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Klytaimestra Tyrannos: Fear and Tyranny in Aeschylus's Oresteia (with a Brief Comparison with Macbeth).

I knew him tyrannous, and tyrants' fears
Decrease not, but grow faster than the years. (1)

Athenian tragedy, as is well known, is a quintessentially Dionysian affair. It is part of a larger festive sequence of the Dionysia or the Lenaea which frame the theatrical performances, thus sharing in their logic. As Aristotle implies in his Poetics (1448al-5), (2) tragedy focuses on the high and lofty, staging mythic kings and their families, but also on scenarios of violence and transgression, murder, and the destruction of the royal household. Comedy, instead, usually focuses on the low (1449a32-37), (3) deriding socially higher persons, exhibiting the body and its functions, playing upon humor and sexuality, dance and festivity. (4)

In keeping with tragedy's Dionysian logic, Clytemnestra represents a perverted antimodel within the gender-regulated political system. In the daily life of the fifth century BCE, the activity of women in society is restricted to the oikos, the house, or to religious functions; yet in the Oresteia, Clytemnestra acts as a self-sufficient and highly intelligent queen ruling over the older male population in the polis of Argos. (5) She is not a faithful Penelope who fulfills the expectations and gender-norms with regard to women, adhering to the values and decorum of patriarchal society. (6) As a woman and wife, she takes on the power of the absent male king, Agamemnon, pushing it to the brink of tyranny. She also reverses the gender-defined norms by violating her marriage by having a sexual affair with Aegisthus, the archenemy of the Atridae. Herself wishing to revenge Iphigenia's death, she consorts with Aegisthus who, in his turn, intends to avenge his father Thyestes for Atreus's dreadful act of murdering Thyestes's other sons and then feeding them to him. With Aegisthus, she is prepared to tread the path to tyranny And contrary to the Homeric tradition, where Aegisthus is the leading figure in the plot, killing his opponent in his own house, (7) in Agamemnon Clytemnestra takes over the male avenging role and painstakingly devises the terrible murder in the female bath, while Aegisthus remains a feeble male weakling in the background, eventually sharing the royal power as a "prince consort."

This brief resume already suggests the relevance of the function of "the political" in Greek tragedy, which is not meant to be understood as the representation of a mythic story from the distant past--in our case in the house of Agamemnon--but as alluding to highly political events situated in the actual here and now of contemporary history. Tragedy served as a sort of "institutionalized political education," (8) providing the ground for thinking about the relation between outstanding aristocrats and the community of equal citizens in the polis who were somehow mirrored in the Chorus. In particular it focused on how, driven by hybris, individual aristocrats sought to transgress limits and to deprive the demos (the people or commons) of their legitimate power. It staged the interplay between the rule of the people and de facto leading aristocrats, reflecting cases like that of Pericles, who, by taking over the office of the strategos, determined the course of events for many years.

The Oresteia, performed in 458 BCE and, according to the famous Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, perhaps "the greatest achievement of the human mind," (9) dramatizes precisely the loss of power of the aristocratic Areopagus and its overturn by Ephialtes and Pericles in 462/61 BCE, as Christian Meier has shown. (10) In the open space of the theatre of Dionysus, which housed up to a third of the city's male population, the Athenian demos gathered to watch annual mass spectacles funded and organized by the city. With their specific "mental infrastructure," they "needed" the tragic performances obliquely to reflect upon immanent problems they had to face after Athens's vertiginous ascent to power following the Persian wars, when it gained hegemony over the Delian-Attic alliance. (11) With the citizens' immense increase in responsibility and consciousness of their own possibilities, politics came to be perceived as involving "intensified risks of action" that needed to be reflected upon as to their potential dangers and alternative routes. (12)

In such a climate of intense political debates about great decisions, the label tyrant came to play a crucial function. Originally a loanword from the Lydian, it entered Greek language around 700 BCE. First a neutral term, with the growing political participation of the citizens it soon assumed a pejorative meaning, associated with the oriental Other, designating any illegitimate monarchic ruler exercising unrestrained power and violence over his own people. Tyranny, so to speak, became a buzzword by which one could attack the opponent for trying to establish a despotic regime against democracy--the worst possible scenario for free citizens participating in the decision processes of the polis. Unsurprisingly, Athens developed an almost paranoid preoccupation with it.

Not coincidentally, the founding myth of Athenian democracy was built around the alleged tyrannicide carried out by Harmodius and Aristogeiton. When, after Peisistratus's death in 528/27 BCE, Hippias seized power with his brother Hipparchus serving as minister of culture, they soon abused their authority and quickly grew unpopular. Due to Harmodius's rejection of Hipparchus's amorous advances and Hipparchus's consequent offense to the honor of Harmodius's family, Hipparchus was killed in 514/13, but the following attempt to overthrow tyranny with the Persian support failed. Although Hippias remained in power, he was soon to be expelled by Cleisthenes with the help of a Spartan army in 508. As the leader of an influential aristocratic family and archenemy of the Peisistratids, the Alcmeonids, Cleisthenes ironically laid the ground for democracy. This founding myth of democracy developing out of tyrannicide obviously played a major role throughout the course of fifth century BCE, especially after 430, when Cleon began to "use" the accusation of attempted tyranny against any enemy of radical democracy. But it is clear that the mythical foil of tyranny could already be used in the struggles of 462/61, when again a mighty aristocrat and offspring of the Alcmeonid family, Pericles, played the card of the people to win political influence. (13)

Greek drama offered a space of political reflection on exactly such issues. A famous example is Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus, a tragedy that is totally based on the complex notion of the ruler as tyrannos. (14) The destruction of the tyrannical household was yet another topic often represented as a Dionysian event whence the rule of the people arises. (15) The polis cultivated a certain imaginary of the tyrannos to act out scenarios of perverted rule and violence, to which theatre closely adhered, staging figures characterized by an array of tyrannical features that can be briefly summarized as follows: (160 (1) preoccupation with wealth, luxury, and money; (2) obsession with sex and desire; (3) kin-murder, endogamy, incest; (4) abuse of power, manipulation of politics and ritual; (5) mania, violence against, and elimination of, the people and of the tyrant's own (aristocratic) fellows, and hybris; (6) attempts to secure royal power through his own progeny; (7) unlimited rule, autarchy and autonomy from the divine; (8) corporeal deficiencies; and finally (9) the notorious fear of losing control of the state and enduring conspiracies. (17) This list of characteristics fits perfectly in the dramatic scenario of Oresteia: as we will soon see, a tyrannical pattern of behavior can be identified in the analysis of several protagonists in the trilogy.

But before coming to this discussion, it may be recalled that tragedy focused more on ethos than on character, that is, a naturalistic presentation of a complex personality in realistic and psychological terms. (18) This entailed that the tragic course of action was determined by a web of motives that at times did not respect the modern causal nexus,19 depending on a network of societal rules and values. The ethos-type of the tyrannos showed a self-centered tendency and a rash emotional temperament, and at least since Alcaeus's famous portrait of Pittacus, (20) he was notoriously brutal, a "devourer of the city," and associated with the wolf, (21) always fearful and on the lookout for conspiracies against his rule. He was presented as living in complete isolation from his people, endowed with an ugly soul, and slave to desires. The tyrannical imaginary developed by Plato in the eighth and ninth books of his Republic drew heavily on the dramatic experiences and scenarios that classical drama provided the audience with for philosophical and educational purposes. In Republic 571c9-d4, he had Socrates argue that during sleep the desires and savage instincts constitutive of the tyrants character awaken. Culture, reason, and shame do not inhabit his soul, he claims, so "it [the tyrant's instinct] does not shrink from attempting to lie with a mother in fancy or with anyone else, man, god or brute. It is ready for any foul deed of blood; it abstains from no food, and, in a word, falls short of no extreme of folly and shamelessness" ([phrase omitted]). (22) This analysis seems based on Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus, whose protagonist, portrayed as the quintessential tyrant, breaches the greatest cultural taboos: sleeping with his mother and killing his father (see also Plat. Rep. 569b6; 575d4). Besides, Plato's tendentious view also represents the tyrant as a beast and a wolf (565d4-566a4, esp. 565el) as well as plagued by fearfulness (578a4).

Since much of Plato's material was based on the Dionysian distortions of the contemporary cultural imaginary carried out on the Attic stage, a reading of the Oresteia against the backdrop of Plato's well-known preoccupation with the figure of the tyrant is bound to offer fruitful insights. In the following pages, I will argue that the Oresteia is both highly political and deeply imbued with ethical issues referable to the kind of discourse on tyranny Plato was to develop. Through a selective reading of the trilogy, I will show that both Agamemnon and Choephori revolve around not only the theme of revenge but also the contemporary ethical imaginary and narrative pattern of the tyrant. It is my contention that the two plays deal with questions of legitimate power, with the aspirations to rule of extraordinary individuals, as well as with their fear of losing control of the people once power has been gained. I will then conclude with a few notes on Aeschylus's reception in the Renaissance by focusing on one of Shakespeare's assumedly most "Aeschylean" plays, Macbeth, likewise characterized by a widespread preoccupation with "the tyrant's fear." I will argue that, albeit knowledge of Aeschylus has long been contested in the case of Shakespeare, intriguing connections may be drawn, casting light on the persistence of issues of tyranny and fear in such different contexts as the ancient and the early modern worlds.

