In the Greek tragedy, Agamemnon, by the playwright Aeschylus, the great hero of Mycenae, Agamemnon, is famously slain by his wife, Clytemnestra. Depicted in most translations, retellings, and other media as the ultimate villainous woman, she is remembered for her desire for vengeance and her assertive, masculine language and qualities. The Watchman in Agamemnon describes the Queen as a, “man-minded woman,” in the translation of An Oresteia by Anne Carson.

Clytemnestra, and other women in Greek tragedies just like her have been misrepresented throughout history. The misconceptions of these powerful women have been spread through biased translation and are products of the translator’s time’s sociocultural ideologies about women and gender roles. The new genre of retelling classic Greek myths with a feminist lens has become strikingly popular, and draws back to what modern classics scholars are finding in newer translations of the original tragedians’ writings.

The Language of the Tragedians

Three ancient Greek marble busts on pedestals, representing the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, displayed from left to right. Each bust is uniquely carved with distinguishing facial features and hairstyles, and they are positioned against a neutral gray background. Plaques with their names are attached to the pedestals.
Busts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the famous Greek tragedians, Wikimedia Commons

The three most famous tragedians – Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles – wrote their female characters as dynamic, with individual personalities and characteristics. They made their women pitiable and almost relatable, made the audience members of the production feel something for these characters, thereby making their betrayals or dastardly deeds all the more powerful and upsetting to an Athenian audience.

In more classic translations, such as the 1920 translation by Gilbert Murray, the words used to describe these women are typically associated with masculinity, and thus the opposite of what a Good Woman should be. The ultimate Bad Woman, who embodies masculine traits such as assertiveness, vengefulness, and being politically inclined, is the wife of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra.

Carson’s translation describes Clytemnestra as, “talking like a sensible man,” fussing, “like some groveling barbarian,” and as having, “the nerve, she is a killer, female against male.” She murdered her husband in what some in the past have called cold blood – but was it really unprompted?

Painting "Clytemnestra" by John Collier, 1882, depicting a regal woman in ancient Greek attire holding a scepter and an axe, with a bloodstain on the ground, symbolizing her role in the murder of Agamemnon.
Clytemnestra by John Collier, 1882, Art UK

Her husband sacrificed their first-born daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in order to get good sailing winds to take the Greeks to fight at Troy. Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, had his wife stolen from him by a Trojan prince, Paris, and so he rallied all the Greek states together to get Helen back. Helen and Clytemnestra were sisters, both married to the Atreity, and both had daughters around the same age. Artemis demanded this sacrifice for the winds, but the question remained: why Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s daughter, and not the daughter of the man whose wife they were attempting to rescue?

There is no real answer to this in the ancient Greek sources, but it does beg the further question of why Agamemnon agreed to this trade with the goddess so easily; it also helps to answer the question of why Clytemnestra murdered her husband. Agamemnon sacrificed their eldest daughter willingly, knowing that Iphigenia was the apple of her mother’s eye.

The Language of Women

In earlier eras in history, as was the case with the ancient Greeks, women spoke differently in same-sex groups versus in mixed-company groups. In the presence of men, women were more guarded and reserved in their language and speaking. In groups with only other women, they were more carefree with the way they spoke, less reserved, and generally more animated with their language. Modern scholars have argued that many women throughout the ancient sources have shown heroic qualities typical of Greek men. As typical of the three great tragedians, they described Clytemnestra with the masculine qualities of aggression, hunger for power, and righteousness.

Clytemnestra is often compared to her troublesome sister, Helen, in that they are both examples of Bad Women. Helen, otherwise known as Helen of Troy, was said to have been born out of the god Zeus forcefully taking their mother, Leda; she was said to have been hatched out of an egg. Helen was married to Menelaus, the other half of the Atreity with his brother Agamemnon; the Tyndaris sisters both settled into unhappy and violent marriages.

Painting "The Loves of Paris and Helen" depicting Paris, seated with a lyre, and Helen, standing close, in a romantic embrace with richly colored drapery in the background, symbolizing their legendary love affair from Greek mythology.
The Loves of Paris and Helen by Jacques-Louis David, 1788, Louvre

However, Helen escaped her husband with the famous prince of Troy, Paris, and the Atreity sent the greatest of Greek armies after them. In An Oresteia, Helen is described by the chorus of elders in that, “The woman is hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities… bride as disaster. Bride as Fury.” The same type of language, if not the same exact words, are used to describe both sisters in Agamemnon; both are the epitomes of Bad Women and Bad Wives, which are the worst things ancient Greek women could be. Clytemnestra defends her sister, saying, “And why get angry at Helen?/ As if she singlehandedly destroyed those/ multitudes of men./ As if she all alone/ made this wound in us.” Women only had so much power – it was the men who made the choice to kill for her at Troy.

The Motives of a Madwoman?

