Skip to content

Clytemnestra and Gender Roles

October 20, 2013

The character of Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon is complex as the role she adopts is constantly shifting. Many of the other characters describe Clytemnestra in a masculine way whilst still referring to her as a woman. Clytemnestra herself also uses language usually reserved for male characters. This masculine representation continues in the behaviours and activities Clytemnestra adopts, culminating in the murder of her husband. Through examining these three areas, it is possible to consider Clytemnestra’s rejection of her gender role.

Within the first few lines of Agamemnon (11) Clytemnestra is described by the watchman as a ‘woman in passionate heart and man in strength of purpose.’ This statement provides a clear distinction between gender roles but also presents Clytemnestra has having ‘manly’ qualities. The chorus reinforces this idea when they state ‘Lady, you speak as wisely as a prudent man’ (Agamemnon 351). These ‘manly’ qualities are best demonstrated in Clytemnestra’s use of language, particular examples include ‘I stand where I dealt the blow; my purpose is achieved. Thus have I done the deed; deny it I will not’ and ‘You are testing me as if I were a witless woman’ (Agamemnon 1379-80; 1402). Pomeroy (1994:98) notes that ‘womanly behaviour was characterised then…by submissiveness and modesty’. The language used by Clytemnestra is neither of these things and instead she ‘adopts characteristics of the dominant sex to achieve [her] goals’ (Pomeroy, 1994:98). Goldhill (1992:35) similarly considers that the character of Clytemnestra dominates the stage, recounts the most impressive speeches and skillfully manipulates language in order to achieve power. The manipulation of language is masterfully used in the speech welcoming Agamemnon home (Agamemnon 855-913). Goldhill (1992:49) observes that Agamemnon is aware that to tread on the purple carpet, that Clytemnestra has laid out for his homecoming, is a ‘transgressive act’ that might incur the anger of the citizens and gods. However, Clytemnestra expertly manipulates Agamemnon into stepping onto the carpet by finally stating ‘Oh yield! Yet of your own free will entrust the victory to me’ (Agamemnon 943). Clytemnestra’s use of deception and cunning does not necessarily translate as a negative female trait. Numerous pieces of research have drawn a comparison between the characters of Clytemnestra and Penelope (Katz, 1991:52, Lefkowitz 2007:174 and Blundell, 1995:54). However, whereas Penelope used her cunning to protect Odysseus, her husbands’, interests Clytemnestra used hers to destroy Agamemnon.

Clytemnestra’s behaviour results in the destruction of Agamemnon and his house. The destruction is in part instigated through her choice of her own sexual partner in Aegisthus. On the one hand, Lefkowitz (2007:175) observes that there is no direct reference by Clytemnestra to the exact set up of her relationship with Aegisthus, referring to Agamemnon (1436) where it alludes to them as friends. On the other hand, this does not take into account the preceding statement where Clytemnestra states ‘so long as the fire upon my hearth is kindled by Aegisthus’ (1435). The implication of this statement is sexual but is also a double entendre as a woman would have been responsible for lighting the fire of the hearth (Pomeroy, 1994:98). There is little agreement with Lefkowitzs’ view, Blundell (1995:173), Pomeroy (1994:98) and Fantham et al (1994:39) each consider that Clytemnestra was an adulteress. Blundell (1995:178) observes that the masculine activity of Clytemnestra was not restricted to ‘choosing her own sexual partner’ but also ruling Argos in Agamemnon’s absence.

The chorus approach Clytemnestra recognising her ‘royal authority; for it is fitting to do homage to the consort of a sovereign prince when her husband’s throne is empty’ (Agamemnon 258-60). The approach of the chorus is a statement of the power Clytemnestra has held during the absence of Agamemnon; something she is unwilling to give up. In the final lines of Agamemnon Clytemnestra relishes dismissing the chorus’ protestations stating to Aegisthus that, ‘I and you will be masters of this house and order it aright’ (Agamemnon 1649). This indicates equality of power and a clear indication that Clytemnestra will not return to the submissive role she held prior to Agamemnon’s departure for Troy. The murder of Agamemnon and destruction of his house completes the transference of power (Blundell, 1995:173).

