Cassandra was my first literary haunting.
She was a startling creature in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, utterly alone and unlike anything I had ever encountered. She persisted and pervaded, and will never again be far from my consciousness.
I was sixteen, about to start the Tragedy unit in my online Greek and Roman Literature course. My very wise teacher told us nothing about Aeschylus or tragic theory, but merely told us to open our books and read Agamemnon outloud from line one. I played the Trojan seeress, and the power and terror of her words were like a storm.
Who was she? A priestess, the daughter of the king, cursed by Apollo to speak the truth and never be believed. They say she refused to sleep with the god, and he spat in her mouth.
Aeschylus picked up her story after the fall of Troy, with her arrival in Argos as the war-prize of Agamemnon. Of course we all know now what only Cassandra knew then—the tabloid-saga of the queen’s infidelity, her revenge for a slaughtered child, the murder (in the bath!) that awaited the lord of the house and his concubine. Cassandra was wild to speak of all this, wild to be heard by a Chorus that could not believe until it was too late. Her final moments, in the beautiful translation by Robert Fagles, are all poetry and desperate nobility.
Hamlet came two summers later. He was less freakish, funnier–but equally demanding, asking the same sort of insistent questions. His story was much better known: the prince only mad north-northwest, his murdered king and ghost, poisons, players, letters, nunneries. He arrived when my sister and I determined to read Shakespeare until we loved him, and accordingly spent an inordinate amount of time lounging about on the bedroom floor declaiming soliloquies and not doing chores.
Hamlet was our first play, and the night we got that Danish prince, we danced into our parents’ bedroom to tell them that Shakespeare rocked. And that Hamlet rocked most of all, and we had no idea who he was, and we were in love and in hate.
The following autumn I left for Hillsdale College, and heard things that started the conversation between the two characters: a lecture on tragedy in Agamemnon from a recovering feminist one semester, a rambly study of Shakespeare the next. Hamlet and Cassandra, I discovered, had things to say to each other.
I collected quotes, read with both books open side-by-side, and was astounded. They were separated by 2,000 years, and yet so similar! Both were displaced royalty, and crazy, but also the only sane characters in worlds gone mad. Both were defined by otherness, equally tortured by their capacity for thought and knowledge of the truth. And both learned to die with nobility and perhaps a little wisdom.
It was clear that Cassandra and Hamlet moved in worlds dictated by Fate, or Moira to the Greeks. This Fate was the merciless, faceless entity that hemmed in the edges of the Tragic universe, that dictated that the human condition be full of unjustified sorrow and suffering. In such a world, the measure of a man was in how he responded to such a destiny, whether with truth and nobility or with fear and evasion.
But who could blame Cassandra and Hamlet, really, if their first response was all horror? The seeress’ scream “The agony—O I am breaking!—Fate’s so hard, and the pain that floods my voice is mine alone” (1138-9) echoed in Hamlet’s “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” (I.5.191). They were young, and life could have been so easy.
There was evasion in the beginning, too. Wouldn’t it have been much pleasanter, neater, to cheat such a cruel lot? To find an easier way out? Indeed—and so Hamlet toyed with suicide and not-to-be, and Cassandra turned to songbirds.
The Nightingale—O for a song, a fate like hers!
The gods gave her a life of ease, swathed her in wings, no tears, no wailing. (1148-9)
Flight was desperately attractive.
But something changed before the end, because Hamlet didn’t kill himself, and Cassandra remained human. By their final scenes both had replaced evasion with readiness, the desire to flee with the understanding necessary to let be. In the end, they told us, it really wasn’t a matter of escape, of flight into madness or suicide, but of facing the human condition open-eyed, with dignity, compassion, and humanity.
It was the harder course, this lucid encounter with Fate, but one fulfilled with ultimate grace. With heartbreaking eloquence, Hamlet drew his conclusions in his penultimate scene: He was finished playing with a bare dagger. The decision for life or death would no longer be his hands. Horatio would not lie and excuse him from the duel.
Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness
is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,
what is it to leave betimes? Let be. (V.2.196)
Cassandra, too, turned her back on evasion and hysteria moments before her death. “My time has come,” she informed the deluded Chorus. “Little to gain from flight” (1324). Like Hamlet, she was no longer willing to cheat her way out. She would face whatever might come with sanity, standing upright.
These resolutions were vital, because death was suddenly the here and now. The readiness gained in their final scenes enabled Cassandra and Hamlet to face their own mortality with clarity and truth.
