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Clytemnestra: Background information when reading Clytemnestra

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A Novel

by Costanza Casati

Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati X
Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati
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  • First Published:
    May 2023, 448 pages

    Mar 2024, 450 pages


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This article relates to Clytemnestra

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An 1882 oil painting by John Collier showing Clytemnestra, standing in a doorway and holding an axe, after having murdered Agamemnon Constanza Casati's Clytemnestra focuses on the life of the title character, known in mythology as the vengeful wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, Greece. In her novel, Casati paints a full and nuanced picture of this much-villainized figure.

Clytemnestra is the daughter of Leda, a princess who becomes a Spartan queen. According to different versions of the myth, while married to the king Tyndareus, Leda is either raped or seduced by the god Zeus, who approaches her while disguised in the form of a swan. She subsequently gives birth to Clytemnestra and her sister Helen. Later in life, Helen is either kidnapped or willingly drawn away from her husband Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris, leading to the events of the Trojan War. Clytemnestra's husband Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, is charged with leading Greek forces to battle with Troy. However, Agamemnon angers the goddess Artemis — according to some sources, by killing a deer in a sacred grove. As a result, Artemis stills all wind, preventing the Greek ships from setting sail unless Agamemnon offers his daughter Iphigenia as a human sacrifice, which he agrees to — though in some accounts he saves her by replacing her with a deer.

One of the best-known mythological works in which Clytemnestra appears is the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy. In these plays, Clytemnestra plots revenge against her husband for the death of her daughter with her lover Aegisthus while Agamemnon is at war. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murder Agamemnon after his return, also killing the mistress he has brought back with him, Cassandra of Troy. Clytemnestra and Aesgisthus are subsequently killed by Clytemnestra's son Orestes, with help from his sister Electra. Clytemnestra also appears in Homer's Odyssey, plays by Sophocles and Euripides, and other works.

Casati's portrayal of Clytemnestra is notable because the character has often been considered a cold-blooded villain, her story a cautionary tale demonstrating the antithesis of what a good wife and woman is expected to be. But it's never been too much of a stretch to imagine her as a more sympathetic figure. She may be a murderer, but her desire for revenge springs from her husband's own willingness to give up their daughter's life.

In an article for Lit Hub, Natalie Haynes, author of the Trojan War retelling A Thousand Ships, writes, "[W]hy is Agamemnon's life valued more highly—by everyone except Clytemnestra—than Iphigenia's? Why was Agamemnon not pursued by the Furies for the unforgivable crime of killing his daughter? Why was it left to Clytemnestra to avenge her? Why do Electra and Orestes have so much more respect for the wishes of their dead, murderous father than for their living, murderous mother, and indeed their dead, blameless sister?"

Casati explains in an interview that she was drawn to Clytemnestra as a character because "in the ancient texts, she is truly unforgettable: fierce and ambitious, protective of the ones she loves, feared and respected for the power she holds, and she doesn't let the men around her belittle her."

Clytemnestra after the murder (1882) by John Collier, Guildhall Art Gallery, via Art UK

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This "beyond the book article" relates to Clytemnestra. It originally ran in May 2023 and has been updated for the March 2024 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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