A look at retributive justice as sought by Medea and Clytemnestra
Justice exists when men and women are part of a whole larger than themselves. To think and act justly requires acknowledging the need for a unity of difference.—Peter Euben
Tragedies and myths from Ancient Greece frequently explore concepts of justice.
Intertwined with revenge and tragedy, a response to supposed wrongdoing, justice manifests in various forms. One of these forms, retributive justice, focuses on punishing the offender, hoping to restore balance and right the wrongs done. In Ancient Greece, justice was carried out though both divine and human intervention. Melissa Lane, in The Birth of Politics, highlights the power of humans in carrying out justice: “even when justice was believed to be sponsored by the gods or rooted in nature, humans still had to act politically to reach and impose just verdicts.”1 In Agamemnon and Medea, Aeschylus and Euripides, respectively, explore this idea: the political action of humans in relation to justice and wrongdoing. Both plays reveal the importance of retributive justice in Greek society, particularly its importance to women. In Agamemnon and Medea, tragedy gives women the space to find voice and agency as they undertake the political action of enacting justice.
In order to understand the implications of justice in both plays, one must first begin with an understanding of the justice itself. In Agamemnon, Aeschylus sets the action that threw the order off balance outside of the twenty-four-hour timeframe of the play. The chorus tells the audience that Agamemnon “endured then/ to sacrifice his daughter/ in support of a war waged for a woman,/ first offering for the ships’ sake.”2 Without consulting or even warning Clytemnestra, he kills their daughter Iphigenea, “as you might lift/ a goat for sacrifice.”3 Thus, the moment of tragic action in the play is a direct response to this tragic history: Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon and Cassandra upon their return from Troy. Not only does she murder her own husband and his conquest, but she immediately professes and defends her action, finding glory and comfort in them, saying “as he died he spattered me with the dark red/ and violent driven rain of bitter-savored blood/ to make me glad, as plants stand strong amidst the showers/ of god in glory at the birthtime of the buds,”4 Euripides too begins Medea after the inciting incident, letting the nurse tell the audience that “Jason has betrayed [her] mistress and their sons, / by mounting the royal bridal bed / beside the daughter of Creon.”5 Again, the action in Medea is in response to this history of betrayal: Medea kills her two children, Jason’s new wife, and Creon in order to bring Jason terrible suffering. Like Clytemnestra, Medea feels justified, telling Jason that she has “fairly clawed into [his] heart.”6 Thus, Clytemnestra and Medea’s actions both exemplify retributive justice: enacted solely to punish the offender as a way to restore balance.
But what fuels this need for restoring balance? What balance do these acts of vengeance restore? I argue that tragedy and justice intermingle to create cycles of pain: each fueling the other. In Agamemnon and Medea, tragic history breeds further tragedy with the action of retributive justice, beginning before the play and continuing after. Clytemnestra’s actions, as Peter Euben argues, “like those of her husband, are manifestations of a world pushed out of joint by displaced passion and misplaced energy.”7 Even in the moment of Agamemnon’s choice between sacrificing his daughter and abandoning war, he foreshadows his own fate, expressing an understanding of the inevitable tragedy to come, asking “what of [those] things goes now without disaster.”8 As the chorus tries to blame and punish Clytemnestra, she argues that he was justly murdered, for “with the sword he struck;/ with the sword he paid for his own act.”9 In the case of Jason and Medea, after promising his fidelity for her aid, Jason betrays her. Euripides opens Medea with the Nurse wishing away their history: “If only the swift Argo never had swooped in between / the cobalt Clashing Rocks to reach the Colchians’ realm.”10 In both cases, the tragedy is first experienced by the eventual actors of justice. At the very heart of retributive justice is the longing to bring tragedy upon the offender, perhaps to make them feel the same sorrow. Medea murders her own children “to torture [Jason] with pain.”11 Jason, wishing to further this cycle, prays “that the children’s Avenging Spirit/ and Justice for murder may hound [Medea] to death.”12 Both consider the other the true offender, Medea and Jason wish pain and suffering upon the other—their ultimate idea of justice being retribution. This kind of justice can only succeed by creating further tragedy, thus continuing the cycle of tragedy and justice, each justice-seeking act fueling another.
