An Examination of Clytaemnestra as a Tragic Victim of the Oresteia

Written by Marjorie Montenegro

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An Examination of Clytaemnestra as a Tragic Victim

Clytaemnestra, although villified in the Oresteia, was in fact a moral extractor of vendetta justice who fell victim to the patriarchal Athenian society. What constitutes justice is a question that could not be given justice in one brief paper; therefore, for purposes of this paper we will use only two ideas of justice: vendetta justice and legal justice. Vendetta justice defies boundaries limiting actions and allows the extractor to make their own definition. This would encompass such theory as "An eye for an eye adn a tooth for a tooth." Meanwhile, legal justice is regulated by a governing body who makes the determination as to whether there has been an offense requiring justice, and what consititutes fair and equitable justice. The Oresteia offers two different types of justice, vendetta, as well as trial justice; however, at the time that Clytaemnestra committed the act of murder, legal justice was not being offered to her. It is for this reason that this papers seeks to prove that Clytaemnestra is an extractor of vendetta justice, which is the only justice which she had available to her. An examination of the character of Clytaemnestra by analyzing the dialogue of Agamemnon shows that the actions of Clytaemnestra were not only justified for teh zeitgeist of the Mycenae age, but were also admirable given a woman's position in society. This strength of character is an important and undervalued commodity in a play which offered a strong, determined woman the spotlight to shine as intelligent and capable. Were Clytaemnestra's actions villainous? Certainly one might argue that this is true in today's culture; however, it does not necessarily follow that the actions of Clytaemnestra were either vile or wicked in the eyes of the Athenian culture. The Furies argue that a violation of the blood tie was more heinous a crime that the oath tie shared by Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon; however, when Orestes' later slays his mother he is also in violation of the oath tie as the Athenian premise is that only the father is the true parent. Why then is Clytaemnestra vilified while Orestes is considered a hero garnering sympathy and support from the audience? In determining whether Clytaemnestra was in fact victim rather than villain it is important to examine two main points. The first point is the motive behind the murder of Agamemnon and the second being teh quality of Clytaemnestra's character. These points are very crucial, for they either indict or acquit Clytaemnestra, thus making her victim or villain. Ironically, the dialogue in Oresteia provides the tool which will vindicate Clytaemnestra's act of retaliation.

Through Clytaemestra's use of visualization and double entendre, as we will examine below, we can begin to see Clytaemnestra's motives for the murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Additionally, by examining her interaction with other characters, such as in the dialogue between Clytaemnestra and the Chorus in Agamemnon, we are given teh opportunity to get a glimpse into her character. One such instance occurs after the lighting of the torches, which was a signal put in place by Clytaemnestra to signify the downfall of Troy. After this occurs Clytaemnestra offers sacrifice. When asked why she offers sacrifice she answers:

As it was said of old, may the dawn child be born/ To be an angel of blessing from the kindly night/ You shall know joy beyond all you ever hoped to hear/ The men of Argos have taken Priam's citadel.

Iphigeneia, the daugher of Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon, was sacrificed by Agamemnon in order to appease the gods and enable him to go on to conquer Troy. Iphigeneia is represented here as the "dawn child" because the "dawn" represents light, which in this culture is good and pure, and "child" is representative of the fact that she is Clyaemnestra's child. The "taking of Priam's citadel" is the first component in Clytaemnestra's plan for revenge for the murder of their daughter. The end of the battle signifies the return of Agamemnon; therefore, the plan for revenge could begin. The two events are inextricably tied together for it is Agamemnon's death that will bring Clytaemnestra closure for her child's murder. This is the reason why knowing that Troy has ben taken fills Clytaemnestra with "joy" for it signifies the impending return of Agamemnon. The much-awaited moment of retribution gives Clytaemnestra "joy beyond all you ever hoped to hear." Clytaemnestra is speaking to a very suspicious Chorus. Clytaemnestra, mindful that the Chorus is suspicious of her, would give reasons for her excessive joy at the return of the husband who she has been unfaithful to.

But what, among all other things, does Clytaemnestra say that proves her motive to be that of vengeance for the murder of Iphigeneia? At the moment of highest drama, when faced with the accusing chorus following the murder of Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra not only states her reason but also takes the chorus to task for not having taken action against Agamemnon's evil deed leaving her the burden of exacting justice for that death.

. . . he slaughtered like a victim his own child, my pain/ grown into love, to charm away the winds of Thrace/ Were you not bound to hunt him then clear of this soil/ for the guilt stained upon him? Yet you hear what I/ have done, and lo, you are a stern judge.

It is worth note that although Clytaemnestra has taken to the sword in revenge, she relates with tender imagery her vision of Agamemnon and Iphigeneia meeting again.

Not for you to speak of such tendance/ Through us he fell/ By us he died; we shall bury./ There will be no tears in this house for him/ It must be Iphideneia/ his child, who else/ shall greet her father by the whirling stream; and the ferry of tears/ to close him in her arms and kiss him.

This small display of affection not only embraces Iphigeneia, but also extends to Agamemnon. Does she still harbor feelings of affection for this man? Through connecting the beloved Iphigeneia with Agamemnon in an embrace Clytaemnestra is adding a deminsion of love to both. If Agamemnon were so hated by Clytaemnestra would she be able to envision such a tender moment at all? The hatred would more commonly have had Clytaemnestra speaking of the hell fires and suffering waiting for Agamemnon. This leads to the question of whether revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigeneia was all that drove Clytaemnestra?

The incidents of jealous dialogue that follow present the likelihood that Clytaemnestra was furthe fueled to desperation by a fealing of desertion by Agamemnon. Although lines 859 through 866 (in my text) are interpreted to be a foretelling of the capturing of Agamemnon in a web, they also indicate that Clytaemnestra was aware of Agamemnon's actions in Troy.

