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Essay On Clytemnestra

Deceitful Clytemnestra of Euripides' Electra Essay

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Deceitful Clytemnestra of Euripides' Electra

Agamemnon returns from Troy, a victorious general, bringing home spoils, riches and fame. He is murdered on the same day as he returns. Clytemnestra, his adulterous wife, has laid in wait for her husband's homecoming and kills him whilst he is being bathed after his long journey. During the Agamemnon, large proportions of the Queen's words are justifications for her action, which is very much concerned with the sacrifice of Iphigenia to the gods, in order for the fleet to set sail for Troy. Aegisthus, the new husband of the Queen Clytemnestra, and partner in the conspiracy to murder the war hero, had reasons, which stemmed from the dispute between the Houses of Atreus and Thyestes. Was the…show more content…

No blame is placed upon him by the people and they believe he "slipped his neck in the strap of fate" 217, only after which did his spirit become "black, impure, unholy" 218. The people of Mycenae, typically represented by the elders, and thus the Chorus have absolved him of blame in their minds. All their words about the leader are nothing but in praise of their king. They are nearly "faint with longing" for the return of their king, though we can also partly attribute this to a desire to be rid of Clytemnestra more than their wish to return to the rule of Agamemnon. They indeed emphasise the tyranny of the Queen ("she commands, full of her high hopes...manoeuvres like a man" 13). The sentry echoes the love for the King though ("My king, I'll take your loving hand in mine" 37), and the herald is similarly well disposed toward him, and he hasn't been under the yoke of Clytemnestra ("he brings us light in the darkness...Agamemnon lord of men"). The people absolve the King of blame over Iphigenia, and give him unconditional loyalty, but Clytemnestra rests it all upon his shoulders ("girl of tears...here you are repaid" 1554). She understands the grandeur of her action and the scale of it but believes that "what we did was destiny" 1692. Though, it is my belief that the honourable King of Mycenae was commanded by the fates to kill his daughter, and it was by no means his will to carry

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The character of Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon is complex as the role she adopts is constantly shifting. Many of the other characters describe Clytemnestra in a masculine way whilst still referring to her as a woman. Clytemnestra herself also uses language usually reserved for male characters. This masculine representation continues in the behaviours and activities Clytemnestra adopts, culminating in the murder of her husband. Through examining these three areas, it is possible to consider Clytemnestra’s rejection of her gender role.

Within the first few lines of Agamemnon (11) Clytemnestra is described by the watchman as a ‘woman in passionate heart and man in strength of purpose.’ This statement provides a clear distinction between gender roles but also presents Clytemnestra has having ‘manly’ qualities. The chorus reinforces this idea when they state ‘Lady, you speak as wisely as a prudent man’ (Agamemnon 351). These ‘manly’ qualities are best demonstrated in Clytemnestra’s use of language, particular examples include ‘I stand where I dealt the blow; my purpose is achieved. Thus have I done the deed; deny it I will not’ and ‘You are testing me as if I were a witless woman’ (Agamemnon 1379-80; 1402). Pomeroy (1994:98) notes that ‘womanly behaviour was characterised then…by submissiveness and modesty’. The language used by Clytemnestra is neither of these things and instead she ‘adopts characteristics of the dominant sex to achieve [her] goals’ (Pomeroy, 1994:98). Goldhill (1992:35) similarly considers that the character of Clytemnestra dominates the stage, recounts the most impressive speeches and skillfully manipulates language in order to achieve power. The manipulation of language is masterfully used in the speech welcoming Agamemnon home (Agamemnon 855-913). Goldhill (1992:49) observes that Agamemnon is aware that to tread on the purple carpet, that Clytemnestra has laid out for his homecoming, is a ‘transgressive act’ that might incur the anger of the citizens and gods. However, Clytemnestra expertly manipulates Agamemnon into stepping onto the carpet by finally stating ‘Oh yield! Yet of your own free will entrust the victory to me’ (Agamemnon 943). Clytemnestra’s use of deception and cunning does not necessarily translate as a negative female trait. Numerous pieces of research have drawn a comparison between the characters of Clytemnestra and Penelope (Katz, 1991:52, Lefkowitz 2007:174 and Blundell, 1995:54). However, whereas Penelope used her cunning to protect Odysseus, her husbands’, interests Clytemnestra used hers to destroy Agamemnon.

Clytemnestra’s behaviour results in the destruction of Agamemnon and his house. The destruction is in part instigated through her choice of her own sexual partner in Aegisthus. On the one hand, Lefkowitz (2007:175) observes that there is no direct reference by Clytemnestra to the exact set up of her relationship with Aegisthus, referring to Agamemnon (1436) where it alludes to them as friends. On the other hand, this does not take into account the preceding statement where Clytemnestra states ‘so long as the fire upon my hearth is kindled by Aegisthus’ (1435). The implication of this statement is sexual but is also a double entendre as a woman would have been responsible for lighting the fire of the hearth (Pomeroy, 1994:98). There is little agreement with Lefkowitzs’ view, Blundell (1995:173), Pomeroy (1994:98) and Fantham et al (1994:39) each consider that Clytemnestra was an adulteress. Blundell (1995:178) observes that the masculine activity of Clytemnestra was not restricted to ‘choosing her own sexual partner’ but also ruling Argos in Agamemnon’s absence.

