Revenge and Violence in Seamus Heaney's "Cassandra" 1
In "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. 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 circle.
"Cassandra" 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
1 You can find the full text of this poem here: http://www.unm.edu/~aobermei/Eng200/heaney.html
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.
The speaker says, "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. 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 Îbystander,' Cassandra herself,
is already moving toward her fate. Cassandra has realized her fate through a prophecy and faces
it courageously. 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
The 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; 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 own murder.
At 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 (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" (50-51). In
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.
"You 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" (60). The 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); for one who can see everything and affect
nothing, a net of darkness must be welcome.
Works Cited or Consulted
Aeschylus. Agamemnon. Greek Tragedy. Eds. A. Cook and E. Dolin. Dallas: Spring Publishing,
Inc., 1972. 3-58.
Heaney, Seamus. "Mycenae Lookout." The Spirit Level. New York: The Noonday Press, 1996.
Zimmerman, J. E. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Bantam Books, 1964.