Compare the ways in which Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Agememnon and Penelope in Homers' Odyssey seek to
excercise control of their situations in a world dominated by men. Why is it that one is (almost) universally reviled
and the other is universally admired?
In a society where mens prescribed social roles for women as considered as paramount, the characters of Penelope
and Clytemnestra both live and operate differently in regards to how they adhere to standards in ancient Greece
(Foley 112,116). In Homer's Odyssey Penelope serves as a paradigm for socially acceptable female behavior, who
at the same time shows how women in the absense of their husbands were as capable as men in making important
moral decisions. She waits patiently for her husbands return home and operates in accordance with the orders he had
given to her before leaving for war at Troy. In the lead up to his return she must preserve her own dignity by
remaining faithful to him, whilst also attempting to preserve his estate for their son Telemachus. In comparison,
Aeschylus' Agamemnon aims to demonstrate the consequences when women overstep the boundaries of prescribed
social roles, with Clytemnestra acting independently of her husband. She must deliberately disregards prescribed
social roles as a neccesary step in her seeking justice for the immoral death of her daughter, whilst at the same time
obtaining a right to be judged like a man .
In Book Eighteen of the Oddyssey Penelope recites what her husband Odysseus told her before journeying to war in
Troy. She has been left with the responsibility of managing his estate in his absense, and that when their son
Telemachus has come of age she is to remarry if he has not yet returned (18.257-270). This speech shapes the course
of her actions in her husbands absense and ultimately affects her decision to remarry at a specific time. Heitman
argues that Penelope has been left in a moral dilemah which prevents her from remarrying in the face of relentless
requests by her family and by a horde of elligable suitors. But what is most important to Penelope is the notion of
losing her 'personal glory' or her reputation rewarded to her in waiting faithfully for Odysseus to return, without
knowing whether he is still alive (Heitman 70,83-84). In the absense of his father and Penelope's own parents,
Telemachus is responsible for overseeing the remarrying of his mother to suitors who are pressuring them. They
repeatedly complain to Telemachus about how Penelope is an 'incomparable schemer' who has been lying about her
intentions. In delaying her husbands original request at her remarrying, Penelope must employ a number of schemes,
as well as face up to the consequences that they cause. Her initial scheme consists of lying to each suitor with
promises of marriage, without having the slightest intention of keeping any of them. Her next scheme is a three to
four year long task of weaving a shroud for Odysseus' father Laertes, which is also referred to as her 'great web of
deceit'. However, she is eventually caught weaving and unweaving it in an attempt to delay her remarrying. But after
this Penelope still cannot be compelled (2.85-110). The The suitor Antinous tells Telemachus that Penelope has in
this case missused her wits, which are a trait of her 'unrivalled excellent brain' (and hence greater than any of the
suitors ironically) (2.110-130). It is because of these traits which enable Penelope to keep resisting the suitors.
Heitman argues that Penelope's weaving of Laertes shroud can be considered as a metaphor for her role in keeping
her marriage with Odysseus intact, its fragility representing the seriousness of the outcome and its effect on the fate
of Telemachus and herself (Heitman 42). Later compelled by her beauty, Antinous the suitor begs Penelope to
choose one of them to marry, and is told that she can be won through by offering her gifts (18.245-250,285-290).
Heitman argues that this is one of Penelope's schemes, in order to accumulate wealth from the suitors (Heitman 46).
In their frustration the suitors eventually plan to kill Telemachus whilst he is away searching for his father in order
to persuade Penelope to marry. Upon learning this she must somehow devise a plan to prevent the suitors from
killing her son (4.728-735). In Penelope's eyes Telemachus is still her child and is inexperienced at being able to
defend himself without his mothers help (4.762-766,819). Penelope confronts the suitors after learning of their
continued plot to kill Telemachus and orders them to stop. They respond by promising not to attempt to kill
Telemachus anymore, but they are in actual fact lying to her (16.-435-446). Though Telemachus does return home
safely, and finds that his father is with them in Ithaca disguised as a beggar. He later hints to his mother to pray to
Zeus for a day of reckoning on the suitors, refering to the fact Odysseus has come back to be with his family.
