The Queen on Stage. Female Figures of Regality in Aeschylus


  • Monica Centanni IUAV, Venice



The figure of the Queen is the protagonist of two Aeschylean tragedies: Persians and Oresteia. The staging of Persians, which took place in 472 BCE in Athens, probably caused shock among the Greek spectators of the tragedy at the Theatre of Dionysus, on the slopes of the Acropolis, and in particular among Athenians. In particular, the main character that stands out at the centre of the dramatic composition is the Queen: a mother that is anguished for the fate of her son Xerxes, justifying his errors and presenting him as a disturbed and neurotic being, striving to emulate his father, and moreover misled by bad companies that – the Mother says – have instigated him to perform the insane military campaign against Greece. The dramatic emphasis is on the royal figure of the Queen mother, on her care for the image of power, for the dignity of the king’s body, up to her concern for the integrity of the garment of her son Xerxes, torn after the defeat of Salamis. On the set of the early theatre, the second, superb, figure of royalty is Clytaemnestra. Before Aeschylus, the saga of Orestes, as we can reconstruct from literary and iconographic sources, was a traditional story, an epic saga in which the main characters were all male: Agamemnon, the king; Aegisthus, the tyrant; Orestes, the young hero who avenges the murder of the legitimate king – the king-father – and regains the throne. The tradition of this story is interrupted by Aeschylus’ dramaturgical invention. His new Oresteia does not focus on Orestes’ glorious enterprises. Its protagonist is now Clytaemnestra. She is the main character of the plot and is at the centre of the representation: alongside her, there is the usurper, her lover, Aegisthus. Echoing Ernst Kantorowicz’s seminal study The King’s Two Bodies, under the guise of the King, Clytaemnestra unveils her body: yet, hers is not the king’s double body – the natural king’s corpse doubled in a symbolic regal body – but a female one, the body of a mother, the body of the Queen. The male gendered epic – the saga – ends precisely at this turning point and incipit tragoedia.

Keywords: Aeschylus’ Persians; Aeschylus’ Oresteia; Clytaemnestra; actors’ character