Study Guide

Agamemnon Gender

By Aeschylus


(Chorus): "[Menelaus and Agamemnon's] loud and ringing cry was of war, from anger,
like vultures which in extreme anguish for their young
wheel and spiral high above their nests […].
On high, someone – either Apollo or Pan or Zeus –
hears the birds' wailed lament, the sharp cry of these settlers in their home,
and for the transgressors' later punishment sends a Fury.
In just this way the mighty Zeus who guards hospitality
sends Atreus' sons against Alexandros,
because of a woman with many husbands" (48-52, 55-62)

Here, the Chorus plays two ideas of womanhood off one another. One idea is that of a woman as mother and defender of her children, as symbolized by the vultures which are in agony because their young have been killed. The second is that of a woman as promiscuous, a "woman with many husbands." It's pretty easy to see that they regard one of these images as good and the other one as bad. But here's the weird thing: the good image of womanhood is actually applied to Agamemnon and Menelaus, who are compared to the vultures. Why do you think Agamemnon and Menelaus are compared to women in this instance? How does this connect up with the theme of Family running through the play?

(Chorus): "It is very like a woman in command
to concede gratitude before the facts appear:
too ready to persuade, a female ranges beyond her boundary,
quick to move; but doom is quick
for rumour when a woman spreads it, and it is destroyed." (483-487)

With these words, the Chorus expresses a stereotyped view of women as emotional and irrational. But, from your reading of the play as a whole, do you think the female characters in the play actually live up to this stereotype? As for the male characters, there are clearly some who are very rational and don't get their hopes up too early; both the Watchman and the Herald seem to fit this description (at least we think so). But are all the male characters this rational? Based on the way all of the characters in the play are depicted, do you think Aeschylus agrees with the Chorus's opinion of women?

(Clytemnestra): "I cried out my joy long ago, when the first night-messenger of fire came telling of Ilion's capture and destruction. And someone said in reproof, 'Have beacon-watchers persuaded you to think that Troy is now ransacked? Truly like a woman to let her heart be lifted!' Words such as those made me seem astray; nevertheless I went on sacrificing, and people in all parts of the city shrilled cries of joy in women's custom, in grateful triumph, lulling the fragrant flame that devoured their sacrifice at the gods' seats. And now, for the longer account, what need have you to give it me? I shall learn the whole story from my lord himself; and I must hasten to give my revered husband the best of welcomes now he has come back. For what light of day is sweeter to a wife to see than this, with the gates opened up when god has brought back her husband safely from campaign? Take this message away to my husband, to come as soon as possible; he is the city's beloved darling. As to his wife, I wish he may find her when he comes just as faithful in his home as the one he left behind, the house's watch-dog to him while hostile to ill-wishers, and similar in everything else, with no seal broken in the length of time; and I know no more of pleasure from another man, nor talk of blame, than I do of dipping bronze. There you have my boast; its fullness with the truth makes it no shame for a woman of my nobility to proclaim." (587-614)

We've quoted this entire long speech by Clytemnestra because of the sheer wealth of conflicting images of femininity it offers. At the beginning of the speech, we see her offering a counterargument to the sexist stereotypes presented by the Chorus in the previous quotation. Contrary to how they claim women typically behave, Clytemnestra says that she was right about the fact that Agamemnon was coming home, and so hadn't gotten her hopes up for no reason. She drives this point home by saying that she doesn't want to hear any more secondhand information, but will wait to hear what her husband has to say when he gets home. For the rest of the speech, she interweaves various ideas of traditional femininity, pointing out how much she loves her husband, and how faithful she has been to him while he was gone. Why do you think Aeschylus has Clytemnestra portray these two different images of womanhood in this speech?

(Clytemnestra): "Men of the city, senior Argives here present, I shall have no qualms in telling you how I love my husband; a person's timidity dies away in time. I have learned from others, I shall tell my own life's hardship all the while this man was under Ilion's wall. The first thing: for a wife to be separated from her husband, and to sit at home alone, is a terrible misery, when she hears many malicious rumours, with one man coming and then another with his cries bringing worse pain on top of pain for the house." (855-865)

Here, once again, Clytemnestra portrays herself in terms of stereotypical femininity, sitting on pins and needles for any word of her husband while he is away on campaign. What does Clytemnestra's use of this traditional gender imagery say about her character?