Clytemnestra Tyrannos and Her Male Counterparts

In the Oresteia, Clytemnestra--so to speak Klytaimestra Tyrannos--is, to some extent, the female version of Oedipus in Sophocles's Oidipous Tyrannos, a play which was performed, of course, many years later. However, according to their respective historical backgrounds, gender expectations, and mythic-narrative constellations, both tragic figures manifest themselves as tyrants in different degrees and forms. Oedipus's blind rashness reflects the Athenian policy of taking precipitate decisions on the most important questions about war and peace; he solves the riddle of the Sphinx but knows little about himself. Clytemnestra tyrannos, on the contrary, proves an apt female leader, extremely clever in planning everything far ahead and in using ruse, deceit, and cunning to manipulate people through words and actions. She always refers obliquely to the truth and speaks in riddles. Like tyrants, once she has overthrown rule and gained despotic power, she too becomes possessed by fear.

In Agamemnon, however, Clytemnestra is not the only tyrannical figure, since her extraordinary female role is counterbalanced and, so to speak, undermined by the presence of other potential male tyrants. On the one hand, Aegisthus--an unsophisticated plotter behind the crime--manifests tyrannical proclivity at the end of the play when, as we will see, she tries hard to contain his authoritarian violence, wishing to establish a new political basis and consensus with the people. On the other hand, Agamemnon, the legitimate basileus and Clytemnestra's positive counterpart, has already shown tyrannical traits in the political predicament prior to the expedition to Troy, as the Chorus revealingly underline. Not only does he kill his own daughter, but also the entire military enterprise for winning back Helen--a phantom of love and eros (Ag. 410-26, 739-49) that will cost many lives of fellow citizens--comes close to irresponsible, almost tyrannical behavior. When after his return from Troy the Chorus finally greet Agamemnon--"not shooting too high nor yet bending short / of this moment's fitness [lit. the due measure of courtesy]" (786-87; [phrase omitted]) (23)--the leader openly criticizes him:
(799-804; But I: when you marshaled this armament
for Helen's sake, I will not hide it,
in ugly [lit. unmusical] style you were written in my heart
for steering aslant the mind's course
to bring home by blood
sacrifice and dead men that wild spirit.)

In the mind of the Chorus--the old demos of the city--Agamemnon has left a very negative, "unmusical" (see [phrase omitted] 801) imprint, contrary to the melody that they actually sing and perform. Aeschylus typically highlights important moments of the action or aspects of the characters' behavior through references to the tragic performance itself, including voice, music, and choreia. (24) For sure, the Chorus's disapproval of the ruler's transgression of both lawful and right demeanor as well as of his aristocratic conduct leaves no doubt as to Agamemnon's own past tyrannical responsibilities. The following tapestry scene will only bring full circle that potential.

The Tapestry Scene--Restoring Agamemnon to the Tyrannical Path

But after the victory, Agamemnon does everything possible to avert the envy (phthonos) of the gods and to prevent the victorious Greek army from plundering Troy out of insatiable greed. This shows that even an entire community and possibly the polis itself can display tyrannical tendencies, suggesting a comparison with Athens's new imperialistic politics in the years after the Persian wars until 458 BCE that could not be missed. But to return to the play, it is at this point that Clytemnestra's agency becomes crucial, because when Agamemnon tries hard to appear humble and to return to modest rule and collaborative government with the people (844-50), (25) Clytemnestra--the new potential female tyrant--does her best to avert him from this purpose and to enhance his tyrannical inclinations instead. Her plan is to entice him toward luxurious power by playing upon the cultural imaginary of oriental tyranny. In the famous "tapestry scene," by way of her negative peitho she will convince him to trespass the tyranny-leading boundary, symbolically and visually highlighted by the rich crimson tapestry. Within the logic of tragedy, she thus drives him to commit an act of hybris, setting him on the path of oriental despotism:
(932-43; Agamemnon: My will is mine. I shall not make it soft for you.
Clytaemnestra: Might you in fear have vowed to do such things for god?
Agamemnon: Only if the one who advised so knew the full purpose.
Clytaemnestra: If Priam had won as you have, what would he have done?
Agamemnon: I well believe he might have walked on tapestries.
Clytaemnestra: Be not ashamed before the criticism of men.
Agamemnon: The people murmur, and their voice is great in strength.
Clytaemnestra: Yet he who goes unenvied shall not be admired.
Agamemnon: Surely this lust for conflict is not womanlike?
Clytaemnestra: Yet for the mighty even to give way is grace.
Agamemnon: Does such a victory as this mean so much to you?
Clytaemnestra: Oh yield! The power is yours. Freely give way to me)

The scene is a verbal agon, a rhetorically disguised symbolic fight over words between two "potential tyrants" where one of the two, Agamemnon, strategically steps back to prevent the other, his wife, from making him appear to be one. Clytemnestra, who will soon act openly as a tyrant, pursues her objective with decisiveness. At the beginning of a most flattering preamble, she uses the dog metaphor for her rhetorical goal, styling her husband as the watchdog (896), an image which at 607 she had already applied to herself--the female "watchdog of the house," she had said. The dog is close to the tyrannical wolf; the "bitch," instead, implies sexual desire. Both protagonists are evidently, if indirectly, connoted as tyrannical figures. Agamemnon's return home from his expedition to Troy as a humble ruler in fact provides Clytemnestra with an apt argumentative strategy: she interprets his behavior as due to his fear of the gods ([phrase omitted]), and reproaches him for excessive modesty (933). Then she brings in the image of the just defeated Priam as an oriental example of luxury and despotism, suggesting that Priam would have stepped on the tapestry, thus pushing him to concede that he would do the same without any scruples if he were king of Troy (935). The implied conclusion is that he has the potential to be a tyrant and therefore should not fear to behave openly like one. Although Agamemnon is constantly aware of public opinion and the talk of the demos (938), his desire is awakened by Clytemnestra: being envied (939; phthonos) is at the basis of sovereign power, she claims. But then she becomes aware of the need to change her rhetorical strategy and shifts the focus from the political and the public to questions of gender roles and male courtesy toward a woman. The scene thus becomes a political power-struggle over how to behave in the house and in marriage. As a wife, Clytemnestra pleads that her husband should yield to her only once, on this apparently minor issue, and on this last ground Agamemnon finally gives in. By stepping on the fine tapestries--a visually highly connoted gesture performed on a theatrically highlighted prop of purple-red color foreshadowing the color of the blood soon to be shed--Agamemnon finally gives Clytemnestra a good reason for murder: trespassing this symbolic and theatrically highly effective boundary toward hybris means heading toward a new tyranny. It means falling into his wife's snare and penetrating the inner space of the bath where the brutal assassination will take place. In this central scene Aeschylus's highly theatrical, visual, and symbolic handling of the action becomes utterly apparent. (26)

Clytemnestra's Fears and Cunning Strategies

Thus in this play Clytemnestra cuts out the role of tyrant for Agamemnon, setting in motion a chain of revenge and counter-revenge that will bring about his death and that of Cassandra, and in Coephori those of Aegisthus and herself, before the final solution in the Eumenides. Before considering how kingship and hidden tyranny collapse into overt tyranny at the end of Agamemnon, let us therefore follow Clytemnestra from the beginning.

Driven by desire, lust, and mania, from the outset she appears haunted by fears which she tries to overcome by trying to assuage the negative forces of Erinys. Aware of her royal legitimacy, which is compatible with her position as absolute "oriental" tyrant, as soon as she hears about the Greek triumph (87-96,262,594-97) she orders sacrifices to be offered all over the city to placate and thank the gods. With brutal logic, she devises her revenge on her returning husband, and acting as Erinys herself, manifests a desire to shed blood greater than rational restraint. Living in the royal palace, she appears to be completely isolated from the demos. The deep gulf dividing her from the people is unveiled from the very beginning, when the Chorus receive no answer to their question about why Clytemnestra ordered the sacrifices (83-103). Curious about her command and wishing to learn more, they approach the palace chanting in anapests (40-103) and raising questions (83-103) that are left unanswered while the door remains closed as a sign of the queen's distance. Thus, the Chorus begin their long and riddling parodos (104-257), recounting past events (Iphigenia's sacrifice and the expedition to Troy) in a dithyrambic narration. (27)

When Clytemnestra finally appears after line 257, the Chorus address her in pious and subservient tones as if she were an oriental queen endowed with absolute power, a tyrant in the neutral sense of the word with no specific ethical traits:
(258-63; I have come in reverence, Clytemnestra, of your power.
For it is right to honor the wife of the king,
when the man is gone and the throne void. (28)
Is it some grace--or otherwise--that you have heard
to make you sacrifice at messages of good hope?
I should be glad to hear, but must not blame your silence.)

