Seminar on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Sexual Equality Earned through Blood

In seminar on Thursday, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was the subject of a rich and vibrant discussion. In the article which follows, a potentially radical thesis on human nature, recognition, and Clytemnestra’s place in at all takes a new and unique form. Throughout the entirety of the play gender-stereotypes are suggested, considered, and upset.

The first major issue which we will focus on is the “masculine” nature of Clytemnestra, and the steps she took to take vengeance on Agamemnon. Three particular instances bring up Clytemnestra’s gender and how she upsets the general role: (1) her initial dialog with the chorus; (2) her argument with Agamemnon over the “painted fabric” above; (3) Aigisthos’ being called “womanly” and by proxy Clytemnestra manly by wielding the axe which called Agamemnon.

When Clytemnestra first tells the chorus that she knows that Agamemnon is coming home, the chorus is incredulous and intimates that Clytemnestra must in some way be out of her wits:

Chorus: Yet how can I be certain? Is there some evidence?

Clytemnestra: The is, there must be; unless a god has lied to me.

Chorus: Is it dream visions, easy to believe, you credit?

Clytemnestra: I accept nothing from a brain that is dull with sleep.

Chorus: The charm of some rumor, that made rich your hope?

Clytemnestra: Am I some young girl, that you find my thoughts so silly?

(Aeschylus Agamemnon 272-277, Lattimore tr.)

One immediately notices during this exchange that the chorus of Argive elders disbelieves that a woman would be capable of observing that which they have failed to. The elders–and this is to their queen–suggest first that Clytemnestra either heard what she did in a dream and then second, they have the gall to suggest that her feeble female mind must have been swayed by some rumor. Clytemnestra quickly disabuses them of these notions in the lines just after. After being belittled by the questions of the elders, she explains that “some god, Hephaistos” came to her in the form of signal beacons–present for all to see–and therefore dismisses the questions set against her capacity to perceive and to reason. This theme is recurrent and pervasive throughout the play: what is the nature and function of women and are they capable of the same thoughts, feelings, and actions as men? The opinion of the men in the play (the Chorus and Agamemnon in particular) seems to be that women are in some way sub-human as evidenced through their language and presuppositions. In the end, both pay for their ignorance of human nature, Agamemnon with his life, and the chorus through subjugation to a tyrant king. Let us see where Agamemnon shows his perception of both Clytemnestra and human nature

We must then focus a fair bit on Clytemnestra insisting that Agamemnon walk across the “painted fabric” (red carpet) in order to enter his home. We then discussed the debate the two had wherein Agamemnon suggests that he will be like a more feminine Asian lord, and then he suggested that this would be an honor only suitable for the gods–along the way suggesting that Clytemnestra is acting in a profoundly “unwomanly” way*. Two unique moments take form during this argument: (1) Clytemnestra essentially pushes Agamemnon into a feminine and passive role, and (2) Agamemnon recognizes Clytemnestra as acting in a “manly” or “mannish” manner. Their dialog truly is a spectacle to behold.

Clytemnestra: Yet tell me this one thing, and do not cross my will.

Agamemnon: My will is mine. I shall not make it soft for you.

Clytemnestra: It was in fear surely that you vowed this course to God.

Agamemnon: No man has spoken knowing better what he said.

Clytemnestra: If Priam had won as you have, what would he have done?

Agamemnon: I well believe he might have walked on tapestries.

Clytemnestra: He is not ashamed before the bitterness of men.

Agamemnon: The people murmur, and their voice is great in strength.

Clytemnestra: Yet he who goes unenvied shall not be admired.

Agamemnon: Surely this lust for conflict is not womanlike? (my italics)

Clytemnestra: Yet for the mighty even to give way is grace.

Agamemnon: Does such a victory as this mean so much to you?

Clytemnestra: Oh yield! The power is yours. Give way of your free will.

(Ibid 931-943)

What an incredible welcome home. Their first time seeing each other in ten years and a contest of wills commences in which Agamemnon is made to “freely” choose, like a woman* or an idolater, to walk across a stained red carpet. During this exchange, Clytemnestra effectively “acts the man” or takes on the masculine role of (1) arguing, (2) bending Agamemnon’s will, and (3) feminizing Agamemnon while also symbolically making him trail along a path of blood prepared by his actions before. In so reversing their roles, effectively bending Agamemnon to her will, and setting him up for her plot, Clytemnestra has already turned Agamemnon passive, receptive, and feminine in comparison to her “masculine” and gender re-defining actions.

We now turn to Aigisthos and the Chorus of men berating him for his “passive” or “feminine” role in the murder of Agamemnon:

Chorus: How shall you be lord of the men of Argos, you who planned the murder of this man, yet could not dare to act it out, and cut him down with your own hand?