Central to tragedy and revenge is responsibility or blame—knowing where to direct vengeance. In Agamemnon, Aeschylus explores the complexity of responsibility, letting the characters show each side. Throughout the play, the chorus dwells on Helen’s role in it all:
for one woman’s promiscuous sake
the struggling masses, legs tired
knees grinding in dust,
spears broken in the onset.13
Though they do not directly blame Helen for the murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra in particular, it is the Trojan War that is a catalyst to the ensuing events. They blame Helen, “crazed heart,/ for the multitudes, for the thousand lives/ [she] killed under Troy’s shadow,” and thus, for each tragedy that happens as a result of the war: the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and the murders Clytemnestra commits in retribution.14 After the murders, the chorus finds that Clytemnestra is to blame, that “by [her] hand of treachery” Agamemnon and Cassandra are dead.15 She refutes this blame, shifting to Agamemnon, asking them “did he not first of all in this house wreak death by treachery?”16 To her, Agamemnon brought on his own ruin, sealing his fate by killing their daughter.
Euripides similarly depicts the nuances of tragic responsibility, ultimately letting the audience decide who is deserving of punishment. Despite Jason’s complete inability to understand the ramifications of his betrayal, Medea receives displays of solidarity from both the chorus and Aegeus. The chorus leader explicitly tells her that she is “justified in inflicting punishment,” though they do not approve of her plan once it is revealed and in fact urge her, in an attempt to spare the children, not to go through with it.17 Aegeus too supports Medea, telling her that he “can understand just why [she feels] so hurt.”18 Jason first invokes gender stereotypes in order to avoid admitting his responsibility in abandoning Medea, telling her “it’s only nature for females to be jealous.” 19 Later, he blames Medea individually for the many murders, arguing that “it was not by [his] hand they died.”20 Medea, like Clytemnestra, shifts the blame to Jason, claiming that he is the root of all tragedy, even the violence she commits. She tells her children whom she has just murdered that they died not by her hand, but “thanks to [their] father’s failing.”21 Both plays highlight the idea that blame is not always assigned to those who physically committed an action, but has origins in prior suffering. Euripides and Aeschylus are not freeing Clytemnestra and Medea from any responsibility whatsoever, but rather are contextualizing their violence, giving the audience a more complex understanding of the situation as a whole, rather than just looking at an isolated incident.
What is most striking about the ideas of justice depicted in the two plays is the role of gender. In both cases, a woman is the one killing and doing the actual work of the tragic moment in reaction to having been wronged by her husband before the play’s beginning. Medea finds her voice after Jason betrays her. She not only finds enough strength and confidence to speak openly with Jason about how his actions have made her suffer, but she also speaks with brutal honesty. Responding to his attempt at reconciliation and peace, she hurls back an insult: “you cheating rat! That’s my response to you,/ the lowest phrase that I can find to fit your cowardice.”22 She forges ahead in her rant, calling him a “stinking rat,” not shying away from expressing her true thoughts.23 Clytemnestra, kept from having a say in the fate of her daughter, finds her voice only after her husband kills Iphigeneia and is gone for ten years. Upon his return, she finds the power to enact the kind of justice she feels is fitting for his crime: death. Only after tragedy, once they have been wronged, are these women able to find agency, begging the question: was there no platform for them before? Euripides and Aeschylus, though it is impossible to know their exact intentions in the crafting of the two plays, seem to suggest that women may have agency only if they are first wronged. They do more than insult and deceive their husbands: they use murder as a tool for revenge and justice.
Today, retributive justice meted out directly by the wronged party typically evokes ideas of stereotypical masculinity: strength, power, violence, and revenge. Yet, in both Agamemnon and Medea, women commit the murders, women enact the justice, and women take vengeance into their own hands. Part of a society that “defined them merely as child-bearers and housekeepers” and held to the belief that “in the household, as in the state, men should rule and women must be subordinate,” women in Ancient Greece were stripped of any possibility of a voice.24 Euripides and Aeschylus, however, present a loophole: only after tragedy are these women able to find a platform for their grievances and the room to have agency and power that manifest as justice.
- Melissa Lane, The Birth of Poltics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter (Princeton University Press, 2015), 45.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in Greek Tragedies 1, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated by Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago, 2013) 15-63; 223-226.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 233-234.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1389-1392.
- Euripides, Medea, Euripides 1, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated by Oliver Taplin (University of Chicago, 2013), 73-133; 17-19.
- Euripides, Medea, 1360.
- Peter J. Euben, “Justice and the Oresteia,” The American Political Science Review vol. 76, no. 1 (1982), 26.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 212.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1528-1529.
- Euripides, Medea, 1-2.
- Euripides, Medea, 1398.
- Euripides, Medea, 1389-1390.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 63-65.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon,1455-1457.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon,1519.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon,1522-1524
- Euripides, Medea, 267.
- Euripides, Medea, 703.
- Euripides, Medea, 909.
- Euripides, Medea, 1365.
- Euripides, Medea, 1365.
- Euripides, Medea, 465-466.
- Euripides, Medea, 486.
- Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: Introduction to the Series, (University of Chicago, 1996-2010,) viii-ix.