Penelope demands that Telemachus tell her what he discovered as to the fate of Odysseus on his journey. He
proceeds to tell her a noble lie of sorts, in a sense that he lets her know that Odysseus is alive, but leaves out the fact
that he is the beggar in disguise whom they have let into their home (17.100).
While in diguise Odysseus tells Penelope that he is impressed with her power over her situation; 'there is not a man
in the wide world who could find fault with you. For your fame has reached broad heaven itself, like that of some
illustrious king...' (19.107-123). What Odysseus is intending to tell Penelope is that he is appreciative of her waiting
for him to return. Penelope acts cautiously towards the beggar, and later tests him in order to determine if what he
says about her husband is true (19.212-219). Penelope seems to make comparisons between her memory of her
husband Odysseus and the beggar. Her confidence in him leads her to question him on her own fate and that of
Telemachus', and whether she should marry one of the suitors now, or continue to wait for her husbands return
(19.526-535). Her dilemah is that to remarry would go against what is considered socially acceptable behaviour,
virtually committing adultery in her husbands absence. But she has recognised the seriousness of the situation and
must make this sacrifice for Telemachus and his estate (Foley 133). Penelope tells the beggar of a dream she has had
recently, and he in turn interprets it as Odysseus returning and killing all the suitors (19.536-554). With this notion
of her husbands imminent return Penelope proposes a final test for the suitors which involves the stringing of
Odysseus' bow and shooting arrows through axe handles, with the winner being given the right to marry Penelope.
Although she is reluctant in proposing this test it is her final scheme in order to prevent her from remarrying. No one
but Odysseus can suceed in it, therefore she doesn't have to marry any of the suitors (19.570-581). When the beggar
reveals to Penelope that he is in fact Odysseus, she acts cautiously in determining if the beggar is really her husband
Odysseus and not an imposter as is regularly the case for her (23.212-218). Penelope isn't persuaded by a scar on
Odysseus' which was more than enough proof for Telemachus and his nurse Eurycleia. She is finally convinced of
his identity when she makes him accurately describe the construction of their bed, which is also a symbol for the
stability of Penelope and Odysseus' marriage (23.108-110,227-230). By being catious she is again looking out for
the fate of her family and for Odysseus' estate. If Penelope was merely looking out for her own interests alone she
would have taken Odysseus' scar as a valid sign of his true identity (Heitman 95).
In book Twenty Four Agamemnon praises Penelope for waiting for her husband. He contrasts her to his murderous
wife Clytemnestra, 'whos reputation will destroy even the names of virtuous women', like Penelope herself
(24.191-202). Heitman suggest that Agamemnon's praise for Penelope has even more credability due to his
misogynistic nature (Heitman 111).
On Penelope and her affect on social norms; 'Penelope's actions can affect and be celebrated by the world beyond
her household, and thus have public implications; yet her choices, unlike those of a male hero, are limited to
defending her present household and those within it...' (Foley 141).
Women in classical Greek society were legally bound by a father, a husband or a son to act on their behalf.
Clytemnestra acts not in accordance with this socially acceptable behavior for women, by autonymously planning
and carrying out revenge on her husband and then defending her own actions (Doherty 20, 24). Clytemnestras
gaining control begins with her being alerted of her absent husbands imminent return home. At the house of Atreus
Clytemnestra 'manoeuvres like a man' in commanding her watchman to spot signal fires (12-13). The Chorus notes
that Clytemnestra is 'growing strong in the house, with no fear of the husband, here she waits' (151-153). It then
questions her use of signal fires (257-258). Clytemnestra proclaims that the men lighting theses fires are her
couriers; 'my laws, my fire whips that camp!' (305). The fires stretch from Troy until they reach the house of Atreus,
metaphorically linking the destruction at Troy with the murder she has yet to committ (Foley 208). Clytemnestras
rage is also lighting these fires, '...the power my lord passed on from Troy to me!' (313-318). This power that
Clytemnestra is refering to her need to exact revenge upon her husband for cromes he has committed. This is
proceeded by Clytemnestra's graphic and masculine account of Troy being sacked, ending with her ironically stating
to the chorus; 'And here you have it, what a woman has to say' (351-352). The actual purpose of these signal fires is
so Clytemnestra knows of her husbands safe return from Troy so that she may kill him herself; 'Oh let no new
disaster strike [him]' (351). The Chorus then sarcastically regards her speech as 'spoken like a man... full of
self-command' (355). The chorus says this in the context of their societies resentment of women speaking and acting
beyond what is considered as normal female behavior; 'Just like a woman to fill with thanks before the truth is
clear... their stories spread like wildfire, they fly fast and die faster; rumours voiced by women come to nothing'
(475-478). It suspects that Clytemnestras fires are a cover for her alterior motives, 'soon we'll know her fires for
what they are' (479). When it is clear that her signal fires have worked accurately Clytemnestra belittles the chorus'
disbelief in her; 'And there were some who smiled and said, "A few fires persuade you Troys in ashes. Women,
women, elated over nothing." You made me seem deranged' (583-586).
