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Clytemnestra’s Ghost: Image and Afterlife in the Oresteia

When Clytemnestra, murdered in the second play of the Oresteia, appears in the third as a speaking character (Eu. 94-116) she draws attention to her state as an image: ὄναρ γὰρ ὑμᾶς νῦν Κλυταιμήστρα καλῶ, “for I, a dream, Clytemnestra, now invoke you!” (Eu. 116, ὄναρ may be translated “in a dream” as well). In this paper I argue that the Ghost’s appearance in a dream, its relation to living Clytemnestra, and its story about the underworld allow further insight into the problems of image and reality that the Oresteia continually raises.

Characters in the Agamemnon and Choephori have already subjected dreams and images to suspicion, criticism, and interpretation (cf. Goldhill 1984). The Chorus and Clytemnestra in dialogue equate the “phantoms of dreams” (ὀνείρων φάσματ’ Ag. 274) to divine deception (δολώσαντος θεοῦ Ag. 273), to “the (vain) belief…of a slumbering mind” (δόξαν…βριζούσης φρενός Ag. 275), and to “un-winged rumor” (ἄπτερος φάτις Ag. 276). The Chorus connects “dream-appearances” (ὀνειρόφαντοι Ag. 420) to “(vain) beliefs” (δόξαι Ag. 421) and Clytemnestra herself opposes dreams to the truth (εἴτ' οὖν ἀληθεῖς εἴτ' ὀνειράτων δίκην Ag. 491). Dreams, the uncertainty of their interpretation, and the underworld are bound together in the Choephori when Clytemnestra’s portentous nightmare seems sent straight from Agamemnon in Hades (Ch. 32-41). However, with the appearance of Clytemnestra’s Ghost, dream and image become reified in a character with both stage-presence and speech. Moreover, the Ghost demands to be treated as a self even after death, using first-person verbs to tell the story of her shame in the underworld (e.g. ἐγώ Eu. 94; “and I wander shamefully” αἰσχρῶς δ᾽ ἀλῶμαι 99). Therefore I argue that in naming herself Clytemnestra and calling for vengeance the Ghost demonstrates a continuation of selfhood that defies simple categorization under rubrics such as “insubstantiality of images” or “deceptive uses of language.”

Several major readings (e.g., Winnington-Ingram 1983, McClure 1999, Foley 2001, cf. Thalmann 1985 and Zeitlin 1990) have demonstrated how Clytemnestra’s living character manipulates speech in ways that transgress political and social norms. Yet far less attention has been paid to the Ghost, who tends to be absent altogether from these discussions. In fact, the Ghost both extends and transforms Clytemnestra’s previous uses of image and the underworld. The living Clytemnestra, like Odysseus (cf. especially Pucci 1987 and Bowie 1993), fashions fictions and imagined situations both to deceive and to justify herself. For example, as part of her explanation for the murder of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra envisions an ironic scene in Hades: Iphigeneia, the daughter Agamemnon sacrificed, welcomes him with embraces and kisses (Ag. 1555-9, cf. 1525-9). The Ghost’s later depiction of those she killed (which includes Agamemnon) relentlessly pursuing her in Hades reverses that imagined scene (Eu. 95-100). Yet the resultant connection with living Clytemnestra’s tendentious language also casts suspicion on the Ghost’s own description, since she is using the account of her shame in the underworld to spur the Furies to avenge her. In other words, the Ghost, though closely connected to the afterlife, manipulates the language of that other realm in similar ways to the living Clytemnestra. The Ghost of Clytemnestra is thus a nexus point for the appeal to another realm (Hades) as ethical justification and the Oresteia’s concern with problems of language.  

It has been argued that the language of phantoms, dreams, image, and unreality reflects Greek tragedy’s theatrical illusion, which stages characters who are both visible and patently artificial (Vernant 1990, cf. Zeitlin 2010). As a speaking dream the Ghost not only continues the living Clytemnestra’s language of image and the “elsewhere” of the underworld, but also highlights the illusory aspect of dramatic characters. In addressing these related issues, this analysis of the Ghost scene offers a step towards additional understandings of Clytemnestra’s language as a whole, ethical considerations of the afterlife as “elsewhere,” and the Oresteia’s approach to its own imaginative workings.

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