Clytemnestra’s Role In The Oresteia Journal

Clytemnestra’s Role In The Oresteia

Over the past few decades, the role and character of Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a three part cycle of plays, has been examined by Greek historians, mythology and literature students and professors, and gender sociologists alike. The Oresteia reveals a tragedy about a family that involves deceit, mourning, death, revenge and power. Clytemnestra, the queen, shares a role in all five of these elements; the role of Clytemnestra has been analyzed several times in a search for meaning through her language and the character she plays. Thus, the speech and gender presented by Clytemnestra’s role in the Oresteia has been studied many times in an attempt to correlate and explain the transition of the role women used to have in society to the current role they play in society. This paper will analyze and explain the role of Clytemnestra in the Oresteia. It will conclude with an explanation that although she was powerful and acted powerfully, in the end Clytemnestra still played the role of a weak woman in society.

Brief Overview of the Oresteia

The Oresteia is a three part cycle of plays; the Agamemnon, the Choephoroe, and the Eumenides. The Agamemnon sets the tone for the role Clytemnestra plays as a woman whose advice and words are completely disregarded by her husband. In the Agamemnon, Clytemnestra is deceived by her husband, Agamemnon, into sending him their youngest daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon cuts Iphigenia’s throat on an alter as a sacrifice. Furthermore, Clytemnestra’s advice to respect the defeated Trojan temples and people is deliberately disregarded by Agamemnon, and the city is wildly looted, destroyed and burned. Clytemnestra finally kills Agamemnon after the Trojan War, when he brings home a raped and captured Trojan priestess. In the second part, the Choephoroe, Clytemnestra’s son Orestes, kills her in retribution for his father’s death and on Apollo’s advice. Clytemnestra is unable to defend herself, and dies. After her death, Orestes taunts her corpse, and is pursued by the Furies, the spirits of death and avengers of hell as a result of the taunting. Orestes flees to Delphi, which is Apollo’s sanctuary, to escape the spirits of death.

In the last part of the plays, the Eumenides, Apollo tells Orestes that he cannot save Orestes from the Furies’ rightful wrath. Orestes instead has to go to Athens and plead his case before the goddess Athena. In front of Athena, Orestes admits to murdering his mother, is not remorseful and additionally tries to place some of the blame on Apollo, telling Athena that Apollo made him do it. The Furies point out that the difference here is that that Orestes killed blood kin while Clytemnestra killed her husband, who was not blood kin. Apollo tells Athena that Zeus told him to advise Orestes, and then asserts that a mother is not the parent to a child, but rather only a nurse, and that only fathers are the blood kin of children. Apollo uses Athena’s birth from Zeus to prove his point, and Apollo and Athena vote that Orestes murder of his mother was justified. The Furies side for Clytemnestra, but are out-voted, and call upon Mother Night to see the injustice that has been done. Mother Night determines that justice has been scorned, and that terrible retribution must follow. In an attempt to stall the retribution, Athena asks the Furies to abandon their former roles as hideous avengers from hell, and to become the Eumenides. The new Eumenides accept Athena’s offer, and the play ends.

The Role of Clytemnestra

The role of Clytemnestra can be analyzed separately in each of the plays, but the conclusion remains the same; she is depicted a traditional “weak” woman. In the Agamemnon, her husband is depicted as a war hero. Clytemnestra’s role in this play is a little different because she does not speak like most of the other women in the play. She is depicted as being more masculine than feminine because her husband is away at war and she has to take the place of political authority conferred upon her in his absence. In the play she deals with mostly men from a masculine standpoint. And yet, although figured as masculine, Clytemnestra’s persuasive power has a distinctly feminine aspect in that she employs it to deceive and gain power over men (McClure, 1999). In this play, Clytemnestra has an adulterous affair with Aegisthus, and is able to deceive and control men with her persuasive capabilities. As a result, most would think that she represents a strong, independent women that is taken seriously. However, it is the exact opposite. Scholars have written that she had the adulterous affair as a result of Aegisthus tricking her, not because she hated her husband so much or that she was in love with Aegisthus. Thus, even in her affair, she was deceived by a man.