In her plan to outsmart her husband and exact revenge, Clytemnestra lies about having remained faithful to him
whilst he has been away; 'And for his wife, may he return and find her true at hall, just as the day he left her, faithful
to the last. A watchdog gentle to him alone, savage to those who cross his path' (601-605). She pretends to be the
perfect wife, incapable error, or adultery; 'I have not changed. The strains of time can never break our seal. In love
with a new lord, in ill repute I am as practised as I am dying bronze. That is my boast, teaming with the truth'. Her
notion of not changing has a hidden meaning however; she loathed him beforehand just as she does currently
(605-609). Clytemnestra lies about how she lived in fear of her husband dying, and her having attempted suicide
(848-867). When Agamemnon returns home the chorus is relieved, as Clytemnestra has been a threat to their lives;
'For years now, only my silence kept me free from harm' (538-539). The Chorus knows that Clytemnestra is lying
and wants to condemn her; 'She speaks well, but it takes no seer to know she only says what's right' (612-613). Later
they try to reveal to Agamemnon what his wife is doing to no avail; 'Search, my king, and learn at last who stayed at
home and kept their faith and who betrayed the city' (792-794). Clytemnestra continues deceiving Agamemnon by
ordering red tapestries spread on the floor for him, symbolically hinting at his impending death (900-901).
Clytemnestra says of the tapestrys, 'Let the red stream flow and bear him home to the home he never hoped to see -
Justice lead him! Leave all the rest to me. The spirit within me never yeilds to sleep. We will set things right, with
the god's help. We will do whatever fate requires'. Clytemnestra acts upon her vengeful spirit to take revenge out on
Agamemnon for the death of their daughter (904-907). Agamemnon refers to Clytemnestra as 'Leda's daughter' and
the 'keeper of his house' and is indifferent about her being his wife. He also resents her speech as long and unworthy
for a woman to have uttered it; '...you treat me like a woman' (912). Agamemnon becomes concearned when
Clytemnestra bestows honour upon him in a manour he would expect if he was no longer alive (908-925). When she
talks of his acts in battle Agamemnon is concearned over Clytemnestras unusually masculine words; 'And where's
the woman in all of this lust for glory?... victory in this... war of ours, it means so much to you?' (934-937). Here
Foley suggests that Clytemnestra is trying to show how Agamemnon has become corrupted from war, making him
unfit to rule any longer (Foley 210). The chorus now realises that Agamemnon's murder is imminent but cannot
prevent it; 'stark terror whirls the brain, and the end is coming. Justice comes to birth - I pray my fears prove false
and fall and die and never come to birth!' (999-1003,1024-1031). Neither can Cassandra, Agamemnon's concubine
from Troy who senses the impending murders of Agamemnon and herself; 'You, you godforsaken - you'd do this?
