An Unhomely Homecoming: Encounters with the Uncanny in Seneca's Agamemnon

Elaine Sanderson (University of Edinburgh)

As Hammond has noted, ‘what tragedy takes apart is the very notion of the homely, of the self and its rootedness’ (2009: 4). The Uncanny, first outlined by Freud as that which is frightful yet familiar, homely yet unhomely (Freud, 1919; Royle, 2003), thus represents a conducive lens through which to consider some of the ‘strange’ and/or ‘uncomfortable’ elements of Seneca’s tragedies. Examinations of uncanny elements in Seneca’s Thyestes and Troades (Dodson-Robinson, 2010; McAuley, 2013), and broader psychoanalytically and aesthetically informed studies of Seneca’s works (Shelton, 1977; Segal, 1986; Gunderson, 2015), along with recent work on the relationship between ancient literature and the Uncanny more widely (Clarke, 2021; Kamil, 2021; Sanderson, 2021; Sanderson & Burke-Tomlinson, 2021) have demonstrated the fruitfulness of such inquiries.

 

This paper identifies the Uncanny as a major aesthetic force in Seneca’s Agamemnon, confronting its audience with the same experiences of unhomeliness, displacement, and uncertainty suffered by its internal characters. I begin by demonstrating the unhomely nature of Agamemnon’s homecoming, highlighting the duplicitous implications of the terms in which Agamemnon characterises his safe return and his household (Sen. Ag. 782, 791, 800-1) and the harmonious dynamics between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are described (Sen. Ag. 780-1). I then argue that this disruption constitutes more than just tragic irony and that this semantic slippage represents a reflection of the kind of uncanny descent into unhomeliness which runs through this episode. Finally, I build on studies by Dodson-Robinson (2010) and Gunderson (2018) to consider how instances of repetition and doubling – such as the doubling of Troy and Argos (Sen. Ag. 791-6), past and present crimes (Sen. Ag. 25-7, 43-8, 162-73, 226-33, 875-909; Boyle, 1983: 200-2), and Agamemnon’s death(s) foreseen and reported by Cassandra (Sen. Ag. 720-40, 867-909) – create a pervasive and recurring sense of the Uncanny throughout the Agamemnon.

 

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