The elders of Argos show a barbarian veneration of their queen, looking like the subjects of the Great King in Persia; their obsequiously submissive attitude seems to suggest that they have given up their political influence, their right to participate in the rule of the city officially represented by the basileus (the king as primus inter pares). Evidently, Clytemnestra is already an oriental tyrannos, a role she must have grown accustomed to in Agamemnon's absence, long before trying to turn her husband into one in the tapestry scene.

When she finally appears onstage, she graciously grants an answer to the Chorus's questions on whether the sacrifices mean good or bad news, confirming their initial suspicion that they might be connected with the Greek expedition to Troy, possibly with the Greeks' victory. In front of the curious Chorus she boasts about her great technical device (281-316), for which she has spared no expense, in the manner of the great archaic tyrants. She has set up a refined system of beacon-signals that carry the message from post to post as in a relay race, somehow manipulating the model of the Lampadephoria race. (29) Thus, through the Guard who has seen the fire in the sky, she has become aware of the fall of Troy and Agamemnon's return (26-30). It should be noticed that the relay of fires starts from Lemnos and this indirectly associates her with the monstrous Lemnian women who also killed their husbands (see Ch. 631-34). In turn, the fire and the light anticipate the Dionysian destruction of the royal palace. The whole device appears replete with ominous meaning. The assuaging sacrifices, too, offer indirect hints of her secret plans, since they are also simultaneously signs of jubilation, anticipating the perverted sacrifice of Agamemnon and Cassandra. (30) Clytemnestra's ololygmos (28-29; see 587, 595) is not only a loud expression of her joy about the victory but also a signal of danger. Traditionally, it is the shrill cry of women who in a crisis situation, especially before the slaughter of the sacrificial animal, (31) performatively drown out the moment of danger. (32) Here her ololygmos initiates and foreshadows her murders, connoting them as perverted sacrifices. (33)

Indeed, Clytemnestra's cleverness is demonstrably beyond expectation. Her words about this new "wonder of the world" (281-316) almost outdo the installation itself, and the Chorus are so impressed by her highly rhetorical speech about the miracle she has performed that they would like to hear it all over again (318-19). Thanks to her rhetorical brilliance and acute psychological insight, she also instills in them the suspicion of Agamemnon's and the army's possible decline into tyrannical behavior:
(341-42; But may no desire first fall on the army
to seize what they must not, overwhelmed by love of gain!) (34)

In the hope that the same may not occur, she recounts what actually happened after Troy's fall. She feigns to wish that "the good may prevail" (349; [phrase omitted])--thus pretending to side with the Chorus and the people who had already uttered that "magic prayer" (121,139,159)--but she seems to foresee that her wishes will not come true. She knows that human behavior always repeats the same pattern: after a victory in war, it is hard to resist greedy plundering. Desire (eros) is the driving force that turns human beings into tyrants. (35) Craving to possess more, to gain material wealth, leads to unjust behavior, hybris, and war. According to the Chorus, Ares is a (lit.) "gold-changer of dead bodies" (437; [phrase omitted]), sending back dust in change of living bodies, and this is the inevitable outcome of desire of gain. (36) But this time Agamemnon seems to be different from his soldiers. After initially being driven by hybris, he is eager not to fall prey to greed but to escape tyrannical inclinations. All the same, he cannot prevent the Greek army from plundering the city, and since looting leads to an offence against the gods as well as to further suffering of the dead (345-46)--causes of future tragic events--Agamemnon himself is, if indirectly, affected by hybris and ate. (37)

The Chorus on the Fall of the Potential Tyrants

In the first strophe (366-84) of the first stasimon, the Chorus, taking up Clytemnestra's thoughts, sing about the offence against the gods (366-76) and the dangers of greed for wealth (377-84). In the antistrophe (385-402), they move on to man's fall through peitho and to the vanity of healing ate (385-89), exemplified by the fall of the daring individual and by that of Paris (390-402).

As we have seen, desire for profit and wealth is one of the key-motifs and a principal feature of the tyrant, linked to impiety, hybris, and ate. But punishment soon follows: "[phrase omitted]" (374-78; suffering has been revealed for daring / what may not be dared / to the descendants of those whose haughtiness is greater than is right, / when their house abounds with wealth in excess, / beyond what is best.)39 And there is no chance of escape: "[phrase omitted]" (381-84; [For] there is not any armor / in riches against perdition / for him who kicks the high altar / of Justice down to the darkness). The Chorus prophetically foresee the tragic downfall of Agamemnon, who is caught in this network of ferees, although they have no idea that Clytemnestra could possibly be an instrument of Justice. And yet, they unconsciously seem to predict it. By remarking that "Miserable persuasion (peitho) overwhelms him" (385; [phrase omitted])--the unjust, tyrannical man driven by hybris--and that "every remedy is in vain" (387; [phrase omitted]), they apparently follow Clytemnestra's deceptive view about Agamemnon. As a voice of general, choral-lyric wisdom, the Chorus also ironically refer to Clytemnestra, as her peitho will be indeed [phrase omitted], "wretched," since it will bring suffering into the house, leading to Agamemnon's death and Clytemnestra's own miserable end. Peitho, the power of the persuading word, is significantly called "inescapable daughter of ahead-planning Ruin {ate)" (386; [phrase omitted]). (40) Thus, no remedy can be envisaged--a motif traversing the whole play. Although Agamemnon does all he can to heal his own hybris and check his own troops' transgressions after victory, he finally steps on the path of hybris and ruin by walking on the crimson tapestries--itself an act of transgression. On the other hand, Clytemnestra's endeavors to placate the gods through sacrifices, to find akos, remedy, for her own fear of retribution, are bound to fail in the reign of Justice. After all, both of them are potential tyrants and their destruction is needed to stop the chain of revenge.

Open Tyranny at the End of Agamemnon

After the murder of the king and Cassandra, the Chorus, changing voice and attitude, start a collective protest against the new rulers. The people, holding a counsel, are convinced that Clytemnestra's and Aegisthus's action is conducive to open tyranny and despotic rule:
(1354-55; It is clearly visible; by their first steps, their prelude,
they show themselves to be tyrants for the city; my translation)

Yet Clytemnestra has still not displayed the bodies of her victims, and all they know is linked to the shrill death cries they have heard, which only evoke a mental image, albeit a very clear one, as a proem to the main song, the terrible hymn of tyranny--and, as already pointed out, the Oresteia often refers to its dramatic events in a metatragic and metaperformative manner, especially in musical and choric terms. (41) Good rule is about to degenerate into bad and unlawful government, and in such a state of crisis, the people discuss democratically what can be done (1348-71). For sure, they are determined to oppose resistance to a despotic regime:
(1364-65; No, we can never endure that; better to be killed.
Death is a softer thing by far than tyranny.)

In a democratic city, so the Chorus say, this is not to be borne and it is better to resist and die than to live under tyrants. It becomes increasingly clear that the voice and attitude of the Chorus are in permanent change and flux. Their voice, which is that of the Elders of Argos, interferes and merges with the performative voice, the choral-lyric voice of wisdom and of the community, at this point also standing for the democratic citizens of Athens whose main preoccupation is the defense of the system against any tyrannical upheaval. The discussion, split into twelve separate voices, mirrors a democratic debate about options in a decision-making process, whose upshot is their decision to acquire clear evidence of what really happened behind the scenes before acting--a piece of self-evident wisdom intended also as a maxim of action in real life. However, precisely when they are about to enter the palace and see for themselves, Clytemnestra appears on stage. Showing the bodies in the ekkyklema, she finally looks triumphant and, no longer forced to hide her true intentions, can at last speak openly (1372-73). In her full victory, she reports how she killed in a frenzy, striking the bodies that she now shows, and in recounting the action she exhibits an almost grotesque and macabre lust. The gushing stream of blood after the stroke becomes for her like a sexual union (1389-92), while the second body, that of Cassandra, "the side-dish" for Agamemnon's lust, becomes "the side-dish for [her] delight of killing" (1447; [phrase omitted] my translation). Herself a personified Ate and Erinys, she invokes Erinys and, in a sort of autosuggestion, claims that as long as Aegisthus, her male associate, kindles the fire in the house, fear will keep its distance:
(1431-37; Now hear you this, the right behind my sacrament:
By my child's Justice driven to fulfillment, by
her Wrath and Fury, to whom I sacrificed this man,
the hope that walks my chambers is not traced with fear
while yet Aegisthus makes the fire shine in my hearth,
my good friend, now as always, who shall be for us
the shield of our defiance, no weak thing.)