The lord of your bed, you bathe him... his body glistens, then - how to tell the climax? - comes so quickly, see, hand
over hand shoots out, hauling ropes - then lunge! (1108-1118). Like the chorus, Cassandra realises that Clytemnestra
intended for her husbands return home safely only so that she could kill him herself; '...she seems to rejoice that he is
safe at home from war, saved for her' (1248-1249). Regardless of their warnings Clytemnestra is able to take
Agamemnon's life, by first trapping him in her net, then striking him with a sword, symbolizing a combination of
feminine cunning and a males masculinity in her taking power over his kingdom (Foley 210).
In beginning to defend herself for his murder, Clytemnestra admits to what the chorus has suspected as part of her
plan to lie to Agamemnon; 'Words, endless words I've said to serve the moment - now it makes me proud to tell the
truth. How else to prepare a death for deadly men who seem to love you? How to rig the nets of pain so high no man
can overleap them?' (1391-1395). Clytemnestra saw it as her right as a mother to seek revenge for Agamemnon's
senseless killing of their own daughter; 'He thought no more of it than killing a beast... he sacrificed his own child,
our daughter, the agony I laboured into love, to charm away savage winds of Thrace' (1436-1444). She speaks of
Agamemnon's death as a neccesary consequence; '...no stealthier than the death he dealt our house and the offspring
of our loins, Iphigeneia, girl of tears. Act for act, wound for wound!' (1551-1555). A key aspect in Clytemnestra's
defense to the chorus is that Agamemnon was never charged with murdering Iphigeneia, and she asserts that it is
because of their biased opinions towards men; 'Didn't the law demand you banish him? - hunt him from the land for
all his guilt? But now you witness what I've done and you are ruthless judges. Threaten away! I'll meet you blow for
blow. And if I fall the throne is yours. If god decrees the reverse... you'll learn your place' (1445-1451). Foley
suggests that it is here when Clytemnestra abandons her use of heroic language for a more legal tone in order to
defend herself, which is equally as odd because Greek women did not represent themselves in court (Foley 213).
Clytemnestra is convinced at the justice of what she had done and wants to be judged at the same level as a male,
but is prevented by the chorus who refuse to see the murder from her point of view (Foley 203,212).
The chorus deems Clytemnestra insanely possessed and 'mad with ambition' (1431-1435,1452). Not only has she
defiled her role as a wife but she also speaks with an air of masculinity, 'using language appropriate to a heroic male'
(Foley 212). Clytemnestra emphasizes the nature of her husbands infidelity as defense for her own liaison with
Aegisthus in his absence; 'Here he lies. He brutalized me. The darling of all golden girls who spread the gates of
Troy. And here his spear-prize... what wonders she beheld! - the seer of Apollo shared my husbands bed... They
have their rewards' (1465-1471). Doherty also suggests an internal contradiction which aids in understanding
Clytemnestra's argument against her husbands adultery; '[classical greek] gender system... contains internal
contradictions. For example, most systems contain contradictory stereotypes of each gender. In Homeric epics, men
are portrayed as the protectors of women, yet they capture the wives and daughters of other men and use them as
slaves or concubines...' (Doherty 35). One of the reasons that Clytemnestra gives in her defense for killing
Agamemnon is that she was not working autonymously, but was under the possesion of an evil spirit brought on by
a feud between Agamemnon and Aegisthus' families; 'You claim the work is mine, call me Agamemnon's wife - you
are wrong. Fleshed in the wife of this dead man, the spirit lives within me, our savage ancient spirit of revenge'
(1396-1397,1526-1530). Foley suggest that this sudden emphasis by Clytemnestra on a possessive spirit may be her
attempt to avoid any more blame upon herself for Agamemnon's death, as it is inconsistent with what she has
already been arguing. However, if the spirit is seen as resulting from her relationship with Aegisthus, then it is
merely a representation of her sharing feelings his of hatred over Agamemnon's father for his crimes (Foley
218,221). If this is the case then the spirit is derived from crimes committed by males, thus making the excuse for
the death of her husband not solely derived from her own desire for revenge (Foley 222). It rings true that the chorus
later proffesses Aegisthus as a corrupting force on Clytemnestra; 'Why did you corrupt a good woman?'
(1676-1681). In light of all these factors which can be seen as contributing to the death of Agamemnon, in the end
the chorus is still unable to see his death from a justifyable point of view.