The tragic plays were of particular importance to the god Dionysus (the word tragedy deriving etymologically from tragoedia or the song of a satyr) and were performed at the annual Great Dionysia Festival to immense crowds of 13,000-17,000 people. The purpose of the festival, in its association with Dionysus, was “overturning the rules and conventions of the normal, everyday world” (Norton 644). The Greeks believed this festival regenerated their society by purging and healing themselves through a cultural “blood-letting”, coined by Aristotle as catharsis.
In order to achieve catharsis, the Greek tragedies served as anti-thesis to the crystallization of values that takes place in the Epic. The role of the tragedies was to stretch these values to their paradoxical limit by placing them in contention with the demands of other equally important cultural ideals. This tension would often cause these values to “break” under the pressure of scrutiny. Just as muscles grow stronger through being torn and filled with blood, so did the tragedies exercise or “exorcise” Greek culture. The tragedies push us beyond our comfort zone and into the abysmal depths of the unknown. The necessary sorrow and terror evoked by the tragedies, deemed necessary by Aristotle for cathartic growth, are provoked by the inner conflicts of the tragic character placed in tension between the conflicting and paradoxical demands of their society. An important quality of the tragic character is that they are simultaneously better than their audience (possessing strengths, virtues or political position of great influence) and worse (simultaneously possessing a fatal flaw). They must possess these attributes to highlight the dichotomy of man’s inner world, that in their downfall the atmosphere of terror and sorrow is evoked. When individuals of admirable influence and virtues fall, the foundations of how we define “virtue” are shaken to their core. The Greeks felt that when cultural identity becomes too structured within a society, its values become ideological and confining, just as prison walls. We trap ourselves within our own rules of conduct. The Dionysian tragedies were the earthquake rending the prison walls to the ground.
In addition, this characteristic of inner conflict makes the tragedies distinctly human. The gods live in absolutes, but humans are constantly at war with the various demands within themselves. These “tensions” within form our thought and character, which lead us to action in the world. Aristotle states, “It is in [these] actions that men universally meet with success or failure”. (Aristotle 1149). Thus, through the tragic character we experience where the consequences of human actions (forged in their inner conflict) meet life, and through them we become witness to the successes and failures of our culture’s crystallized virtues. This “tragic” experience is exemplified in mastery by the work of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Antigone, where the characters Clytaemnestra and Antigone personify this interior “clash,” leading them to ignominious and devastating results. Through their destructive actions, the possibility of cathartic regeneration becomes possible, for it allows us to experience what is “inevitable and probable” if society should continue down its current course (Aristotle 1148). Thus we experience the spirit of tragoedia.
In order to analyze these conflicts of virtue we must consider the different spheres of an individual’s life. Each of these spheres has its own demands on the individual and through them we obtain four main lenses or points of view to interpret a character’s actions. These “lenses” are: 1) The demands of the Oikos or the home, 2) The demands of the Polis or community, 3) The demands of the soul or the relationship between an individual and the gods, which includes an individual’s relationship with mortality and death, and 4) The demands of the individual, which is the collective influence of the previous three spheres, and therefore an existential and humanistic demand in the form of a personal “code of conduct” and self-governance. This self-governance is a necessary demand upon the individuals of any society wishing to embrace democracy.
Frequently, we misinterpret individual actions by failing to see an individual as a process and oscillation between the various demands of their existence, therefore narrowing our view and judging the individual from the perspective of a single sphere as opposed to the whole. This is where the tragic “mistake” occurs and the “existential crises” lives incarnate. It is also where tragedy magnificently succeeds in its representation of human life. When the tragic character acts, these combined forces and demands are focused in that action, therefore creating relationship or the point where one individual comes into contact with another. The difficulty in navigating these relationships and the inherent consequences to these actions is why we create and consume this type of art. Within it, we seek synthesis of the conflicting demands within each of us individually. In our vicarious experience of the tragic character, we are moved through our sorrow and terror by the consequences of their actions, thereby learning the necessity of a greater degree of self-government through the dissolution of our own concrete truths and virtues, where in turn we (hopefully) leave the blood on the page rather than staining our own hands.
With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to Clytaemnestra. In Aeschylus’ version of Agamemnon’s death, he re-writes Agamemnon’s defeat in the glory of battle to an ignominious death by the hand of his wife. Aeschylus does so in order to illustrate an important tragic flaw and inherent hypocrisy within the Greek perception of honor. Through the Homeric epics, the attributes of the hero or higher man (the Greek heros meaning demi-god) are glorified and become symbolic in their relation to what it means to be Greek. However, these attributes of vengeance, cunning and victory have an inherent hypocrisy due to the effects their consequences produce on the oikos and the polis. Clytaemnestra is the personification of this hypocrisy.
