The Powerful Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Oresteia

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The Powerful Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Oresteia

What Price Glory? was the title of a Maxwell Anderson play about World War I. Although the Oresteia deals with the period following a much different war, the same question can be asked of it. In the trilogy Aeschylus presents the reader with a stunning example of ancient Greek society, in which warrior ideals were firmly held, and glory in battle was considered the supreme good. The question of moral justification in the trilogy brings in many complex issues, but all of them revolve around the construction of Greek society and the role of different individuals in this system. Two of the most extraordinary characters are the personages of Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra. This couple confronts the reader with a myriad assortment of issues, but one of the most thought-provoking is the issue of justification. We are presented with two unnatural murders: that of Iphigeneia by her father Agamemnon, and later that of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra. It is very difficult to argue from merely these facts as to who was more justified in the killings. Many would say Clytemnestra because it was Agamemnon who began the whole situation, but others would argue that society forced Agamemnon into this position. These responses are based only on circumspect and superficial evidence and do not drive to the heart of the issue. To fully understand these characters and to answer the question of their justification one must view their actions in the context of the society in which they lived, and also the role of free-will or self-determination in this society. I will argue that although both characters were victims of the warrior society in which they lived, it was Clytemnestra who was more justified ...

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... She was powerless to act otherwise. She was not a respected military leader like her husband. She couldn't bring him to court or change destiny in any other way. So, as a mother, she did what she felt she had to do. She acted for the justice of her child and her sex. When Agamemnon ordered the soldiers to put the bit in Iphigeneia's mouth before her sacrifice, it was because he didn't want to hear the cries of his daughter dying. Clytemnestra, however, forced her husband and the rest of Greece to hear the cries, the cries of the pained women and deal with the situation he did nothing to mend. For this she would be condemned, but because of her powerlessness, for this she was justified.

Works Cited

1 Aeschylus, The Oresteia: A New Translation for the Theatre, Translated by David Grene and Wendy Doniger-O'Flaherty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

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