Clytemnestra and Lady Macbeth are the two powerful and terrifying ladies of classical literature. Their shared personal connivances touch upon universal problems of injustice and natural law, both ancient and modern. The two women possess an unnatural lust for things which do not belong to them. They desire to uproot the natural order by betraying their husbands and subordinating their marriages to an overwhelming desire for control (though perhaps some of their reasons for despising their husbands are not without merit). In Plato’s Republic we find a recurring theme: how to educate people in such a way that they are capable of justly ruling both themselves and others, as well as being justly ruled by others -the ultimate aristocratic sentiment. However, tragedy for Clytemnestra and Lady Macbeth occurs when their willpower subordinates all things except personal gain. Both Clytemnestra and Lady Macbeth are in pursuit of power and yet both fall prey to their own schemes. In an ancient context, Clytemnestra seeks to regain control of her household by taking a new a new lover (Aegisthus) while her unruly and derelict husband fights a war abroad over her half-sister (Helen) in Ilium. While he is away, Clytemnestra banishes her son Orestes and chastises her daughter Electra, all the while planning to assassinate her husband Agamemnon when he returns. In a modern context, Lady Macbeth seeks to “unsex” herself in order to goad her supposedly weak-willed husband into fulfilling a dark and ominous prophecy which seems to suggest he will become king. She urges him to commit regicide, while questioning his motives and temperament the whole way, but once the deed is done she lives in fear of her own assassination and her sanity is sacrificed for political power. Both women spawn a troubled household precisely because of their efforts to control it.
Who is Clytemnestra?
Clytemnestra’s marriage dissolves in her mind as a result of the ten year war at Troy. In the wake of war her daughter, Iphigenia, has been sacrificed, and her husband Agamemnon is returning home with a new woman: Cassandra. However, Clytemnestra’s resentment was seeded long before the return of Agamemnon. Her challenge is a lack of patience and forgiveness for her husband. In fact, they no longer even communicate so she takes a lover, Aegisthus, her husband’s cousin whom the Chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon call weak “like a woman” (line 1625).
The first glimpse of Clytemnestra we have in classical literature is in Homer’s Odyssey (Book III around line 303) in which the elder Nestor explains to Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, what has happened to the various men returning home from the sack of Priam. Nestor describes Aegisthus “luring” Clytemnestra into his bed -a “monstrous crime.” Homer mentions a curious anonymous “bard” that was sent by Agamemnon to keep watch over his wife but the bard was shipped away to remote island when Aegisthus conquered Mycenae (Homer frequently interjects little anecdotes about bards as commentary and criticism on the poets like himself). Perhaps the true tyranny of Clytemnestra and Aethisthus happens when they banish the poets. At any rate, Aegisthus rules over the rich horse-country of Mycenae for seven years once he kills Agamemnon (in Homer the death of Agamemnon comes at the hands of Aegisthus). Then Orestes arrives to kill Aegisthus and bury is “hated” mother Clytemnestra.
The story of Clytemnestra is further detailed in Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, particularly in the first part, Agamemnon, in which Clytemnestra slays Agamemnon offstage moments after he arrives home from war. At the outset she describes being haunted by dreams while being interrogated by the Chorus (Lady Macbeth is also troubled by “brainsickly” dreams and sleepwalking in Macbeth). Clytemnestra then appears in the second part of Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Libation Bearers, wherein Orestes returns home to Argos disguised as a “Daulian Stranger” to avenge his father’s death. He pretends to be a messenger bringing news of Orestes’s death, but after killing Aegisthus offstage he finally reveals his true identity to his mother. In a panic, Clytemnestra attempts to persuade her son of her innocence: she begs him to let her grow old, she appeals to his sense of pity for her, then she reasons about justifications for her deeds and Agamemnon’s injustices, and finally she threatens Orestes with a curse, but all to no avail. “You were the snake I gave birth to,” she snipes at the end, but Orestes remains resolute. He leads her away to be slaughtered in retribution. The final words of Orestes to his mother in the play are, “Indeed, the terror of your dreams saw things to come clearly. You killed, and it was wrong. Now suffer wrong” (The Libation Bearers 928-930). Like Aegisthus and Agamemnon before her, Clytemnestra is slain offstage by Orestes and his comrade Pylades. Orestes is then driven mad by the cursed Furies who haunt him for the crime of matricide.
The particularly nasty depiction of Clytemnestra is apparent in Sophocles’s Electra where we are offered a glimpse into a vicious mother-daughter dispute. Clytemnestra berates Electra for her constant thoughts of Orestes and defends the murder of Agamemnon as merely serving the cause of Justice (lines 520-530). Then a messenger named Pedagogus arrives to deliver the false news that Orestes has died. Shortly thereafter Orestes covertly arrives and kills his mother inside the house.
Lastly, we see Clytemnestra appear in Euripides’s Electra which offers a different glimpse into Clytemnestra’s mind as she defends herself in a lengthy tirade with her daughter Electra shortly before dying. In truth, in Euripides’s version, it is Electra who executes the plot to kill her mother. Clytemnestra is entrapped by her daughter and then killed offstage by Electra, Orestes, and Pylades.
Who Is Lady Macbeth?
We first meet Lady Macbeth in Act I Scene v of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She is reading a letter regarding Macbeth’s experience with the Weird Sisters and their vague prophecy. Regardless of whether the prophecy is true or not, she intends to fulfill it, but she “fears” Macbeth’s nature because his character “is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” and he lacks the illness that should attend to ambition, largely because of his tender “holiness.” Lady Macbeth describes herself as an aid to certain “metaphysical” mysteries that wish to crown him king.
In order to employ the “valor” or her own “tongue” so she asks “spirits” to “unsex” her and fill her with the direst cruelty. She wants an unnatural evil to temporarily overwhelm her mind so that she may attain power for herself. Why she so deeply desires the kingship of Scotland is unclear. Unlike Clytemnestra, Macbeth has neither betrayed nor abandoned his wife, and neither has he sacrificed a child or some other egregious act (like Agamemnon). In fact, Macbeth and his Lady have no children at all to speak of. Theirs is a purely political union.
Lady Macbeth seeks to enforce a ruse. She encourages Macbeth to “look up clear” and pretend all is normal so as not to fall out of favor with King Duncan -“false face must hide what false heart doth know.” Macbeth, in turn, demands “peace” from her because he dares not go beyond what may become a man. In response she questions his manhood (to Lady Macbeth manliness is akin to murderous regicide). She calls him “infirm” and “brainsick” for his troubles though it is Lady Macbeth who becomes tormented not unlike Orestes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Later in the play, Lady Macbeth dies offstage in an apparent suicide. The news is delivered to Macbeth by his attendant Seyton (whose name clearly mirrors “Satan”), and rather than mourn his dead wife, Macbeth ponders the vanity of life as “signifying nothing.” Like Clytemnestra, Lady Macbeth’s machinations ultimately led to the downfall of her household.
For this reading I used Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and the David Grene and Richmond Lattimore translations of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, Sophocles’s Electra, Euripides’s Electra, and the Arden Edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.