Tragic Propaganda: Aeschylus? Intentions Essay, Research Paper Tragic Propaganda: Aeschylus? Intentions Language is Aeschylus’ juggernaut: he uses striking, innovative words to drive an image into the mind of his audience. Clytaemestra, notorious as a villain or perhaps an anti- heroine, effectively acts as a medium for Aeschylus? brilliant rhetoric in Agamemnon.
Tragic Propaganda: Aeschylus? Intentions Essay, Research Paper
Tragic Propaganda: Aeschylus? Intentions
Language is Aeschylus’ juggernaut: he uses striking, innovative words to drive an image into the mind of his audience. Clytaemestra, notorious as a villain or perhaps an anti- heroine, effectively acts as a medium for Aeschylus? brilliant rhetoric in Agamemnon. Clytaemestra?s rhetoric not only invokes vivid imagery, but also confuses and perverts spheres of logic and rhetoric: sacrifice with murder, liquids with cloth, and blood with wine. These images overturn the values and traditions of her society, symbolized by the chorus, by joining spheres that were customarily kept separate. Aeschylus? perversion of values through the confusion of rhetorical spheres gives Clytaemestra ultimate power in the play and throughout the trilogy.
One of the ways Aeschylus builds Clytaemestra?s power at the play’s climax is through the involution of murder depicted as a sacrifice. The ritual sacrifice, a sphage, served as a means of purification in antiquity (Lebek 80). In Agamemnon, the symbolic act of sacrifice becomes corrupted and equated with murder. Death, as a sacrifice, is a constant theme. It has been alluded to many times before Agamemnon’s demise, always in the form of ritual sacrifice, but never as murder. The most obvious example is the mention of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Therefore, by the time the audience comprehends Clytaemestra’s murderous act, it has seen a precedent set for murder mistaken as sacrifice. Clytaemestra boldly presents her position to the chorus: ?I struck him twice. In two great cries of agony he buckled at the knees and fell. When he was down I struck him the third blow, in thanks and reverence to Zeus the lord of dead men underneath the ground.? She continues her plea, almost relishing in what she has done: ??and as he died he spattered me with the dark red and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds? (1389-1394). The three murderous blows that Clytaemestra strikes allude to the three libations offered during a normal sacrifice. Typically, one would offer three libations of wine: first to the Olympians, then to the Chthonians, and finally to Zeus, the Savior (Lebek 1-7). Clytaemestra corrupts the ritual sacrifice on several accounts. She offers blood rather than wine, sacrifices a king rather than an animal, and confuses the steps of the sacrificial ritual.
The first corruption of the ritual is the offering of blood rather than wine. It is not the first time that human remains have been offered for ritual feast instead of animal ones; the audience quickly remembers the feast of Atreus, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the impiety of the Atreides. By offering Agamemnon’s blood as wine, Clytaemestra makes a connection with the feast a generation earlier. The second corruption concerns what is being sacrificed. Rather than killing some goat or bull, Clytaemestra murders her husband and king. Again, a person takes the place of an animal, and again, the audience is reminded of an earlier sacrifice. Here we are ironically drawn back in time. Iphigenia, with her saffron robes flowing around her, most likely begged her father for her life. The image is strikingly similar to what we, the audience, would see: Agamemnon lying dead, his crimson robes flowing around him, with Clytaemestra standing coldly triumphant over him. Finally, she does not offer her sacrifice to Zeus the Savior, but rather Zeus, who guards dead souls. In doing so, she has corrupted the ritual sacrifice on all levels. She has perverted the libation, the sacrificial victim, and the object of the sacrifice. She has inverted the nature of the gods, as well as man, revealing her true nature.
Aeschylus also intentionally confuses certain basic spheres of words. Clytaemestra groups liquids and cloths by association, confusing one for the other. The carpets that Agamemnon treads on, for example, can be seen as a trail of blood. Earlier, the chorus mentions the robes of Iphigenia pouring to the ground (239-240). As she lies horizontally on the altar with her robes draped around her, saffron in color, Agamemnon sacrifices her for the sake of his own personal agenda (sailing to Ilium safely). The idea of liquids and cloths, of flowing and pouring, has been linked both to her sacrifice and to the curse upon the Atreides, for both are mentioned in the previous line (236). The theme is reinforced when Clytaemestra refers to the carpets as “a crimson path” (911) and mentions its colorings as “the purple ooze wherein our garments shall be dipped” (960). This scene is also a key linguistic turning point. Up to this point, sacrifice and omen have been linked with cloth; now the concept of language as a web, a trap, is layered upon these other ideas.