"Kindling the hearth fire" is a basically female activity, suggesting a feminized Aegisthus as opposed to the virilized avenging Clytemnestra, in a continuous and radical reversal of gender-roles. He serves as a shield--the phalanx being a typically male occupation--not on the battlefield but in the house, backing up her daring transgressive action and giving her protection as a bulwark against fear. Yet, since Solon's Eunomia (frag. 3.26-29 Gentili), (42) Justice can jump even over walls and fences. Thus, the Erinys, in the person of Orestes, will walk into the house in the second part of the trilogy. At that moment, as we will see, Clytemnestra will become gripped by fear and will plead for her life, exposing her maternal breast in a theatrical gesture of supplication. However, already at this point, the more she tries to fend off the fear aroused in her by the vivid protests and threats of the Chorus, the more it becomes present; tyrannical doing entails fear, and the final part of Agamemnon is a proof of this.

In some way anticipating the final part of the trilogy when, after Athena's institution of the Areopagus, they will be called on to decide and judge in courts (see dikazein, Ag. 1412), here the Chorus have already passed judgment on Clytemnestra and want the murderer out of the city. What ensues shows a change in her. Having grown fearful of the consequences of her act and aware of the need for political compromise, out of fear of the Erinys, she offers to sign a treaty with her:
(1568-76; Yet I for my part
wish to swear an agreement with the demon of the Pleisthenids
so that I am happy with all things as they stand,
hard though it is to bear; and hereafter he may go
from this house and wear away some other house
through deaths at the hands of kindred.
Even if I take a small share of riches,
it is completely sufficient for me that I have rid our halls
of the maniac frenzies in which we killed each other; translation mine)

A contract with the demon might also amount to a mutual accord with the people. In envisaging an agreement with Agamemnon's kindred, Clytemnestra is prepared to give up her claim on the full patrimony, suggesting that the aggrieved party could have the greater part of it. She is even ready to pay material compensation to Agamemnon's family for her deed. But enforcing an agreement presumes a formalized legal system that will be established only by Athena in her city. A formal accord between the parties, including the demos, in fact, will only be reached in the Eumenides, when the new court's verdict is delivered after Athena's decisive vote. At this stage, instead, an acquittal and an official solution are utterly out of sight. The Erinys will never give up her right to enforce justice through blood vengeance, and therefore Agamemnon's death requires that Orestes kill his mother Clytemnestra also on Apollo's order. But what should be noticed is Clytemnestra's new attitude toward money: since the concept of tyranny implies unlimited gain of money, she eventually seems to give up any claim on despotic and tyrannical power.

However, right at this point, when the theatrical and deictic exposure of the cruel deed on the ekkyklema is still unfolding, her secret consort in crime, Aegisthus, appears on stage, relocating the tyrannical couple back on the path of extreme despotism. He makes no mention at all of possible agreements but triumphs even more than Clytemnestra's partner for accomplishing an even greater vengeance. Aegisthus sees the dead Agamemnon as "lying here in the woven mantles of the Erinyes" (1580-81; [phrase omitted] my translation), because Agamemnon is the son of Atreus who had murdered Thyestes's own sons and horribly served them to him. Only Aegisthus was spared, and he is the only one left of the direct descendants who can take revenge on the kindred line. Now the mythic pattern becomes obvious in the house of the Atreidae: Aegisthus shows parallels with Orestes who, in turn, will become the new Erinys and instance of Justice (Dike) in the next generation. But whereas Agamemnon killed only one child--Iphigenia--and not for an evil cause and out of revenge but for reason of state, Atreus killed twelve children (1605) (43) and the circumstances were much more horrific. Therefore, in the logic of archaic revenge, Aegisthus sees Agamemnon, who must pay for his father Atreus, "in the nets of Justice" (1611; [phrase omitted] my translation). This outrageous behavior provokes even greater resistance in the Chorus:
(1612-16; Aegisthus, this strong vaunting in distress is vile.
You claim that you deliberately killed the king,
you, and you only, planned the pity of this death.
I tell you then: There shall be no escape, your head
shall face the stones of anger from the people's hands.)

According to the Chorus, this excessive triumph is an expression of hybris and evidence that Aegisthus has trespassed the boundary to open tyrannis; determined to curb it, the demos resort to ritualistic cursing and legal measures. Of course, cursing and stoning are still a very archaic way of punishing, in line with the archaic conception of retribution connected with the Erinyes's blood revenge, but at least the people understand that they have to interfere as neutrals in the family feuds.

Aegisthus's intervention shows how the blind tyrannical rule of an aristocrat can only lead to violence in a city accustomed to democracy. Aeschylus dramatizes the moment when the confrontation between the demos and the tyrant heads toward a breaking point and political intermediation is needed to prevent open fighting. Aegisthus regards the protest as a conspiracy and a revolt of the lower people "seated at the oar below" ([phrase omitted]) against "the masters of the ship" ([phrase omitted]), sitting "on the deck above" (1617-18; [ot] [phrase omitted] my translations). Since Themistocles's times and the Persian wars, the city has advanced to full citizenship the common citizens of the lowest rank, the Thetes, because the naval power depends to a large extent on the rowers. Thus the rowers, sitting at the oar, have gained the same rights as the rich citizens who financed the triremes in the democratic system, and as all the citizens of the three higher propertied classes, that is, those ascertained by the census on the basis of property and agricultural production. Therefore, even if the common citizens, the broad demos as a whole, stand much behind the aristocrats in terms of property, honor, and wealth, they can exert their power in the Assembly and the Heliaea. Emphasizing the vast gap of influence and authority, Aegisthus takes the protest of the common people as a personal offense. But in democracy the lower class citizens have the right to engage in political affairs. To go against the peoples rights is a feature of the tyrant who wishes to rule without any control.

That is why the Chorus react and, reflecting the gender-reversal of the couple, respond to Aegisthus's threats of violence by branding him a "woman" (1625; [phrase omitted]), as he did not dare to commit the murder. As a "housekeeper" ([phrase omitted]), not a virtuous soldier, "doing shame to the man's bed" ([phrase omitted]), he only planned a coward's attack, they say (1625-27), and despite his menaces, they refuse to follow him:
(1633-35; So you are to be tyrant of the men of Argos,
you who when you had plotted death against this man,
did not dare to do this deed with your own hand!) (44)

But then Clytemnestra, the real "man" and actual leader, intervenes, stepping in at the point when both sides are about to fight (1649-53) as she acutely realizes the danger both their lives and the well-being of the polis are in. Thanks to her insightfulness--and it should be recalled that she had already considered the prospect of an agreement (1568-76)--she foresees the consequences of further conflict: stasis, that is, civil war, will destroy the city, and she is aware that open tyranny will endanger the life of the community. Thus, strategically presenting herself as a woman opposed to the men she addresses, she does all she can to bring the escalation to a halt, appealing to Aegisthus and the elders of Argos as the "dearest of all men" (1654; [phrase omitted]). As a woman among men, she is brave enough to interfere (cf. [phrase omitted] Thus a woman speaks among you. Shall men deign to understand?) and begs her companion to step back from tyrannical behavior and direct violence against the people (1654-61). Trying to assuage her lover who is about to answer back to the demos-Chorus aggressively, like a tyrant, Clytemnestra argues that the suffering is enough and should be ended. But once the couple have crossed the threshold leading to tyrannis, her attempts to mediate between Aegisthus and the people, as well as to dispel all fears, produces a temporary effect only, proving vain in the long run. Since Clytemnestra is responsible for the terrible crime, she cannot play a neutral part, as Athena will in the Eumenides; the chain of revenge cannot be stopped once and for all, and to that end her words (peitho) and rituals (sacrifices) are to no avail.

Clytemnestra's Struggle Against Her Fears

This becomes evident in Choephori. At the play's outset, Clytemnestra appears increasingly haunted by terrible dreams and fears. The Chorus, now consisting of young female slaves, describe the consequences of Clytemnestra's degeneration into a tyrant in the previous tragedy as follows:
(32-41; For shrill, making the hair to stand on end,
the dream-prophet of the house, in sleep breathing anger,
uttered a midnight shriek
of terror from the heart of the palace
in grievous assault upon the women's chambers.
And interpreters of those dreams,
for whose Tightness the gods stand surety, cried out
that those below the earth make angry complaint
and harbor wrath against the killers.) (45)

The first part of Choephori focuses, in some measure, on Clytemnestra's psychological reaction to her tyrannical deed and futile endeavors to overcome her phobos, a fear that clearly originates in her inner emotive center, or, in modern terms, in her unconscious. In order to appease Agamemnon's soul, she resorts once again to rituals, this time offering placating libations (Ch. 15; [phrase omitted]) to Agamemnon's eidolon. However, all her strategies, whether rhetorical or ritualistic, are bound to fail. The Chorus, who at this point take up a very active role, convince Electra to resignify the ritual Clytemnestra ordered her to accomplish in her name, and in a secret reversal of intentions Electra pours out the libations to the dead father so that he may help in taking revenge on the tyrannical usurpers. The main goal is to get Orestes back from his exile in Phocis, but in fact he is back already and witnesses the scene at the grave from his hiding place. After the recognition scene (164-305), in the long kommos (306-478) brother and sister invoke the dead father to appear on stage, but Agamemnon--himself a new Erinys--will not appear in person, as happens with king Dareius in the Persians (532-907, esp. 598-680), (46) but will remain invisible, albeit no less active (if in secret) from his grave. Thus, ironically, Clytemnestra will end up triggering her own downfall; the inversion of the libation ritual's target by the Chorus of the libation-bearers and Electra redirects it precisely against her, (47) a woman fallen prey to tyrannical disquiet and terror, incapable of keeping her fears under control.

