Lecture Seven: Tragedy 7.3

7.3 The tragedy of mastery


Tragedy can be directly linked with the cult of Dionysus (Seaford 2006, chapter 6). By the second half of the sixth century BCE, Athens hosted what was already an important festival, called ‘City Dionysia.’ The event evolved into a more structured event, which included scripted song, changes in ordinary identity, use of masks, and the enacting of mythical scenes. Dionysus’s thiasos might be seen as the ancestor of the tragic chorus, and actors on stage as individuals possessed by mythic figures and gods who revive their stories, by thus opening up mysteries for the sight of the whole community (theatron, the Greek word for ‘theatre,’ literally means ‘viewing place’). By the fifth century BCE, Athenians could enjoy the seasonal representations of tragedies and even contests among tragediographers. As we shall see, philosophers were both spectators and critics of this new genre. But to see why and how that matters for our investigation into the paradox of mastery, we need to look at one concrete example: Aeschylus’s masterpiece, the Oresteia.

The Oresteia is a trilogy performed for the first time in 458 BCE at Athens, written and directed by Aeschylus, who was originally born in Eleusis (525 ca. BCE) and who would die a few years after the performance (455 ca. BCE). The first play, the Agamemnon, represents the mythical hero coming home victorious after the ten-year long war at Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, initially welcomes him, but has actually planned to kill Agamemnon in revenge for his killing of their daughter Iphigenia, who he sacrificed in order to ensure the success of his Troy expedition. The second play, Choephoroi (literally ‘Libation Bearers,’ which Oliver Taplin rendered more simply as ‘Women at the Graveside’) presents the return of Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, who was sent away from home when Agamemnon departed for Troy. Orestes seeks to vindicate his father by killing Clytemnestra, and succeeds in doing so. This, however, raises the fury of the Erinyes, a mythical retinue of female figures who defend the rights of parents and punish the children who transgress them. This provides the cue for the third play, the Eumenides (‘Kindly Ones,’ rendered by Taplin as ‘Orestes at Athens’), in which Orestes flees from Argos (where the previous events took place) to Athens, seeking help from goddess Athena. Athena sets up a formal trial, in which the Erinyes play the prosecutor and the god Apollo the defender. Even though the jury is equally divided pro and contra Orestes, Athena’s own vote (or her rules in case of ex aequo, depending on interpretations) determines that he will be absolved from his crime, and the Erinyes will have to be welcomed and respected in Athens.

As the plot makes clear, much of the Oresteia turn around vengeance and retaliation. The model is straightforward: an offence needs to be expiated with a similar offence (hence a killer must be killed). This trend is somehow broken in the third play, in which the intervention of Athena’s legal institution sets Orestes free. This structure easily allows for an interpretation in which Athens’s new political institutions (Athens turned into a democratic regime around the beginning of the fifth century), including the legal ones, are extolled and magnified, as leading to the overcoming of internal conflicts that were endemic among aristocratic families.

Another underlying feature of the whole Oresteia concerns gender and women’s subordination. Female characters lead most of the action. Starting from the background myths, Helen of Troy (whose kidnapping by Paris sparked the Trojan war) is often evoked in the Agamemnon as the paradigm of the ominous woman who will bring destruction and conflict. Helen is compared with a lion. When it is still a kitten, the lion is welcomed and nourished in a human house, but as it grows older ‘as repayment to / its rearers for their help, / it showed gratitude / by slaughtering their sheep; / served the household with / an uninvited meal – /many cruelly killed, / and blood splashed round the hall.’ (Agamemenon, III.727-734, transl. Taplin 2018, 31). This comparison paves the way for introducing Clytemnestra, who at that point is playing the faithful wife preparing for the return of her king, but who is plotting to kill him. As we shall see in greater detail, Clytemnestra provides the paradigm of the woman who violently revolts against her subordinated condition.

Many other prominent female characters, though, do not share this attitude of rebellion. Iphigenia is presented by the chorus in the beginning of the Agamemenon as a pure and innocent victim of her father’s sacrifice. Agamemnon’s sacrifice is the kernel of Clytemnestra’s resentment, but it is also introduced as an almost desperate act, forced by a prophecy who announced that the goddess Artemis needed to be placated for Agamemnon’s expedition to succeed. In fact, Agamemnon’s choice is presented as a grave dilemma: ‘heavy chaos waiting / for my not obeying: / heavy, though, the future / chaos if I butcher / my own household’s precious glory, / stain my hands with daughter pouring / life-blood on the altar table. / Which of these is free from evil?’ (Agamemnon, I.206-210, transl. Taplin 2018, 10-11). Although there are differences, we face again the issue of war and kin-killing that we discussed in Lecture Six in the case of Arjuna.

