Penelope and Clytemestra are two sides of the same coin - but are they really that different from each other? For these women, the expectations of womanhood have reduced them to a trope: Penelope as ‘the good and perfect wife’ and Clytemnestra, the bad and evil wife’. Penelope is celebrated for her unwavering patience and loyalty, whereas Clytemestra is known for the vengeful murder of her husband, Agamemnon. In this exhibition, we explore these two women beyond their one-dimensional depictions and investigate their multiplicities in ways we have not seen before.

The Penelope/Clytemestra exhibition showcases the two characters side by side to emphasise their duality - a mirroring effect. Artist Lucy Ruddiman showcases two works, one for each character, in the form of an audio piece and video performance. Like many female authors, such as Nathalie Haynes and Emily Wilson, who have re-examined ancient Greek myths through a feminist lens, Lucy fills the gaps in the stories with her own. Ruddiman’s interpretations often examine the home, domesticity, labour as well as its complicated relationship with womanhood.

“Holding it Together” (2021) is a 15 minute and 14 second monologue by Penelope. Voiced by Ruddiman herself, this version of Penelope reveals her most intimate thoughts, behind closed doors. This audio piece incorporates a performative element: Lucy invites the audience to listen to Penelope whilst they get on with mundane chores around the home, like the laundry or the dishes.

“Do you really think I shouldn’t” (2021) is a 19 minute and 32 second video performance, in which features a monologue by Clytemnestra. The work takes the form of a zoom call, where Clytemnestra speaks directly to the viewer. Ruddiman’s version of Clytemnestra is one to be sympathised with. After all that has been said about her vengeful and conniving ways, she demands to be heard and she has something to say.

Ruddiman studied a BA in Theatre and English Literature at the University of Bristol and is currently undertaking an MA in Classical Reception at UCL. She is interested in the writing, directing and performance of modern adaptations of Ancient Greek texts and stories.

Penelope/Clytemnestra is the second edition of Kleió’s series Myth Interrupted: The Mothers, Monsters and Muses of Greek Myth. This exhibition is accompanied by an artist talk titled, With the Artist: Lucy Ruddiman on The Good Wife and The Bad Wife,  in which explores the themes and the works in more detail with the artist.

The Myth - Penelope

Penelope, long-suffering spouse of Odysseus, is to us the ultimate paradigm of wifeliness. Even within our modern society, her name remains a byword for patience, loyalty, and stoicism. Waving goodbye to her husband as he set sail for war, she would not see him again for twenty years. During this time, we are told, she remains the model of forbearance and fidelity (unlike the man she awaits). With no word of her husband for twenty years, this is admittedly impressive.

What do we know of Penelope beyond her unrivalled, unhuman patience? “This is the great difficulty - finding Penelope among [the] praise heaped upon her by men. Are they describing her or merely describing their idealized version of what a wife should be?” (Haynes, 2020:283). Has Penelope unwillingly become a conduit for thousands of years of domestic male fantasy? Faithfully awaiting a faithless husband, keeping the home fires burning to warm him upon his

And yet, as always, there is more to this cardboard cutout of idealised femininity than meets the eye. During the years Odysseus is away fighting, Penelope is forging a battle of her own. As his absence lengthens, so does her home begin to fill with men wishing to take his place.

In an effort to stall these dreaded suitors, Penelope crafts and enacts an ingenious scheme to delay her seemingly inevitable remarriage. She promises the men who fill her palace that once she has completed the shroud she is weaving for her father in law, Laertes, she will succumb to their demands. She is seemingly dedicated to this task- weaving all day for years on end. What these unobservant suitors do not realise, preoccupied as they are with eating and drinking their prospective wife out of house and home, is that her weaving extends into the night. Her hours of darkness are spent painstakingly unweaving her day’s work, so that each morning she returns to square one, buying another day of freedom.

Like Clytemnestra, the antithesis of Penelope in almost every other way, Penelope uses the innocent and feminised reputation of weaving to her advantage, entrapping those who underestimate her in her threads of cunning. Ultimately, this strategy is what ensures her freedom. She is her own hero, saving herself for a husband who, unbeknownst to her, shares a bed with almost every nymph, witch and mortal he encounters on his long journey home.

As we have gathered, Penelope’s unrivalled devotion and loyalty are pretty well known. What is less commonly considered is her immense intelligence, cunning and bravery in a world where women rarely held the keys to their own fate. In this light, Penelope the passive become Penelope the punchy. We begin to question this alternate side of her character, to ask, who is the woman beyond the unwavering patience? And to marvel at her agency.
The Myth - Clytemnestra

Clytemnestra has been mythologised as the OG bad wife. Taking a lover while her husband was fighting at Troy, and murdering him upon his victorious return, may fairly provide the grounds for this reputation. What this does not consider is Clytemnestra’s motives: upon discoverin that Agamemnon murdered their beloved daughter, Iphigeneia, in order to appease the gods, we may somewhat reconsider. Upon being told that Agamenon in fact made something of a
habit of murdering Clytemnestra’s children, our loyalties may begin to seriously shift.

Clytemnestra utilised the ten years Agamemnon is at war to deftly plot her revenge. Set on murder, and whiling away the days until she can take this revenge with a lover in her bed, she was the embodiment of Greek men’s ancient neurosis about women: unfaithful, dishonest, and bloodthirsty. It may be said that this neurosis lingers today.

Upon his eventual return, Agamemnon presents his war prize: the Trojan princess Cassandra who he has taken as his sex slave. Clytemnestra feigns delight in her husband’s return. She runs him a warm bath, very convincingly playing the part of dutiful wife. Once he is in this fatal bath, Clytemnestra entraps him in a cloth net, before murdering him with an axe (or in some versions, a sword). The inclusion of this cloth net in Agamemnon’s murder is fascinating. Here, Clytemnestra turns convention on its head. In the ancient world, the practice of weaving embodied the ‘good wife’. Here, it becomes a weapon of brutal slaughter by that same fair hand.

Still not satisfied, Clytemnestra goes on to kill Cassandra too. This is a dark deed, perpetrated upon a woman who had been brought into Clytemnestra’s house against her will, but by a woman driven to such destruction by an all-consuming grief.

Why is Clytemnestra the OG bad wife, and yet Agamemnon has escaped history's animosity almost unscathed? Surely he is one of the worst husbands...ever? And yet we don’t remember it that way. Why? Context matters. Clytemnestra was bad because Agamemnon was worse.

Clytemnestra is an unequivocally unlikeable character. She plots, cheats and murders. However, when we consider what drove her to these extremes (the unprompted murder of her children - yes, more than one - by her own husband) we may begin to see her less as a wanton murderer, and more as an avenging queen.

Perhaps, we can go even further. Natalie Haynes believes so: “for wronged, silenced, unvalued [women], she is something of a hero: a woman who refuses to be quiet when her child is killed, who disdains to accept things and move on, who will not make the best of what she has” (2020:171). In this way, Clytemnestra is a thoroughly modern woman. She is scorned, angry, underestimated. She is real.