Misunderstanding Clytemnestra: Portrait of a Woman’s Revenge

This is an essay by Amarie Fox.

Imposed on each human being from the moment of their birth is a responsibility. It asks that everyone assemble an identity, but within the restraints of one’s sexual identity and the moral code of society. When one follows their designated path, order and harmony reign. Quite oppositely and expectedly, if the path is abandoned, chaos reigns. With literature, what is perhaps most interesting– or even what makes a character complex and appealing – is when expectations are shattered. When we are confronted with a character that is neither totally masculine or feminine, but breaks all archetypes and is something else entirely, we’re often left not knowing quite how to respond. As a reader, I love to be challenged or to see a scenario from another angle I would otherwise never consider. Sure, sometimes, it is easy to get wrapped up in our heads and stay close to our established opinions. As a dedicated reader, though, I have found that reading is the remedy to this problem of a limited mindset. Reading shakes us out of our complacency. Solely because itasks something of us. It is not a leisurely, passive activity as much as it is hard work.

For the past few weeks or so, Brandon has been discussing various subject matters and themes in Classical Mythology. Along with him, I share an appreciation for Greek and Roman texts. If I was to browse my shelf, I would have to say that they not only challenged my thinking the most, but are still fresh and very relevant to our 21st century lives. That is not to say that upon first reading Homer or Plato I was what you would call thrilled. Again, it was a lot of hard work (hard work that came with a lot of headaches, I should say.)

I cannot continue without mentioning that as a woman, the hardest part for me was setting my modern perspective aside and reading the dramas, epics, and philosophies for what they were, rather than what I wanted them to be. If we were all to go around and approach books with a certain perspective or only seek out sects and groupings within literature, we would be sorely disappointed and reading what we already knew. We’d never learn a single thing about the rest of the world. In fact, we’re be stuck with a limited amount of material to enjoy.

That being said, it is maybe surprisingly enough within the Greek literary tradition – specifically in Aeschylus’ drama Agamemnonand Homer’s Odyssey – where one woman challenges what it is to even be a woman. She is one of the most convincing portrayals of a woman in early literature that I can think of. Her spine is not a splinter, but a towering metal rod. Clytemnestra many things, but mostly she is a wounded and wronged mother who crosses the moral boundary, just as easily as a man, for one reason: to obtain personal justice.

Blood Revenge: Justice as Revenge

Something that is often overlooked in Classical literature and needs to be addressed, especially in any reading of The Odyssey, is the concept of blood revenge. It should not be confused with the biblical idea of an eye for an eye mentality, for The Bible delves into great detail and specifies that not every punishment is a death sentence

However, before democracy was invented (by the ancient Greeks, at that!) they followed the idea that if someone killed your family member it was in your right to kill them. People acted with compulsion and desire, only because no other tool for justice existed. The problem here is slightly obvious: the chain of killing does not cease, it is endless. Aeschylus, in his larger work The Oresteia, deals with and solves the problem of blood revenge, through a mythological account of historical democracy.

Unfamiliarity with this idea often causes people to see Clytemnestra as a “bad woman,” which is unfortunate, since she is only following a proper societal law.

“That woman – she maneuvers like a man”

One of the most interesting descriptions of Clytemnestra comes from the opening lines of Agamemnon, when a watchman cries out, “So she commands, full of her high hopes. / That woman – she maneuvers like a man.”

Now, she may not be equal to any man in Greek society, but her intentions and hard heart are equal to that of a man’s. She is in this way man-like. With this in mind, her taking Aigisthos as a lover was not to toil away her time and boredom, but a clearheaded decision to share her sentiments of hate with an equally vengeful counterpart. He was a tool to craft a plan. For Aigisthos was more than willing, seeing as he had his own motive for partaking in the murder: to even the scales for his brother’s murders by Agamemnon’s father, Atreus. With this, she shares in her retaliation, so as to not endure it alone. Two against one is more sound and solid. With two scheming, the plan was more likely to succeed. It was carefully planned, and calculated: proof of her sharp mind. Although Aigisthos may have lusted after her for his own, she took the situation, what she was dealt, and cleverly molded it in the palms of her hands.

All the scheming and brooding was rooted deep in another motivation for Clytemnestra, though: to seek some sort of justice for her own daughter’s death.

Following the code of blood revenge, her husband’s death is the only fitting choice for repayment. It is only briefly mentioned in Greek myth, but Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, at Aulis, before he leaves to fight the Trojan war.

The thought of a wife killing her husband may be undeniably ghastly, but when the motivations are clearly presented, another issue arises. Clytemnestra was a grieving mother, deserted by her husband, the murderer of their daughter. To her, the idea of murder becomes reasonable, because revenge is justice. What is more, the queen does not act out in an emotional tantrum, but calculates every move, arranges every small detail. The murder, as she calls it, has to be “a masterpiece of Justice”. Even the sword, the weapon,  was no accident. As she announces, upon revealing his body, Agamemnon used the sword to kill Iphigenia and so by the sword he, in turn, is killed.

Abolishing Gender Schemas

Clytemnestra with a clear reading is no different from anyone else in The Odyssey or Agamemnon. Her actions can be perceived as harsh, but that is in the perception of a modern reader. Really, she was a woman who wanted justice that would never be dealt otherwise.

Perhaps, it is more shocking in its entirety, though, for she is a woman. Gender schemas do not categorize women as brutal or harsh.

And the case lies in just that. Clytemnestra was not a molded woman or an outline colored in. She was multi-faceted like a diamond, playing each hand in a calculating manner. Although, she was a wife, a woman with a husband, she was a mother first. That love overpowered and outshined all else, something she knew no other man could possibly understand.

What do you think? Can you think of any other interesting or convincing portrayals of characters that challenge a code or identity?

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Amarie Fox is a writer and like everyone else on the internet has a blog (Sorrow & Lust). She receives digital mail at amariefox.letterbox@gmail.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Cea.

2 Replies to “Misunderstanding Clytemnestra: Portrait of a Woman’s Revenge”

    1. Chris, first off, thank you taking the time out to read this. I really do appreciate it. As someone who closely follows (and loves) all of your RLW articles, I feel flattered that you’d take the time out to even comment. It is beyond flattering.

      Most of the time, I roll my eyes at the modern re-tellings of Greek Literature. There was one that came out this year, I believe (that I cannot even remember the name of) about Achilles and it just sounded so silly. However, Firebrand sounds interesting. Cassandra is another great (although, minor!) character and so it would be interesting to see what Zimmer does with her. Thank you, so much, for the suggestion.

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