If Iphigenia is introduced only as a passive victim of a dilemma that involves the human duties towards the gods, one’s own family, and other human allies, Cassandra presents a case in which submission and resistance merge. Cassandra is a prophetess, possessed by the god Apollo, and originally from Troy. She came to Argos as Agamemnon’s slave (and concubine). Cassandra explains how she received the gift of prophesizing from Apollo. The god wanted to have sex with her, initially she accepted, but later refused, and Apollo punished her by condemning her prophecies to be met with utter disbelief. Cassandra’s role on stage is that of creating a dramatic interlude between Clytemnestra escorting Agamemnon into the palace, and the revelation that she has killed him in the bath. Cassandra explains to the chorus of (male) elders the curses that surround Agamemnon’s house, which are due to Agamemnon’s father Atreus, who murdered his nephews and served their flesh to his brother Thyestes. Then Cassandra announces quite explicitly what is going to happen to Agamemnon himself. Exceptionally, this time the Chorus both understands and seems convinced by Cassandra’s foresight. Cassandra knows that she is going to be slaughtered with Agamemnon and decides to strip herself from the ritual symbols of prophecy, disdainfully rejects Apollo who led her to this fate, and fearless enter the palace, singing: ‘this is the way it is for humans: / if they have good fortune, it is like a shadow; / if they are unfortunate, / it takes a dampened sponge / to wipe the picture clean away. / And I feel far more pity for these things than those.’ (Agamemnon, VI.1325-1330, transl. Taplin 2018, 55). Cassandra calls for revenge against both Clytemnestra and Apollo, but meanwhile embraces her tragic fate without fear.

In the next two plays, female characters play a prominent and diverse role. In Women at the Graveside, the chorus is composed of women who came to Agamemnon’s grave for ritual mourning, accompanying Electra, Orestes’s sister. During the play, all the female characters (including Cilissa, Oreste’s old nurse) are coalized against Clytemnestra and her partner Aegisthus, who are seen as tyrants usurping Agamemnon’s throne. They strongly foster and support Orestes’s resolve to murder his mother. In Orestes at Athens, the chorus is composed by the Erinyes, female goddess of the underworld, daughters of goddess Night, seeking the blood of those who killed their own parents. Clytemnestra’s ghost briefly appears on stage to steer the Erinyes to hunt Orestes and vindicate her. But Orestes flees to Athens, where he invokes goddess Athena’s judgment. Orestes’s trial quickly become a contest between the god Apollo and the Erinyes themselves, and once Orestes is absolved from his crime, Athena must persuade the Erinyes to abandon any plans of revenge against Athens and instead stay and be honored as goddesses of the underworld and the family.

Considering that only male actors could be on stage, and that (most likely) women were not allowed to watch the play, we see that the Oresteia is a trilogy heavily centered on women’s struggles and drama, who are nevertheless all enacted by male citizens, disguised as women, for male spectators. From this point of view, we can extract a general message that emerges from the trilogy: subordination is dangerous (it creates greater uncertainty) for the dominant party, if the subordinated party is oppressed and deprived of some form of recognition. Recognition does not entail the breaking of subordination, but quite the contrary is a means of ensuring its stability. Recognition works as a compensation for a position of inferiority of some sort, which can make that position more acceptable to the inferior. Through the help of this recognition, the inferior can merge with the superior in a harmonious community, segregated and yet joyful. This sounds like a message for the male citizens of Athens about how they should handle their wives, daughters and women.

Orestes at Athens illustrates this point. The play opens with the Pythia at Delphi, Apollo’s official prophetess, who upon entering the shrine is repelled by seeing the Erinyes there:

But these ones have no wings, and are pitch black,

and utterly repulsive, reeking with disgusting snorts,

and from their eyes there drips revolting ooze.

Their whole appearance is not right for bringing near

the shrines of gods, nor human houses either.

I never have set eyes upon this race of creatures,

and I’ve no idea what country could

have bred them without damage or regret.

(Orestes at Athens, I.50-55, transl. Taplin 2018, 124)

The Erinyes are seeking Orestes, who came to Apollo’s temple for refuge. Apollo can purify Orestes from his killing, but he cannot subvert the fact that he will have to be persecuted for having done it. Apollo can set the interpretation of Orestes’s killing right, and yet cannot simply dismiss its consequences, namely, the fact that Orestes will be hunted by the Erinyes. In the overall structure of this third play, the real conflict is clearly between the Erinyes and Apollo, and the conflict is both of justice and jurisdiction, in which Apollo (a younger, male god) wants to overpower and subdue the older goddesses. The Erinyes embody an ancient law of retaliation, as they sing:

Firstly, listen how we

make allotments among humans

as we think is upright justice:

when a man is pure in actions,

there’s no threat of anger from us,

and he lives his life undamaged;

but the sinner who attempts to

hide his violent deeds of murder—

we bear witness for the victim,

and extract the blood-price from him

so he pays the final reckoning.

