Thursday, March 19, 2009

Defending Clytemnestra

Recently, in a night 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, a woman who would dare 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, Clytemnestra is painted as 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.

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.

Sure, 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, I suppose, 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.

Since history will not condemn Agamemnon, I will not condemn Clytemnestra.

Image: Clytemnestra After the Murder (John Collier, 1850-1939)


Keith Raffel said...

So even the Greeks had crime fiction? But the answer here is he did in response to the gods. Not a lot different from the some murderers today except they hear from only one.

Julia Buckley said...

No one beats the Greeks for dramatic fiction. So you're suggesting I should view old Ag as a schizophrenic?

Cricket McRae said...

Oh dear. Poor Clytemnestra. I mean, she was doomed from the beginning, eh? Half sister of the ultra-desired Helen of Troy. A quarter of the whole Castor & Pollux debacle -- where the daughters are hardly mentioned.

Not quite the daughter of Zeus, but her mother, Leda, had no choice but to give birth to two sets of twins from different fathers -- one of which was a god who raped her in the form of a swan -- Zeus.

I believe that the desire for justice is the primary reason crime fiction not only persists but resonates deeply with readers.

Love the intrigues of the mythologies, and took way too many classes examining them, along with Shakespeare.

I'd take a million more. Whatever time they depict, they touch the soul. Lovely post, Julia.

jbstanley said...

The Greeks and their drama. You make me want to blow some dust off my Classics Textbook. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Cricket, I see where your literary passions lie! There is something compelling about mythology.

JB, you would really enjoy this play!

Jess Lourey said...

Julia, your perceptive reading of the story is illuminating. I want to read a whole essay on it!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Jess. My current teacher says I don't "go deeply enough" into the text, so this is good to hear. :)