It would have been easy to lie, because everyone else did. The chorus wanted something glorious, and so smelled Syrian myrrh instead of the reek of blood. But Cassandra was explicit, urgent, clear-headed: “No escape, my friends…. I must go in now, mourning Agamemnon’s death and mine” (1324 and 1335). Two millennia later, Claudius wanted his propriety, and so extended the farce till the moment of his death (“Help me friends, I am but hurt!” (V.2.307)). But Hamlet said simply “I die, Horatio” (V.2.316, 321, 335). Like Cassandra, he met the tragedy of his own death with the dignity and awareness that none of the other characters were able to achieve. All madness, affected or genuine, fell away at last.
One more question, because one must always ask. What about immortality—did either really hope for a blessed afterlife? I couldn’t find that they did. Hamlet spoke of “the dread of something after death” (III.1.78), and the rest, after all, was silence. Cassandra cried on the steps of the palace.
Oh men, your destiny.
When all is well a shadow can overturn it.
When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,
And the picture’s blotted out. And that,
I think that breaks the heart. (1350-1355)
But in a way, Cassandra and Hamlet lived on. Perhaps it was their very doubt of a neat metaphysical solution that compelled them to so purposefully leave something behind. In so doing, they engendered the writing of their own dramas.
Thus Hamlet to Horatio, in his final moments: “Absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story” (V.2.331). He would offer his tale to a shocked court, and seek to prevent such “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” from happening again (V.2.364).
Cassandra, too, turned from sorrow to speak to a frightened Chorus: “No more riddles. I will teach you. Come, bear witness, run and hunt with me” (1183). Her final words echoed Hamlet’s:
Friends—I cried out,
not from fear like a bird fresh caught,
but that you will testify to how I died…
That’s all I ask, my friends. A stranger’s gift
for one about to die. (1338-43)
Her death would become part of the Oresteia, to be remembered again with Orestes’ return, with the queen’s death, with the revenge of the man married to grief. As Hamlet was a prince and actor, she was a seeress—and in the face of the greatest personal tragedy gave away her story to the yet-unknowing world.
So there it is. In Tragedy, death is not a private event, but reflects individual character and becomes a measure of human capability and potential—ugliness and fear for some, wisdom and greatness for others. As the chorus in Agamemnon says, “to go nobly lends a man some grace” (1327). Cassandra and Hamlet found that grace, and the wisdom it granted, in life and in death.
In the end, perhaps what separates the two is aloneness. However estranged he may be, Hamlet is surrounded by familiarity, by those who have known and maybe tried to understand him from childhood. He is a part of his society, whether he likes it or not. After all, he would have been king, without the poison-and-treachery business—and even in the end, he will be buried like a prince and remembered as one.
But what about Cassandra? She was uprooted, kept alive only because she was young and attractive enough to tempt a hero, born away from an immolated city on the chariot of her captor. She had no players to set traps, no Horatio to keep her confidences—in fact, no one had ever believed her, before or after Troy. Her father was murdered on the altar of Zeus, her god cursed her. And now, in Argos, there was literally nothing left.
Of all the finely drawn women in Classical literature, perhaps Cassandra is the most alone. So many of the others—and this is an observation, not an agenda—are bound and remembered by their relation to others, to men. Dido is eternally burning on her lover’s bed, Andromache holding her child and weeping over Hector’s plumed helmet. Penelope waits for her family, Psyche chases after Cupid.
How strikingly does Aeschylus’ portrait of Cassandra differ—she is forever alone, sapling straight, silhouetted against the open palace doors. In her final moments she is not Agamemnon’s war-prize or even the daughter of Priam. She has only truth, and is only herself, and maybe that is why she can speak for us all.
Zeus has led us on to know,
the Helmsman lays it down as law
that we must suffer, suffer into truth.
We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
the pain of pain remembered comes again,
and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.
From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench
there comes a violent love.
Agamemnon, first Chorus 177-184
Yes, I know I said no footnotes. But I should say that I am most grateful to Dr. Deborah Belt for laying the foundations of these ideas. The concept of the tragic worldview belongs to her.
The picture of Cassandra and the quotes from Aeschylus are from my Penguin edition of the Oresteia, trans. Robert Fagles (Penguin Group 1979). The painting of Hamlet is by William Hunt, 1864. The video is, of course, from Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet, the Shakespeare quotes from The Pelican Shakespeare ed. A. R. Braunmuller (Penguin Group 2001).
Also, for those interested in further reading, I find most fitting that a writer like Christa Wolf should again take up the seeress’ story, in 1984, for her outcry against the oppression of women and censorship in East Germany. Her Kassandra is a beautiful addition to the mythos, I think.