History of Theater
“Reality vs. Storytelling: How Ancient Greek Playwrights
Rewrote the Female Role”
Throughout Ancient Greek plays empowering female roles are very common and important. Strong female characters like Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Medea, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata capture the emotion and mentality of strong females in the world making the character relatable to many. While these female characters are integral to Greek society most of them directly disobey the gender roles that Ancient Greeks hold true. These examples of women in dramatic plays view females and their male counterparts as equals, whereas the women in ancient Greece were restricted to specific rules and expectations, limited to the household and for the most part separated from the males in the society. Greek playwrights fought this construct through the development of strong female characters like Clytemnestra, Medea, Antigone, and Lysistrata.
Going through each of these female roles in greek theater, three questions will be answered in order to analyze and discuss gender roles in greek theater. The first question is going to define the overall importance of the character throughout the story. This will allow for context to be given about the impact of the character in the story where the strict gender roles of the ancient greek culture doesn't exist. The second question will state specific instances where the character strayed from the guidelines that Ancient Greeks expected their women to live by. Finally, the Greeks opinions of the previously stated females will be researched and questioned. The answers to the previous stated questions will provide enough background information to compare Clytemnestra, Medea, Antigone, and Lysistrata to the standards held for women during the same time period in Ancient Greece.
Gender roles were very strict in Ancient Greece, everything was black and white and things a man could do was completely opposite from what a woman could do. Examples of this is that in Athenian women were not allowed to make contact with any man who was not related to them after they got married. On top of that these women move directly from their father’s house into the house of the man she marries, and furthermore women were rarely allowed to leave the house and if they did they had to have a man escort them around. The restrictions previously mentioned were deliberately created to ensure that women wouldn't have an interaction with another man and then be romantically tempted. In this particular power structure, men had all the power and had free domain of everything, whereas women were segregated from the men in their home and had little control over anything (Blundell 139).
The first character analyzed is Clytemnestra from the Ancient Greek play Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is a famous female role that is in a position of power over the remaining men in her society after her husband leaves. Throughout the course of Clytemnestra, the title character is in this position of power that opposes the views of Ancient Greek gender structure during this time. Historically Ancient Greek females don’t leave their home and wait for their husbands to come home, and Clytemnestra takes the role of the strong power male and replaces her husband’s role in society. Aeschylus chose to write Clytemnestra as a strong female lead who is forceful and direct instead of the typical Ancient Greek female who is to themselves and quiet. Clytemnestra ruins her household, tearing her family apart for the vengeance of her husband. The power dynamic of this relationship is backwards compared to that of a typical Greek family outside the scope of this play.
In Ancient Greek societies there is a double standard when it comes to the sexual relationships of women compared to men. Men are allowed to take on whores and prostitutes whereas women are restricted to a sexual standard with only one man involved. Clytemnestra has relations with a lover while her husband is away which is in direct violation of the standards that are true in the reality of greek society. Clytemnestra becomes ruler, controlling all aspects of her life, becoming the social standard of a man in ancient greek culture. This concept is explained in Doyle’s Archetypal Simulacra: The Women of Aeschylus' Oresteia where he says “she commands, full of her high Clytemnestra has taken upon herself a masculine role, which is a perversion of what is dearest to the Greeks the city and the polis. The phrasing of her commanding sets her up as almost warlike and tyrannical in her rulership, furthering her transition towards the masculine. She has ultimately attempted to replace her husband, not with her male lover, but with herself” (Doyle 201). Clytemnestra’s socials crimes against society continue resulting in her taking over land, followed by her lover, and finally resulting in a murder.
In Ancient Greek society Clytemnestra was viewed as something far from a hero, they thought of her as more of an antagonist and they hated her for this. She was considered to be a “bad woman” in their society because she defied everything the greeks knew to be true from reality, literature and stories from the past. The audiences for Aeschylus’ play were for the most part male, and they watched as Clytemnestra, an adulteress, attained male power while her husband wasn’t there, causing them to be terrified of this character, who just wants power. Clytemnestra lessens the impact of male leaders as she takes those characteristics on as her own. She doesn’t depend on a man like is expected of her in Greek culture, instead she is independent. She has continuously crossed the lines between the gender roles that were assigned and expected of her during the Ancient Greek time period, which has caused her to be “one of the most detested villains in the canon of Greek myths and legends” (Wolfe 692).
