The Ambiguous Home of Life and Death: The Symbolic Uses of the Skene and the Female in Aeschylus' Agamemnon.


  • Rebecca Elizabeth McNamara University of Cambridge



Aeschylus’ words have been dissected time and again as the key to our understanding of the notorious figure of Clytemnestra. In this article, I will survey the current literature on key scenes from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, but explore them from a perspective that studies the surviving words in tandem with the spatial dynamics of the theatre. The traditional role of the woman within the home as wife and mother is challenged both through the powerful words of Clytemnestra and through the dark opening of the skene onstage, which symbolizes the life-giving and death-bringing potential of the female in Greek thought. Focusing on the ‘tapestry scene’, I will examine how the cascading red tapestry at once transforms the house of Atreus into a devouring mouth and into a womb, the parallel orifices that inspired such male anxiety in the ancient world. The connotations of the textile woven by the women of the house, over which a war of words takes place between husband and wife, resembles Clytemnestra’s deceptive and alluring tongue, which eventually proves Agamemnon’s downfall. And yet, as the womb has connections with life so it does with death. The memory of the brutal slaughter committed by Agamemnon’s ancestors, brought vividly to life by Cassandra in front of the palace gates, creates a nightmarish manifestation of the house of Hades before the audience’s eyes. This suggestion of vertical depth, which the dark interior captures, transforms Clytemnestra into an otherworldly monster who lurks in the depths of the skene-underworld. Through unlocking the secrets of the interior we can truly appreciate Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra: a character who defies the limitations of male expectation and gender.