In the first play, at the end of the ten-year war, Agamemnon returned to Mycenae where Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, invited him to a banquet where Agamemnon was treacherously slain. Agamemnon was slain by his wife alone in a bath, a piece of cloth or a net having first been thrown over him to prevent resistance (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007).

According to Aeschylus, Clytemnestra placed a piece of purple cloth and asked the returning Agamemnon to step over it. He refused at first but then gave in, while Cassandra, the Trojan princess, who had been endowed with the gift of prophecy but with the curse of no one believing her, waited outside, knowing doom awaited (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007). She stayed outside until she heard Agamemnon scream as he died, then ran inside and was killed by Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra’s wrath at the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, and her jealousy of Cassandra, are said to have been the motives of her crime (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007). Because of her jealousy of Cassandra, Clytemnestra’s role is said to be one of remorseless revenge. In this play, she succeeds as in a powerful role; however her role in this play is different than the other two.

In this play Clytemnestra is ignored by Agamemnon, both in her advice regarding the Trojan villages and by the fact that he not only tricks her into sending him their daughter, but then also sacrifices the daughter with no remorse. He additionally takes a Trojan princess that was raped in the temple as part of his fair share of loot from the conquered city. Through all of his actions, Agamemnon is not viewed as an evil man, but as one that acts correctly for his status and his culture. Greek historians have stated that Clytemnestra was remorseless and vengeful because she conspired with her lover to kill Agamemnon after he returned from the Trojan War, using the fact that he killed her daughter as an excuse, among other things. However, in analyzing her monologue regarding her killing of Agamemnon, she states “He, all unmoved, as though brute life he quenched

His own child slaughtered, — of my travail throes

Him shouldst thou not have chased from land and home. When me thou dost arraign; — but, mark my words..

If with strong hand ye conquer me, then rule;– but should the god decree the opposite, Though late, to sober sense shalt thou be schooled.” In this monologue she is basically stating that justice will be served for what Agamemnon has done, that she will get revenge. Instead of appearing to be merely remorseless and vengeful, she appears to lament her daughter’s death and all of the evils that Agamemnon did in his life. Thus, she plays the role of a grieving mother.

The role that Clytemnestra plays in the Agamemnon is ironic because although she represents masculine qualities, she appears to be virtually unseen by her husband. Clytemnestra plays the role of the unheard women whose desires, advice and stature as the mother of the sacrificed daughter have no bearing in the marriage or in society. Although she has power, it is beyond her control. In the first play her role is one that can be best described as powerless. Clytemnestra is not the typical woman, because she displays man-like qualities, but still is unsuccessful even with her feminine qualities of persuasion. It can almost be said that she has an affair as a result of her husband’s treatment of her, in that he doesn’t listen to anything she says seriously. She is shown as a devalued woman when her daughter is killed to appease the gods. Since she is repeatedly ignored by Agamemnon, she finally kills him in grief over her daughter’s death. Through this action she also demonstrates feminine qualities in grieving over the death of a child and resorting to any means to avenge the death of her daughter by her husband. The first part of the play closes with Clytemnestra is a strong character that has avenged her daughter’s death but still laments over the death.

