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  • Klytaimestra Tyrannos:Fear and Tyranny in Aeschylus's Oresteia (with a Brief Comparison with Macbeth)
  • Anton Bierl (bio)

I knew him tyrannous, and tyrants' fearsDecrease 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 (1448a1–5),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, [End Page 528] 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...


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