Aigisthos: No, clearly the deception was the woman’s part (my italics), and I was suspect, that had hated him so long. Still with his money I shall endeavor to control the citizens. The mutinous man shall feel the yoke drag at his neck, no cornfed racing colt that runs free traced; but hunger, grim companion of the dark dungeon shall see him broken to the hand at last.

Chorus: But why, the then, you coward, could you have not slain the man yourself? Why must it be his wife who killed, to curse the country and the gods within the ground?

(Ibid 1633-1645)

Here we see the completion of the transformation of Clytemnestra from a “passively” feminine role to a completely active and masculine one. Not only has she planned the murder of Agamemnon, but she acts as the direct agent of his destruction as well. It is not so much Agamemnon’s death that the chorus finds so appalling as is the fact that a woman carried it out. They cannot believe that Aigisthos, who now claims to be king, would passively sit by and let Clytemnestra enact the revenge. One now sees that Clytemnestra made Agamemnon passive and receptive to her will and plot to kill him (literally), and she also made Aigisthos complicit but somewhat unnecessary to the plot as he did not plan nor kill Agamemnon himself. The chorus is the last group of men to be subjugated to her in their disbelief that a man, Aigisthos, would let her take the reins as she did, but now they, full of their incredulity, will be subjugated by Aigisthos and ruled by Clytemnestra, who separates the the chorus and Aigisthos in a final grand sweep–effectively asserting herself as queen-regent and a character far more dynamic than the naively emotional, passive, or submitting woman she is at first portrayed and treated as.

The next point considered in seminar was the poverty of living one’s life, or justifying one’s actions, by platitudes. For example, if one wished to live one’s life according to the maxim: “honor one’s family at all costs,” as noble and as good as the maxim in itself seems, it is not up to the task of life even in the play the Agamemnon. For example, Clytemnestra wishes to avenge the death of her daughter (honor one’s family), but she does so by killing her absentee husband (honor one’s family?). So, how exactly would this maxim help her make her choice, since on the one hand, she wishes to avenge a family member, her daughter, but the “murderer” of her daughter is her husband? How can she faithfully live out this maxim? She cannot. She will be betraying one of her family members in her mind regardless of her choice, so she must do some real thinking in order to determine what is right. Now, let us consider whether what Clytemnestra did was right or not.

The situation as perceived by Clytemnestra was this: her husband tricked her into sending her daughter to Aulis under the pretense of being married to Achilleus. Her husband, Agamemnon, then betrayed both Iphigeneia and Clytemnestra by sacrificing Iphigeneia to placate Artemis. Therefore, Clytemnestra, full of rage, took the lover Aigisthos during the ten years Agamemnon was gone and according to Aigisthos himself set the plan in motion to kill Agamemnon and killed (executed) him by her own hand. Simply looking at the situation from Clytemnestra’s perspective, her actions look as if they may be just. But let us add a more global perspective and see whether our perception remains the same.

Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphigeneia in order to move forward with the assault on Troy. Though he himself may have been at fault for Artemis’ rage. So, Agamemon’s choice was essentially him taking fault, as a war-chief, for his own actions and doing what was necessary to keep the military force together and moving forward. This makes his choice almost heartlessly utilitarian except for the fact that it was Odysseus who convinced Agamemnon to make this choice. This shows that Agamemnon’s heart first ruled and only second his mind. There is, however, one further consideration, though. In choosing to keep the military force together, Agamemnon does implicitly choose to honor the relationship to his brother over the relationship to his daughter and by proxy his wife.

And Clytemnestra (with the help of the chorus) does not fail to notice the potential hypocrisy in the fact that Agamemnon sacrifices his blood daughter simply to save the non-blood wife of his brother (who happens to be the sister of Clytemnestra, Helen).* Perhaps simply Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are operating under differing theories of justice, or the point is far more subtle: Agamemnon, like all the men in the play, believes women’s lives to be of less account than the pride of men–and the war itself is about Menelaos and the pride of Achaian men–and both Helen and Iphigeneia are simply by-products of this fight between men. Clytemnestra here is then less the image of the spurned wife and rage-filled mother (subject to her emotions), and more an impersonal force of justice forcing the ancient consciousness to recognize the fullness and richness of women as humans completely partaking of human nature in both its passive and active elements.

*Agamemnon: “do not try in woman’s ways to make me delicate, nor, as if I were some Asiastic bow down to earth and with wide mouth cry out to me…” (Ibid 918-920)

**”But when necessity’s yoke was put upon him he changed, and from the heart the breath came bitter and sacrilegious, utterly infidel, to warp a will now to be stopped at nothing. The sickening in men’s minds, tough, reckless in fresh cruelty brings daring.  He endured then to sacrifice his daughter to stay the strength of the war waged for a woman, first offering for the ships’ sake.” (My italics; Ibid 218-226)