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The Libation Bearers

  • Study Guide
Characters

Clytamnestra

Characters Clytamnestra

In discussing Clytamnestra, a highly complex character, we must separate what we learn from her story from what the Greeks would have learned. The Greeks did not hold women in high regard, and would have seen Clytamnestra's intelligence and resolve as a gross overstepping of the natural bounds of female existence. Or, at least, this is the impression that we get from the chorus, which is as close a representative of Greek ideals as we can obtain. Modern readers, on the other hand, are inclined to see Clytamnestra in a far more positive light, as a good mother and fierce fighter for what she believes is right. In actuality, she combines these two conceptions into a fascinating hybrid portrait.

From one point of view, Clytamnestra is the anti-ideal of a woman and mother. Electra prays towards the beginning of the play that she will never grow up to be like her mother, and Orestes says that he would never live with one such as her, and that he would rather die childless than do so. By killing Agamemnon when he is naked and vulnerable in his bath, Clytamnestra violates the sanctity of the home. She abuses her intimate access to Agamemnon, killing him when he least expects it. The chorus is horrified at the idea that after ten years of fighting on the battlefield for Greece, Agamemnon comes home not to a peaceful home and loving wife, but to a bloody death. According to them, this is tragically unfair. Clytamnestra must suffer for her perversion of the female role in society, and Orestes is elected as the agent of her just punishment.

However, Aeschylus's Clytamnestra is a far more complex and compelling character than the chorus can see. Clytamnestra in fact has been a very good mother, as she avenged her daughter's murder and sent Orestes away for his own protection. She has also passed on her traits of intelligence, moral fiber and fierce resolution on to her son. Sadly, these same traits necessarily lead to her own downfall, as Orestes will hold her accountable for her crimes. She is a cunning and powerful viper whose son has also grown up to be a viper, and who does not hesitate to bite the breast that fed him.