A Chorus of Murders
By Aurora Muggeridge
What makes for a sympathetic villain in Greek tragedy?
Æschylus’ Clytemnestra and Euripides’ Medea are two wrathful women who share many character traits and commit similar crimes. There is, however, a striking difference in the way the Chorus interacts with them. The Chorus in The Libation Bearers absolutely hates Clytemnestra, as opposed to its loving sympathy for her daughter, Electra. But the Chorus in Medea adores the title character, and even defends her against her enemies. Why are these two women, who are very alike, treated so disparately by their respective choruses?
The difference in treatment stems from the differences in Clytemnestra and Medea’s personalities. Although they have similar traits, Clytemnestra is much more masculine in her personality, whereas Medea remains wholly feminine. The Chorus in The Libation Bearers does not sympathize with Clytemnestra because of her masculine nature, whereas the Chorus in Medea does connect with her on an emotional level.
Clytemnestra and Medea are alike in many ways. They are powerful women with unfaithful husbands (who ought to be more wary of their wives), and are also both clever and resourceful. In addition, because of their frightening power and reputation, they command fear and respect from nearly everyone.
The most prominent attribute that they share is how exceptionally powerful they are. Clytemnestra’s strength is mainly in her manipulation of people as well as strategic use of physical force, as seen in her confrontation with Orestes in Æschylus:
CLYTEMNESTRA: Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles. By cunning we die precisely as we killed. Hand me the man-axe, someone, hurry! Now we will see. Win all or lose all, we have come to this—the crisis of our lives.
ORESTES: It’s you I want. This one’s had enough …
CLYTEMNESTRA: Wait, son—no feeling for this, my child? The breast you held, drowsing away the hours, soft gum tugging the milk that made you grow?
ORESTES: What will I do, Pylades?—I dread to kill my mother!
Clytemnestra demonstrates cunning worthy of Odysseus. She uses Orestes’ guilt to her advantage, making him question whether he should proceed with her murder. She relentlessly pokes at his weak points, nearly making him abandon his task. She never loses her poise, and artfully defends herself against his accusations (though unfortunately for her, she does not quite convince him not to kill her). Clytemnestra always takes matters into her own hands, be it murdering her husband and his concubine or challenging her vengeful son; she does not shrink from physical conflict, and confronts everyone who opposes her. Her confrontational attitude and commanding presence give Clytemnestra a very masculine air. She is not overtly emotional, and her lack of feminine virtues makes her off-putting to the other women in the play, including those in the Chorus.
In contrast to Clytemnestra’s masculine qualities, Medea presents a more feminine character. Like Clytemnestra, she is powerful, but in a different way: Medea, instead of calling for her man-axe and confronting the opposition head-on, takes a less direct approach to conflict.
MEDEA: I have in mind so many paths of death for them, I don’t know which to choose. Should I set fire to the house, and burn the bridal chamber? Or creep up to their bed and drive a sharp knife through their guts? … The best is the direct way, which suits my bent: to kill by poison.
Medea prefers to kill her enemies indirectly, in a way the ancient Greeks found to be uniquely feminine: drugs. Drugs and women have gone hand in hand throughout Greek literature. For example, in the Odyssey there is an allusion to women and their proficiency in drugging men:
Then Zeus’s daughter Helen thought of something else. Into the mixing-bowl from which they drank their wine she slipped a drug, heart’s-ease, dissolving anger, magic to make us all forget our pains … so cunning the drugs that Zeus’s daughter plied, potent gifts from Polydamna the wife of Thon.
Medea’s method is also feminine in the way she removes herself from the victim. In using poison instead of more primitive, hand-to-hand assassination techniques like a sword, Medea separates herself from her murders. She employs other people to do the dirty work for her: she famously convinced Pelias’ own daughters to kill him for her, so that she could make Jason a king. Medea only kills people directly when her victims are much weaker than she and cannot put up a physical fight, as in the example of her children. Medea’s passive, removed mode of killing contrasts sharply with Clytemnestra’s enthusiastic and direct approach. Medea murders in a feminine fashion whereas Clytemnestra kills in a masculine one.
