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 because the unwillingness of her husband to stand up against society led to the demise of her family.
The society in which this play takes place is so foreign from our own that it is difficult to understand the actions of many characters. However, in Greek society many of these actions were much more understandable. The first of these situations was the sacrifice of Iphigeneia by Agamemnon. The king speaks of his grief when he says,
Heavy indeed my fate if I disobey,
but heavy, too, if I must butcher my child,
the glory of my house, polluting a father's hands
with streams of virgin's blood beside the altar.
Which of these two things is without evil? (Agamemnon, 41) 1
Yet Agamemnon does go on to murder his daughter. In his society was he free to make any other decision? He says, "How shall I become the deserter of my fleet and fail my allies?" (Agam., 41) The question of whether he should inflict so much suffering on his family is not even mentioned. Agamemnon is obviously feeling societal pressure to sacrifice Iphigeneia, yet one must question if he had any possible alternatives. If he had said "no," he could have faced revolt, and he would have been considered weak by other men. Yet to whom did he owe...