Jennifer Rae McDermott
Hirundo: The McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Volume II (2002)
Many Greek tragedies have mysteriously evaded the controlling influence of time; they are read today with as much admiration and emotion as they would have inspired in their first audiences. Works immortal, they rekindle in modern readers the passionate fires of ancient times and peoples. Two names still common on modern lips are those of the great poets Aeschylus and Homer. While Aeschylus penned tragedies for the theatre in the early fifth century BC, Homer, in the eighth century BC, composed epics of Greek culture that encompassed in their scope “material for [many] tragedies.” The relationship between these forms of narrative is evidenced in the shared myth of Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in both Homer’s epic poem Odyssey and Aeschylus’ tragedy Oresteia. In comparing the different angles with which these poets choose to treat the same tale, certain discrepancies are immediately apparent regarding the role, treatment, and function of Clytemnestra.
I will argue that the differences in Clytemnestra’s characterization in these two works are predominantly related to gender: whereas in Aeschylus’ work she is cast as manly, Homer casts her as womanly. In Oresteia, she commands the play; in Odyssey, she remains but a shadowy figure on the outskirts of the story. This is evidenced, first in the immediacy and manner of her portrayal, second, in her dominance or subservience to men, and third, in her degree of responsibility for Agamemnon’s murder. Furthermore, these gender related distinctions correspond to Clytemnestra’s function in each text; Aeschylus creates Clytemnestra as a tragically human heroine, whereas Homer uses her, coupled to Aegisthus, to foil the central situation of Penelope and the Suitors. Let us consider Clytemnestra’s predominance and characterization first in Aeschylus’ trilogy and then in Homer’s Odyssey.