Character of Clytemnestra
Clytemnestra was the daughter of Tyndarus, king of Sparta and Leda. The wife of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra was a true representative of the heroic age, when woman were not very mild and sentimental. Richmond Lattimore has drawn a pen picture of the woman of the heroic age; “they are people of character with will and temper of their own; but if their men insist, they must give way. Force them and they love.”
Clytemnestra never gave way, nor could anybody ever imagine that she could be coerced into action. She was a woman with superhuman strength, indomitable will, and incredible courage. She did not appear to have any womanly weakness. No motive, no persuasion, no arguments could swerve her from her course.
Usually female characters do not figure prominently in the tragedies of Aeschylus. The reason is not far to seek. Clytemnestra seemed to be an exception. She was stern and severe, and shared with the heroes their manliness. Like Helen, Clytemnestra also chose her husband. Like Helen, she chose her paramour. And yet how different she was from her sister. It was not in respect of physical beauty alone, although Clytemnestra was also attractive. Helen in relation to Hector was always kind and sympathetic. Clytemnestra had no such human feelings. She was a woman with colossal proportions, completely impervious to womanly, and even, human feelings. The concubine of Aegisthus, she killed her husband with no regret. It was not a murder on the spur of the moment. For long ten years she nursed her revenge, and therefore, her murder was cold and calculated. With diabolical energy she had been planning the death of her husband, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, she seized it.
Gilbert Murray has drawn a beautiful pen-picture of Clytemnestra, which may be quoted at length:
“The greatest and most human character of the whole play is Clytemnestra. She is conceived on the grand Aeschylean scale, a scale which makes even Lady Macbeth and Beatrice Cenci seen small.”
Critics have often compared her with Lady Macbeth. And the comparison is pointless. True, Lady Macbeth, at the early stage of the play, was all fire and steel. She was like a friend, and even chose to be unsexed for the realization of her end. But we know that she was simply pretending to be unsexed, when all the womanly qualities and even weaknesses were lying latent. She was tongue doughty, while her nerves often failed her. She was familiar with the compunctious visitings of nature. The woman in her always asserted herself. She wore a mask of a monster, and, even to a superficial observer, she seemed to be distinctly womanly. She could not kill Duncan, only because he resembled her father. She shuddered and shrank. She wanted to stimulate her nerves with wine, and that was a meagre palliative. When Macduff came and announced that Duncan was killed, lying in a pool of blood, her nerves failed her. She was, indeed, at the end of her tether. She fainted away. And this was genuine. She became the queen, but everything appeared futile. The ambitious woman was conscience stricken. Her memory was crowded with the gruesome murder, and that was haunting her like a spectre. She went on brooding throughout the day and night, in Sleep Walking Scene. She imagined that drops of blood of Duncan were sticking to her hands :
“Here’s the smell of the blood still,
All the perfumes of Arabia will not Sweeten this little hand;”
But Clytemnestra had no remorse for what she had done. Unlike Lady Macbeth, she was never hysterical. Her every step was measured. In both the Agamemnon and the Choephorae she appeared relentless, remorseless, colossal.
Clytemnestra’s character deserves to be analyzed in details. In Homer, Clytemnestra was only a shadowy figure, that hardly stirs our imagination. To Aeschylus goes the credit of rehabilitating her. For he believed that in the drama of life as in the drama of the stage, a woman must play a significant, and even a decisive role. Clytemnestra was not destined to live a conventional life-the life of a moth of peace, looking after the comforts and amenities of the members of the family. She was not born to build a sweet home. “As a woman“. says Symonds, “she stands outside the decencies and duties of womanhood, supporting herself by the sole strength of her powerful nature and indomitable will.”
Essentially a woman of action, Clytemnestra was extremely tongue-tied. She was called by the Watchman a “man-souled woman”. She was never seen on the stage talking with Aegisthus about her plan of action. We learn from the chorus what she was thinking about. From the Aristotelian point of view, Clytemnestra may not be regarded as an ideal tragic figure, for she was not “appropriate”, or a person, “true to type”, i.e. a woman should behave like a woman, a man like a man.
Clytemnestra had no occasion to take Aegisthus into her confidence. He might be her paramour, but nowhere did she seem to entertain a charitable opinion about his courage. She was, for all practical purposes, self-sufficient. Satan had his followers, and their name was legion. Clytemnestra was alone. But we cannot help admiring her for her intrepidity and composure. When she said:
“Thus,-if ye list to hear a woman’s word,
would run my counsel,”
She knew very well that she was, in fact, a man in a womanly form. She had an attractive womanly form, and she knew how to exercise the womanly art to her full advantage.
It was Clytemnestra, who had ordered the Watchman to look for a light. It was her plan to arrange for a chain of light from Troy to Argos. She, of course, did not plan this for extending a hearty welcome to her husband at the earliest opportunity. That was the furthest from her intention. As soon as she would see the light, she would know that Agamemnon was coming. She would, therefore, waste no time in slaying him and avenging the sacrifice of Iphigenia. She kindled all the altar-flames, and burnt incense. For long ten years she waited, and, at last the much-sought hour had come.
Clytemnestra was determined to lead him to the pitch of pride. His impiety and arrogance would antagonize the gods. George Thomson rightly points out that the move of Clytemnestra was motivated. “Clytemnestra stands silent, for her opportunity. Her purpose is to induce him to commit an overt act of pride which will symbolise the sin he is about to expiate. That is the significance of the sacred tapestries on which she makes him tread.”
Agamemnon refused to walk on the red carpets or tapestries:
“Honour me as a man, not as a god.”
So long flamboyant and rhetorical, Clytemnestra thought of changing her tactics. She said:
“Come, tell me this, and hide not your true thought.”
At the back of the stage the scene of the murder is within our view. What a bloody axe in our hand, Clytemnestra stood over her husbands’ corpse. In Browning’s Pippa Passes, Ottima was standing in a similar position, but with what a difference! While Clytemnestra was exultant, Ottima was full of remorse, almost on the verge of a collapse.
Clytemnestra sought to vindicate herself. But her quilt must also be followed by nemesis. Orestes, so long in exile, came back in disguise with his friend Pylades. The Choephorae is the play in which Agamemnon was avenged. Orestes had from Apollo to express command that Clytemnestra and her paramour must be slain. Clytemnestra had the self- complacency to believe that she had justice on her side. But she was soon to be disillusioned. Her own view, “who so sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”, came as a boomerang.