Clytemnestra appears to take pride in her action, presiding over the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra ‘Twice I struck him, and with two groans his limbs relaxed…here is Agamemnon, my husband, now a corpse’ (Agamemnon 1385-1405). Clytemnestra appears to speak about Agamemnon as if he were an enemy whilst presenting the defence of her actions, reiterating the justifications for the murder on a number of occasions (Lefkowitz, 2007:175):

he sacrificed his own child, she whom I bore…Is it not he whom you should have banished from this land in requital for his polluting deed?… Listen then to this too, this the righteous sanction on my oath: by Justice, exacted for my child, by Ate, by the Avenging Spirit, to whom I sacrificed that man…Yet, as he has suffered—worthy prize of worthy deed—for what he did to my sweet flower.

(Aeschylus Agamemnon 1418-1420; 1430-1435; 1525-6)

Through killing Agamemnon Clytemnestra has avenged her daughter’s murder; one of the primary justifications for her actions. However, she also sought recompense for Agamemnon’s adultery, ‘here lies the man who did me wrong…and here she lies…but to me she has brought for my bed an added relish of delight’ (Agamemnon 1439-1445). Murder is outside of the sphere of the female gender role, this is demonstrated by the chorus’ reactions to it (Agamemnon 1453-4). Pomeroy (1994:98) argues that if Aegisthus had perpetrated the murder it would have been more readily accepted but instead Clytemnestra is presented as the bad woman. This is reflected is Goldhill’s (1992:36) considerations that ‘Clytemnestra’s pursuit of power…through her misuse of words and…of her body in adultery constructs a figure of a monstrous reversal of the female role’. It might be argued that this is particularly well represented by Clytemnestra, the murderer, taking charge of the burial of her husband.

Clytemnestra states to the chorus that Agamemnon’s funeral ‘is no concern of yours. By our hands down he fell, down to death, and down below shall we bury him—but not with wailings from his household’ (1551-5). This, Hame (2004:521) argues, violates burial practices as those who commit murder are prohibited from being involved in the funeral. Furthermore, ‘in normal circumstances a female member of the oikos, regardless of her status, does not possess the authority to conduct funeral rites.’ It is through this final act that Clytemnestra concludes her revenge and ends Agamemnon’s rule.

In Agamemnon Aeschylus represents Clytemnestra as a woman who defies every convention of the female gender role. It is the rejection of this role that leads Agamemnon in the Odyssey (424; 429) to describe Clytemnestra as, ‘shameless’ and a woman who ‘devised a monstrous thing’. Aeschylus’ portrayal of Clytemnestra can be seen as negative and positive, an example being that she seeks justice for her daughter but at the same time is totally unrepentant for the act of murder. Clytemnestra does not hide from her actions, instead she freely admits the murder and embraces the power and authority. It is through the inversion of traditional gender roles, adopting masculine speech, behaviours and activities, that Clytemnestra ultimately achieves her revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Clytemnestra’s revenge will have been seen as a shocking act by some members of the Athenian audience but others may have likely reflected on the traditional gender role of women in society.

Clytemnestra is a fascinating character and this assessment has just scratched the surface, as I have only considered her portrayal in the Agamemnon. I hope to return to her in future and assess the character across the Oresteia, particularly in comparison to the representation in the Odyssey.


Primary Sources

Aeschylus Aeschylus Volume 2 Agamemnon Translated by H.W. Smyth Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Homer The Odyssey Translated by A.T. Murray, London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1919.

Secondary Sources

Blundell, S. Women in Ancient Greece Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Fantham, E. et al Women in the Classical World Oxford: Oxford University Press,1994.

Goldhill, S.Aeschylus: the Oresteia Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hame, K.J. “All in the family: funeral rites and the health of the oikos in Aeschylus’ Oresteia”, American Journal of Philology 125, 2004, 513-538.

Katz, M.A. Penelope’s Renown Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1991.

