November 30, 2012

Greek Drama – Agamemnon

I read Greek Drama: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes edited by Moses Hadas (Toronto: Bantam, 1982), looking for information about textiles in the ancient world.  A little literary criticism is going to creep into this post, which is about Aeschylus' Agamemnon.  I am also going to give away the plot, so go read the play first if that sort of thing bothers you.

Clymenestra assures the herald she has been faithful to her husband Agamemnon while he was away at war.  She says, "I know of pleasure or scandalous address from any other no more than of dyeing bronze."  I take from this brief declaration that she understands the mechanics of dyeing and so would the intended audience, at least enough to understand her point.  I think it bears out Barber's Woman's Work: the First 20,000 Years which states that in ancient Greece women were skilled in spinning, dyeing, and weaving and that the higher a position in society they held, the better the work they were expected to be able to do and supervise.  Clymenestra establishes herself for the audience as someone who knows dyes and moreover as a woman who fulfils a well-defined, socially-expected gender role for her time.  The author sets her up here for a fight with her husband on his arrival where dyed cloth supplies the object of their disagreement.

If you know anything about purple dye in ancient Greece and Rome, you know that it came from shellfish, it required a considerable amount of material, labour, and skill to use, and its use was restricted to the wealthy and powerful.  I say that so you will understand the extravagance of Clymenestra's red carpet welcome to her husband Agamemnon: "In a moment let the laid path be turned to purple, that to a home unexpected he may have his conduct due." (p. 33)

Agamemnon objects, "Offer no womanish luxuries to me, nor before me, as before a king of the East, grovel with open-mouthed acclaim, nor with vestures strown draw jealous eyes upon my path.  To the gods these honors belong.  To tread, a mortal, upon fair fineries is to my poor thoughts a thing of fear...Even with these bare soles, as I walk the sacred purple, I hope no distant eye may give me an evil glance.  It is shame enough to stain with the stain of human feet textures of price, purchased for silver." (p. 33, 34)  Notice how luxury textiles are "womanish," associated with women, maybe because he has been away at a war encampment with his men under harsh conditions or maybe because women spun and wove cloth.  Notice as well the distinction he makes between cloth set apart for either religious or secular purposes: "sacred purple" and "textures of price, purchased for silver."

He introduces Cassandra to Clymenestra and makes one more comment about being obliged to walk to the palace on the "purple path" (p. 35).  His wife replies, "There is a sea (and who shall drain it dry?) which has in it purple enough, precious as silver, oozing fresh and fresh, to dye vestures withal.  And we have, O King, I trust, a chamber of such from which to take thereof, our house being unacquainted with poverty.  Vestures plenty would I have devoted to the trampling..." (p. 35)  It's an extraordinary image of richness and abundance.  Notice she stresses "we have" a chamber.  Why would Clymenestra want to remind Agamemnon after his long absence that she is his wife and they share a home?  We discover later when she speaks freely that she suspects he has taken Cassandra as his mistress.  Clymenestra's statement can cut two ways, it means she and her husband together are royalty and owners of the house, and it also means that she knows how much is on hand unlike Agamemnon who has been away and should not presume to set limits on her actions.  There's a hint, as she overrides and invalidates his objections, that she is in a fighting mood.  This forshadows her plans to avenge their daughter's death at his hands.  The reference to the chamber is also an insult to Cassandra who presumably herself once had similar storehouses of expensive cloth, now destroyed in the fall of Troy.  Clymenestra is saying to her, you are poor, you may have been born the daughter of a king but now you are a captive with nothing.  In this way, Clymenestra's attitudes are shown through references to cloth.

Agamemnon and Clymenestra's daughter Iphigenia is described as wearing a saffron robe (p. 20) at the time of her death.  Like murex for purple, saffron is difficult to harvest and costly.  The saffron robe identifies the girl as one who holds a privileged place and heightens the contrast between her and all the men on board ship who by inference were not wearing saffron.

Cassandra, left alone with the Chorus, addresses a stole around her neck.  In context the stole and her scepter of divination are marks of office, symbols of her ability to see the future.  She destroys the stole by throwing it to the ground and, presumably, grinding it into the dust.  She refers to being stripped of the "prophet's vesture" and the "sacred garb."  I'm not sure whether she is actually wearing a robe associated with religious practice or merely speaking metaphorically.  From the context the garb would have to mean a garment, not just her stole but something that when stripped away would expose her.  (p. 41)

When Clymenestra is "revealed standing over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra" she says that she stands where she struck, that she "made the death" in such a fashion that she won't be able to escape or resist, so the circumstances would act on her like a contraining fish net or "a rich robe deadly dyed."  At first I thought she meant that she got her clothes bloody, but then I realized it wasn't a literal statement but an analogy.  Whether it was a myth or an actual fact whose technical aspects are lost to history, the Greeks believed it was possible to dye cloth so that whoever wore it would be poisoned to death.  There was no antidote.  Barber discusses it in Women's Work and such a robe is a key part of the plot in Euripides' Medea.  Clymenestra is saying that she is caught and she planned it that way.  She is also being gruesome.

Aegisthus comes on the scene and says, "I see in a robe of the Furies' weaving this man lying as I would." (p. 48)  He had secretly backed Clymenestra to get revenge on Agamemnon.  One usually associates weaving and death with the Fates who determined lifespan in Greek mythology, but this play is about hereditary blood vengeance (p. 14), thus the reference to the Furies who were in charge of that.

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