Clytaemestra also confuses fertility with death in the presence of Agamemnon?s sacrifice. As Agamemnon’s blood sprays across her face, she describes the results of her actions in terms of fertility and natural bounty: ?Thus he went down and the life struggled out of him, ?as gardens stand among the showers of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.? (1389-1392). She has not simply inverted society– she has inverted nature as well. As she did with religion, she has crossed borders again, bringing birth and fertility into a description of bloody death. It is, quite simply, a horrifically unimaginable scene.
One final image that is used in the presence of sacrifices is that of cooking, eating and drinking, which is also related to that of feasting. Immediately after Agamemnon’s murder, Clytaemestra says (1395- 98): ?But if it is fitting to pour a libation for the dead, then this is well-ordered, and very just. Having filled this accursed bowl of evils in the house, he himself drinks of them, coming home.? Although this speech also contains elements of religious rituals and libations, it also refers to the actions of drinking and consuming. Here Agamemnon drinks what he deserves: death. In lines 1435-37, Clytaemestra mentions that Aegisthus makes the fire burn on her hearth; again, while this is a simple metaphor for a household, it also brings to mind the fire that roasted Thyestes’ children, and again we have a reference to feasting. A particularly interesting metaphor is given at the end of this speech, when Clytaemestra says that the deaths of Agamemnon and Cassandra provide her bed with an extra relish or delight. The Greek word used here is paropsonema (1447) (Peradatto 390-93), a rather odd word to use in this context unless one considers the layering of images that occurs: it means to gain an extra relish or to evoke additional pleasure from a meal.
Clytaemestra has effectively coaxed the chorus by transforming the vulgarity and brutality of her deed into the methodical and necessary steps of sacrifice. As a queen and a mother, Clytaemestra represents the pinnacle and cornerstone of society itself. As queen, she rules in her husband’s absence, controlling all legal and religious aspects of her city. As a mother, she is the center of private life, giving birth to future kings and citizens and managing her husband’s household. Yet, Clytaemestra takes these two positions and inverts them by her deeds and descriptions. Thus we see that Clytaemestra?s words give her power and immortality; She remains omnipresent throughout the trilogy as the eumenides. The furies become the manifestation of her presence, which before Aeschylus? Oresteia was unheard of as a dramatic concept (Peradatto 387).
Clytaemestra has also perverted two new, yet equally important spheres of idea and logos: the domestic sphere and the state. These spheres, which are closely linked to femininity and masculinity, become intertwined as Clytaemestra takes on a masculine role. In fact, she is often depicted as a male: ??to such end a lady?s male strength of heart? (10- 11). The relationship between the male and the female is anything but dynamic, making the perverse state of the relationship between Clytaemestra and Agamemnon unnatural; it simply cannot exist in Aeschylus? society. The Oresteia, in effect, perpetuates traditional ideals; the values assigned to the “good” female characters, such as Elektra, embody the morals of the ruling men, while the real opinions and views of women are suppressed. Drama, for the Greeks, was a means of educating the citizens of the polis, not merely the male citizens, but the female ones as well. Aeschylus’ treatment of women may be interpreted as an example of how not to act (for women) and what actions to take (for men). Furthermore, the Oresteia becomes a social commentary on the conflict between duty to the state and duty to the family. The final resolution, Oresetes? trial in the Eumenides, restores the rightful order to the polis and suggests that the state or the male has power over the female and her domestic sphere, the family. The Oresteia can therefore be looked upon as a piece of propaganda meant to cement the traditional roles of men and women in Greek society.
1. Aeschylus I. ?Agamemnon? Oresteia. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953
2. Gomme, A. W. ?The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC? Classical Philology 20 (1925): 1-25
3. Lebeck, Ann. The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1971.
4. Peradotto, John J. “Some Patterns of Nature Imagery in the Oresteia.” American Journal of Philology 85 (1964): 378-393.
5. Dodds, E.R. “Morals and Politics in the Oresteia.” Chapter in The Ancient Concept of Progress and Other Essays in Greek Literature and Belief. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
6. Goldhill, Simon. Language, Sexuality, Narrative: The Oresteia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
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