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Visuality and Gender in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

Melissa Baroff

Duke University

The Chorus of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon frequently utilizes vivid descriptions when narrating events that take place both onstage and offstage. Visuality is not an unusual tool in Aeschylus or in choral poetry generally. However, such descriptive methods are not applied universally; the Chorus of the Agamemnon only employs richly detailed illustrations for certain characters. This paper will show that the Chorus reserves visual description almost exclusively for women, while its descriptions of men focus primarily on action or internal struggle.

Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi explains that visuality exists at the intersection between vision and visualization (Peponi 2016: 2.) A description using vision is one in which the chorus narrates events and appearances that the audience themselves can see in the performance. This method directs the gaze of the audience to certain aspects of the scene (Swift 2016: 282). In contrast, the use of visualization calls upon the audience to imagine certain sensory experiences, primarily sights, in addition to the visual imagery that they are already witnessing. Visuality, which encapsulates both what the audience see and what they are directed to imagine, is a combination of the two. Much work has already been done on visuality and gender in lyric poetry (Peponi 2016; Swift 2016) and in Aeschylus’ dramas (Duncan 2020; Fletcher 1999). However, more work remains to be done on the interrelationship of gender and visuality in the Agamemnon specifically.

My paper will focus on the Chrous’ depictions of men and women through the lens of visuality. An analysis of the choral descriptions of the major characters in the play demonstrates that Aeschylus uses visuality primarily to depict women. In contrast, descriptions of men tend to omit details of vision or visualization. One example of this is the Chorus’ retelling of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia (Aesch. Ag. 218-247). Agamemnon dons the yoke of necessity and decides to set his mind on shameless deeds (“ἀνάγκας ἔδυ λέπαδνον […] τὸ παντότολμον φρονεῖν μετέγνω” (Ag. 218-221)). The focus of this passage is Agamemnon’s mental state; the Chorus calls the audience to consider the weight of this decision on the king. In contrast, Iphigenia is described as if she were in a painting (“πρέπουσά θ᾽ ὡς ἐν γραφαῖς” (Ag. 242)): her yellow robes fall to the ground around her, she is gagged, and she casts piteous glances at her executors. The image of Iphigenia is explicitly visual, just as a painting is visual, even though Iphigenia herself is not onstage. The audience is invited to imagine Iphigenia’s clothes, facial expressions, and movements. Thus, the description of the woman in this passage relies on visuality, while the description of the man focuses on his internal thoughts.

The argument of this paper reinforces the idea that ancient men were viewed as individuals with complex minds, while appearance was the quality of primary importance in women. Aeschylus’ choice to represent his female figures almost entirely visually diminishes the importance of these women’s thoughts and prioritizes the audience’s consumption of their physical forms, real or imagined.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Tragedy (1)

Session/Paper Number

65.1

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