(Orestes at Athens, V.310-320, transl. Taplin 2018, 135-136)

In their song, they also suggest that they bring about their vengeance by making the victim mad. In fact, their first appearance on stage, at the end of Women at the Graveside, is seen by Orestes only. In this sense, the Erinyes also embody the force of remorse that torment the wrongdoer and can drive them out of their mind. But they also provide a further justification for their task, which has to do with their own subordination to Olympic gods. They sing:

This standing was allotted to us

from our birth:

to share no common feasting with

the gods above;

we have no part in rituals that

don white robes.

Our chosen role is as destroyers

of a house

when violent strife leads one to killing

kin most close;

then we wear down his strength and drain

him to a husk.

Because we free the other gods from

this grim task,

they do not have to bring such cases

to the test.

And Zeus excludes our blood-soaked party

from his feast.

(Orestes at Athens, V.350-365, transl. Taplin 2018, 137)

Here, the Erinyes suggest that their role of terrifying avengers is not only due to justice, but also to their own exclusion from the community of the Olympian gods. The Erinyes are presented as the daughters of Night, one of the oldest goddesses in Greek theogony. They are old women, almost strangers to the Olympians and inducing a sense of revulsion in them. Being excluded from the larger community and taking no share in ‘Zeus’s feast’ with the others, they pursue the only task that is left open for them to retain some power and charisma, namely, that of defending the family kinship.

Apollo, emblem of the younger Olympians, shows disdain towards the Erinyes. One might wonder whether his plan of encouraging and fostering Orestes’s killing of his mother was not just meant to tease the Erinyes themselves and then show his greater power over them. In fact, after the trial has established that Orestes should be released, the chorus of Erinyes sings: ‘you younger gods have ridden down / the ancient laws, / wrenching them roughly from my hands / into yours. / […] Hear me, my mother Night: / the gods’ deceitfulness / has stripped me of old right, /and made me nothingness’ (Orestes at Athens, VIII.775-830, transl. Taplin 2018, 154-157). The Erinyes’s duty might be regarded as horrible, yet it gives them at least some role to play in the world, and brings them even respect of some sort, based on fear, if nothing else. The outcome of Athena’s trial strips them of this role and thus constitutes a further humiliation, which provokes their plea for revenge.

After the trial, Athena thus has to persuade the Erinyes to stay in Athens and become the good-willing guardians of the household. Athena promises that they will be honored with sacrifices and be kept in high esteem, since ‘no house could thrive except with your support’ (Orestes at Athens, VIII.895, transl. Taplin 2018, 158). This promise eventually does the trick, and the furious and horrible Erinyes becomes the ‘Kindly Ones’ (Eumenides), to the point that one might wonder whether it isn’t this transformation that the traditional title of the play hints at. What Athena achieves is to give them a new form of social recognition by transforming their role from that of fierce persecutors of the wrongdoers, into that of the propitious protectors.

Interestingly, both the Erinyes and Athena acknowledge that transgression of the law (and murder in particular) will be punished, and that good citizens should be led to act virtuously also through fear. As the chorus sings:

There is a way that terror can

improve the minds of men,

and fear prove beneficial since

good sense is reached through pain.

Those who do not cultivate

at heart a sense of fear—

the same for cities as for men—

will not hold Justice dear.

(Orestes at Athens, VI.510-525, transl. Taplin 2018, 143)

Athena will reiterate almost the same message (Orestes at Athens, VII.690-700, transl. Taplin 2018, 145), fully endorsing this principle. Athena sees that the potential violence and fear that is proper of the Erinyes can be put to good use as a forceful deterrent against crime, and thus as a means of upholding justice. However, in their new role, this fearful aspect moves to the background, and the Erinyes can now play a more cheerful function as protectors of the whole community and its households. The play ends with a procession in which women exit Athena’s temple and escort the Erinyes to their new cave, where they will be worshipped. The whole stage is flooded with this procession of women (or rather, men dressed as women) celebrating their role.

This aspect connects the Oresteia to the Dionysiac cults, through the trope of the excluded or segregated group that receives full recognition and reintegration into a larger community, portrayed with joyful aspects. Recognition, however, is not used to eliminate subordination, but rather to ensure that subordination does not lead the subordinated party to exercise its power in a destructive way. In this sense, social recognition becomes a form of domestication.

