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A "Who's Who" of Female Characters in Ancient Greek Tragedy: Clytemnestra

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By Calder Classics Intern and Marymount high school senior Bailey Franzoi

Who are the most important female characters in ancient Greek tragedy?

This post, written by Calder Classics intern Bailey Franzoi, a senior at Marymount School in New York, is the fourth in our series highlighting the the most significant female roles in ancient Greek tragedy and their influence through the ages. 

Clytemnestra: The Furious Mother

To understand the character of Clytemnestra, we need to know a little background of the Trojan War and the main families in it. First, we have Menelaus, king of Mycenaean Sparta, who marries Helen, purportedly the most beautiful woman in the world.  Paris, Prince of Troy, abducts Helen and brings her back to Troy.  Menelaus is (understandably) furious and asks his brother Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, to help him retrieve his wife, thus starting the Trojan War.

Clytemnestra is Agamemnon’s wife and the Queen of Mycenae. She is mentioned as such by Homer in the Iliad, but takes on a much larger role in Aeschylus’s Orestia, a collection of the following three plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides.

As Agamemnon and the Greek troops gather to sail across the Aegean Sea to Troy, they are waylaid by unfavorable winds at Aulis.  Calchas, an oracle, reveals that to stop these winds, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.  Agamemnon complies and Clytemnestra never forgives him for killing their daughter.  In the plays of Aeschylus mentioned above, Clytemnestra gets her revenge.  When Agamemnon returns home from the war with Cassandra, his concubine, she and her lover, Aegisthus, kill Agamemnon.  Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are later killed by her son Orestes, who was commanded to avenge his father by Apollo. 

Clytemnestra in Art

Many classical vases depict Clytemnestra as either a murderer or an accomplice to murder.  The crater (left), made ca. 490 BCE, shows Clytemnestra (far left) urging on Aegisthus, who has stabbed the falling Agamemnon. The woman on the far right is Cassandra, who is being killed by Clytemnestra on a painting on the drinking cup, ca. 430 BCE, below. 

  I mage Taken from: http://www.uncg.edu/cla/myth/cassandra.htm

Image Taken from: http://www.uncg.edu/cla/myth/cassandra.htm

Similarly, in a red-figure crater ca. 470 BCE, Clytemnestra is shown as she is about to strike her own son Orestes with an axe while he attacks her lover Aegisthus.  Her face is expressionless, determined to slay her son, which seems ironic, as she was so upset by the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia. 

However, could Clytemnestra have been the victim in all this?  In his book, Women of Classical Mythology, published in 1991, Robert Bell suggests that Clytemnestra was not to blame for her adultery or her murders.  He justifies the former by saying that Clytemnestra and her sisters were “under the curse of Aphrodite … [because t]heir father had once neglected an important sacrifice to Aphrodite, and she resolved that all three of his daughters would be adulteresses" (135). It is also likely that Clytemnestra had an affair with Aegisthus because she was angry with Agamemnon for sacrificing her daughter, Iphigenia.  Likewise, as illustrated by the 19th century painting below, Clytemnestra may have been persuaded to murder Cassandra and Agamemnon by the men around her, namely Aegisthus and Oeax.  According to Hyginus’ Fabulae, Oeax “prompt[ed]” (Source 1) Clytemnestra to kill her husband and Cassandra, and the scheming Aegisthus urged Clytemnestra to murder Agamemnon and even planned to murder Orestes before he reached adulthood. 

Modern Clytemnestras

More modern adaptations of Clytemnestra also differ in depictions of her character.

For example, Clytemnestra appears as a menacing adulteress in Jean Paul Sartre’s play “The Flies,” which, written in 1943, used the ancient Greek tale to criticize the Nazi occupation of France.  Each character represents a different aspect of France at the time, with the invading Aegisthus being the Nazi occupation and the cheating Clytemnestra being the collaborationist Vichy regime. “The Flies” mostly follows the tale of Orestes, and Sartre downplays Clytemnestra in order to deemphasize Orestes’ matricide, which is precipitated by Orestes’ compassion for the downtrodden people of Argos, not by a desire for vengeance or by destiny. 

On the other hand, in Martha Graham’s 1958 ballet “Clytemnestra,” re-performed in 2009, Clytemnestra is the heroine.  Graham’s first and only full-evening work follows Clytemnestra’s life through flashbacks.  Clytemnestra is onstage nearly the whole time, “quivering with grief and rage” as each character appears in her memory.  Like Geurin’s depiction of the murder of Agamemnon (above), Graham has “Aegisthus bend[ing] Clytemnestra backward over the throne to urge her to take up the ax and kill Agamemnon.”

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