Constantly fascinating individual
Clytaemnestra, who showed such strength as a woman in a man’s world in Agamemnon, is somewhat subdued in Electra. In Agamemnon, we are aware that Clytaemnestra takes great pride in her ability to rule over her people as well as a man, and admonishes the Chorus by saying ‘You speak as to some thoughtless woman: you are wrong’. Indeed, Clytaemnestra had won praise earlier on in the play from the Watchman, who commented that the Queen ‘manoeuvred like a man’. In Electra, in contrast to this strong, female leadership, we can see that it is Aegisthus who is in charge of Argos, and Clytaemnestra seems to be afraid of him. She explains to her daughter that she could not stand up to him, as ‘You know his temper’.
This contrast can be explained by a number of factors. The passing of time between the setting of the two plays may have subdued Clytaemnestra, who seems now to be content in a more maternal role, attending to her daughter after the birth of her grandchild, and performing the sacred rites needed after a birth. Another explanation for this contrast also lies in the intentions of the playwrights, and the conflict between Aeschylus’ traditional approach to the story, and Euripides’ wish to challenge and confound his audience.
The setting of the two plays also provides a marked contrast between Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Electra. The setting of the play in a shack in Euripides’ version was very unusual, and emphasises the fact that his tragedy does not conform to the traditional ideas of the story of the House of Atreus. Aeschylus, on the other hand, has set his play within a palace, a ‘house of kings’, a far more conventional location for a drama. These contrasts set the tone for the differences throughout the play, and this would allow the audience to guess at the nature of the play from the scenery. The setting of Electra in a shack emphasises Euripides’ wish to confound dramatic expectations of his plays, and also harks back to a simpler, rural time, a golden age, a theme which is also reinforced by the appearance of the peasant, an Euripidean invention which was not featured in any of the previous tragedies on this subject.
One similarity between the Clytaemnestra of Agamemnon and the one of Electra is their justification of the murder of Agamemnon. In both plays, Clytaemnestra cites the sacrifice of Iphigeneia as the motive for killing her husband. In Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra laments that ‘My own darling, whom my pain brought forth – he killed her’. A similar argument is used in Electra to justify her murder, telling Electra that ‘he killed my daughter – why should he not die?’. This is one of the few similarities between the characters, who have otherwise been almost completely altered.
The character of Clytaemnestra is almost completely different in the two tragedies, with many different characteristics and motives. Both Euripides and Aeschylus have created an intriguing character in Clytaemnestra. Aeschylus, however, has, in his portrayal of Clytaemnestra, given us a strong femal character, who, in spite of the atrocities she commits, is still capable of evoking the sympathy of an audience, as we see her struggle for acceptance in a male world. It is this strength of character, rather than Euripides’ intriguing, yet somewhat weaker Clytaemnestra that is more effective, and it is because of this that she remains the central focus of Agamemnon, and a constantly fascinating individual.