At the beginning of the play, we find Clytaemnestra beholding the signal fires, announcing the Greek victory over Troy: “a huge beard of flame overcomes the headland beetling down the Saronic Gulf, and flaring south it brings the dawn to the Black Widow’s face” (Aeschylus 306-308). Her husband, Agamemnon, will soon return victorious as a true Greek hero. Clytaemnestra’s sister, Helen, will be returned to Agamemnon’s brother, Meneleus, and the insult to Meneleus’ household will have been avenged. The Greeks, now triumphant under the command of Agamemnon, will return in their glory and everything will soon be returned to its proper place-except for Clytaemnestra.
Something’s been taken from Clytaemnestra that can never be restored by Greek victory- the sacrifice of her daughter, by Agamemnon’s hand for the glory and victory of Greece. In order for Clytaemnestra to achieve restoration, her oikos, sacrificed for the glory of the polis, now must demand sacrifice from the polis in return. “And still some say that heaven would never stoop to punish men who trample the lovely grace of things untouchable. How wrong they are! A curse burns bright on crime- full-blown, the father’s crimes will blossom, burst into the son’s” (374-380). Though the world adorns Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra cannot allow him victory. This would not be Greek. Therefore, she plans her vengeance with cunning, guile and deceit. Her conviction to her cause is absolute. She does not shirk before the bloody task, and like the Greek hero, she kills him with her own hands. Following his murder she gloats as the many heroes come before her, “Now it makes me proud to tell the truth… Here I stand and here I struck and here my work is done. I did it all. I don’t deny it, no. He had no way to flee or fight his destiny” (1391-1402). She seizes the throne in unshakeable confidence. When the old men of Argos rise against her as “broken husks of men” (79) she mocks them, “Let them howl—they’re impotent” (1707). Although the immediate reaction to Clytaemnestra’s lust for blood and power causes one to revolt in terror, consider the “virtues” she possesses: she’s decisive, cunning, courageous, determined, vengeful, proud, and full of conviction. Could you not describe heroic Odysseus with every one of those qualities? Did he not slaughter every individual that had ill intentions towards his oikos? And was he not admired by Athena for his cunning and guile? If you described a man with any of those qualities, one might call him a man of action, a protector of his realm, or a man of ambition- a hero. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Clytaemnestra is not a man and therefore can never be a hero. Her tragic flaw is she’s a woman!
By personifying Clytaemnestra with qualities of the heroic male, Aeschylus brilliantly subverts the heroic ideal. Clytaemnestra becomes a mirror, reflecting darkly the qualities of every male figure that surrounds her. How is she different from Meneleus? Agamemnon? Odysseus? Not only does she mirror these figures’ exact qualities, she towers over the “broken husks” of the old villagers, overpowers Aegisthus, and leaves the Leader impotent before her. To top it off, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra does not experience the “classic” tragic downfall we’d expect. We learn from Homer that Orestes exacts revenge, but in Aeschylus’ text, Orestes does not appear at all. In fact, knowing that Aeschylus has already set precedent by taking the creative liberty to re-write the story of Agamemnon in the first place, and that his play stands independent of mythology, it would only make sense to remain loyal to the text. Ipso facto, Clytaemnestra is victorious! Her actions make her coupe a success. So is she actually a tragic character? As a victor in the “will to power” she just put on a master class that would make Cesaré Borgia envious. But that’s not the way we feel about it, is it?
The chorus clues us in on this one, “the one who acts must suffer- that is law” (1592-1593). With the understanding that an action is the focused thought or character of an individual, we can begin to understand what Aeschylus is saying through Clytaemnestra. First, Clytaemnestra’s oikos is utterly annihilated. Her daughter has been sacrificed, her husband is now murdered and her relationship with Aegisthus is defined in her own words: “We have too much to reap right here, our mighty harvest of despair. Our lives are based on pain” (1687-1690). The only result of her vengeance is despair and it will haunt her until her dying breath. The polis is completely destroyed at her hands as well. Although she claims she will “set the house in order once and for all” (1709), the people are outraged and defiantly stand against her claiming, “No Greek worth his salt would grovel at your feet” (1699-1700). The blood curse of her house will continue and her temporary triumph will come to naught without the people behind her. Her actions have destroyed any hope for a future, and with her actions being instigated by the Greek (male) virtues of cunning and vengeance, our eyes are now opened to the tragic flaw within the culture. The subversion of these qualities represented by Clytaemnestra as a woman are not a criticism of women, so much as they are a criticism of these qualities as virtues in the first place. By them being represented in a woman, we are able to see their true nature, constantly inciting cycles of violence and the “blood curse” in the world of men. Thus Clytaemnestra’s “blood-letting” opens an opportunity for change. Seeing the error of our ways, regeneration can occur if we make addendum to how we view the “hero.”
