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    Role of Women in Ancient Greece

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    Women in ancient Greek society were seen as insignificant in comparison to men. They were stereotyped as being subservient and loyal cookers and cleaners. In Greek tragedies, however, women were given a major role that progressed the play’s plots and evoked the audience’s thoughts and emotions. While some women are portrayed as victims and vengeance seekers, others are seen as virtuous or valiant fighters trying to forge the best possible outcome for themselves and/or their families.

    Several female characters are clearly the victims of the men in their lives and/or the expectations of their society. Our first female character is Antigone, a victim of men. In Sophocles play Antigone, we have Creon, king of Thebes, who shows his power over his people by threatening the sentry striking fear in the heart of his subjects. The only person in the city that defies him is Antigone. She decides not to follow Creon’s decree against giving Polynices a proper burial. Her loyalty was to her family. Antigone declares she is not afraid of carrying out the deed, even if it means dying, because “[she] won’t die dishonored” (Sophocles 115). “Let her find a mate in Hades” (Sophocles 725) conveys Creon’s dismissive attitude towards Antigone’s claims. Creon’s words suggest how cruel he’s become under power. Antigone also laments her own fate by saying she will die “with no one to love [her]” (Sophocles 967), meaning she can never just live a normal happy life and get married. The Chorus also mentions that her suffering and death are also a kind of retribution for her father’s sin (Sophocles 942). Creon strongly believes “insubordination is our worst crime” (Sophocles 746), showing he’s simply tyrannical and threatened by Antigone and sentences her death.

    Medea, the female character in Euripides’ Medea, is an example of being a victim of society. The events in Medea take place in a male-dominated society. Despite Medea’s foreign and exotic status, it is possible to still sympathize with her by knowing and understanding the feeling of being abandoned by an arrogant man and being subdued by a patriarchal, oppressive society. Medea is completely disillusioned in a strange land where everyone judges her by her “otherness”. She is forced to conform to her new home’s surroundings and finds it ridiculous that everyone is judging her superficially. Even in marriage, women need to be almost clairvoyant about what kind of man she is going to spend her life with. Whether a marriage is a “decent one, or a bad one” (Euripides 236), a woman’s job is to keep her husband happy. Medea also states that women are stronger than men due to the fact that women have to go through childbirth and possibly die. As both a mother and a warrior, Medea speaks on both experiences and says she’d rather “stand behind a shield three times than go through childbirth once” (Euripides 254). After Medea murders her children, Jason is left to be helpless. Both genders are not acting as they should. If there was no gender flip, both Jason and Medea could have avoided the entire tragedy.

    In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and wife plays more of a subtle victim through her domestic relations. She has an active role as Oedipus’ protector which leads to her own demise. Throughout the play, Jocasta attempts to protect Oedipus from believing in the prophecy and discovering his true identity. Begging for Oedipus to “give up [his search]” (Sophocles 1206), Jocasta grows deeply sorrowful as she has no one to blame but herself. She only wished to spare Oedipus the pain that the truth would bring him. At the end of day, Jocasta holds herself responsible for all the tragic events in Oedipus’ life and consumed with guilt, she commits suicide.

    Occasionally a woman will respond to this maltreatment by bold, virtuous or even valiant behavior as she tries to forge the best possible outcome for herself and/or her family or society. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Lysistrata organizes a sex strike with the participation of all the women in Athens and Sparta in hopes to stop the Peloponnesian War. She plans to use the stereotypes on women to her advantage where “total abstinence” will force their husbands “to negotiate Peace”. As the Commissioner cries out, Lysistrata remains in control of their conversation and demands that woman should be in charge over the city’s budget and offers to “save [the men] from [themselves]” (Aristophanes 840). The women are not as naïve as they initially appear, and their successes so far suggests that maybe the men need some feminine logic in their world of war and greed. The women declare that Greece is “a mass of tangles” (Aristophanes 571), and they’ll clean it and make it into a suitable city-state (Aristophanes 572). When the spartan herald comes to announce the disorder sown from the sex strike, the Commissioner finally orders a truce between the Spartans and the Athenians. Motivated by the naked body of Peace, a beautiful young woman who personifies peace, both parties agree to the terms of the peace treaty. Because of Lysistrata’s actions, the Peloponnesian war successfully ended.

    However, some women are clearly out to inflict pain on those who have tormented them, often with little regard to the cost. In Euripides’ play Medea, Medea is infuriated when her husband, Jason, abandons her, and murders her children as revenge. He no longer loves her and exiles her, forcing her to be a beggar for the rest of her life. Her grief is bigger and scarier than Medea herself. The nurse compares Medea’s anger to a flame. As Medea’s “rage will not let up” (Euripides 101), the nurse foreshadows that Medea’s plans for revenge will engulf everyone, innocent or guilty (Euripides 103). Medea then reveals her plot to kill the Princess with poison. Killing with poison ensures a slow death that mirrors Medea’s slow burning rage that hurts her and everyone around her. She is aware that her revenge on Jason will hurt people who are not necessarily guilty. By killing everyone except Jason, he can survive amidst devastation instead of enjoying the peace of death. In the beginning, Jason starts the play by breaking up the family and it ends with Medea destroying the family even more by murdering her innocent children despite her love for them. Because of her love for her children, Medea ends up hurting herself more than Jason.

    In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Clytemnestra seeks vengeance for her daughter, Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her husband to convince the goddess, Artemis, to allow Menelaus’ fleet to pass. Clytemnestra is different than most Greek woman; Her most important characteristic is her unusual masculine side. The chorus comments that “[Clytemnestra] speaks like a man… full of self-command” (Aeschylus 355). Clytemnestra’s strength is evident throughout the play. Breaking from the traditional submissive role as a loyal wife, she emphasizes that her “[time for killing Agamemnon] has come at last”. On her husband’s return, Clytemnestra hopes to coax Agamemnon to anger the gods by walking on the purple tapestries. After killing her husband and his concubine, she remains nonchalant about their deaths even after publicly stating her “love for her husband…long as the siege he laid at Troy” (Aeschylus 846). Clytemnestra then tries to persuade the Chorus and justify the murders by bringing up how “[Agamemnon’s] child, and [her] own child” (Aeschylus 1442) was murdered by his sword and how his infidelity “brutalized her” and soured her life (Aeschylus 1466). Acting as the God’s divine tool, Clytemnestra believes that the murders were a successful offering to the Furies. Because revenge always leads to more revenge, Clytemnestra’s belief can only be wrong.

    Women in Greek plays were complex characters that took on the role of either villain, victim or heroine. Despite the stereotypes given to women, Greek tragedies have proven otherwise. Instead of being portrayed as weak, frail beings, the women we’ve talked about are seen as strong-willed and independent.

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    Role of Women in Ancient Greece. (2021, Aug 25). Retrieved from

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