This whole grand finale is predicated on an explicit attempt at enforcing an ontological segregation between genders. Apollo, in his defense of Orestes, invokes an infamous argument:

The person who is called the mother

is no parent of the child, merely the feeder

of the new-implanted embryo.

The true begetter is the one who thrusts;

and she is like a stranger acting for a stranger:

she keeps the seedling safe, provided no god injures it.

I offer an exhibit that will prove the point

and show a father can give birth without a mother:

here stands the daughter of Olympian Zeus as witness.

She was never cultured in the darkness of a womb.

(Orestes at Athens, VII.655-665, transl. Taplin 2018, 150).[1]

This argument wins over only half of the jury, and yet it leads to Orestes being absolved. Athena herself agrees with Apollo: ‘this is because no mother gave me birth, / and so in every way I’m for the male—/except for intercourse—with all my heart. / I’m strongly on the father’s side, / and shall not grant a wife’s fate precedence—/not one who killed her man, the master of her house’ (Orestes at Athens, VII.735-740, transl. Taplin 2018, 152).

The ideology of women subordination to men is also at the core of Orestes’s own plan to kill her mother. Orestes was threatened to do so by Apollo himself, who announced that failing to vindicate his father would have led him to excruciating pains. And yet, Orestes himself acknowledges:

Should I believe at all in oracles like these?

Well, even if I did not, still it must be done, the deed.

For there are many urgings which combine to this one end:

besides the god’s command,

there is the heavy burden of my grief,

and pressure from my lack of wealth;

and I should not allow the glorious citizens of Argos,

valiant conquerors of Troy, to live on as they are,

subjected to a brace of women.

(Women at the Graveside, III.295-305, transl. Taplin 2018, 87)

The same ideology that insists on women’s subordination resurfaces in the intense dialogue between Clytemnestra and Orestes, in which she tries to dissuade him from his intention. The dialogue involves a number of turns and twists. It opens with Clytemnestra asking for a ‘men-killing-ax’ to defend herself, but as soon as she stands in front of Orestes, she abandons that intention and shows her breast to her son, asking him to remember her role as mother. Her claim is ambiguous. In a previous scene, Cilissa, Orestes’s old nurse, recalled how she had breastfed Orestes since he was born. Clytemnestra is thus either deliberately lying, or reconstructing an idealized memory, or perhaps both. In any case, Orestes hesitates initially, but is encouraged by his friend Pylades who states: ‘treat any human as your enemy before the gods’ (Women at the Graveside, IX.902, transl. Taplin 2018, 111). Orestes advances further justifications for killing, mentioning the slaughter of Agamemnon but also the decision to send him into exile when he was a child. But Clytemnestra manages to rebuff these charges, by pointing to Agamemnon’s own wrongs and to the fact that she sent Orestes not to exile but with an allied family for protecting him. Then the discussion turns more decidedly towards gender roles. When Clytemnestra complains that ‘it’s hard for wives when separated from their man,’ Orestes rebuts: ‘The man’s hard labor keeps their women safe at home.’ Having said that, Clytemnestra realizes: ‘It seems you mean to kill your mother, then’ (Women at the Graveside, IX.920-923, transl. Taplin 2018, 113). While Clytemnestra can build an ad personam argument, calling attention on Agamemnon’s faults and her own love for Orestes, she cannot win when the discussion moves in the domain of social hierarchy. Just before this, the chorus (who in this play is composed by the women of Argos) sings:

The female-ruling

power of illicit passion

breaks the union

that binds humans into households.


Comparing all of these ruthless

atrocities from the past,

there’s not one surpasses the coupling

this household detests the worst:

the treacherous plot of a woman

who murdered her warrior lord,

and sleeps with another. I value

the wife who remains subdued.

(Women at the Graveside, V.599-630, transl. Taplin 2018, 100-101)

When it comes to social hierarchies (and hence to gender subordination and segregation), Clytemnestra’s claims lose all their force and seemingly make no good sense even for the women of Argos. With her slaughter of Agamemnon and concubinage with Aegisthus, Clytemnestra has broken the rules of the social structure in which she operates. Her position was one of subordination, in which her agency was almost entirely dismissed. She had to witness the sacrifice of her daughter, to bear the decision of her husband to embark on a ten-year war, and then to come back with a new concubine. According to social norms, she should have simply accepted all of this, perhaps with grief, but without protest. She was expected to act more like Cassandra, and yet she ended up being a lion, akin to Helen (which Clytemnestra at some point explicitly defend and vindicate, Agamemnon, VIII.1461-1465, transl. Taplin 2018, 62).