In the first play, Clytemnestra represents the role of justice, in that she avenged her treatment by her husband and the killing of her daughter. In the second part, the role of Clytemnestra changes somewhat, but she is still depicted as a weak woman. The weakness of her position in society is further illustrated by the fact that her son, Orestes, confesses freely to his mother’s murder, and also that he never shows any remorse. It is clear that to Orestes, his father, not his mother, is of importance to him, that he finally claims as his sole parent. Any persuasive capabilities of Clytemnestra are overcome by Orestes in the Choephoroe, as she is unable to successfully defend herself when he tries to kill her. In another related play Electra and her brother Orestes hatch a plan to kill their mother and step father. Clytemnestra is said to treat Electra really badly, almost like a beggar or someone living in poverty because she is still grieving at the death of her father. Electra deceives Clytemnestra by telling her that Orestes is dead. Thus, Clytemnestra is deceived again by someone in her own family. This is a ploy to lead her into a false security that her son is dead which is part of his plan to kill her (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007). Orestes kills Clytemnestra while Aegisthus is not there so he doesn’t know what is happening so before he returns. Electra covers the body of Clytemnestra under a sheet and presents to Aegisthus the apparent dead corpse of Orestes (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007). Once he pulls back the sheet, he realizes that it is Clytemnestra and Orestes reveals his identity to Aegisthus (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007).

In the second play, Clytemnestra is shown as even weaker still when her other daughter, Electra, assists Orestes when he kills her. Thus, she is shown no loyalty by either of two children. In the first play, Clytemnestra deceives her husband, but in the second play, the male figure succeeds. Her role is weakened when Orestes taunts her dead corpse. Thus, even in death she is not respected by even her own son. The second play shows her true tragedy, because she has essentially lost her three children; one is sacrificed, and the other two side with their father and assist in her own murder. Her role goes from one as a powerful mistreated woman in the first play to that of a once-again deceived victim in the second play.

In the third play, Clytemnestra is once again depicted as being overcome because even in death she is not successful. This is illustrated when Athena and Apollo side with Orestes that her murder was justified.

Even the Furies cannot seek retribution by torturing the soul of Orestes. Thus in the third play Clytemnestra is once again reduced to a weak role because the law and justice are not on her side. It is also demonstrated in the third play that women in general played a weak role because even Athena is not able to persuade Apollo and it appears that she does not even try; that Apollo persuades her in his logic that only the father is a child’s blood kin and the mother is merely the nurse, or caregiver of the child. In the third part of the play, Clytemnestra’s death is not respected enough to gain retribution on those that caused it. All three of these plays set the atmosphere for the ultimate role that Clytemnestra plays in the Oresteia.


Historians and scholars have commented that Clytemnestra’s role can be compared to the role of women in general in society. Clytemnestra does not mourn as a woman is supposed to, but is instead acting like a man. However, Clytemnestra, wronged by the sacrifice of her daughter, can no longer act like a woman is supposed to act, but instead acts like a man. She does this by murdering not only Agamemnon also Cassandra, who is innocent in regards to the crimes of the family. The plays begin by giving women some power; Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon, the Furies have power to control blood-debt, and Athena runs the court. However, at the end of the plays, Clytemnestra’s role is that of no power, for the court holds that women are merely vessels for children, and that a child is actually blood kin to their father. At the end of the third play, Athena and Apollo have convinced the Furies to give up blood-debt, become the Eumenides, the “kind ones,” and to take up a plot of land (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007). The Furies have, in effect, been pacified and their threat ceased (Encyclopedia Beta, 2007).

Thus, Clytemnestra’s role is ultimately one of a weak woman in society; one who although she is queen, and is very persuasive, remains unsuccessful in the end. Her role in the Oresteia is a tragic one, one that is typical to the current role of a woman that operates in reaction to her emotions. Clytemnestra is unable to prevail over the dominant men in her life, and even the women like her daughter Electra and the goddess Athena, cannot side with her. When she attempts to avenge her daughter’s death, she has power for one moment, until Orestes kills her. Finally, Clytemnestra’s role is to serve the wishes of the men, and even in revenge she lacks power.


McClure, L. (1999). Spoken like a woman. Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama.

Encyclopedia Beta. (2007). Clytemnestra Greek wife of Agamemnon. Retrieved April 9, 2007 at

Thalmann, W. (1985). Speech and Silence in the Oresteia. Phoenix, Vol. 39(3).

Zeitlin, F. (1965). The Motif of the Corrupted Sacrifice in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 96.

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