reticence and Phobos in Aeschylus's Agamemnon


Guido Avezzù


A typically dramatic figure, reticence relies upon a mutual understanding of the reasons why discourse needs truncation. When it does not, it prompts the hearer to figure out its causes so that the boundaries of discourse are continuously negotiated between the speakers. Stopping a sentence short implies saying less but also saying more, foregrounding an unsaid which, as an accretion to speech, bars language. It (un)voices the origin of silence and gestures to a known or an unknown prohibition. The prologue of Agamemnon opens precisely upon such a linguistic strategy: the Watchman is alone on stage and his reticence has no pragmatic impact but upon himself and the audience, who only partially share his knowledge of the events. His speech is interesting in many regards as it enhances both expectation and fear, premising the action that is about to unfold upon a taboo. The “something more” which the Watchman leaves “unsaid” is the unutterable dual event of Clytemnestra’s adultery and her plotted murder of Agamemnon. The royal house is implied in his speech as the visible space of an unshowable inside, symbolically voiceless. This article will explore the implications of this reticent verbal and visual language of phobos as announced by the Watchman’s liminal speech on the roof of the house, symbolically located between two off-stages (the invisible far-away place from which a chain of beacons can be discerned, and the invisible inside of the palace covering the masters” plotting). The discussion will then concentrate on the function of the Chorus, of Cassandra’s out-of-sync vision of the otherwise unshowable assassination of the king, and will conclude with an interrogation of the effects of the disclosure of the inside of the house: all strategies dictated by a wish to cope with the Athenian cultural resistance to the showability of the king’s murder which both challenge the miasma convention and contain it.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.