Inner Fear Becomes Real on Stage

In the kommos of Choephori, Electra says that Clytemnestra may "fawn" (420; [phrase omitted]) like a dog, but the terrible suffering "cannot be charmed" (420; [phrase omitted]; my translation). Suffering will lead to new suffering. Orestes's and Electra's "pathea" and "achea" (419; sorrows) have turned their "thymos" (422; spirit) (48) into a violent wolf, and with their wolf-like savage minds (421; [phrase omitted]), which they inherited from their mother (421-22; [phrase omitted]), they seek revenge. After all, the family trait of ferocity derives from Clytemnestra, and although she tries through peitho and "magic" words to pretend to be a "dog" not a wolf--in many respects being a "bitch"--her true nature will always shine through. Given their fierce decisiveness, brother and sister cannot "be fawned upon" (421; [phrase omitted]) as they are implacable; only dogs fawn, but the much wilder wolf, from which the "tamed" dog descends, does not.49 Thus, they react to violence only with equal violence. Although violence is the emblem of the tyrant, (50) they are not tyrants, since they have no inclinations to curb or suppress the people. Indeed the demos are on their side.

Clytemnestra's terrible dream recounted at the beginning of the play will be fully revealed only after the kommos, when the phantoms and phantasmata produced by her unconscious will turn out to be real:
(523-39; Chorus Leader. I know, child, I was there. It was the dreams
she had.
The godless woman had been shaken in the night
by floating terrors, when she sent these offerings.
Orestes: Do you know the dream, too? Can you tell it to me right?
Chorus Leader: She told me herself. She dreamed she gave birth to a
Orestes: What is the end of the story then? What is the point?
Chorus Leader: She wrapped it warm in clothing as if it were a child.
Orestes: A little monster. Did it want some kind of food?
Chorus Leader: She herself, in the dream, gave it her breast to suck.
Orestes: How was her nipple not torn by such a beastly thing?
Chorus Leader: It was. The creature drew in blood along with the milk.
Orestes: No vapid dream this. A man is the visions subject.
Chorus Leader: She woke screaming out of her sleep, shaky with fear,
as torches were kindled all about the house, out of
the blind dark that had been on them, to comfort the queen.
So now she sends these mourning offerings to be poured
and hopes they are medicinal for her disease)

In the palace the new tyrant is haunted by terrible nightmares that can neither be appeased nor cured, anticipating both her and Aegisthus's own downfall. The snake that in her dreams sucks clotted blood from her breast will turn out to be Orestes, (51) as he himself realizes, interpreting the signs in the Chorus leader's tale and correctly predicting the future:
(543-50; If this snake came out of the same place whence I came,
if she wrapped it in robes, as she wrapped me, and if
its jaws gaped wide around the breast that suckled me,
and if it stained the intimate milk with an outburst
of blood, so that for fright and pain she cried aloud,
it follows then, that as she nursed this hideous thing
of prophecy, she must be cruelly murdered. I
turn snake to kill her. This is what the dream speaks loud.)

Orestes-the-avenger will become the visible agent of fear on stage, enacting the script of his own action encoded in Clytemnestras nightmare.

But before then the Chorus sing their first stasimon about the "mythic terror" brought forward by the earth (585-651), beginning with the emblematic lines: [phrase omitted] (585-86; Numberless, the earth breeds / dangers, and the awful thought of fear). The [phrase omitted] (lit. "the dreadful pains of fears") stem from "the stubborn hearts of women" without scruple (596), like Clytemnestra, from "the all-adventurous passions / that couple with man's overthrow" (597-98) and from a perverted eros, "the female force, the desperate / love" (598-600; [phrase omitted]) that "crams its resisted way / on marriage" (599-600), the legitimate union with Agamemnon (594-601). In other words, Clytemnestra is clearly represented as a mythic monster, haunted by dreams, fears, and sexual desire.

Her response to Orestes's tale of his own death is noteworthy. On the threshold of the palace, it may be recalled, Orestes improvises that story to make up for his badly devised revenge plan, which did not contemplate that he might meet his mother before Aegisthus. (52) Clytemnestras reaction is all but detached; in fact, it comes close to trespassing the boundary of incest in a tyrannical fashion. (53) Her lament about the Curse in the house (692; [phrase omitted]), "strip [ping totally] unhappy [her] of all [she] ever loved" (695), appears excessive (692-95), while her desperate cry for her son--"the hope that was in the house / the healer of evil revelry" (698-99; [phrase omitted] translation mine)--sounds quite enigmatic, leaving us in the dark about whether she rejoices or truly laments. (54) After all, it is her son, and she feels as if bereft of her real love. But the action proceeds: she lets in the stranger and goes into the gynaeceum. Only when she comes back and realizes that the stranger is her own son and has killed Aegisthus, does she resort to the most intimate gesture of supplication, showing Orestes her naked breast that had fed him:
(896-98; Hold, my son. Oh take pity, child, before this breast
where many a time, a drowsing baby, you would feed
and with soft gums sucked in the milk that made you strong.)

Her appeal to him for her life by baring her breast is not just a theatrical gesture; in psychoanalytical terms, Clytemnestra's dreams produce phantoms of the suppressed id. She suckled a serpent that she treated as if it were a baby; the tyrannical mother has still the desire to breastfeed her son, making him dependent on her, an intent she almost achieves. But Pylades soon calls Orestes back on track (900-02) and he overcomes his own filial resistance to matricide. Her erotic power, manipulative strategies, and peitho are no longer effective, and her nightmare (523-39) eventually comes true: Orestes is the serpent that Clytemnestra had "given birth to" and had nourished, "the terror of [her] dreams" ([phrase omitted]), which--as a "prophet" indeed--had foreseen the events (928-29). From that point onward, Clytemnestra tyrannos will turn into an unsubstantial agent of fear, an avenging image {eidolon) persecuting Orestes with the haunting agency of the Erinyes (Eum. 94-139).

In the last part of the trilogy, the Eumenides, the Furies will take over the task of vengeance, since there is nobody left in the family to carry it out. Their "binding song," the hymnos desmios (Eum. 331-32; the song is at 321-96), is emblematic of the frightening power of their speech-act, (55) especially in its refrain:
(328-33; Over the [victim] doomed to the fire
this is the chant, scatter of wits,
frenzy and fear, hurting the heart,
song of the Furies
binding brain and blighting blood
in its stringless melody
[withering to mortals]; my translations in brackets)

With Athena's intervention, the Erinyes--personifications of fear, horror, and curses--feel that they have been overthrown and soon deplore the loss of their power, praising terror's positive effects:
(517-25; There are times when terror is good.
It must keep its watchful place
at the heart's controls.
There is advantage
in the wisdom won under constraint.
And what city or what mortal man
who rears his heart
in regard to nothing in fear
should have the same
respect for Justice?; translation mine)

After Orestes's acquittal, Athena does whatever it takes to appease the Furies. The transformation of the terrible Erinyes into Benign Women, Eumenides, can only happen through Athena--Clytemnestra's counterpart--a goddess who also is manipulative, yet through positive peitho (885, 971), thelxis, and charm (886,900). Terror will be redirected against the city's external enemies according to a new ideology of the polis (858-66,976-87). Thus fear will be handled as a positive instrument both to instill into the people reverence for their institutions and to repel the enemies. (57) The Furies will maintain some of their former terrifying power, the [phrase omitted] (see 517-24), but redefined in terms of an inside/outside opposition--that is, Athens and allies versus the Other, friends versus enemies. Contrary to tyrants, the democratic leadership will no longer be grounded in fear and will not exert its power through terror; rational politics will lead to joy, unity, and military success over other cities. And yet, there will still remain a threat: Athens's imperialistic expansion and the danger that a whole polis may take up the tyrannical legacy and act, and fear, like individual tyrants.

