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Democracy and Discipline in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
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The world of the trilogy is riven by violent trespasses against the linguistic and sexual order of the city, trespasses that seek to thwart any final accommodation between the hostile characters and forces. As the Oresteia moves closer, at least on the surface, to the generous reconciliation that culminates in the grand procession of the Eumenides, trespasses against a stable civic and sexual order multiply precipitously and implicate one another. It is not possible to discuss them all. Two examples that demonstrate the difficulties involved in establishing a secure civic discourse and a stable sexual order for the new democracy should prove adequate to make my point.

Throughout the trilogy, language is in flux. The Oresteia is replete with instances of deceit, manipulative persuasion, and miscommunication in the exchange of language. Yet the trilogy makes a coherent point about the ambiguities and ironies of language and so articulates the dangers, difficulties, and violations that attend the founding of an effectively functioning civic discourse. Clytemnestra’s manipulative use of persuasive language enables her to overthrow order and illustrates the way in which the trilogy dramatizes the radical instability of the very discourse it aims to establish.

The difficulties that hamper clear human communication are announced by the watchman’s last words at the very beginning of the trilogy (33ff.):

May it only happen. May my king come home, and I
take up within this hand the hand I love. The rest
I leave to silence; for an ox stands huge upon
my tongue. The house itself, could it take voice, might speak
aloud and plain. I speak to those who understand,
but if they fail, I have forgotten everything.
The watchman’s parting words are significant for more than their tone of foreboding,[32] for more than their warning about what has transpired in the king’s absence: the passage is remarkable for the way its juxtaposition of speech and silence, clarity and obscurity, prefigures the play’s preoccupation with the exchange of words on stage. Like Heraclitus’s description of the oracle, the watchman neither speaks out nor conceals, but gives a sign to be interpreted,[33] while the contrast between saphestat’ and lēthomai, clarity and obscurity, alerts us to a discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. The watchman is here offering us an interpretive principle: silence often speaks volumes, while what needs saying is often left unsaid, and what is said is not always what is meant.

We can use this principle to interpret the ambiguous speeches and their meanings in the play. Clytemnestra exploits it to create a discrepancy between what she says and what she means. She is adept at meaning both more and less than she says. Her purposeful deceit resides in her ability to dissociate what she means from what she says, and her chain of beacon fires demonstrates this skill. While the ingenious signal system serves severally to warn her of Agamemnon’s return, display her command of technological resources,[34] and disclose her masculine character (a woman of man-counseling heart), it also demonstrates Clytemnestra’s control over the process of communication.[35] Clytemnestra gives two proofs of Troy’s fall to the chorus, two speeches that, viewed in the context of communication and exchange, could not be more different. The first speech is a purely technical description of how the message traveled from Troy to Argos, proving Clytemnestra’s familiarity with geography,[36] while the content of the second speech is almost oracular in its images and prophetic truth. This juxtaposition of form and content, of message and meaning, amply reveals Clytemnestra’s ability to control the process of communication to her advantage. The beacon signal in itself means nothing, it only gains significance in the context of a prearranged system, a code. By explaining her coding system to the chorus, Clytemnestra establishes her skill and knowledge. It is only in the second speech that she reveals to the chorus the signal light’s meaning, where she gives a detailed, prophetic account of the destruction and violation at Troy. The separation of the two proofs in two separate speeches, and the separation of form from content, emphasizes the arbitrary connection between what is said and what is meant, the code and its content, that marks the verbal exchanges in the trilogy.[37]

The beacon speeches scene thus serves as both preface and prelude to Clytemnestra’s deception of the returning Agamemnon. If the queen “renowned for skill”[38] revealed the principle of her method in the first two speeches, she is now prepared to put that method into practice upon the return of the king. In defending her fidelity and deceiving Agamemnon, Clytemnestra will demonstrate her formidable power to manipulate language through rhetorical persuasion. In her first speech, addressed to the chorus, she reflects on the king’s homecoming:

But now how best to speed my preparation to
receive my honored lord come home again—what else
is light more sweet for woman to behold than this,
to spread the gates before her husband home from war
and saved by god’s hand? (600–604)
A conventional enough sentiment for a wife who anticipates the return of a husband after a ten-year absence. Yet we know the sinister intent behind the queen’s haste, that she longs for the sweetness of revenge, secretly glad that Agamemnon has been delivered by the hand of a god into her own hands.