Antigone differs from Clytemnestra in that she is not becoming the male power in the story because of vengeance but rather in order to do what is right in the name of her brother. The character values family and her religion and when her brother dies and the state tells her she can’t bury him, she goes head to head with the state and Creon in order to do what she believes is right. While Antigone throughout the play is resisting the expectations that Ancient Greeks hold to be true of females in society she is also being extremely loyal to her brother which portrayes her in a positive light because of the loyalty to the male character. Antigone is so driven to do right by her dead brother she takes on the role of a male to complete the burial. Family to women in this play is above all else leaving Antigone with no choice but to protest the wants of many and find a way to bury her brother. This worry and concern about the jobs Antigone is supposed to follow in the family is very closely similar to that of the expectations in Ancient Greek Societies. Even though this dedication and loyalty to her family isn’t opposing the restrictions on women in Ancient Greece her direct opposition of the male leader, Creon, is outside the views of most if not all Ancient Greeks. The main conflict of this play is between Antigone and her Uncle Creon. Creon is not taking on the male role and burying his nephew and so Antigone is forced to step into that position, and become the male power role of the play (Sophocles, Antigone).
Something that is individual of this play is the fact that Antigone is stepping outside the bounds of female roles in Ancient Greek theater but she isn't viewed as bad because of it. Part of this comes from the author himself writing the play in such way to make those reading or viewing it look at Antigone and see her actions as the correct ones. This works because while Antigone is not following the gender rules and structure given to her, she is doing it for family loyalty and it is her religious belief that it is what is right. In a way this aligns with the views of Ancient Greeks on female roles being loyal to their family. The rest of the females throughout the play also disagree with Antigone and think she is wrong for defying what the state wants. Antigone’s sister says “We are only women, / we cannot fight with men” (Sophocles 191) showing how even though Ancient Greek may believe in her motives, others within the play do not. Interestingly enough even though Antigone does not follow restrictions of Ancient Greek gender roles she is still liked in Ancient Greece because of the passion befine her motives.
Madea is a protagonist throughout this story who does not follow the social regulations given to her. Madea does not accept nor follow these regulations because she wants to decide her own path and future. She has this ability because she no longer has a husband because he left her for a younger woman and then banished both her and her children from Corinth. Medea is similar to Clytemnestra in that she wants revenge on her husband causing her to become the male power role in the story to succeed in avenging Jason. Throughout the play Madea represent all the things a woman should not be in this society but is balanced almost by the strong female presence of the chorus which portrays the correct decision Medea should be making throughout the course of the play. The Corinthian women make comments such as “Coming as an exile, she has earned, The citizen’s welcome; while to Jason she is all, Obedience – and in marriage, that’s the saving thing, When a wife obediently accepts her husband’s will.” (Euripides 17). Madea has been completely faithful to her husband and has given him two children both males, which is the goal that all women are looking to achieve. Medea is so faithful to Jason, he is her everything, but Jason puts power over his relationship with Medea, and marries into a family that has the power he desires.
Medea is vastly different from both plays previously mentioned in that the majority of the characters are females, including the chorus. In both Clytemnestra and Antigone the chorus’ are male driven forces. This difference gives Medea an interesting dynamic showing and focusing on the bond between females in this society. Medea needs to keep the sympathy of the chorus because they are representative of Corinthian woman, where her husband Jason ran off to. Due to this bond between Medea and the chorus she is able to convince them that she is correct in wanting vengeance on Jason. Jason decides to leave his wife for masculine values of power leaving Medea, resulting in her home and family being in pieces. In order to get revenge on her husband, Medea takes on a masculine role, by attacking the things he cares about most. Medea attempts to poison Jason's wife, and succeeds killing her and her father, Creon. By doing this Medea has eliminated the threat to her family structure and also took away Jason’s hope for power. However she takes this revenge one step further and kills her children, important to both Jason and Athens. It is now that the chorus revokes their support from Medea’s plot against her husband, and Medea has completely lost her feminine side. She has now gone against her previous beliefs of family which she held so high in the beginning of the play and completely takes on the role of a male power house in the play.