In the intense dialogue between Clytemnestra and the Chorus (the old men of Argos) that follows the murdering of Agamemnon in the first play, Clytemnestra presents various reasons for her action. She mentions the intention of vindicating Iphigenia, of course, but she also mentions having acted under the impulse of the Daimon of the house, the god-like entity that has cursed the dynasty of Atreus. Eventually she further refers to her love for Aegisthus, and her jealousy for Cassandra (Agamemnon, VIII.1435-1445, transl. Taplin 2018, 61). This dialogue is not strictly conclusive, but it shows a number of different reasons and motivations for Clytemnestra’s deed. Some of them, like the role of the Daimon, seem to take some responsibility away from her, although she is also willing to vindicate full responsibility for her own action. By the end of the dialogue, she states:

… I’m willing

to agree a solemn promise

with the Daimon of this bloodline:

that if only it will go and

leave this palace, and oppress some

other house with kindred murders,

I shall be content to manage

with a fraction of our riches,

just enough and nothing further.

This I promise, if I can then

purge this household from the madness

of our killing one another.

(Agamemnon, VIII.1569-1575, transl. Taplin 2018, 67)

After this declaration, Aegisthus enters the stage, and he engages in a violent exchange of mutual threats with the chorus. Clytemnestra intervenes to pacify them:

No, my dearest, let’s not do more damage.

We’ve already reaped enough unhappy harvest;

let’s not have yet further bloodshed.

Go back to your houses, you respected elders,

go before you suffer; yield to how things are determined.

We have done the things we had to.

If this proves the end of troubles, we would welcome that,

since we’ve been lacerated by the Daimon’s talon.

That is my woman’s contribution,

in case anybody thinks it worthy of attention.

(Agamemnon, IX.1655-1661, transl. Taplin 2018, 71)

Upon accomplishing her plans, Clytemnestra seems aware of not having an option of reconstituting a superior and more harmonious community. She knows that her folk will nurture revenge and that she has done something against common norms. Her solution is simply acknowledging this much, that no choice seems free from sorrow and grief, and she prays for the Daimon to go away, to simply stop adding more sorrow. She does not seek a reconciliation of the conflict, but rather a compromise with it, based on acceptance of the inevitable truth that humans must face suffering during their lives, and no choice is free from it (Cassandra shared the same wisdom, as we saw).

To summarize, the Oresteia presents a complex and multifaceted account of how the paradox of mastery can be dealt with. It focuses on the issue of subordination, which is here exemplified by gender roles and their function in both household and broader social life. Clytemnestra breaks this subordination, by showing both the inherent danger entailed by the act of subjugating a party (the metaphor of the lion), and her needs to call back some agency by withdrawing from what she perceives as oppression. But her acts are seen even by her own community as too outrageous to be accepted. She knows that harmony cannot be restored, and perhaps that it is not even possible in the first place. She gives up the very idea of mastery, and instead settles on an attitude of acceptance of the inherent sorrow that accompany human fate. From the point of view of those interested in securing mastery, this is obviously not a solution, but simply a fault that needs addressing. The second play shows one way in which the hierarchy is re-established by Orestes’s killing of his mother. But if Clytemnestra’s deed revealed an inherent problem in the traditional form of subordination, simply reasserting it through retaliation will not do. The third play illustrates how a better solution must consists in taming the subjugated party by exchanging some recognition of loyalty to a subordinated position. The inherent danger in subordination can thus be put at good use to foster the stability of the social order (the Erinyes’s fear-inspiring nature can be enlisted for defending the respect of civic laws). The Erinyes are thus tamed, they become the ‘Kindly Ones.’ Recognition is used not to dispels subordination, but rather to stabilize it and uphold its ideology. This seems to be what the final scene of the trilogy is intended to show, in the procession of male citizens in women’s clothes, extolling the propitious role of the Erinyes as the new guardians of the household—who are still hosted in underworld, though, in a cave, far away from the light of the day, the business of men, and the glory of the younger Olympian gods. And yet, if subordination structurally empowers the subordinated party to potentially disrupt the hierarchy, to what extent is this form of taming through recognition good enough to ensure a stable order? Do we witness here a dissolution of the paradox of mastery, or rather a deferment of its explosion? 

  1. This doctrine is echoed in Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium, 763b 31 and following, who attributed it to Anaxagoras and other presocratic thinkers. For further discussion, see Sophia Connell, ‘Aristotle on Women: Physiology, Psychology, and Politics’ (2021). 


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.