CLYTEMNESTRA

Mythical Greek queen

In Greek legend, Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. While Agamemnon was away fighting in the Trojan War, Clytemnestra took a lover, Aegisthus. When Agamemnon returned from the ten-year war accompanied by his mistress Cassandra, Clytemnestra killed him in his bath. For her crime, Clytemnestra was killed by her son, Orestes. The story of Clytemnestra, her husband, and their children was immortalized by the poet Homer and by the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Each author presents a different view of Clytemnestra and her motivation.

Clytemnestra was the daughter of Tyndareos and Leda. She and Agamemnon had a son, Orestes, and three daughters. Two of the daughters were Iphigenia and Electra. Homer depicted Clytemnestra as a good but weak woman who is misled and manipulated by Aegisthus. In Homer’s version of the story, it is Aegisthus who actually murders Agamemnon. The Greek playwrights depicted Clytemnestra as a powerful woman who is driven to murder by years of pent-up grief and rage. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (part of the Oresteia trilogy), Clytemnestra mourns the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia by Agamemnon and kills him when he returns home. She then seizes power by the force of her public rhetoric*. In Sophocles’ Electra, Clytemnestra is depicted as an evil woman whose horrendous act is avenged by her children, Orestes and Electra.

As these different portrayals of Clytemnestra show, women in ancient Greek literature were given a wide range of qualities—from wise to foolish, from pure to corrupt, and from strong to weak. In general, early Greek poets, such as Homer, tended to show women acting rationally and intelligently, while later Greek writers focused on women acting against society’s rules. The Greek tragedians often used the themes of murder and revenge to illustrate how these rules were broken. (See also Drama, Greek; Women, Greek.)

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

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