Agamemnon at Aulis: On the Right and Wrong Sorts of Imaginative Identification

Chappell, Sophie-Grace (2024). Agamemnon at Aulis: On the Right and Wrong Sorts of Imaginative Identification. Topoi, 43 pp. 557–573.



Williams’ discussion of dilemmas in his classic paper “Ethical consistency” famously focuses on an example that has not bothered commentators on and respondents to Williams as much as it should have bothered them: the example of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ play. In this paper I try to pick apart what Williams wants to say from what is really going on in the text that he unfortunately chooses for his example. I compare with Williams’ discussion of Agamemnon four other commentators on this crucial passage in Aeschylus’ play: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle—and Bernard Williams’ Greats tutor Eduard Fraenkel, whose epochal Corpus Christi seminars on the play Williams attended (along with Iris Murdoch, Hugh Lloyd Jones, and other rising stars of the time). I shall argue that these commentators led Williams astray. They are surprisingly prone to the same flaws of rationalism, impersonality, and moralism in making sense of Aeschylus’ extraordinarily subtle and brilliant depiction of Agamemnon; and Williams’ discussion inherits these flaws. This is an obviously ironic fact, especially given that a very fruitful reading of the passage—one that I think makes much better sense of what Aeschylus actually says—points a deeply Williamsian moral. It takes Agamemnon at Aulis as a study of a key step in the corruption of a character, a study that gets its power and its horror from its ability to show us how that process looks from Agamemnon’s own viewpoint.

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