... What I tell you now/ I learned not from another; this is my own sad life/ all the long years this man was gone at Ilium./ It is evil and a thing of terror when a wife/ sits in the house forlorn with no man by, and hears/ rumors that like a fever die and break again,/ and men come in with news of fear, and on their heels/ another messenger, with worse news to cry aloud/ here in this house . . .

Because she was well informed of the actions of Agamemnon during his absence, whe would also have been aware of the drama involving Criseius and Briseius, which was the catalyst to Achilles' refusal to fight. This close monitoring and eager announcement of this knowledge shows how Agamemnon's activities were of paramount importance to Clytaemnestra. An additional indication of Clytaemnestra's anger at Agamemnon's infidelity is shown when she addresses the chorus following the death of Agamemnon:

. . . while he,/ this other, if fallen, stained with this woman you behold,/ plaything of all the golden girls at Ilium;/ and here lies she, the captive of his spear, who say/ wonders, who shared his bed, the wise in revelations/ and loving mistress, who yet know the feel as well/ of the men's rowing benches.

The timing of this reference to the "golden girls of Ilium" may explain the murder of the innocent Cassandra. Jealousy as a motive for the murder of Cassandra may be considered enough; however, it must not be forgotten how important symbolism is.

After carefully planning her revenge upon Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra went to great pains to proclaim her fidelity and to show respect for her husband in order to present to Agamemnon and the Chorus that she was a loving and beloved wife. This leads to the conclusion that she nto only wanted revenge upon her husband, but also wanted this revenge to come by what he believes to be the loving hand of his wife. If she were to present herself in any other way but faithful he would not have turned his back on her so quickly. Additionally, Clytaemnestra did not want her act of murder to be associated with infidelity. The action was to be solely associated with revenge for Iphigeneia. However, at the moment of her victory Agamemnon speaks tender words to Cassandra, his prize of Troy. This exalts Cassandra while denigrating Clytaemnestra. Symbolically, it is a blow most harshly thrust upon Clytaemnestra. He had left with Iphigeneia, the treasure of Clytaemnestra, and returned with Cassandra, "flower exquisite from all my many treasures." With Iphigeneia having been cast to the sacrificial altar and Clytaemnestra being cast aside, allowing Cassandra to live would have been a painful and cruel reminder of all that was lost for teh small tokens that were gained. But do these mere examples truly portray Clytaemnestra as being sensitive?

What indication do we have that Aeschylus wished to present Clytaemnestra as a cold-hearted murderess? By observing Clytaemnestra's dialogue when the subject of Agamemnon's murder is not prevelant we see another person who does not display savagery but empathy and concern. The dialogue that occurs between lines 326 through 342 (my version) demonstrates redeemable qualities possessed by Clytaemnestra:

Trojans are stooping now to gather in their arms/ their dead, husbands and brothers; children lean to clasp/ the aged who begot them, crying upon the death/ of those most dear, from lips that never will be free./ The Achaeans have their midnight work after the fighting/ that sets them down to feed on all the city has,/ ravenous, headlong, by no rank and file assigned,/

And if they reverence the gods who hold the city/ and all the holy temples of the captured land/ they, the despoilers, might not be despoiled in turn./ Let not their passion overwhelm them; let no lust/ seize on these men to violate what they must not do.

Here we are offered the opportunity to see Clytaemnestra as a woman of integrity. It is Clytaemnestra's empathy for the Trojan people which has her offering prophecyfor all of the "despoilers." The imagery of the beaten Trojan people looks not at the spoils but at the people and their gods. If the battle were lost by Agamemnon, would not the picture be the same? Clytaemnestra may have had ulterios motives for making this speech, as it may arguably have been a warning to Agamemnon that the swift return to Argos, sans certain flowering spoils, would have delayed the date of execution.

Another instance of a clear show of morality occurs when Clytaemnestra, although feeling justified in her reqaction and angry at the chorus for their condemnation of her, redeems herself when Aegisthus appears and begins to threaten the men of the chorus. In lines 1654 through 1661 (my version) she quells the rising tempers and gives way to what her true disposition is:

No, my dearest, dearest of all men, we have done enough. No more/ violence. Here is a monstrous harvest and a bitter reaping time./ There is pain enough already. Let us not be bloody now./ Honored gentlemen of Argos, to to your homes no and give way/ to the stress of fate and season. We could not do otherwise/ than we did. If this is the end of suffering, we can be content/ broken as we are by the brute heel of angry destiny./ Thus a woman speaks among you. Shall men deign to understand?

"If this is the end of suffering we can be content." These are not words that long for war nor seek bloodletting, but those of one resigned to the fact that fate had played its hand and she had matched it card for card. This is indicative of the fact that Clytaemnestra believes that what she has done is necessary to end the history of bloodshed in Agamemnon's House. By her addition of the words, "If this" add an interesting dynamic to this sentence for it can be a foretelling of events yet to come, and her uncertainty that she has ended the bloodshed. It is not long after these words are spoken that Orestes returns to add another does of suffering into the House of Agamemnon.

Orestes words make the final plea as they take on new significance when applied to Clytaemnestra. From the mouth of Orestes, as he pleads his innocence to Athena, we hear words that would, had they been spoken for Clytaemnestra, been qually truthful but tragically ignored. When speaking to Athena in the Eumenides, Orestes states:

The stain of blood dulls now and fades upon my hand.

. . . and the list were long if I were to tell of/ all I met who were not hurt by being with me./ Time in his aging overtakes all things alike.

Through Orestes' claim that he is not of any danger to society, he is given justice - but this justice should have been applied to Clytaemnestra. Clytaemnestra had shown neither disregard for life nor viciousness toward others but, as many of the men who went before her, measured out justice.

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