A Comparative Look at the Oresteia and Shakespeare's Macbeth

Despite many rather obvious parallels, it has been a widespread orthodoxy, especially in English studies, that Shakespeare did not have direct access to Greek tragedies in the original. Thus, according to Michael Silk, in the "strange relationship" between Shakespeare and Aeschylus any "reception" is excluded. (58) At least, since direct use of Aeschylus is not attested, the opinio communis still holds that Shakespeare could not read or possibly allude to Aeschylus in an intertextual manner. No current edition of Shakespeare includes Aeschylus as his source. (59) However, since the 1970s a small group of scholars have increasingly argued against this dogma, and in the last decade a reassessment of the question has been taking place. (60)

For a long time the argument went that Shakespeare could get a taste of Greek tragedy to some degree via Seneca, as closer he could not get. Another way to gain access to some real Greek tragedy was via Plutarch, especially his Lives, which circulated widely, (61) also providing occasional citations from the original texts. (62) And yet, more and more evidence that Greek tragedy became available in England in translation is coming to light, including latinized Aeschylus. (63) Regarding the Oresteia, Inga-Stina Ewbank has especially pointed to the reduced Saint-Ravy Latin translation of Aeschylus published in Basel in 1555, which "perpetuated the form of the Oresteia, deriving from an incomplete manuscript, of the editio princeps, the Aldine edition of 1518." (64) In this version, lines 311-1066 and 1160-1673 of Agamemnon are missing. (65) This seems to have been the shortened version, where Agamemnon and Choephori are fused in one play, that was in the private library of Ben Jonson and circulated in the London theatre world of the 1590s. (66) Myron Stagman has recently made a strong but still highly debatable case for Aeschylus's direct influence, maintaining that Shakespeare could read Aeschylus both in translation and in the original. (67) Stagman even argues for his creative adaptation of the Greek model "for an English Renaissance audience," (68) that is, its reception within a new cultural context.

It has sometimes been contended that "Macbeth most resembles a Greek tragedy," (69) especially on account of the many parallels in plot, motifs, psychological characterization, emotional portrait, and supernatural causation. (70) With greater certainty we can say that Shakespeare was influenced by the dark, tyrannical plays of Seneca, such as Medea, Hercules Furens, and Agamemnon, which draw heavily on Aeschylus's model of the Oresteia. Even before the recent reassessment, scholars like J. Churton Collins identified a plethora of correspondences, (71) basically repeated and augmented by Stagman: the entanglement in blood and revenge; the murder of Duncan and Agamemnon offstage; the visionary dagger; the gender reversal of the queens and their seductive abilities; nightmare, sleeplessness, and terror; porter scenes; insanity and prophecy; dark imagery; the three witches acting like the Chorus of the Furies; and the motifs of blood, cure, garments, and nets. Stagman even detects textual resonances and allusions in diction and metaphors, such as to the swan song, the bite of the snake into the nipple, murder as song and dance, and the weird sisters-furies as Gorgons. (72) In turn, Adrian Poole has emphasized the relevance of fear in Macbeth as follows: "Fear takes many diverse forms and Aeschylean tragedy is uniquely rich in its power to represent fear, its symptoms, sources, objects and consequences. Macbeth is in this sense Shakespeare's most Aeschylean tragedy." (73)

To my knowledge, however, nobody has so far focused on Aeschylus's and Shakespeare's kindred spirits with regard to the political, ethical, and psychological aspects of tyranny, which in both the Oresteia and Macbeth are deeply linked with fear with regard to morality and, in the Oresteia, with regard to hereditary guilt too. (74) In her chapter on Macbeth as a study in tyranny, Mary Ann McGrail has offered some good insights in this regard, yet without taking into account Shakespeare's relationship with Aeschylus. (75) Thus, I would like to conclude with a few comparative notes on this topic, underlining Aeschylus's and Shakespeare's common focus on the precarious state of the tyrant's power and on its subconscious basis.

There is a striking parallel in the fact that both dramatists highlight the desires, lower instincts, lust, and deficiencies as the springboards and origins of tyranny. This is why Shakespeare places so great an emphasis on the witches, theatrically externalized psychological forces. They lure Macbeth towards plans of usurpation (1.1; 3.5; 4.1) (76) and, like an embedded, internal Chorus, serve the purpose of spurring reflection upon the psychological and deeper reasons behind the crime.

Female characters play a major role in both dramas. Lady Macbeth pushes her husband to commit the murder in ways that in many respects reflect the Clytemnestra-Aegisthus relationship. However, whereas in Macbeth the couple's deep motive is desire for royal power, Clytemnestra's doings are primarily rooted in a chain of revenge plots in the house of Atreus. But once both sides--the Macbeths in act 2, and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus at the end of Agamemnon--have killed the legitimate king, all sorts of traits constitutive of the pattern of tyranny become apparent. Macbeth in particular (yet not his wife), from act 3 and especially from the banquet scene onward (3.4), (77) will be driven by fear toward new cruel violence, frenzy (mania), and unlawful rule (aspects already present in Clytemnestra, yet not in Aegisthus, from the very beginning of Agamemnon). In Macbeth, a revenge pattern arises from the murders of Duncan and later of Banquo. Ghosts and apparitions frequent the palaces in both contexts. (78) Both Shakespeare and Aeschylus focus on the issue of gender-role inversion. Aeschylus develops it throughout Agamemnon according to the Dionysian logic of reversal and distortion: Clytemnestra turns both into a female, scheming monster and a male tyrant of cunning intelligence and planning, capable of efficient ruling. Like a man, she is endowed with rhetorical skill and will-to-power enabling her to achieve her objectives. She has all the threads of the action in hand--with Aegisthus only as a weak, feminized appendix. Shakespeare casts Lady Macbeth as a sort of demonic wife and queen with masculine ambitions in the first part of the play, challenging Macbeth's own masculinity (especially in 1.7.35-83), and the gender-roles are notoriously perverted up to the third act in a deep and disturbing fashion. As is well known, Lady Macbeth acts mostly as the evil, ruthless, and heinous wife--an aspect Clytemnestra displays toward Agamemnon--enticing her husband, who is initially full of scruples, to commit the terrible deed, together with the three witches, somehow the emblems of feminine furtiveness and weirdness. But once the deed is done, she remains in the background, falling into dark depression and sleeplessness, which will push her to suicide, while her husband will transform into an out-and-out tyrant, first haunted by nightmares of his bad conscience but eventually losing all sense of moral responsibility and committing all sorts of cruel crimes. Thus, if Lady Macbeth only initially attempts to placate her husband's fears, soon sinking into a totally dark and nightmarish state of fear and/or of guilt--thus reestablishing the traditional gender-roles--Clytemnestra cleverly and prudently devises ways to appease the Erinyes and placate her own fear.

These differences granted, both Shakespeare and Aeschylus produce theatrical zones of reflection about politics and tyranny, although, of course, embedded in completely different socio-political contexts and with regard to radically divergent notions of individuality and subjectivity. Thus, whereas Shakespeare mainly focuses on the problem of legitimacy to rule and absolutism, showing how a loyal military leader can change into a terrible usurper and dreadful tyrant whom the good monarchic forces finally can defeat, Aeschylus, totally enrooted in the democratic polis, is much more political in an overall sense. In displaying tyranny, the Athenian dramatist as citizen stages intensely emotive counter-images to the democratic ideal, reflecting political turmoil of the near past on a higher, theatrical level.

Moreover, while Agamemnon and Choephori act out the installation and overthrow of tyranny in an evolutionary model within a trilogy, Macbeth concentrates in a single play an exploration of political succession and usurpation. Tyranny in the Oresteia is always envisioned against the foil of the broader participation of the people, the demos, made theatrically manifest as the Chorus in Agamemnon. Argos will not return to monarchy but, with the help of the eponymous goddess Athena, Athens and Argos will overcome tyranny and establish a democratic rule that already had its roots in the isonomic self-consciousness of the demos in the first play. In Macbeth, Shakespeare reflects the workings of tyranny mainly as an ethical phenomenon, (79) while in Aeschylus, this theme is embedded in a trilogy involving a much more complicated net of issues.

