In Aeschylus and Sophocles’ portrayals, women who are masculine are feminized when they confront death; the reassumption of orthodoxy reflects how women cannot truly break away from their femininity regardless if they resist it in Greek society.
Aeschylus’ tragic heroine Clytemnestra is undoubtedly one of the most masculine women in the play, yet she is compelled to surrender her masculine features in the aftermath of her murder. When Orestes prepares to strike his mother, Clytemnestra elicits an evocation of femininity by exposing her breast to him and pleading, “Wait, my son — no respect for this, my child? The breast you held, drowsing away the hours / soft gums tugging the milk that made you grow?” (The Libation Bearers, 883-885) The image of Orestes tenderly suckling the nourishing milk from his mother’s breast temporarily makes Orestes question his own righteousness and signifies the queen’s return to motherhood. Aeschylus accentuates the feminine effect by contrasting this scene to Clytemnestra’s callous demand for a man-axe. Furthermore, Clytemnestra’s breast alludes to the maternity and sensuality associated with the female body. Despite exercising total control in prior events, Clytemnestra, in her most vulnerable moment, is forced to reoccupy her feminine role when threatened to pay with her life for Agamemnon’s death. Clytemnestra’s masculine power is ultimately illusory, and for her transgression she is reminded that she is, in essence, a woman.
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Sophocles reflects a similar sentiment to Aeschylus’ portrayal of women. Throughout the play, Antigone was firmly recalcitrant on dying, but her resolve wavers when she confronts death. Walking towards the the tomb where she will perish, she mourns, “No marriage bed, no marriage song for me / and since no wedding, so no child to rear / I go, without a friend, struck down by faith” (Antigone, 918-922). Antigone’s headstrong demeanor relents to self-pity, and she rues that she will never experience the joyous celebrations and hallmarks of female growth. She will die husbandless and childless, unfulfilled in her female role, with no family nor friends to bewail her death. The source of her masculinity, her willful act to die in defiance of the law, significantly weakens and is replaced with regretful yearning for her natural life. Antigone’s indifference to death is supplanted by feminine vulnerability and sensitivity. Sophocles portrays through her brief remorse that though she behaved masculinely, she is still emotionally overtaken by her foundation as a woman in the end.
The examples discussed prior exhibit how Clytemnestra and Antigone react to the impending death. Hereafter, I will discuss the ways Aeschylus and Sophocles portray women when they take personal responsibility for their actions by means of death. Femininity is permanently imposed on Antigone and Clytemnestra in their demise regardless of their deliberate resistance against the social norm.
Orestes reinstates Clytemnestra’s femininity by forcing upon her the proper role of a wife. He drags her to Aegisthus’ corpse and coldly says,”You love your man? Then lie in the same grave. You can never be unfaithful to the dead” (The Libation Bearers, 881-882). Criticizing Clytemnestra’s infidelity in her first relationship, Orestes sought to rectify her wrongdoing by coercing her into devotion for her second lover. Orestes demands that Clytemnestra fulfills her role as a wife with Aegisthus, the role that she had neglected with Agamemnon. By slaying Clytemnestra along with her lover, her loyalty will be imperishable and her duty as a wife eternally etched in death — a sour exit for someone who has been too keen in escaping their femininity. In this scene, Aeschylus portrays death as the mediator that conclusively resolves Clytemnestra’s ambiguity of gender in favor of her womanly roles. No matter how much Clytemnestra tries to escape her femininity in life, death is definite; the queen’s downfall perpetually reestablishes her role as a woman.
Similarly, Antigone is forced against her will to be “wedded” in death. At first glance, Antigone’s death could be interpreted as masculine; she commits suicide as a final act of defiance against Creon, to take away his power by dying through her own hands. Additionally, Antigone dies a virgin, a symbolic rebellion against the traditional female role.
Sophocles, however, refutes her masculine decisions by illustrating her as a bride in death, an expressive depiction of femininity. Antigone refers to her cave, “O tomb, o marriage chamber, hollowed out / house that will watch forever, where I go–” (Antigone, 891-892). The marriage chamber and house, commonly symbolic of the sphere of private life, will never depart from Antigone in death. Antigone’s death mirrors Clytemnestra’s demise in her actual home. Neither Antigone nor Clytemnestra can stray away from their obligations to the domestic sphere — the “houses” they die in restore their identities as women.
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Moreover, Antigone’s marriage chamber is fully realized when Haemon commits suicide beside her. The messenger describes the debacle, “Corpse on corpse, [Haemon] lies. He found his marriage, its celebration in the halls of Hades.” (Antigone. 1240-1241) Powerless to change her image, Antigone assumes the role of a bride in death, and Haemon her groom. The image of Haemon caressing and resting against Antigone’s corpse resembles intimate consummation after marriage. Their paired deaths echoes those of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus’ — Antigone’s rebellious act against the norm is involuntarily transformed into an image of exceptional femininity.
In supplement to these portrayals of wifehood, Aeschylus and Sophocles emphasize the same body part to recall their essential femininity. When Antigone is “caught in a noose / of her own linen veiling,” (Antigone, 1221-1222), Sophocles directs the focus particularly on Antigone’s neck. Aeschylus also establishes an identical focus; Orestes confesses in his trial, “I drew my sword — more, I cut [Clytemnestra’s] throat” (Eumenides, 598) Attention is centered to the neck for the same reason as Clytemnestra’s breast; it magnifies the feminine aspects of vulnerability and sensuality. Moreover, the linen noose mirrors the delicate tapestries, “the life of the house” (Agamemnon, 946) that Clytemnestra laid out for her husband to tread on; these fabrics symbolize the daintiness of a woman that Agamemnon himself has violated by sacrificing Iphigenia. It is only cruel irony that the same material that created these tapestries is responsible for Antigone’s death; she has literally succumbed to femininity when forced to take personal responsibility for her actions, her masculine acts of disobedience overshadowed by her feminine presentation in death.
Clytemnestra and Antigone’s fierce independence and persistent defiance of the social norm makes them appear strikingly heroic. But in their rebellious aftermath, death arbitrates this dispute in favor of the orthodox; women who transgress the territory of gender are forced to reconcile with their womanliness. In Aeschylus and Sophocles’ vision, masculine women cannot truly escape from their femininity. Ismene’s ominous warning, “wrong from the start, to chase what cannot be,” (Antigone, 92) epitomizes the position of women like Clytemnestra and Antigone in patriarchal Greek society — they are merely pursuing an impossibility.
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