(Cassandra): "Apollo god of seers set me in this office."
(Chorus): "Smitten with desire for you, I fear you mean, although he is a god?"
(Cassandra): "Before now, I was ashamed to speak of this."
(Chorus): "Everyone shows greater delicacy while in prosperity."
(Cassandra): "But Apollo quite wrestled with me while breathing his favours."
(Chorus): "And did the two of you duly come to making a child?"
(Cassandra): "Though I had consented to Loxias, I cheated him." (1202-1208)

What do you think Cassandra means when she says she "cheated" Loxias (a.k.a. Apollo) at the end of this passage? To what extent does Cassandra fit into or fail to fit into the more stereotypical images of women advanced in the play, such as by the Chorus?

(Cassandra): "The ships' commander and overturner of Troy will meet with underhanded destruction, through evil fortune; he does not know the kind of bite behind the hateful b****'s tongue when it brightly laid back its ears and licked. Such is the male's female murderer in her audacity. What loathsome monster should I be accurate in calling her – an amphisbaena, or a Scylla living in the rocks, destruction for sailors, a hellish mother raging and breathing war without truce on her dearest? How she cried in triumph, in her total audacity, just as at a battle's turn! Yet she appears to rejoice at the safe homecoming." (1227-1238)

Here, Cassandra seems to put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Agamemnon's murderer will be female, as well as on his murderer's deceitfulness. Do you think this is just a coincidence, or is Cassandra herself playing into cultural stereotypes of women as untrustworthy?

(Chorus): "Which man is to bring this evil thing about?"
(Cassandra): "You have indeed been thrown a long way off the course my oracles are running!" (1251-1252)

Here we see how the Chorus's gender stereotypes prevent them from understanding Cassandra's prophecy. They simply have no idea that a woman could plan such a horrible murder.

(Chorus): "We marvel at your tongue, at your bold mouth in vaunting such words over your husband." (Clytemnestra): "You test me like a witless woman, but I speak with a fearless heart to those who know; and whether you yourself wish to approve or to blame me, it's all the same! This is Agamemnon, my husband, but a corpse, the work of my right hand here, a just architect. This is how things are." (1399-1406)

In this exchange, the Chorus is still clearly dumbfounded that a woman could have carried out such a fearsome act as Clytemnestra did in killing her husband. But look at Clytemnestra's words in response. Does she argue against these cultural assumptions, or reinforce them? Doesn't it kind of seem like Clytemnestra is saying, "Don't treat me like a woman," as if she were something else? What do you make of this?

(Chorus): "Oh for a fate without excessive pain
and not long-watchful by the bed,
to come and bring to us quickly
the sleep which never ends, now that our most kind guardian
has been brought down in death
after enduring
much through a woman; by woman too his life was lost." (1448-1454)

Once again, the Chorus seems really, really upset that Agamemnon was killed by a woman. In fact, it disturbs them so much that they wish for death. Do you think they would have the same response if Agamemnon had been murdered by a man?

(Chorus to Aegisthus): "You – you woman! Against those who were newly from the fighting, while you had kept the house at home and violated the husband's bed as well – did you plan this death for their commander? […] As if I shall see you ruling the Argives – you who planned death for this man but had no courage to carry out the deed by killing him yourself!"
(Aegisthus): "That was because the deception was clearly a woman's role, while I was a suspect enemy from long ago." (1625-1627, 1633-1638)

If Clytemnestra is a woman with the mind of a man, as she and other characters in the play imply, then the Chorus thinks that Aegisthus is a man with the soul of a woman. This, of course, is based on cultural stereotypes that view women as untrustworthy and deceitful. Interestingly, Aegisthus seems to agree with the assessment that the deceitfulness of the plot on Agamemnon was feminine, but he argues that this was necessary under the circumstances. What do you make of this, and how can you connect it with some of Agamemnon's other key themes?