The remainder of this speech is significant for at least two reasons. First, it continues to play out the ironic deception, intending the opposite of what is said, while at the same time it reveals a deeper and more complex layer in Clytemnestra’s manipulation of Agamemnon. When she wishes that her husband find her as faithful to the house as on the day he left, she is not lying. When she describes herself as a gunaika pistēn d’ en domois[39] (a woman faithful to the house) and a dōmatōnkuna (a watchdog of the house), she in fact professes fidelity to the house, not to Agamemnon.[40] Clytemnestra’s words ring true because there is some truth in them. But this speech is also significant because it sends a message, and we have seen how important the context of message sending and receiving is. “Take this message to the king” looks backward to the “coded message” (paraggeilantos) sent forth from Troy to Argos (and forward to another false message (hupangelos,Choephoroi 838) that will summon Aegisthus without his bodyguard). Clytemnestra’s skill lies in her ability to encode messages the chorus and Agamemnon do not understand, messages, however, that the spectator successfully decodes. From this vantage point, we are able to restore to language “the full function of communication that it has lost on the stage between the protagonists in the drama” and so experience in this process those zones of incommunicability that successful communication requires.

Clytemnestra’s second speech reasserts her fidelity to Agamemnon in even stronger terms, and once again expresses sentiments more complex than they at first appear. She recounts to the chorus the pangs of a wife left alone while her husband is gone to war: her anxiety at the outbreak of groundless rumors, her attempt to hang herself and her dreams of his death. Once again, Clytemnestra speaks duplicitously in order to further her plot and deceive Agamemnon, yet she ironically tells the truth. There is no reason to doubt that she has longed for his return, although if at first this longing fed on love, now it surely feeds on hatred: she longs for Agamemnon in order to kill him. Her speech is all the more deceptive because of this core element of truth in it.[41] The queen’s speech, so full of allusions to her past anguish, is also full of the vocabulary of rumor, false tales, and lying speeches. As she dwells on the long years of misinformation, false reports, and deceptive messages, we realize that Clytemnestra not only weaves a net of deception around Agamemnon, but that her false language describes itself in the account she constructs of her past experience. The queen’s speech refers to itself: it is a deceptive speech about deceptive speeches.[42]

All this prepares for Agamemnon’s entry into the house across the purple tapestries.

Now, my beloved one,
step from your chariot; yet let not your foot, my lord,
sacker of Ilium, touch the earth. My maidens there!
Why this delay? Your task has been appointed you,
to strew the ground before his feet with tapestries.
Let there spring up into the house he never hoped
to see, where justice leads him in, a crimson path.
In all things else, my heart’s unsleeping care shall act
with the gods’ aid to set aright what fate ordained. (905–11)
The image is that of a spider at the center of a web, who will entangle its hapless victim as Clytemnestra will entangle Agamemnon in the robes upon which he treads.[43] The spectators, although perhaps not the chorus, cannot mistake the menace in Clytemnestra's welcome. Yet Agamemnon is characteristically unconscious of her irony and must feel that as the conquering hero returning home, he well deserves the right to walk on the tapestries. Why, then, does he at first refuse to tread upon the crimson path? Certainly, his refusal heightens the tension in the scene, for once Agamemnon steps upon the tapestries, his fate is sealed. There is good dramatic sense here. But Agamemnon demurs for some very good reasons of his own: he fears being made effeminate; he recoils from such profligate wastage of the substance of his house, and he fears the envy of the gods. It is not his place as a mortal, Greek male to tread upon such wealth. Of course, no such scruples hindered him from sacrificing Iphigeneia, described as the delight of his house, nor did fear of the gods restrain him from trampling upon the altars at Troy. This scene surely recalls those earlier transgressions, yet Agamemnon is again characteristically blind to the meaning of his own deeds and impermeable to Clytemnestra's brilliant indirection and deception. The queen predictably exploits Agamemnon's one-sidedness to her advantage: he fears the gods where he ought to fear his wife. His refusal also prefaces a short, complex, and highly significant exchange that demonstrates the power of Clytemnestra's ability to manipulate language.

Clytemnestra draws Agamemnon out by simply asking him not to cross her will. He responds by saying that his will is his own, it will not be seduced (or corrupted).[44] Clytemnestra then begins a sequence of questions that intends precisely such a seduction. She succeeds by calling into question the context in which the significance of stepping on the tapestries is defined. If Agamemnon had vowed such an expensive offering to a god, would he trample on such luxury? He admits he would. If he were Priam, would he walk on the tapestry? Certainly, Priam would do so. Should he fear envy? Only if he rejects admiration as well. At this turn in the argument Agamemnon censures his wife for her desire for battle, a remark Clytemnestra turns to her advantage by flattering the king’s sense of his own power: “Yet for the mighty even to give way is grace.” Here, Clytemnestra inverts the reprimand by deflecting the imagery of battle away from herself and onto Agamemnon. Finally, Agamemnon asks if her victory is so important, and the queen appropriately concludes the exchange with pithou, “be persuaded” (or “obey”).

