The central characters in both Lysistrata by Aristophanesand Agamemnon by Aeschylus are both women, thus breaking with the traditions of other plays written during this time period in Greek history. Not only are both of these main women, Lysistrata and Clytemnestra, strong and well-spoken, they both wield considerable political power during a period in which women were sidelines from affairs of the state.
By using their femininity as a tool, both of these leading women in Lysistrata and Agamemnon attain political control (albeit in different ways and for different goals) and in the process, highlight the implicit themes of the subservient nature of “typical" women by proving to be in such sharp contrast. Despite the differences between the plots in each of these plays, the fact remains that females, as seen in both Lysistrataand Agamemnon are represented as capable of wielding powering in politics and social affairs—even if it is only in fiction.
In any character analysis of Clytemnestra and Lysistrata, it is important to note both of these characters’ strength lies in the fact that although they are women and able to hold a certain sexual sway over men, they are both very masculine and in many senses, they are more like men when viewed in terms of actions and dialogue alone. At the beginning of Agamemnon the watchman, upon beholding Clytemnestra, remarks in one of the important quotes from Agamemnon, “male strength of heart" (11) which indicates that those who surround her clearly see that she is not a “typical" woman and is not prone to feminine fits of fancy as she sees Cassandra falling prey to when she refuses to “waste any more time with the girl" who is obviously “lost in the passion of her own wild thoughts" (1064).
Apart from Clytemnestra, the other women, even those who don’t appear directly such as Helen and Iphigenia, are victims and presented as being far less bold than Clytemnestra. This powerful woman’s interactions with other women are limited, and although she certainly has cause to detest Cassandra, her tone with the victimized girl is patronizing and condescending. Although not explicit in the text, the lines,”you shall have all you have the right to ask” (1046) which are spoken very sweetly to the girl, are suspiciously kind and one can imagine there to be an edge on her words—as though Cassandra was just another stupid victim of a woman. Granted, she knew her intentions were to kill her, but there is a certain quality to this whole passage that lends to the idea that Clytemnestra views herself as superior to all other women—and perhaps, given this text, she was correct in assuming so.
The theme of strong women characters viewing others of their sex as weak and helpless is continued in Lysistrata. The main difference is, that since it is more of a comedy; the women are sex-crazed and domestic (as opposed to mere victims). It can easily be argued that being a sex-crazed woman that is unable to function without the presence of a man is a sign of weakness, and this is something that frustrates Lysistrata (just as the victimized and weak female infuriates Clytemnestra). For instance, Lysistrata recognizes the weakness of the other women around her when she, angry at their failure to respond to her summons and in one of the important quotes from Lysistrata explained, ““Ah! if only they had been invited to a Bacchic revelling, or a feast of Pan or Aphrodite or Genetyllis, why! the streets would have been impassable for the thronging tambourines" (77). She, much like her female counterpart in Agamemnon,sees herself as separated from the ranks of typical women and seems frustrated that are not stronger.
Clytemnestra is calculating and realizes the power that her gender grants her. The chorus of elders that oversees the events sees the destructive and frightening power of this female when they refer to her as a “woman-lioness" (1258). One particularly illustrative scene is when Agamemnon returns home from war. She is, to continue the “woman-lioness" image, stalking her prey—almost courting it as she is obviously faking her stereotypically female response to her husband returning from battle and is all the while plotting to kill him and his new companion. She almost seems to swoon and her normally strong and potent language fall by the wayside as she says, “the wounds the tale whereof was carried home to me, / he had been cut full of gashes like a fishing net" (866-68). She is able to play the roles associated with her gender in order to gain the political power she desires and is equally able to shed these roles when it comes to plotting and acting like a ruler.
Lysistrata is also able to use her gender as a distraction from her plots, but in a much different way. Instead of using it as tool for herself necessarily, she uses her status as a female to rally other women to her cause. Lysistrata breaks from the traditional role of a female in many ways, but the disturbing part about this separation is that she seems almost too masculine and removed from the world of the other women she encounters. In fact, Lysistrata seems to be using women in much the same way that men do in her quest to bring about change. For instance, when the examination of the Spartan and other women occurs at the beginning of the play, all of the women are put under the same sexualized scrutiny that men give women (with Lysistrata leading the examination). Lysistrata gazes at the Spartan woman and remarks, “Why darling, you’re simply ravishing! Such a blemishless complexion—so clean, so out-of-doors! And look at that figure—the pink of perfection" (198). Lysistrata leads this examination of the breasts and buttocks and for a moment, she sounds much more like a male sizing up a future conquest.
Under the guidance of a very masculine Lysistrata, these women explore the sexual viability of each other, and although it is all for achieving the end of a “good cause"—ending the war and bringing the husbands back home, there is something about this process of selection that takes away from the possible message of gender and power. While they have a noble goal in mind, it is frustrating that the women can’t all be as strong as Lysistrata. Instead, they all have to turn to this “man-like woman" and must undergo a sexualized process. Instead of Lysistrata focusing her efforts on organizing a more straightforward effort, she relies on her sex and that of the other women to bring about her desires. It would be more possible to read this as a feminist play in many ways if it weren’t for the fact that all the women are playing the same over-sexed roles, the only difference being that this time it is being manipulated. Just like Clytemnestra,Lysistrata recognizes the weaknesses in other females and although she reacts differently to such traits, the fact remains that both characters recognize how separated they are from others of their sex.
Although there are several key differences between these women, many of these seem to exist due to the opposing plots and genre (comedy versus tragedy). However, although it would make for another essay entirely, it is quite possible to imagine these two highly intelligent and resourceful women as acting the same if put in similar situations due to their many similarities. The one theme that emerges over all others throughout the texts and important quotes from Lysistrata and Agamemnon when taking a holistic approach to analyzing both of these texts is that these women are worthy of being represented in literature because they stand apart from the rest of the typical woman that either author would have ever been associated with. While there were no cases in Greek history of women with such remarkable influence existing (in terms of capacity as leader of Greece), these texts highlight what made a strong woman for the authors of the time.