Clytemnestra  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Clytemnestra (or Clytaemnestra) (Klytaimnéstra, "famed for her suitors") was the wife of Agamemnon, king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Mycenae or Argos. In the Oresteia by Aeschylus, she was a femme fatale who murdered her husband, Agamemnon—said by Euripides to be her second husband—and the Trojan Princess Cassandra, whom he had taken as war prize following the sack of Troy. However, in Homer's Odyssey, her role in Agamemnon's death is unclear and her character is significantly more subdued.

Contents

Background

Clytemnestra was the daughter of Tyndareus and Leda and mother of Iphigeneia, Orestes, Chrysothemis, and Electra. According to the myth, Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of a swan, raping and impregnating her. Leda produced four offspring from two eggs: Castor and Polydeuces from one egg, and Helen and Clytemnestra from the other. Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus whereas Polydeuces and Helen were fathered by Zeus. In Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, Clytemnestra's first husband was Tantalus, who was slain by Agamemnon, King of Pisa (in the western Peloponnese), who then made Clytemnestra his wife.

Mythology

Agamemnon was leading Greek forces in the Trojan War in Troy, when consistently weak winds were preventing his ships from sailing. Through a subplot involving the gods, he was told that the winds would return if he sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia to the goddess Artemis. He persuaded Clytemnestra to send Iphigeneia by deceptively telling her that the purpose of his daughter's visit was to marry her to Achilles. When Iphigeneia arrived, she was sacrificed. Clytemnestra learned of this event and grieved for her daughter.

During this period of Agamemnon's long absence, Clytemnestra began a love affair with Aegisthus, her husband's cousin (they produced a daughter; Erigone). Whether Clytemnestra was seduced into the affair or entered into it independently is open to speculation. Nevertheless, Clytemnestra, enraged by Iphigeneia's murder, and Aegisthus, hungry for power, began plotting Agamemnon's demise.

Finally returning from Troy, Agamemnon arrives at his palace and is greeted by his wife. In tow is his concubine, the princess Cassandra (whether Clytemnestra was jealous of Cassandra is unknown as it was quite normal for men to take concubines, usually acquired as war prizes, when on campaign). Upon his arrival, he enters the palace for a banquet while Cassandra remains in the chariot. Clytemnestra waits until he is in a vulnerable position, in the bath, and then entangling him in a cloth net. Entangled in the web, Agamemnon could neither escape or resist his murderer. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon Clytemnestra does the foul deed herself, but other texts, such as Homer's "Odyssey" describe the situation quite differently (see "Controversy").

Meanwhile, Cassandra, who had the gift of prophecy, saw a vision of Agamemnon's murder and her own. Her attempts to elicit help failed (she had been cursed by Apollo; no one would believe her prophecies) and when she realizes that she is fated to die, she resolutely walks into the palace and accepts her death. After the murders, Aegisthus replaced Agamemnon as king and ruled for a few years with Clytemnestra as his queen. She was eventually killed by her own son Orestes.

Controversy

  • Different versions of the myth vary in their depiction of the murder; some suggest that Clytemnestra alone killed Agamemnon, others suggest that it was a joint effort with Aegisthus or Aegisthus entirely.
  • According to some scholars, Cassandra was not murdered along with Agamemnon, but left Mycenae unharmed.
  • Clytemnestra's personality differs between tellings, as weak and submissive (Homer's Clytemnestra), or ruthless and manipulative (Aeschylus' Clytemnestra). This affects her role in the affair with Agamemnon.

Clytemnestra in the arts

Clytemnestra has been the subject of many artistic works.

  • She is one of the main characters in Aeschylus's Oresteia, and is central to the plot of all three parts. She murders Agamemnon in the first play, and is murdered herself in the second. Her death then leads to the trial of Orestes by Apollo and the Furies in the final play.
  • The American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham created a two-hour ballet, Clytemnestra (1958), about the queen.
  • Most recently, playwright/actor Corey Allen wrote a contemporary adaptation of Aeschylus' earlier work entitled Clytemnestra.
  • The story has also been adapted into an opera; Cromwell Everson a South African composer wrote the first Afrikaans opera, "Klutaimnestra", in 1967. It is an opera in four acts and premiered on November 7, 1967 in Biesenbach Hall, Worcester, Western Cape, South Africa.
  • Clytemnestra Sutpen was the daughter of Thomas Sutpen and his negro slave in William Faulkner's work Absalom, Absalom.
  • John Eaton composed an opera in one act entitled The Cry of Clytemnestra recounting the events leading up to and including Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon.

References




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Clytemnestra" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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