The triumph of Clytemnestra’s persuasive power in this scene resides as much in her ability to redefine the context, and so the meaning, of Agamemnon’s particular act, as in her exploitation of the ambiguity inherent in language. Under different circumstances or in another moral context, walking on rich carpets neither destroys wealth nor arouses the envy of men and gods. Clytemnestra again shows her ability, as she did with the beacon signals, to reencode meaning in a context chosen by her, and so achieve her persuasion. The queen’s use of language is disturbing, and poses significant problems for the inauguration of a civic discourse, because it transgresses established definitions and boundaries, and so undermines the stability of the social order. With Clytemnestra, as with Thucydides’ account of the stasis at Corcyra, words are liable to change their meanings.

But how is linguistic instability—the uncertainty involved in establishing a secure civic discourse—implicated in Clytemnestra’s transgression of the male-ordered city? What does the difficult foundation of a democratic civic discourse have to do with the transgression and subsequent “repression” of the feminine other? How are gender and political discourse linked in this play? The Eumenides and the figure of Athena supply a more specific answer to that question (to which I return at greater length at the end of this chapter), but it is Clytemnestra herself who initially implicates the disruption of gender roles with the insecurity of language through her artful deception of Agamemnon. Clytemnestra swaps private for public, feminine for masculine, and so gains power, by her cunning manipulation of language. She gains access to the throne of Argos through deceit. Because civic discourse is gendered male in the trilogy’s sexual code, Clytemnestra’s assault through language is also an assault on the masculine prerogative of power.

Clytemnestra’s trespasses against gender drive the action of the trilogy in an important sense, although the conflict and resultant suffering that follow cannot be reduced to the opposition between men and women. Other oppositions, most notably between generations (of gods and men) and between Greek and barbarian, overlay and overlap the sexual conflict, although the resolution of the trilogy cannot adequately be understood without reference to the contention and competition between men and women. So, for example, Orestes’ opposition to Clytemnestra and Apollo’s opposition to the Furies can be interpreted in generational terms:[45] Orestes returns to Argos to claim his patrimony as rightful heir of Agamemnon, while Apollo champions the enlightened views of a younger generation of gods. Yet Orestes also avenges the death of Agamemnon, a man and his father, by killing Clytemnestra, a woman and his mother. Apollo’s entire defense of Orestes rests on the proclaimed superiority of the man, and Athena, a younger goddess (who does show respect for the elder Furies), bases her own decision in favor of acquittal on the priority of the male. However one looks at it, Aeschylus arrays the forces in his trilogy so that a confrontation between men and women and their respective values cannot be avoided.

The conflict between men and women does not begin with Clytemnestra’s plot to murder Agamemnon and seize power in Argos, although that act (and the reciprocal act of revenge that follows it) is surely decisive for the way in which Aeschylus constructs the “problem” of the feminine other. Typically, the actions of Clytemnestra are overdetermined. First, there is the ancient curse on the house of Atreus: Thyestes seduced the wife of Atreus and then, having feasted on his own children in punishment, cursed the Atreidae. Aegisthus, the only surviving son of Thyestes, thus allies himself with Clytemnestra for reasons of his own private revenge. Then there is the abduction of Helen, a violation of guest friendship that sets in motion the disastrously costly Trojan War, the pursuit of which required Agamemnon’s slaughter of Iphigeneia, perverse sacrifice to Artemis’s anger at Zeus. Finally, there is Apollo’s failed seduction of Cassandra and the Trojan prophetess’s return to Argos with the conquering hero.

Here is a formidable list of reasons to explain Clytemnestra’s act: ancient curse, revenge, longing turned to anger, jealousy. For R. P. Winnington-Ingram, however, these are all secondary to the central feature of Clytemnestra’s anomalous personality: for Clytemnestra “hated Agamemnon not simply because he had killed her child, not because she loved Aegisthus, but out of a jealousy that was not jealousy of Chryseis or Cassandra, but of Agamemnon himself and his status as a man. For she herself is of manly temper, and the dominance of a man is abhorrent to her.”[46] The blow struck against Agamemnon, then, is not merely a blow of vengeance, but also “a blow struck for her personal liberty.”

The watchman and chorus (the latter somewhat grudgingly) recognize Clytemnestra’s formidable power. The former describes her as a woman with a man-counseling heart, and the ingenious signal light she devises and uses demonstrates her masculine control of resources to us and to the chorus. Both watchman and chorus praise her ability to speak like a man, and both mention her power (kratei, 10; kratos, 258). Finally, the word kratei marks the climax of her verbal dual with Agamemnon. Clytemnestra’s anomalous character thus accounts for her anomalous actions. It is no coincidence that the queen enters on the word nikē (victory).