The Chorus in The Libation Bearers utterly detests Clytemnestra, as well as her new husband Ægisthus. It actively plots and prays for her downfall, insults her unceasingly, and condemns her actions wholly. For example, when Clytemnestra sends them to the grave of Agamemnon to pray and offer libations to avert ill fortune, the women undermine her orders and instead encourage Electra to invoke the gods to avenge the death of Agamemnon:
CHORUS LEADER: But the gifts, the empty gifts she hopes will ward them off—good Mother Earth!—that godless woman sends me here … I dread to say her prayer … Let some god or man come down upon them.
ELECTRA: Judge or Avenger, which?
CHORUS LEADER: Just say “the one who murders in return!”
ELECTRA: How can I ask the gods for that and keep my conscience clear?
CHORUS LEADER: How not, and pay the enemy back in kind?
Despite its complete hatred of Clytemnestra, the Chorus commiserates with and pities her daughter, Electra. In The Libation Bearers, Electra is a very weak-willed and thus (to the Greeks) properly feminine character, and the Chorus prefers her over her murderess mother. It guides and supports her in praying to her dead father, as well as helping her and Orestes plot the murder of her mother. Moreover, the Chorus sympathizes with the awful situation fate has put Electra in, and connects with her on an emotional level: the Chorus and Electra share a mutual hatred for Clytemnestra and Ægisthus, and devotion to the dead Agamemnon and the missing Orestes. Clytemnestra cares neither for Agamemnon nor for Orestes, and does not have any connection, emotionally or otherwise, with the Chorus. Throughout the course of the whole tragedy, the Chorus does not even speak directly to Clytemnestra.
The Chorus reacts to Medea in much the same way as it does to Electra, defending and supporting her against her enemies and sympathizing greatly with her. When the Chorus hears that Jason has broken his marriage vows, it is outraged on Medea’s behalf, saying: “To punish Jason will be just. I do not wonder that you take such wrongs to heart.” When Creon exiles her, the women in the Chorus lament how hard it will be for her in the wilderness: “Medea, poor Medea! Your grief touches our hearts. A wanderer, where can you turn? To what welcoming house? To what protecting land?” When she proposes her plot for revenge, the Chorus rallies behind her.
Even when Medea says she is going to kill her own children, the Chorus, after recovering from its astonishment, still defends her actions: “ Your sorrow next I weep for, pitiable mother; you, for jealousy of your marriage bed, will slaughter your children; since disregarding right and loyalty, your husband abandoned you and lives with another wife.” The Chorus in Medea understands how vulnerable she will be on her own in exile, how indignant she is because of her husband’s faithlessness, even the reasoning behind murdering her children in response to Jason’s disloyalty. Her fear of being an exile, grief over her broken marriage, and the decision to slaughter her own children for the sake of revenge, are emotional dilemmas that only women experience in this society. The Chorus is loyal and sympathetic to Medea because it can relate to her hardships, her actions, and her sentiments.
The animosity between Clytemnestra and the Chorus in The Libation Bearers is what brings about her defeat: they are hell-bent on witnessing the overthrow of Clytemnestra by her children. It is the actions of the Chorus which bring about her death and that of Ægisthus. Medea, however, has the full support of the Chorus at her back. They defend her against accusations brought on by her foes and encourage her to exact revenge on her husband. The support and favor of the Chorus bolster Medea in her war-path, while their hatred and scorn deliver Clytemnestra her downfall.
Aurora Muggeridge is a high school senior from Fredericksburg, VA; she enjoys listening to podcasts, making kimchi, and playing the cello. She plans to study classics and theater in college beginning this fall semester.
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Page image of a red-figure painting of Medea from a Greek drinking vessel, currently in the Cleveland Museum of Art (source).