The Female Space in Aeschylus' Agamemnon - by Jess Huang

Oikos: household (used to refer to matters of the family and home)


The importance of the use of space in Greek tragedy is not to be underestimated, as playwrights have constantly used ideas surrounding space and place (for example the use of the inside and outside spaces in a house, or foreign lands and the sea) as a narrative tool which can lead to a more textured reading of their plays. No playwright does this as well as Aeschylus, and with a specific focus on his play Agamemnon, we can see a gendered divide between the inside and outside of the house.


A very classic example of the feminine dominance of the home is that of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, who stays at home and takes care of the house whilst her husband is away. She remains loyal to her absent husband and raises their son whilst fending off the suitors who seek to take over Odysseus’ home through propositions of marriage to Penelope. This highlights how connected the female role was to the household. Aeschylus’ character of Clytemnestra is Penelope’s more sinister counterpart – in her husband’s absence, she is not only having an affair (and therefore letting another man take control of Agamemnon’s home) but also plotting her husband’s death for his decision to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia. Here, Aeschylus utilises the imagery of the home, which represents feminine space, in order to show any transgressions against the home as a direct violation of the female order which furthers the plot of the play.


There was a clear division of space in Greek drama assigned to gender, and when this line is crossed it creates the catalyst for drama on stage. The most obvious example of this gendered separation of space can be seen in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, wherein much of the play’s tensions can be attributed to male transgressions into the female space. From the beginning when Clytemnestra emerges from the female domain, it is clear that she is in control of the actions of the play due to her command of the stage: she stands assertive, dominating the doorway of the palace, and thus acts as an in-between, controlling what audience sees of the interior of the house. While Agamemnon is away at war, travelling the world for a decade, Clytemnestra remains stationary, waiting for her husband’s return and looking after the oikos in his absence. This not only serves to further reinforce the idea that the house is a feminine spatial dimension, but we also see that over the course of Agamemnon’s ten-year hiatus from family life, the oikos is fully under Clytemnestra’s control, and remains so even upon his return.

The scene that solidifies the house as a feminine space in Aeschlus’ Agamemnon is when Agamemnon returns from war. The infamous interaction in which Clytemnestra goads him into stepping onto the crimson red tapestry not only alludes to the bloodshed by his actions in war but also demonstrates a blatant disregard for the feminine space – the arts of fabric and weaving were closely connected to the realm of female responsibility (as women were responsible for weaving and making clothes for their family), so by treading upon the tapestry Agamemnon shows disrespect towards Clytemnestra and her work. Although Agamemnon is initially hesitant to walk upon the cloth, he is easily persuaded, and as he is removing his shoes to tread upon it he proclaims: ‘It offends modesty, that I should dare with unwashed feet to soil these costly rugs.’ By laying out the tapestry, Clytemnestra puts the inside of the house out for display, and – like a hunter laying out a trap for their victim – she ensnares him and brings him into the house where she will kill him. Furthermore, the tapestry scene highlights Clytemnestra’s power, as the homecoming of her husband and his heroic return happen on her terms rather than his, and she is the one who is in control during that scene.


Any woman confronted with her husband bringing back another woman is sure to be upset, so when Agamemnon returns and expects his mistress, Cassandra, to be welcome to live in the house which has been well established as a space belonging to Clytemnestra, it is no surprise that Clytemnestra does not take too kindly to this. What is interesting about Cassandra’s entrance into the house is that she is able to see what will happen to her when she enters the home, showing foresight and knowledge that Agamemnon and the men of the chorus do not have. Although Cassandra is cursed with the gift of prophecy, the fact that she can foresee what will happen to her when she is inside the house may be attributed to the very feminine aspect of the house. Her womanhood allows her access into hidden knowledge. In a rather crude way, the female nature of the house is compounded when Cassandra claims that ‘...the walls drip with blood.’ The bloody walls of the inside of the home are reflective of menstruation, which further reiterates the home as a feminine space. Just as the blood of menstruation must exit the body, Clytemnestra brings the body remains of her husband’s body to the outside of the house. As Clytemnestra controls the physical space of the stage, this indicates her influence over the play’s proceedings. By bringing the body of her husband out for the audience to see, she is bringing the inside of the house (which had before been strongly regarded as the woman’s domain) to the outside, allowing the secretive nature of the house into the public space.


Conclusively, Aeschylus has made it clear that the home or oikos belonged firmly in the realm of the female order. From Clytemnestra’s steady control of the central doorway of the home, her reveal of the inside of the home (in the form of her husband’s dead body), in addition to the imagery which lends itself to female bodily autonomy, we see the space of the home as a that of femininity.


Sources:

Aeschylus. (1967) Agamemnon. Translated by R. Fagles. London: Penguin Books

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