Ancient Greek theATRE

Athenian women in Greek tragedy

Ancient Athenian tragedy

The representation of women in Athenian tragedy was performed exclusively by men and it is likely (although the evidence is not conclusive) that it was performed solely for men as well.

Macaria, in the Heracleidae states that “for a woman, silence and self control are best.” The philosopher Xenophon thought females possessed the positive traits of ‘vigilance’ and ‘love for infants’. However Xenophon reflects the Greek fear of these ‘others’, highlighting their irrationality, religious fervour and sexual passion. Aristotle went further, stating that women were deformed, incomplete males, designed to be subservient to men.

As a result, women had their freedom restricted and were believed to have lived in separate areas to men. In a speech recorded in the Lysias Orations 3.6, a speaker seeks to convey his opponent’s licentiousness by telling how he trespassed into “the women’s rooms where my sister and my nieces were – women who have always lived so decently that they are ashamed to be seen even by relatives.”

In Ancient Greece, a woman was viewed as a passive conduit of male fertility, on long term loan by her father. Marriage was an unequal relationship, whereby the husband owned the children and didn’t have the same obligation toward sexual fidelity that the wife had. The playwright Euripides presents two very different reactions to this cultural norm. Firstly, his female protagonist Alcestis, represents the “perfect wife” sacrificing her own life, so her husband, Admetos, can live. 

The most important relationships within this play are between the men. Heracles goes to the underworld not for Alcestis, but to honour his male friend’s hospitality. Admetos goes against the promise he made to his wife, so as to obey his male friendship. 

Euripides and Medea

In contrast, however, Euripides’ Medea breaks the marital conventions, choosing her husband herself and reacting against his infidelity by breaking the female oath and killing her children. “In a sense,” Blondell argues, “every bride was a stranger in a strange land. And every married woman was dependent on her husband.”  Medea displays stereotypically male attributes that the Greeks held as positive. Possessing courage, intelligence, decisiveness, resourcefulness, power, independence, the ability to conceive and carry out a plan effectively, as well as the art of rhetoric. The nurse even likens her to a rock of the sea, as Patroclus famously does to Homer’s Achilles in the epic poem The Iliad. Yet Medea, similarly to Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra, another “woman with a heart of manly counsel” were not admired but portrayed as “Cruella de Vil” type characters;  Medea having murdered the King of the Corinthians, his daughter (Jason’s new bride) and her two sons for the purpose of taking revenge on Jason.So the declaration “that a noble man ought either to live with honour, or die with honour” does not apply to women.

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