The Greeks were early masters of stories about betrayal and vengeance, about family feuds and curses, about men who conquered and women who suffered. Today, in the hands of skilled authors, these myths have become juicy fodder for novels that reimagine their maligned, misunderstood and often overlooked female characters, imbuing them with fresh agency and context.
Following in the steps of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Jennifer Saint’s Elektra and Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, Costanza Casati’s novel Clytemnestra sets out to retell the story of Clytemnestra, the Queen of Mycenae, known for murdering her husband, King Agamemnon, after he returned home from the Trojan War.
A bad wife? Not if you consider the circumstances, argues Casati. In Clytemnestra’s voice, Casati delineates the many just causes for her fury.
First, Agamemnon murders Clytemnestra’s husband and child in order to claim her for himself. Years later, he kills his and Clytemnestra’s daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to turn the winds in the Greek army’s favour.
Worst of all, in both situations, Agamemnon’s actions are not only condoned, but even enabled by men close to Clytemnestra such as her father and her friend Odysseus.
These tragedies underpin Clytemnestra’s life, but Casati leaves plenty of space for her main character to experience freedom, strength and triumph.
When we meet Clytemnestra, she is a young princess of Sparta; a hunter and fighter who is close to her family, especially to her sister, Helen, the famed beauty who later flees for Troy.
Growing up, the princesses of Sparta train in wrestling, spear-throwing and sword-fighting, and are relatively able to do as they please. Their mother rules alongside their father – or at least appears to. “It is hard to find a man who is really strong. Strong enough not to desire to be stronger than you,” she tells Clytemnestra.
On her deathbed, Clytemnestra’s grandmother tells Clytemnestra and Helen that their family is a “dynasty of queens” and that “you girls will be remembered longer than your brothers”.
For this, she says, they’ll need “ambition, courage, distrust”. If her message is cryptic in that moment, it becomes increasingly clear as the two princesses grow older and face one betrayal after another.
After all, ancient Greece is a man’s world. Yes, young Spartan women are trained to be strong. But the reason is so they can “bear healthy children”, Clytemnestra says. If their lower positioning in the social hierarchy is not apparent at first, it becomes abundantly clear when Theseus, the king of Athens, kidnaps and rapes Helen. Her siblings are furious and want revenge, but her father will hear none of it.
Readers experience not only Clytemnestra’s pain, but also her power and her hope
“Theseus is a hero, and he does what heroes do,” he says. “Do you know how many other girls like Helen there are?” In scenes like these, Casati redefines our understanding of the term “hero”, reminding us that the celebrated men of Greek myths were selfish, violent brutes who took whatever they wanted with no regard to the desires of others or the consequences.
After the murder of her first husband and their baby son, Clytemnestra transforms her heartbreak into steel. When she is forced to become Agamemnon’s wife, she decides she will be a leader in her own right.
In one memorable scene, when a group of merchants question her authority, Clytemnestra punches their ringleader so hard that he loses consciousness.
If anyone complains about taking orders from her ever again, she tells the others, “remind them of what happened to the small trader”. Eventually, she becomes ruthless. While Agamemnon is bathing at home after returning from the war, she stabs him to death.
In its deft portrayal of the many layers of trauma, and in its offering of a feminist take on revenge, Clytemnestra joins a recent spate of similarly minded artworks, including Emerald Fennell’s film Promising Young Woman and Michaela Coel’s television series I May Destroy You.
For 400-plus pages, readers experience not only Clytemnestra’s pain and oppression, but also her love, her power and her hope. By the end, we desire not only for her to claim justice and to have her revenge, but for it to be wild and fierce, and to set her free.