| Mare Nostrum
The Roles of Women in Greek Tragedies
by J. M.
The role of women in ancient Greek life, was considered to be insignificant compared to that of Greek men. And yet, in tragedies, women were often written as major characters, revealing insights on how women were treated and thought of in society.
Many well-known Greek plays contain several well-written, complex, female characters. Each female character takes upon herself, the role of villain, the role of victim, and the role of heroine.
One of the most recognizable female characters in history, Clytmenestra may also one of its most noted villainesses, due to her partaking in the murder of her husband Agamemnon and his female consort. It is in the play Agamemnon that Clytemnestra is first seen and her crime committed. She is depicted as a brutal, treacherous woman, "a woman with a man's heart" (Ferguson 76).
Through out the play, Clytemnestra is spoken of with a bitter tongue and a fearful heart. The citizens and the audience are made well-aware of how she welcomed her husband home, led him across a crimson carpet, "like a sea of blood," and ripped away his life in a gory bath (Hadas 82).
Clytmnestra was certainly a villainess, but several underlying themes of the play also suggest that she both victim and heroine, as well. She suffers a variety of grievances and hardships throughout her life, there by justifying her actions. For instance:
- Agamemnon sacrifies their daughter Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Diana, in order to win a war. She murdered her husband, partly, to avenge her daughter's wrongful death at his hands.
- After the conclusion of the war, Agamemnon brings a female prize to her home. Cassandra is another piece of her husbands betrayal and innocent or not must be destroyed.
- In the second play of the Orestia trilogy, Clytemnestra, herself, is murdered by her children.
Before being killed by Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, Cassandra appeared in Euripides' play The Women of Troy and Virgil's Aeneid 2. Her character is one of innocent complexity and heart-wrenching victimization. The beloved of the god Apollo, Cassandra's life is complied of one tragic event after another:
These circumstances made her a victim, but Cassandra can also be seen as a heroine and a villianess. Her desire to remain a virgin, classifies her as a heroine. She refused both a god [Apollo] and a mortal god [Agamemnon]. It was only by force that the quality she held most dear was taken away.
Yet, by the men in the ancient Greek world, her abstinence made her deserving of the punishment she received. Wilson notes: "[Cassandra is considered to be] the worst kind of tease, beautiful, willing, and then saying no at the last moment."
In ancient times she was depicted as a villaness, but modern thought considers her a victim. Wilson continues his passage by noting: "Greek society did not recognize a woman's right to say no...And so she becomes a serial victim, who deserves sympathy for her tragic life, but gets none."
- She was bribed with the gift of prophecy, by Apollo, and after witholding her body from him, is cursed with it. No matter what she envisioned, she would not be believed by anyone.
- She prophesized the fall of Troy, as was forced to watch her city burn, as her prophecies were ignored.
- During the fall of Troy, she sought refuge in the Temple of Athena, and was raped there by the Akhaian Ajax.
- She was chosen by Agamemnon as a prize, and taken from the only home she had ever known, to a foreign land.
- She was able to anticipate, through her gift of prophecy, her death in Agamemnon's house.
If Clytmnestra is the most notable Greek villainess and Cassandra the most sympathy-worthy victim, Antigone is the greatest heroine. The play bearing Antigone's name opens with Antigone and her sister Ismene learning of their brothers' deaths in battle, and the decree that one brother is to be given a ritual burial and the other left unburied (Sophocles lines 1-99). Antigone takes it upon herself to bury her brother, committing "a holy crime." Her sister declines involvement in the "crime" by citing,"We who are women
should not contend with men; we who are weak are ruled by the stronger. . . Pardon me if I obey our rulers since I must" (Sophocles lines 61-66).
Antigone is one of few women who openly rebelled against her fixed position in life. Throughout the play, Antigone remains true to a heroines' qualifications by:
Later in the play, her role in the "crime" is revealed as questionable. The guard who found the buried body tells Creon, the ground was unbroken, there were no tracks of any kind, and the body
was lightly covered with dust, "as if a pious hand had scattered it" (lines 225-233). It was only after the body had been buried and unburied that Antigone attempeted to bury the body herself. Antigone became a victim when she was charged for "reburying" a man, convicted and left to die in the confines of a cave. This conviction labled Antigone as a villainess. She defied the view of women in her society. It wasn't her crime that repusled her people, it was her gender.
"The people approve of what she did, but they do not approve of the fact that she did it" (qtd. in Ferguson 178).
- Admitting her involvement in the "crime".
- Refusing to allow her sister to share the blame.
- Reacting to her death sentence without anguish or desperation, but with indifference.
- Choosing to take her death into her own hands. Instead of rotting away in a cave, as was her punishment, she chose to hang herself from the ceiling of the cave.
Perhaps the most fascinating and complex character in Greek drama, is the of Medea. She is the ultimate combination of heroine, villain and victim, all displayed in a single play. Medea was married to a Greek named Jason, whom she followed from her foreign land, to Greece. Her love for Jason was deep, and when he elected to leave her to marry the daughter of Creon, Medea was furious (Euripides lines 1-24). In retaliation for his strayed affections,
Medea sent Jason's bride a poison dress. She then murdered her children as a second form of revenge. While she loved her children, her hatred for Jason was greater than a mother's love could ever have been. These acts of murder were the ultimate revenge toward her ex-husband, leaving him brideless and childless. Despite these crimes, Medea is a character who can be sympathized with. She gave up all she loved for Jason:
Knowing of all the sacrifices Medea had made for him, Jason still felt no obligation to remain with her and left her for the promise of a "real" Greek princess. Medea's love for Jason was so great and his betrayal damaged her mind so drastically, that revenge was the only comfort she held in her power. She killed his bride, using the cleverest chess piece available, Jason's own children. When she realized the consequences of her actions, she was forced to make a harrowing decision.
Ferguson elaborates,"[After sending the poison dress] Medea kills her children, partly to make Jason childless, partly because since they must surely die, it is better they should perish by her hand." (263). Mitchell-Boyask justifies Medea's actions in this way, "Medea may seem at time a frightening character, but compare her real, ethical concerns with the rather shallow and scheming hollows of Jason."
Medea accompanies Antigone as one of the defining heroines of ancient Greek drama. She defied her role as the "happy", helpless housewife and refused to accept her betrayal without striking back.
- Murdering her brother and betraying her family
- Leaving her home for a foreign land [Greece] that would not accept her
- Becoming a mother, when she had no desire to bear children. "I would rather fight three battles than bear one child" (line 248)
Euripides. Ten Plays. Bantam Books, 1960.
Ferguson, John. A Companion to Greek Tragedy. Austin:
U of Texas P, 1972.
Hadas, Moses. A History of Greek Literature. New York:
Columbia U P, 1950.
Harvey, Sir Paul ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature.
Mitchell-Boyask, Robin. "Study for Euripides' Medea." 12 October 1999. On-line. |<http://www.temple.edu/classics/medea.html>|
Sophocles. Three Theban Plays. London: Oxford U P, 1956.
Wilson, Andrew. "Cassandra." 6 September 1999. On-line. |<http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/cassandra.html>|
History and Thought of Western Man
Rich East High School
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This page was created by J. M. Last revised March 29, 2000.