To conclude, I would like briefly to recall the famous deception speech of Malcolm, Duncans son, testing the loyalty of Macduff (4.3). (80) In this apparent dramatic pause, where the action seems to come to a halt with no manifest justification, I argue, Shakespeare pursues a very different objective, to showcase tyranny as an ethical question, the central issue of Macbeth, in a mise en abyme. The new king styles himself as the even more brutal and desire-driven tyrant than Macbeth. Through this psychological strategy based on a negative contrast, he succeeds in making his new follower openly display absolute allegiance and faithfulness. (81) First he provokes Macduff's outburst of emotion against the terrible tyrant Macbeth (4.3.32-37), then, in a daring turnaround, he announces that once established as new king after Macbeths defeat, he himself will turn out to be an even worse and greater tyrant:
Malcolm: I grant him bloody,
Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name. But there's no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness. Your wives, your daughters,
Your matrons and your maids could not fill up
The cistern of my lust; and my desire
All continent impediments would o'erbear
That did oppose my will. Better Macbeth
Than such an one to reign. (4.3.57-66)

Macduff diplomatically concedes that "Boundless intemperance / in nature is a tyranny" (4.3.66-67), but acknowledges that no human being, not even a king, can be perfect and bad qualities may be compensated for by good ones. But Malcolm denies having exactly the virtues he indeed possesses:
Malcolm: But I have none. The king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them, but abound
In the division of each several crime,
Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth. (4.3.91-99)

When Macduff reacts very emotionally, claiming that he cannot endure the thought that Scotland, "nation miserable" (4.3.103), will be under a more barbarous king than Macbeth--"an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptred" (4.3.104)--Malcolm has the proof of Macduff s virtues and noble feelings, and can finally tell him that his own self-presentation was intentionally false.

This long apparent pause in the drama has thus a specific function; it is not an intermission but a fundamental part of Macbeth, creating suspense and working on a different, self-conscious and reflective level as, in a doubling and contrasting manner, it highlights the nature of tyranny just before the final peripeteia.

In conclusion, despite the numerous differences, the fears of the tyrannical figures represent the main theatrical drives for the dramatic evolution of both the Oresteia and Macbeth, arousing pity and terror in the audience. In short, the tyrants fear, in the sense of the genitivus subiectivus and obiectivus, makes drama happen. It motivates the action and produces effective images of eleos and phobos. But most of all, it conveys a negative foil to reflect upon larger political questions, such as legitimate and good rule, democratic participation, the rule of law, and the virtuous king.


(1) William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, ed. Suzanne Gossett, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ser. (London: Thomson Learning, 2003), 1.2.82-83.

(2) Aristotle, Poetics, ed. and trans. Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 32-33.

(3) Ibid., 44-45.

(4) See Angelo Brelich, "Aristofane: commedia e religione," in /Il mito: Guida storica e critica, ed. Marcel Detienne, 3rd ed. (Rome: Laterza, 1982), 103-18; Anton Bierl, "Dionysos auf der Buhne: Gattungsspezifische Aspekte des Theatergottes in Tragodie, Satyrspiel und Komodie," in A Different God? Dionysos and Ancient Polytheism, ed. Renate Schlesier (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), 319.

(5) See, e.g., Froma Zeitlin, "The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in the Oresteia," Arethusa 11 (1978): 149-84.

(6) See esp. Homer, Homeri Odyssea, ed. Peter von der Miihll (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1993), 24.192-202; on the comparison between Clytemnestra and Penelope, see Marylin A. Katz, Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 29-53; on Penelope as an image of marital fidelity, see Froma I. Zeitlin, "Figuring Fidelity in Homer's Odyssey," in The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey, ed. Beth Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 117-52.

(7) See esp. Homer, Homeri Odyssea, 3.193-98,4.514-37,11.409-34; on the Orestes myth in the Odyssey, see S. Douglas Olson, Blood and Iron: Stories and Storytelling in Homer's Odyssey (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 24-42; Katz, Penelope's Renown, 29-53; Nany Felson-Rubin, Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 93-107. On representations on vases, see esp. side A of the famous Boston krater, Boston Fine Arts Museum 63.1246, attributed to the Dokimasia Painter, 480-60 BCE.

(8) Egon Flaig, Odipus: Tragischer Vatermord im klassischen Athen (Munich: Beck, 1998), 49; my translation. This view is based on the influential monograph by Christian Meier, Die Entstehung des Politischen bei den Griechen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980), translated into English as The Greek Discovery of Politics, trans. David McLintock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), that triggered a political and sociological interpretation of Greek tragedy. See, e.g., Neil Croally, "Tragedy's Teaching," in A Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. Justina Gregory (Maiden: Blackwell, 2005), 55-70.

(9) Quoted in Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), 179, and Meier, Greek Discovery, 117.

(10) Meier, Entstehung des Politischen, 144-246; Meier, Greek Discovery, 82-139; Christian Meier, Die politische Kunst der griechischen Tragodie (Munich: Beck, 1988), 113-56, translated into English as The Political Art of Greek Tragedy, trans. Andrew Webber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), ch. 5.5.

(11) Meier, Political Art, 4.; see also Meier, Politische Kunst, 7-13, esp. 9-10, 242.

(12) Flaig, Odipus, 42.

(13) On the tryrant, see among others Helmut Berve, Die Tyrannis bei den Griechen, 2 vols. (Munich: Beck, 1967); Vincent j. Rosivach, "The Tyrant in Athenian Democracy," Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, n.s., 30 (1988): 43-57; Loretana de Libero, Die archaische Tyrannis (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1996); Nino Luraghi, "One-Man Government: The Greeks and Monarchy," in A Companion to Ancient Greek Government, ed. Hans Beck (Maiden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 131-45.

(14) See Flaig, Odipus, 57-139; Richard Seaford, Cosmology and the Polis: The Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 332-34; Gherardo Ugolini, Sofocle e Atene: Vita politica e attivita teatrale nella Grecia classica (Rome: Carocci, 2000), 113-36.

(15) Seaford, Cosmology, 91-93.

(16) For more details, see Gherardo Ugolini's "[phrase omitted]: The Tyrant's Fears on the Attic Tragic Stage" in this special issue of Comparative Drama (51.4 Winter 2017).

(17) Seaford, Cosmology, esp. 130-31; Jean-Pierre Vernant, "From Oedipus to Periander: Lameness, Tyranny, Incest in Legend and History," Arethusa 15 (1982): 19-38, reprinted as "The Lame Tyrant," in Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 207-36; Flaig, Odipus, 57-139.

(18) See Flaig, Odipus, 102-04, based on Vernant's idea of tragedy's "triumph of the collective values imposed by the new democratic city-state"; Vernant and Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy, 7,24.

(19) See Lutz Kappel, Die Konstruktion der Handlung in der Orestie des Aischylos: die Makrostruktur des "Plof' als Sinntrager in der Darstellung des Geschlechterfluchs (Munich: Beck, 1998), esp. 25-38.

(20) Eva-Maria Voigt, ed., Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (Amsterdam: Polak & Van Gennep, 1971), Alcaeus fr. 129 and 130b.

(21) See. ibid., Alcaeus fr. 129.23-24; see also fr. 70.7; in Iliad 1.231, Agamemnon, who will be associated with the tyrannical pattern also in this paper, is addressed as "[phrase omitted]" (devourer of the people, eating the riches of the people). References are to Joachim Latacz and Anton Bierl, ed., Homers Ilias: Gesamtkommentar, ed. Martin L. West and trans. Joachim Latacz, vol. 1.1, Text und Ubersetzung (2000; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009); Joachim Latacz and Anton Bierl, ed., Homers Ilias: Gesamtkommentar, ed. Joachim Latacz et. al, vol. 1.2, Kommentar (2000; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009) (on line 231, see p. 98). Alcaeus, fighting against the wolf Pittacus, has further connections with the wolf; in fr. 130b.l0, he styles himself either as "wolf-fighter" [phrase omitted] or, according to another reading, as an exile living in the land of wolves, in "the wolf-thickets" [phrase omitted]. On this, see Anton Bierl, "Alcaeus' Use of Myth-History and Ritual Scenarios in the Political Struggle of Lesbos: Lycaon and the Atreidae (fr. 130b V.)," paper presented at the Core Group Meeting of the Network for the Study of Archaic and Classical Greek Song, Venice, October 9,2016 (forthcoming).

(22) For the Greek text of Plato's Republic, I follow John Burnet, ed., Platonis Opera, vol. 4 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902); translations are from Paul Shorey, trans., Plato, vol. 6 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969).

(23) References to the Greek text of the Oresteia are to Aeschylus, Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae, ed. Denys Page (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); if not otherwise specified, translations are from Richmond Lattimore, trans., Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 3rd ed., ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, vol. 2, Aeschylus IT. Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, Proteus (Fragments) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

(24) See Anton Bierl, "Melizein Pathe or the Tonal Dimension in Aeschylus' Agamemnon: Voice, Song, and Choreia as Leitmotifs and Metatragic Signals for Expressing Suffering," in Voice and Voices in Antiquity, ed. Niall Slater (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 166-207.

(25) As a good basileus, he wishes to heal the diseased polis with the active support of the assembly. On healing, see Ag. 94-103, 146, 387,1001-4, 1169-71, 1248, 1621-23.

(26) See Kappel, Konstruktion der Handlung, 152-58; on the visual aspect, see Anton Bierl, "Nachwort," in Aischylos: Die Orestie, in einer Neuubersetzung von Kurt Steinmann (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2016), 269.

(27) See Kappel, Konstruktion der Handlung, 48-55.

(28) Translations of 59-60 are mine.

(29) See Seaford, Cosmology, 178-79, 248, 260.