For Clytemnestra must not only gain a victory over Agamemnon, she must also prove herself stronger. This she does on her chosen field of battle, the purple tapestries. I have already examined this scene in terms of verbal deceit. Here I only want to comment briefly on the reversal of sexual roles and on the pervasive images of war, battle, and combat. Clytemnestra has already proved herself to be unnaturally knowledgeable about things martial in her description of Troy’s defeat and the Greek plunder of the city (320–51). That account, however, is not wholly consistent with a role traditionally considered male. Michael Gagarin has noticed that while Clytemnestra plays a male role, she continues to represent a woman’s point of view and feminine values. After announcing the Greek victory (320) she dwells upon the fate of the conquered, who are now enslaved (326–29), before she proceeds to describe the rather limited joys of the victors (330–37) and warn them against despoiling the altars of the city. Gagarin concludes that this view of the situation “with its concern for and understanding of the plight of the defeated survivors and its very limited sense of joy at the victory, can properly be called female.”[47] Moreover, Clytemnestra’s account contrasts markedly with that of the herald, who mentions the suffering of the army before Troy only to emphasize an unrestrained joy at the victory and the destruction of the holy places. So while Clytemnestra is well versed in the councils of men, she maintains what is traditionally considered a feminine sensibility.[48]

This conjunction of opposites is no less present in the carpet scene, where Clytemnestra joins battle with Agamemnon. The exchange between queen and king is littered with words of war: machēs (940), battle or combat; to nikasthai (941), the victor or the conqueror; dēerios (942), fight, battle, or contest; katestrammai (956), to be subdued, compelled, or subjected by another.[49] Clytemnestra will subdue Agamemnon as the conqueror subdued Troy. Yet here, too, something more complex occurs, because Clytemnestra first chooses to do battle with cunning words, not sharp swords, as the weapon of choice. She defeats Agamemnon in verbal contest so that she may all the more surely defeat him physically. Although Clytemnestra has a penchant for battle, she employs means the Greeks traditionally associated with women. Not the least of these is her final appeal to Agamemnon’s masculine vanity, a danger of which the king is characteristically unaware.[50] The chorus will later complain of Agamemnon’s ignominious death at the hands of a woman—and in the bath, not on the battlefield—a tacit acknowledgement that Clytemnestra, a woman, is more intelligent, and so stronger, than Agamemnon, a man.

Agamemnon portrays Clytemnestra as unnatural: it is not “normal” for the woman to best the man, much less kill him; it is not “natural” for the woman to want power (kratos) or to rule, although this is surely what motivates the queen, nor is it natural that a mother reject her children as Clytemnestra has Electra and Orestes. Aeschylus portrays the anomalous nature of Clytemnestra with a cluster of dragon, snake, and monster images, images reinforced by the chorus’s allusion to the crimes of the Lemnian women.[51] But the perversion of the natural order is nowhere expressed in such terrifying terms as when Clytemnestra inverts the ritual language of fertility and death, life-giving rain and death-oozing blood. As she stands over the corpse of Agamemnon, she overturns not only the gendered order of the family and the city, but the order of the cosmos as well:

Thus he went down, and the life struggled out of him;
and as he died he spattered me with the dark red
and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood
to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
of God in glory at the birth
time of the buds. (1388–92)
Clytemnestra has transgressed the natural order so that blood and death bring rain and life in this unparalleled travesty of ritual language.[52]

I do not want to neglect the fact that much of what the queen does, she does in reaction to what Agamemnon has done to her and as part of her role in playing out the family’s curse. Thus we must not forget that Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigeneia, was away at war for ten years, and then returned with Cassandra. Agamemnon surely insulted Clytemnestra in her status as a mother by killing Iphigeneia and in her status as a wife through his neglect of her and his infidelity.[53] I think a good case can be made in favor of Clytemnestra, although I am less interested in the extent of her “guilt” (as Vickers notes, she herself does not feel guilty) than in the effects her actions have on the linguistic and sexual order and on the way in which that order is (de)stabilized in the trilogy.

Significant for my analysis is that Clytemnestra gains power in Argos through her manipulative use of language, for her deliberate trespasses against the boundaries of both linguistic and sexual order. As Clytemnestra manipulates language to confound the male-ordered civic discourse, she joins those other transgressing women—Antigone, Medea, Agave—who pose a serious threat to the order of the patriarchal city. Clytemnestra challenges the hierarchies and rules of the public masculine world by leaving the interior space of the house for the exterior spaces of the city, by exchanging the powerlessness of a woman for the power of a man. Clytemnestra turns the linguistic and sexual order of the trilogy upside down.

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Democracy and Discipline in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
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