November 1 2000
and Violence in Seamus Heaney's "Cassandra"[comment1]
"Mycenae Lookout," Seamus Heaney tells the story of Agamemnon,
Clytemnestra and Cassandra after the Trojan war. "Cassandra"
is the second part of "Mycenae Lookout" and chronicles Cassandra,
Apollo's ill-fated prophetess, who is captured by Agamemnon at the war's
end and brought back to Mycenae as a slave. The fates of Cassandra and
the House of Atreus collide with Agamemnon's return to Mycenae, where
his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus plot his murder. [comment2]Aegisthus
and Clytemnestra both seek revenge: Clytemnestra for her daughter's sacrifice
and Aegisthus for the overthrow of his father and the sins of Agamemnon's
father Atreus, of which Aegisthus was the only survivor. While Heaney
probably drew from many classical sources for his poem, the section entitled
"Cassandra" seems especially drawn from Aeschylus' play Agamemnon.
Heaney compresses the events of Agamemnon into a mere 64 lines
but still retains, partially through uses of the binaries which are contained
in the play, the classic and timeless story of revenge and a violent vicious
begins with Cassandra's description. She is described as a prisoner of
war might look, "soiled" (4), "devastated" (6-7) and
"camp-fucked" (12), rather than marble smooth and serene, as
one might expect a classical Greek figure to appear. Heaney focuses on
her appearance and describes her clothing, "her little breasts"
and the state of her head in lines four through ten. It is not until he
gets to line 11, though, that he comments on what may have happened to
her as a prisoner of the Trojan War. "Camp-fucked," with its
feel of sexual violence, implies that, along with physical abuse and enslavement,
Cassandra has endured rape as well (12). In lines eight through thirteen,
Heaney chooses words, such as "punk," "char-eyed"
and "gawk" to illustrate succinctly Cassandra's position in
the House of Atreus: she is an alien, traumatized by the destruction she
has witnessed and stunned to awkwardness by her descent from princess
of Troy to slave of Mycenae.
speaker says, [comment3]"People
/ could feel / a missed / trueness" in Cassandra (14-17). This paragraph
comes to a point with the word "focus," which is used as a verb.
Through this word, her gift of prophecy or "missed trueness"
becomes an entity capable of action. For Cassandra, Mycenae is the "focus,"
finally, of her prophesies. It is where she will ultimately be freed from
her curse. It is, in this sense, a "homecoming" (19); although
it is especially a homecoming for Agamemnon, who has been gone for the
duration of the Trojan War. Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra, who has ruled
in his absence, posted a watchman for Agamemnon's return. It is this watchman
who speaks throughout "Mycenae Lookout." As the watchman is
outside the royal events, and yet sees all, he is a bystander to the action
of the poem. "Cassandra" begins with a terse remark from the
speaker regarding the innocence of bystanders, in which the watchman seems
to include himself. [comment4]The
watchman appears directly related to the Chorus in Aeschylus' Agamemnon,
as both are bystanders who have been watching the action and may even
have the ability to intercede, but do not. Even Cassandra is a bystander,
as she has forseen all, but is unable to make anyone believe her prophesies.
With line 24, Heaney repeats: "No such thing / as innocent"
(23-24). But this time, "bystanding" is not included, the ╬bystander,'
Cassandra herself, is already moving toward her fate. Cassandra has realized
her fate through a prophecy and faces it courageously. [comment5]Heaney
bookends the description of Cassandra with statements that there is no
innocence; plainly he means Cassandra, blurring the lines between victim
and victimizer, slave and master.
speaker describes Agamemnon in very denigrating terms which seem odd and
modern when juxtaposed with Agamemnon's status as an historic king of
Mycenae. Rather than simply describing Agamemnon as an arrogant, child-killing
oversexed tyrant, Heaney takes the time to have the speaker use over three
paragraphs of hyphenated description of Agamemnon; [comment6]this
device is a rather uncomplimentary and sarcastic jab at Agamemnon and
an allusion to Homeric epithets, which are constructed similarly. The
epithets both widen the gap between the King and the speaker and condemn
Agamemnon for perpetuating the violence which will culminate with his
this point, the poem turns again, away from Agamemnon and back to Cassandra.
She offers up her "Greek / words" (36-37) as a conciliatory
sacrifice to Apollo. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, she pleads for his
help, pleads to be avenged, and foretells Agamemnon's son's revenge on
Clytemnestra and Aegisthus [comment7](Aeschylus
1256-1295). Her final speech supplicates of Apollo, the "farthest
light" (1324), that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus be "hatefully"
murdered themselves (1326). The sacrificial and innocent lamb, she "bleat[s]"
(40) her prophecy, but the "gene-hammer" (42), or the violence
promulgated by Agamemnon's tragic genealogy, and the "tread / of
the roused god" (43-44) are too powerful. The "Troy reaver"
(57) infuriated the gods with his total annihilation of Troy. Agamemnon's
history and his own personal actions at Troy result in his painful death.
It is Cassandra who receives the consequences of the sexual indiscretions
of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus; she is the "rent / cunt of their guilt"
essence, she is "camp-fucked" (12) by the adultery of the House
of Atreus as well as by the pillage of Troy and her curse of prophecy;
it was her fate, and she never had a chance.
can endure, because you are courageous," says the Chorus in Agamemnon
(1304) as Cassandra goes in "to the knife, / to the killer wife"
(53-54). Master and slave meet the same end, just as the wronged Clytemnestra,
who murders, will in turn be murdered. Heaney condenses Cassandra's final
speech into seven lines at the end of "Cassandra." She speaks
of the finality of the act; so much bad blood is revenged in the blood
of Agamemnon, and when the blood is wiped away, "that's it"
balance of power between gods and man, man and woman, king and slave,
embodied concisely in Heaney's phrase "shadow-hinge" (61) turns
"unpredictably" and suddenly a king dies like a slave, at the
hands of one who should support him. Mercifully for Cassandra, the seeress's
"light's / blanked out" (63-64); [comment10]for
one who can see everything and affect nothing, a net of darkness must
Agamemnon. Greek Tragedy. Eds. A. Cook and E. Dolin. Dallas: Spring
Publishing, Inc., 1972.
Seamus. "Mycenae Lookout." The Spirit Level. New
York: The Noonday Press, 1996. 36-39.
J. E. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Bantam Books,