(30) See Froma I. Zeitlin, "The Motif of the Corrupted Sacrifice in Aeschylus' Oresteia" Transactions of the American Philological Association 96 (1965): 463-505, and by the same author, "Postscript to Sacrificial Imaginary in the Oresteia (Ag. 1235-37)," Transactions of the American Philological Association 97 (1966): 645-53.

(31) See Walter Burkert, Homo Necans. The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, trans. Peter Bing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 5, 12, 54; Walter Burkert, Greek Religion. Archaic and Classical, trans. J. Raffan (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 72, 74.

(32) See Ludwig Deubner, "Ololyge und Verwandtes," Abhandlungen der PreuBischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Phil.-Hist. Klasse 1 (1941): 3-28 (14); Burkert, Greek Religion, 74; Susanne Godde, Euphemia: Die gute Rede in Kult und Literatur der griechischen Antike (Heidelberg: Winter, 2011), 98-116.

(33) See Zeitlin, "Motif of the Corrupted Sacrifice;" Zeitlin, "Postscript to Sacrificial Imaginary;" Walter Burkert, "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966): 87-121, esp. 119-20; Albert Henrichs, "Drama and Dromena: Bloodshed, Violence, and Sacrificial Metaphor in Euripides," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000): 173-88, esp. 180-84; Albert Henrichs, "BlutvergieBen am Altar: Zur Ritualisierung der Gewalt im griechischen Opferkult," in Gewalt und Asthetik: Zur Gewalt und ihrer Darstellung in der griechischen Klassik, ed. Bernd Seidensticker and Martin Vohler (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2006), 59-87, esp. 67-80.

(34) My translation after Hugh Lloyd-Jones, trans., Aeschylus. The Oresteia, with notes by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (London: Duckworth, 1979), part 1.

(35) This is how Socrates explains, in Plato's ideological construct of the Republic, the old saying that Eros is a tyrant--e.g. Euripides, Hippolytus, in Euripidis fabulae, ed. James Diggle, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 538. See Plat. Rep. 573b6-7 [phrase omitted]; Love has long since been called a tyrant).

(36) In the Republic, Plato motivates the degeneration of political systems (543a-576b) by the degeneration of the souls of individuals; the stories told in this respect are grounded in the economic situation and in men's psychology; lust as well as desire for money and power play a central role. See Dorothea Frede, "Die ungerechten Verfassungen und die ihnen entsprechenden Menschen (Buch VIII 543a-IX 576b)," in Platon: Politeia, ed. Otfried Hoffe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997), 251-70.

(37) Seaford, Cosmology, sees the "problem of the insatiable accumulation of individual wealth" as the central theme of the Oresteia (203). For such a reading, esp. in regard to space, see ibid. 178-205, 230-33, 235-36, 261-78.

(38) I accept Metzger's conjecture [phrase omitted], printed by Page.

(39) My translation, after Lloyd-Jones, trans., Aeschylus. The Oresteia.

(40) Translations mine.

(41) See Bierl, "Melizein Pathe or the Tonal Dimension in Aeschylus' Agamemnon."

(42) Bruno Gentili and Carlo Prato, ed., Poetarum elegiacorum testimonia etfragmenta (Munich: Saur, 2002).

(43) Some editors, including Murray, emend "thirteenth" to "third," arguing that the number seems exaggerated.

(44) My translation, after Lloyd-Jones, trans., Aeschylus. The Oresteia.

(45) Lloyd-Jones, trans., Aeschylus. The Oresteia.

(46) See also Anton Bierl, "Momente performativen Selbstreflexiv-Werdens in der Tragodie des Aischylos (mit besonderem Blick auf die Dareios-Szene in den Persern)',' in "Re-enacting Religion," ed. Julia Stenzel, special issue, Forum Modernes Theater 2018 (in press).

(47) See also Kappel, Konstruktion der Handlung, 200.

(48) Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

(49) However, the Erinyes are eventually envisioned as dogs; see Eum. 132, 246, 924.

(50) See Plat. Rep. 565d4-566a4 and above at n21.

(51) According to Plato's Republic (590a5-b2), tyrannical souls liberate a polymorph animal in the form of a lion and serpent (590a9-bl).

(52) See Kappel, Konstruktion der Handlung, 215-32.

(53) Cf. Plat. Rep. 571c9-dl.

(54) See Anton Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische Tragodie. Politische und 'metatheatralische' Aspekte im Text (Tubingen: Narr, 1991), 121-22, where I argue in favor of [phrase omitted], transmitted by manuscript M, against Portus's conjecture, accepted by Page, with the meaning of "the curing hope for bright/good ([phrase omitted]) revel/jubilation in the house."

(55) See Anton Bierl, Ritual and Performativity. The Chorus in Old Comedy, trans. Alexander Hollmann (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009), 62-65.

(56) At 522 [phrase omitted] (light), as given by codex M and confirmed by the scholium in it, is unclear and has been therefore obelized by Page; it had been corrected in [phrase omitted] by Isaac Casaubon.

(57) See Meier, Entstehung des Politischen, 207-20.

(58) Michael Silk, "Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy: Strange Relationship," in Shakespeare and the Classics, ed. Charles Martindale and A. B. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 253, 241.

(59) Not even Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, ed., Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Ser. (London: Thomson Learning, 2015), 82-97, mention Aeschylus as a possible source. The entry in the index referring to a quote on p. 214 is an error. All references to the play are to this edition.

(60) For an overview, see Gordon Braden, "Classical Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare," Classical Receptions Journal 9, no. 1 (2017): 103-19.

(61) See Christopher Pelling, "Seeing a Roman Tragedy through Greek Eyes: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar" in Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition, ed. Simon Goldhill and Edith Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 264-88.

(62) See Braden, "Classical Greek Tragedy," 111-18.

(63) Louise Schleiner, "Latinized Greek Drama in Shakespeare's Writing of Hamlet" Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 29-48.

(64) Inga-Stina Ewbank, '"Striking Too Short at Greeks': The Transmission of Agamemnon to the English Renaissance Stage," in Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004, ed. Fiona Macintosh, Pantelis Michelakis, Edith Hall, and Oliver Taplin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 39.

(65) Ibid.

(66) Schleiner, "Latinized Greek Drama," 31. See also Earl Showerman, "Shakespeare's Greater Greek: Macbeth and Aeschylus' Oresteia" Brief Chronicles 3 (2011): 37-70, esp. 63-64 on erudite Oxford figures as mediators.

(67) Myron Stagman, Shakespeare's Greek Drama Secret (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2010),411-18.

(68) Ibid., 3-5 and 92.

(69) Showerman, "Shakespeare's Greater Greek," 38, quoting Thomas Wheeler, Macbeth: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1990), 442, a summary of Francis Glasson, "Did Shakespeare Read Aeschylus?," London Quarterly and Holborn Review 173 (1948): 57-66.

(70) Showerman, "Shakespeare's Greater Greek."

(71) J. Churton Collins, Studies in Shakespeare (Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1904), 46-97,127-79 (parallels between Shakespeare and all three tragedians) and 52,72-73,87 (between Oresteia and Macbeth). For a recent reassessment, see Showerman, "Shakespeare's Greater Greek."

(72) Stagman, Shakespeare's Greek Drama, 90-126.

(73) Adrian Poole, Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 15.

(74) On the ethical aspect in the sense of a "poetic justice," very different from the wider political framework, see Laura Jepsen, Ethical Aspects of Tragedy. A Comparison of Certain Tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, and Shakespeare (1953; repr., New York: AMS Press, 1971), 8-31.

(75) Mary Ann McGrail, Tyranny in Shakespeare (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), 19-46.

(76) See Clark and Mason, Macbeth, 98-103.

(77) For a discussion of Macbeth's isolation in 3.4 and the overall scene's relation with Agamemnon, see Silvia Bigliazzi, "Linguistic Taboos and the 'Unscene' of Fear in Macbeth',' in part 2 of this special issue of Comparative Drama (52.1 Spring 2018).

(78) In Macbeth, esp. in act 3.4; in the Oresteia it is a recurring feature, ranging from inner visions to the actual apparition of Clytemnestra's ghost (Eum. 94-139) and the Furies as the Chorus in the Eumenides.

(79) See McGrail, Tyranny in Shakespeare, 19-46. Criticism has also long debated the play's political relation to James's rule and its position in respect to his government and political writings; for a brief but acute comment on the issue of legitimacy in Macbeth, see Stephen Orgel, "Macbeth and the Antic Round," in The Authentic Shakespeare, and Other problems of the Early Modern Stage, ed. Stephen Orgel (New York: Routledge, 2002), 159-72, esp. 164-65.

(80) For a fuller discussion, see McGrail, Tyranny in Shakespeare.

(81) Ibid., 19-26.

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Author:Bierl, Anton
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Date:Dec 22, 2017
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