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Killer Queen

Clytemnestra after the Murder, an 1882 oil painting by John Collier. It has been held by the Guildhall Art Gallery since 1893.
Clytemnestra after the Murder, an 1882 oil painting by John Collier. It has been held by the Guildhall Art Gallery since 1893.

Taken at surface value, the character of Clytemnestra seems to take the anti feminist archetype of ‘Bad Wife’ to its extreme; who takes advantage of her husband’s absence to start an affair, then kills him to seize his throne alongside her lover.

For her immoral and irreligious actions she is revenged by her own child, but only after years have passed with her as the victor and ruler of her deceased husband’s kingdom.

As a female killer, a trope that was, and still is far more uncommon than as the victim, her sexuality is the first to be examined.

Not only is she a killer and a violent usurper, but - crucially - she is an adulteress. Traces of her scheming ambition and adultery can be found echoing back through literature, in villains like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth - who matches almost exactly Homer’s interpretation of a conniving Clytemnestra goading Aegisthus into the act - and Leskov's unrepentant murderess Katerina. The infamous ‘Bad Wife’ of classical antiquity has inspired a genre of killer queens, but is this reputation deserved?

Looking beyond this condemning perspective, and seen through the eyes of a contemporary audience, her motivations and goals appear far more justified and tragic. Instead of a treacherous wife, she becomes a grieving mother, subverting any ideas of selfishness and creating a character that many critics have now reclaimed as an anachronistic feminist icon who refused to remain submissive.

Not only is her plight more pitiful to a modern audience, but her crime is an appealingly horrific form of emancipation; her existence as an unrepentant female killer is a transgression against traditional standards of femininity without sacrificing the role of mother. She takes the power and agency deprived of her to avenge her child; a far more understandable motivation than the anti-feminist stance taken by critics of the time.

After the murder of her daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice in aid of the war with Troy, an act Clytemnestra was fooled into believing was a marriage ceremony, she is left alone for ten years, forced to live with the knowledge that she failed to protect her own favoured daughter. Her situation is easily contrasted to that of her cousin Penelope, who fits the expected role of ‘good wife’ in her twenty-year-long wait for Odysseus.

While she uses trickery to stay loyal, and seemingly shows no animosity towards her wayward husband for his numerous acts of adultery during his absence, Clytemnestra takes a lover, and then kills her husband when he does the same. In the same way, the cousins’ husbands can also be compared.

Odysseus attempted to avoid the call to war - it was only for the sake of his infant son Telemachus that he was forced into dropping the facade of madness he had donned. Agamemnon on the other hand was so eager to gain the glory and prestige of battle that he considered his daughter dispensable. With this context, proving that Agamemnon is not supposed to be a sympathetic character, Clytemnestra seems more than justified to react the way she did, betrayed by her husband as she was.

Clytemnestra’s femininity is both vital to her character, and an aspect she chooses to cast away. As a mother, and a woman left to the whims of the male advisors who dominated the power structure of Mycenae, her actions seem to both embrace and reject her expected roles. She loves passionately and emotionally - the womanly way - yet draws upon the spirits of vengeance to take up arms in a manner suited to a male warrior (of the time).

In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, her defiant and unrepentant defence evokes the power of the Daemon of the house, come to destroy the sons of Atrius, clearly inspiring Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. By conflating herself so closely with revenge - which was so closely associated with maleness - while keeping her position as a mother and betrayed wife at the forefront, she shatters all expected stereotypes.

Her ability to defend her irreligious and immoral acts leaves her as the victor by the end of Aeschylus’ play, so despite any misogynistic personal views by the playwright, or her subsequent downfall years later, this version of Clytemnestra’s story is left as her success. However briefly, she wins.

The portrayal of the Killer Queen of Mycenae has not stayed remotely consistent as time has passed. From a time where powerful women were shunned and ostracised from society in both truth and fiction, and most plays centred around male protagonists, Clytemnestra sustains as one of the most complex and 3-Dimensional female characters to be written. She represents a grey area that many try to hide and ignore, refusing to fit stereotypes placed upon her.

Hated or loved, her unapologetic nature and unashamed passion makes her appealing, and uncomfortably human.

Last Minute Exile: Ella Gilbert

Like Seneca, like Aristotle, and like countless others from Classical history, you find yourself subject to an exile order, and must vacate the country tout-suite before some sort of sword-based injury befalls your neck!

You grab three records…

1. Hozier's Cherry wine: Is an explanation necessary for this one, its simply so good!

2. Taylor Swift's paper rings because I'm a stereotypical teenage girl (no shame in that)

3. Britney Spear's Toxic: for some dance-y variation, and because it is undeniably fun to listen to!

…two books…

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to ensure that exile will never get boring.

2. Cloud Cuckoo Land as my absolute favourite book, as it's engaging narrative, emotional stories and obsessive writing style just makes it something I would never get tired of reading.

…a Tupperware of your favourite food…

I would take a tub packed with as much pasta as possible!

…and something else at random.

I would definitely steal my cat to take into exile with me!

Exile is going to suck, but at least you won’t have to put up with…

...British weather, as long as I get to live in exile in some where sunny!

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