There are several motives behind the killing of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra. While she is typically described as the Bad Wife or Bad Woman, as discussed above, there is little recognition as to why she betrayed her husband.

Historical Context and Maternal Revenge

As scholars know from Homer’s works, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s first-born child, Iphigenia, was sacrificed to the goddess Artemis for good sailing winds to get the Greek armies to Troy. Agamemnon and his generals tricked both Clytemnestra and Iphigenia into going to Aulis, where the ships were stuck, under the pretense of a proposal for Iphigenia to marry the hero Achilles. Iphigenia was dragged to an altar by the generals and the Seer at dawn, as her mother was presumably held elsewhere or was otherwise occupied.

 "The Sacrifice of Iphigenia" by Leonard Bramer, depicting a distraught Iphigenia at the altar, her father Agamemnon in a red cloak, and a priest with a knife, with an angelic figure above signaling divine intervention.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Leonard Bramer, 1623, Wikimedia Commons

In the play, Agamemnon is said to have admitted, “How can I desert my ships and fail my allies?/ Their desperation cries out for a sacrifice to change/ the winds,/ a girl must die.” Scholars and translations suggest that this is the reason that Clytemnestra cites the most for why she killed her husband, not in cold blood but as revenge and recompense for the murder of her precious child. Shortly after the killing, Clytemnestra gives her reasoning: “What about them? What about him?/ This man who, without a second thought,/ as if it were a goat dying,/ sacrificed his own child,/ my most beloved, my birth pang, my own…”

Jealousy and Betrayal

The next motive behind the killing of Agamemnon and Cassandra, Agamemnon’s war prize, is that of the jealous wife. She is convinced that the prophetess was a concubine of her husband’s, despite the fact that is reiterated of her being a priestess of Apollo and virginal.

However, those statements are false, as we know from Homer’s works that Cassandra was assaulted at Troy and was no longer pure enough to stay in the service of Apollo. Cassandra typifies the Good Wife of Agamemnon, in her loyalty and her feminine ways of speaking and acting; the opposite of Clytemnestra. The queen, after she kills them both, proclaims, “Here lies the man who despoiled me,/ darling of every fancy girl at Troy./ And by his side the little prophetess who/ sweetened his sheets./ Sweetened the whole army’s sheets, I/ shouldn’t doubt./ They got what they deserve those two.”

Revenge for Past Wrongs

Lastly, a motive not discussed in popular translations or scholarship until fairly recently, is that Agamemnon murdered Clytemnestra’s first husband and their infant son. Her first husband, the foreign king of Pisa Tantalus, created a relatively happy marriage for her, and she bore him a son. Agamemnon, in a deal with her father Tyndareus, murdered Tantalus and crushed the infant to death. This is described in Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis: “My babe you wrenched rudely from my breast and crushed him to the ground beneath your tread.”

Agamemnon, after murdering Iphigenia for the winds to Troy, had killed two of Clytemnestra’s children, both firstborn to their fathers. No wonder she hated her husband from the beginning! Clytemnestra defended her actions in Agamemnon: “Don’t squawk at me. I’m not some witless/ female./ I am fearless and you know it./ Whether you praise or blame me I don’t/ care./ Here lies Agamemnon, my husband, a dead/ body, work of my righteous right hand.” Clytemnestra cements her place as the righteous ruler of Mycenae, with her justifications and motives.

Reinterpreting Clytemnestra Through a Modern Lens

The Murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, 1837" shows Agamemnon, a bearded figure partially covered in drapery, lying in a bath as water streams in from a fountain. On the right, Aegisthus enters through a doorway, passing an axe to Clytemnestra, who eagerly reaches out to grasp it, poised to commit the murderous act. Paintings adorn the wall in the background.
The Murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra by David Scott, 1837, The British Museum

One of the most entertaining retellings of the story of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon is in the 2023 novel, Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati. Instead of demonizing the infamous woman, Casati shows the context and reasoning behind why she was the way she was, building up to the murder of Agamemnon. The reasons behind his murder come from ancient sources, but are dramatized to fill in the gaps of Clytemnestra’s extraordinary life.

There is a twin to the novel about Clytemnestra, the 2021 novelization of her sister Helen’s story, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. Told from Helen’s perspective, it details her life and her decisions throughout, from choosing Menelaus as her husband, to escaping him to be with Paris in Troy. Both novels provide dramatic retellings of the original stories, piecing each plot point together through combining the ancient sources that covered the sisters.

Lastly, there is Pandora’s Jar: Women in Greek Myths, also written by Natalie Haynes, which covers various women in Ancient Greek sources, from a scholarly perspective, without the dramatic fictional aspects.

Understanding diverse perspectives is important to discovering a wider picture of history. Not all ancient men were heroes, and not all ancient women were demure and helpless. Women have always been capable of having heroic qualities, and so-called masculine qualities, and wielding great power and influence. If we take a closer look at the sources from this time, it is clear that some women did indeed break the mold of their eras and rattle history.