The chorus approach Clytemnestra recognising her ‘royal authority; for it is fitting to do homage to the consort of a sovereign prince when her husband’s throne is empty’ (Agamemnon 258-60). The approach of the chorus is a statement of the power Clytemnestra has held during the absence of Agamemnon; something she is unwilling to give up. In the final lines of Agamemnon Clytemnestra relishes dismissing the chorus’ protestations stating to Aegisthus that, ‘I and you will be masters of this house and order it aright’ (Agamemnon 1649). This indicates equality of power and a clear indication that Clytemnestra will not return to the submissive role she held prior to Agamemnon’s departure for Troy. The murder of Agamemnon and destruction of his house completes the transference of power (Blundell, 1995:173).

Clytemnestra appears to take pride in her action, presiding over the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra ‘Twice I struck him, and with two groans his limbs relaxed…here is Agamemnon, my husband, now a corpse’ (Agamemnon 1385-1405). Clytemnestra appears to speak about Agamemnon as if he were an enemy whilst presenting the defence of her actions, reiterating the justifications for the murder on a number of occasions (Lefkowitz, 2007:175):

he sacrificed his own child, she whom I bore…Is it not he whom you should have banished from this land in requital for his polluting deed?… Listen then to this too, this the righteous sanction on my oath: by Justice, exacted for my child, by Ate, by the Avenging Spirit, to whom I sacrificed that man…Yet, as he has suffered—worthy prize of worthy deed—for what he did to my sweet flower.

(Aeschylus Agamemnon 1418-1420; 1430-1435; 1525-6)

Through killing Agamemnon Clytemnestra has avenged her daughter’s murder; one of the primary justifications for her actions. However, she also sought recompense for Agamemnon’s adultery, ‘here lies the man who did me wrong…and here she lies…but to me she has brought for my bed an added relish of delight’ (Agamemnon 1439-1445). Murder is outside of the sphere of the female gender role, this is demonstrated by the chorus’ reactions to it (Agamemnon 1453-4). Pomeroy (1994:98) argues that if Aegisthus had perpetrated the murder it would have been more readily accepted but instead Clytemnestra is presented as the bad woman. This is reflected is Goldhill’s (1992:36) considerations that ‘Clytemnestra’s pursuit of power…through her misuse of words and…of her body in adultery constructs a figure of a monstrous reversal of the female role’. It might be argued that this is particularly well represented by Clytemnestra, the murderer, taking charge of the burial of her husband.

Clytemnestra states to the chorus that Agamemnon’s funeral ‘is no concern of yours. By our hands down he fell, down to death, and down below shall we bury him—but not with wailings from his household’ (1551-5). This, Hame (2004:521) argues, violates burial practices as those who commit murder are prohibited from being involved in the funeral. Furthermore, ‘in normal circumstances a female member of the oikos, regardless of her status, does not possess the authority to conduct funeral rites.’ It is through this final act that Clytemnestra concludes her revenge and ends Agamemnon’s rule.

In Agamemnon Aeschylus represents Clytemnestra as a woman who defies every convention of the female gender role. It is the rejection of this role that leads Agamemnon in the Odyssey (424; 429) to describe Clytemnestra as, ‘shameless’ and a woman who ‘devised a monstrous thing’. Aeschylus’ portrayal of Clytemnestra can be seen as negative and positive, an example being that she seeks justice for her daughter but at the same time is totally unrepentant for the act of murder. Clytemnestra does not hide from her actions, instead she freely admits the murder and embraces the power and authority. It is through the inversion of traditional gender roles, adopting masculine speech, behaviours and activities, that Clytemnestra ultimately achieves her revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Clytemnestra’s revenge will have been seen as a shocking act by some members of the Athenian audience but others may have likely reflected on the traditional gender role of women in society.

Clytemnestra is a fascinating character and this assessment has just scratched the surface, as I have only considered her portrayal in the Agamemnon. I hope to return to her in future and assess the character across the Oresteia, particularly in comparison to the representation in the Odyssey.


Primary Sources

Aeschylus Aeschylus Volume 2 Agamemnon Translated by H.W. Smyth Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Homer The Odyssey Translated by A.T. Murray, London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1919.

Secondary Sources

Blundell, S. Women in Ancient Greece Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Fantham, E. et al Women in the Classical World Oxford: Oxford University Press,1994.

Goldhill, S.Aeschylus: the Oresteia Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hame, K.J. “All in the family: funeral rites and the health of the oikos in Aeschylus’ Oresteia”, American Journal of Philology 125, 2004, 513-538.

Katz, M.A. Penelope’s Renown Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1991.

Lefkowitz, M. Women in Greek Myth London: Duckworth, 2007.

Pomeroy, S. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves Women in Classical Antiquity London: Pimlico, 1994.

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