Sophocles’ Antigone produces a very different tragic figure. Antigone’s dilemma is presented by a royal decree by King Kreon declaring that her brother, Polyneikes, is not to receive funeral rites due to his status as a traitor. Kreon believes he derives his authority from the divine right of kings by stating, “Zeus enforces his own will through mine” (Sophocles 335). Antigone, however, essentially harbors a different “religious” belief. Antigone says, “It wasn’t Zeus who issued me this order. And justice- who lives below- was not involved. They’d never condone it… I’d never let any man’s arrogance bully me into breaking the gods’ laws… My own death isn’t going to bother me, but I would be devastated to see my mother’s son die and rot unburied” (487-505). Here, Antigone is a hero of moral virtue. Antigone holds no false pretense as to the consequences she will face as she willingly goes to her own death. Kreon matches her convictions standing by his word. It is his duty as king to protect the polis and to give leniency to a traitor is beyond what he feels can be tolerated. Both are primarily motivated by different spheres of demands- Kreon by the polis, and Antigone, by her relationship to the gods. But in their mutual ideological stand, neither of them can foresee the consequences their choices will hold upon the oikos, which they mutually share. In addition, they both extremely underestimate Antigone’s influence upon the polis.
Antigone overlooks the tragic factor in her situation: her engagement to Kreon’s son Haimon. Antigone believes that her act of defiance will affect only herself. She sees herself as a moral being, honoring her brother “as wise men would think right” (996). And her willingness to face her own death by living her moral code is undeniably courageous. From the perspective of the moralist, she is absolutely right. But from the perspective of the oikos, she is abandoning her sister, her fiancé and her future to rush to an unnecessary death. But it goes deeper than this. Antigone underestimates the value of her relationship to Haimon. In every scenario she imagines, she never becomes conscious to the fact that her actions will lead to his death. She’s so consumed by her act and her own death she never even mentions him at all. It takes her sister to even bring him up.
Antigone is so committed to her cause that she takes her own life before she and Haimon ever speak. “At the tomb’s far end there she was, hanging by the neck, a noose of finely woven linen holding her aloft. [Haimon] fell against her, arms hugging her waist, grieving for the bride he’d lost to Hades, for his father’s acts, for his own doomed love” (1353-1359). Haimon is so upset he draws his sword on his father. When he misses him, in his “raging youth-with no warning- turned on himself, tensed his body to the sword… Still conscious, clung to her with limp arms, gasping for breath, spurts of his blood pulsing onto her white cheek” (1368-1372). This scene, so striking in its poetic violence, causes Kreon’s wife to follow suit. The messenger informs Kreon “with her last breath she cursed you, Kreon” (1456-1457). Such overwhelming violence to this degree mocks the very foundations of Antigone and Kreon’s dispute. The destroying angel in Antigone is not a man, a woman, a god or a demon. The “two-edged sword through [its] heart” is the characters’ convictions. If Antigone had known the true cost of her act, would she have continued down the path to Hades? We can never know. Once again, the blood running through palace halls manifests as a gruesome warning: our actions bring consequences, both seen and unseen alike. Sophocles suggests we would be wise to take a step back from the extremity of our beliefs and convictions and attempt to see the big picture, taking into account the multiple demands of the oikos, polis, morals and the individual. If either Antigone or Kreon had done so, this tragic scene could be avoided.
Through the examples of Clytaemnestra and Antigone, we see the unique power of tragedy as a working dialectic to the problem of conflicting virtues in society. Through endowing Clytaemnestra with heroic “male” virtues, Aeschylus provides important criticism on the eternally recurring “blood curse” by subverting cultural ideals of male heroism. In Antigone, Sophocles issues dire warning towards the dangers of extremity in personal stands for morality. By drawing these ideas and virtues into conflict, tragedy opens the cultural body like a surgeon preparing to remove a cancerous growth. It identifies the faulty organs causing disturbance to the body as a whole. Here is the opportunity for regeneration. Drawn into the Dionysian spirit of tragoedia, we are able to relieve the tensions that will inevitably lead to tragic consequences. And through this purging of bad blood, we gain the foresight needed to guide our actions and lead us to success.
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Aeschylus. “Agamemnon”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. A. Edited by
Martin Puchner. Third Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
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Martin Puchner. Third Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
Sophocles. “Antigone”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. A. Edited by
Martin Puchner. Third Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
Photo by Samira Morrar, @raising_windhorse