Medea exhibited both female and male tendencies throughout the play. She was able to detach herself from the typical acts expected of a woman and perform acts of murder. Such acts are never associated with women in Ancient Greek culture. A common view in Ancient Greece is that men take away life and that women are those who give life, through the course of this play Medea does the opposite. She performs several acts of murder going as far as killing her own children, and Ancient Greeks frowned upon killing members of your own family. Throughout the story Medea displayed great pride for everything she was doing, which is traditionally a male characteristic in this society. This sense of pride overrides her maternal instincts showing how she has truly become the strong male lead.
Lysistrata is a play focused on the life of women and their desires in Classical Athenian society as well as their effect on that society. The women that are in Aristophanes play are able to handle themselves and are capable of taking power. This play shows the intelligence of women and their ability to manage a house and work together towards a common goal, as well as the relationship between males and females. The females in this story are tired of being abandoned by wars that take their husbands away. Lysistrata calls for the help of other women throughout Greece to resolve the war in order to bring their husbands home. The most notable aspect of the play is how sexual the women act, for example when the women decide to flaunt their sexiest outfits to the men and swear to not have sex with them until they end the war. The females in this story aren't afraid to discuss sex outside the realm of childbirth, they aren't dainty, they are bold and powerful women. One member of the group, Calonice, rather crudely puts it, “Anything else for me. I’d walk through fire / but do without a dick? Be serious! / There’s nothing like a dick” (Aristophanes 133-5). Females in ancient Greece weren’t viewed as bad for desiring sex it was just thought of as excessive. While the focus of the play is how the men are experiencing sexual frustration from their wives, the importance of offspring is obviously a continued issue in the Greek world. Women have taken control of the future of these men by endangering their continued family line and by doing this they hope they can gain control of the current situation. (Pritchard).
Lysistrata knows that simply oathing not to have sex with their husbands won’t end the war, so she comes up with a second plan. She wants the men to accept their request for sex so she can gain control of the acropolis, specifically the money. By doing this she demands the war be stopped as the women have control of the funds and they won’t fund the war. At this point in the story the men believe the women aren’t following their restrictions as women and are outside their domestic sphere, they also believe they are taking over the man’s role. Lysistrata believes that as she runs the household she is capable of running the treasury and effectively ending the war. As soon as the war is done the men and women revert back to their societal gender roles which is different compared to the other three plays. In Lysistrata the only reason the women want the male power is to revert society back to the way it is supposed to be. They believe the people of Athens work best together when confined to their gender roles which will only happen if the war is stopped and the men return home.
For the duration of all of these plays the characters of Clytemnestra, Antigone, Medea, and Lysistrata all test gender roles and step outside the typical assignments of a woman in Ancient Greek culture. Each of these women have a response based off of what the men in their life have done that cause them to take on the typical male role in society. Each story differs their importance throughout the story, the gender roles they broke, and how the greeks viewed the character. Antigone is liked in Ancient Greece while Medea and Clytemnestra are both hated, and Lysistrata is different from all three because the story ends with gender roles being reinstated and everyone is happy about it. Clytemnestra and Medea act out of anger and vengeance for the men in their lives that tore their families apart while on the other hand Antigone and Lysistrata act in reaction the the lack of males fulfilling their role in society. All four of these plays display differences in how gender roles were broken, and how that affected the story line and the Greeks watching or reading the play. They also show how greek playwrights wrote women in their plays differently than how the society would expect them to act.
Aeschylus, and Eduard Fraenkel. Agamemnon. Clarendon Press, 1982. Print.
Aristophanes, and Matt Neuburg. Lysistrata. H. Davidson, 1992. Print
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.
Doyle, Andrea Helen. "Archetypal Simulacra: The Women of Aeschylus' Oresteia." Diss.
EURIPIDES. MEDEA. W W NORTON, 2018. Print.
Rehm, Rush. "Sophocles' Antigone and Family Values." Web. 11 Feb. 2016.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at
Colonus. Bt Bound, 1999. Print.
Wolfe, Rachel M. E. “Women's Studies.” Taylor and Francis Online, Web.