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When I was in graduate school, I thought I might take a course in literary criticism. The Classics faculty couldn't imagine why, but I did it anyway. My professor was a notorious feminist, and when she asked me what I was studying and I mentioned Clytemnestra in Iphigenia at Aulis, she replied, "Ah, Clytemnestra! The first feminist!" That was surely not what the classical criticism said, but as time went on, the truth of her comment became more and more clear until I found myself putting together a panel and a collection of essays on the Argive queen. In my maturity, it is nice to see another volume about Clytemnestra in twentieth-century literature and to learn that I was part of a historical movement in which her story supported the feminist critique of Western patriarchy.
In Reclaiming Klytemnestra: Revenge or Reconciliation, Kathleen L. Komar discusses how the myth of Clytemnestra seemed to hold a particular fascination for writers in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1980s, Clytemnestra's story is used to show that women are repressed and abused by patriarchy, either justifying women's violence or exploring the psychology of their abuse and repression. Her relations with other women like Cassandra become emblematic of the difficulties women have uniting against their own oppression. Her killing of Cassandra and relation with Electra make her a problematic hero for feminists, however, and 1990s women writers put more attention on the other women of the story. This pattern follows that of feminist studies generally, moving from simple black-white oppressed-oppressor consciousness-raising to questions about the impact of oppression and victimization upon both men and women. If a writer needs a model of a strong woman, she can always turn to Clytemnestra and characterize her as uncompromising, [End Page 783] or violent, or sexual, any of which may make her good or evil. Komar's volume contains examples of them all.
This book is not about the ancient Clytemnestra, and does not propose to be, but rather about feminism and its variety of responses to her. Komar is concerned that, as evidenced by these versions of Clytemnestra's story, modern women politicians and theorists begin and end with women only as victims: "the female voice . . . is muted and confined to the personal and often interior monologue" about their plight (181-82). Here I believe we can learn more from the ancient view that women's and men's principles can work the same way. The most compelling thing about the ancient Clytemnestra is her ability to articulate the reasons for her act as principle. Heroes like Achilles, Shane, Superman, or Medea state what they stand for even as they may commit the most horrible acts in the name of justice. Thus, while Jean Anhouil's version is still all about her victimization by tyranny, in all of Greek drama Sophocles's Antigone stands most simply and heroically for a principle.
Komar assumes, with many traditional readers of ancient texts, that the Greeks equated women with blood feuds, as the symbolism of the Oresteia suggests. But the situation is more likely that blood feuds involved both men and women, and patriarchal democrats came to associate them with women in order to disassociate them from male institutions. In Greek drama, men still take revenge, and men and women equally stand for and talk about principles of reciprocity. Thus, as Komar says, while modern feminists tend to believe that standing on principle is a patriarchal activity and suffering is more virtuous (and more female), ideas voiced as action in the public arena by both sexes—an archetypal Greek activity, after all—can end the cycles of violence by uniting men and women into a single community with principles and compassion for both.
Komar's work is very readable for all levels and should be included with works like Ian Donaldson's The Rapes of Lucretia, which describes ancient myths reconfigured through the centuries for many purposes. It is not aimed at classicists in particular or at courses strictly about...