Contrast in Characterization of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra

As the play opens with a soliloquy from the Watchman, he introduces Clytemnestra as one who “wears/ A man’s heart in a woman’s body,/ A man’s dreadful will in the scabbard of her body/ Like a polished blade. A hidden blade” (5). He immediately draws attention to the prominent masculinity of the queen, attacking her lack of femininity in the euphemism “the scabbard of her body” which holds stereotypical male mannerisms instead. By using a simile to compare Clytemnestra to a “hidden blade,” he also accuses her of being secretive and deceitful. The Watchman’s analysis of Queen Clytemnestra is also interesting because he immediately reveals his uncertainties about the political state of Argos in the king’s absence. By admitting his fear after questioning the Queen’s characteristics (since she is ruling in her husband’s place while he is at war), the Watchman may implicitly be linking the Queen’s failure to abide by gender roles with the current disorder in the palace: “Everything’s changed in this palace./ The old days,/ The rightful King, order, safety, splendour,/ A splendour that lifted the heart-/ All gone” (6). Additionally, the Chorus’ description of Artemis also reveals the prevalence of gender stereotypes. As “the mother of the hares,/Beautiful Artemis,/ Deity of the womb and its mystery,/ Protectress of mothers and their darlings,” Artemis is portrayed as a motherly figure especially in nature (11). However, if her creations are threatened, no one is safe from her wrath, the product of the anger that is commonly attributed to women in mythology: “Apollo,/ Heal the wound in the bowels of your sister,/ Allay her anger, quiet her frenzy/ Before she exacts a compensation/ That none of us can pay” (12).

Agamemnon’s decision to save his army (and his reputation) instead of Iphigenia, his daughter, reveals his selfish nature in war: “But if I deny the goddess, then what happens?… And wherever men gossip together/ A term of contempt. An outcast on the earth./ The rest of my life skulking in corners,/ Afraid of my own name” (15). However, this is ironic considering the Chorus’ description of Clytemnestra’s supposed wickedness (“furious womb of the woman/ Who waits in this palace… bloody footprints of Clytemnestra/ Become those of a sacrificed child” (12)). Calchas revealed Artemis’ request to Agamemnon, who in turn had to make the decision to sacrifice his men or his daughter. Clytemnestra, having no role in sacrificing her daughter, is still described as an evil woman while the Chorus labels Agamemnon’s decision as righteous: “With these words, Agamemnon surrendered/ To necessity” (15).

Upon hearing cries from women, the Chorus admonishes how “women let every rumour change their blood-/ Then swear it’s a fact, and act on it/ Women are too like wax. Too easily softened, too easily melted./ They have poured themselves into these flames” (27-28). Despite their allegations that women are too emotional to any news, the men in the Chorus themselves doubted the truth about the victory and acted emotionally: “Troy has fallen? That is impossible/ Troy has fallen. My words say what I mean./ What am I to do? I am weeping… Maybe while you slept, a dream deceived you” (18-19). Therefore, they hypocritically judge women for being emotional when they cannot distinguish the truth from rumor themselves. Although the Chorus did not provide a reason for their fear of Clytemnestra’s rule, they confide in the Herald that even away from the war, Argos desperately sought the king and his soldiers’ return: “You needed your home./ But your home needed you… Our need was a misery” (30). The Chorus implicitly suggests that the kingdom was not left in good hands. However, Clytemnestra later mentions that she had public support from the citizens themselves after announcing their victory: “And all Argos was with me-/ Women believed me, they crowded the temples/ The shout of triumph went up out of Argos” (33).

Upon King Agamemnon’s return to Argos, Clytemnestra’s manipulative nature is revealed through her contradicting warning previously delivered to the Chorus and her persuasion of Agamemnon to walk on the purple tapestries. She warned, “It is tempting/ For the winner, who might have lost his life,/ To take all… Let us pray they restrain themselves./ They will need the favour of the gods” (22). On the contrary, Clytemnestra manipulates Agamemnon into disrespecting the gods: “The gods have been good./ Your treasuries are overflowing/ With this kind of wealth… The hearts of your gods./ The roots of the great tree/ That thirsted so long, and were parched,/ Can now drink” (45).

The Chorus emphasizes the motif of gender expectations in their judgement of Queen Clytemnestra. Despite Cassandra’s prophecy of Agamemnon’s death at her hands, the Chorus doubted Clytemnestra’s role in the murder: “No man would dip his hand in such pollution./ Man, do you say? Did you hear my prophecy?/ Such a plot in this palace? Impossible” (61). However, she later confesses to manipulating Agamemnon to his death: “Lies and embraces were simply my method… And when the moment for action came/ I made no mistake. See, my work/ Perfected… You think I’m some irresponsible woman?… My heart and my brain are like this blade,/ Bronze, and forged with a purpose” (69-70). Therefore, although the Chorus doubted her to be the murderer due to her gender, Clytemnestra proved to be technical in her methods and succeeded. Even after the prophecy became reality, the Chorus questioned how she had the spirit to murder her husband: “Maybe possession/ By some supernatural being/ Gave you the insane strength” (78). They continued to doubt Clytemnestra’s stereotypical masculine traits and attributed her madness to possession, rather than to her own wrath and reason.