Lefkowitz, M. Women in Greek Myth London: Duckworth, 2007.

Pomeroy, S. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves Women in Classical Antiquity London: Pimlico, 1994.


From → Women in Myth

  1. A brief and interesting examination of Clytemnestra! Thanks for this post – its really got me thinking! If this comment is unwelcome, please feel free to delete it 🙂 The feminist/womanist in me is really in full stride tonight:

    Its been a while since I have read Agamemnon , but as I recall Agamemnon and Clytemnestra share a sense of certainty in their actions to end life. This common sense of entitlement is interesting. Agamemnon is compelled by his allegiance to political etiquette – what is best for the state/region; what action he can make to ensure he is powerful in this sphere, albeit at the cost of him losing trust and clout at home with his wife (among others like the chorus as I recall). It is ultimately his allegiance to concept of power and man-made (literally male-made) systems that he defers, thus he “sacrifices” his daughter (the feminine) to prove his allegiance to this patriarchal system. Clytemnestra is compelled to seek revenge-by-murder by her allegiance to honoring the familial bond (read blood bond, or mater-daughter). To me her actions show a woman doing her best to survive in a man’s world where the feminine is disposable (as the daughter’s sacrifice imparts, and that Agamemnon was willing to trash his wife’s trust suggests). I think Clytemnestra’s character takes it a step further by attempting to also thrive in the setting she is placed in. By adapting masculine posturing, she is able to attain revenge and bring to light the power inherent in familial and hearth-oriented bonds. In a time when deference to the gods and political power were supreme, Clytemnestra dares to step up and into a scene wielding familial fidelity and the dark feminine as a powerful reminder that there is more than just the intellectual sphere with which to be concerned. Perhaps Clytemnestra represents what the world might look like if society “trashes” or disposes of the feminine and related gendered qualities like nurturance, care, family, etc? By sacrificing the weak and voiceless in an effort to gain power and prestige, eventually those relegated as the weak will adapt new and more cunning ways to beat oppressors at their own game. Perhaps what is being called Clytemnestra’s “masculine” activities are really the dark-feminine emerging? But we all know how this ends – the killer is the killed, and the revenge wrath continues!

    • All comments are very much welcome, particularly when they are so well thought out and considered. It is good to have a broad perspective and the opinions of others. Your analysis is similar to the article by Hame that I quote who considers the funeral rites performed by Clytemnestra for Agamemnon. In considering these rituals Hame shows how Clytemnestra’s disregard of the funeral rites for Agamemnon reflects the destruction of his oikos and how hers is subsequently destroyed by Orestes. I would highly recommend it if you can access a copy. Thank you very much for your contribution.

  2. I also highly recommend both versions of Electra for more insight into the character of Clytemnestra. These plays examines the personalities of Clytemnestra’s children and how they regard their mother and her actions.

    • Thank you for mentioning both versions of Electra.I have just finished re-reading both plays in the past few weeks; they are an excellent. I also found that Iphigenia at Aulis provided a useful alternative portrayal of Clytemnestra. I could quite easily have written a whole essay on her. I will revisit Clytemnestra when I have time between Semesters, I do not have the time to do it justice at the moments as I need to keep up as much as possible with each unit of study.

  3. jsutton permalink

    Thank you for this well-written article. I think the comparison of Penelope and Clytemnestra is evocative. But Penelope exists in a fairy-tale like setting to some extent, where Clytemnestra’s situation is more in tune with the reality of war. Both were awaiting their husbands’ return from the Trojan War. Homer and Aeschylus question the ethos of war, but Aeschylus even more explicitly. I am focused on mothers in ancient Greek literature right now. We can see Clytemnestra first as the mother of Iphigenia, motivated by revenge, and then as the mother of Orestes and Electra, with different motivations. As a mother, Clytemnestra exerts more strength than Penelope does, who submits to her son’s greater power even though he is young, because he is male. It is interesting to examine the Iliad through the experience of Thetis, the mother of Achilles, and not to forget that a model for a vengeful mother exists earlier in the Hymn to Demeter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: