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In Defense of Clytemnestra

April 15, 2015

 

Years ago, in a graduate class, I read the Orestia--three short plays by Aeschylus. Clytemnestra, in Greek legend and in the play Agamemnon, is depicted as a monstrous woman who dares to plot the murder of her husband and then carry it out in bloody triumph, even as her husband returns, victorious, from The Trojan War. Therefore, it is implied, Clytemnestra is an aberration, an unnatural woman.

There’s more to the story, of course: Agamemnon killed his own daughter, sacrificed her to the gods so that his ships, which were stalled, would have fair winds to speed them to the Trojan War. This entire detail is given short shrift in the play; after all, this is ancient Greece, and women are second-class citizens. If a man has to kill a female for the sake of his own glory, then he will have to make that sacrifice.

It's ironic, though, that Agamemnon is not depicted as a monster, but a hero, and his wife, who exacts premeditated and bloody revenge for the loss of her child, becomes the only “evil” character. Granted, murder is horrible. But isn’t the Trojan conflict full of murder—men savagely slaughtered on battlefields, ostensibly, in debate over the ownership of a beautiful woman? Still, there doesn’t seem to be much literary defense of Clytemnestra’s motives.

I don’t suppose I would murder my husband if he killed my child, but then again, who knows? Grief itself is monstrous, and can twist a person in different ways. Certainly I did not see in Clytemnestra the horrifying creature that the men in my class did. In general, the women looked at her and saw someone consumed by loss. 

It’s not fair as a rule to impose a modern sensibility on an ancient story. Clytemnestra is meant to be seen as a monster, and so I am supposed to look for the things that make her horrifying. I find that I just can’t do it, though, especially when I read The Odyssey, and even in Hades Agamemnon, that great egotist, can’t get over what his wife has done to him, and rails about it to every shade who floats his way, and to Odysseus, the visiting human. 

What I am looking for is an Agamemnon who seeks out the dead Iphigenia, his murdered daughter, to ask for her forgiveness. That doesn’t happen, of course, nor does Clytemnestra find solace in anyone’s understanding of her deed. Her son condemns her and kills her himself to avenge his father’s death. That son, Orestes, never mentions his dead sister.

History is dominated by patriarchal concerns.  I have no such limitation; since history will not condemn Agamemnon, I will not condemn Clytemnestra. 

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