The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28 Introduction



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2.1.2 Women and Theatre


Even though women were restricted from appearing in the society – which was applicable only to the higher classes who owned slaves, because women from lower classes had to go out to the markets or on various errands – they were allowed to the performances. Because “live theatre was not an elite art form but enormously popular” (Women 27) and it was “an extension of their world, not an escape from it” (Women 29), even children, slaves and foreigners were allowed to attend. But free men had to pay for entrance for their wives and slaves, who then had to sit in the back, and the capacity of the theatre was not sufficient for the whole Athenian population, so it was the social hierarchy that decided who would get to see the performance. Nevertheless, there were religious activities and festivals in which women played a central role – in rituals for Gaia, Hestia, Hera, Aphrodite, Athena and other female goddesses, women “celebrated their powers of sexuality and fertility” (Women 54). Very important was the worship of Demeter, because men were excluded from these purely female rituals just as women were excluded from various male activities. One exception to the range of female goddesses that were worshipped by women is Dionysos, a male god in whose worship women played an important part. To his worshipping belonged also the annual open-air Theatre of Dionysos (mentioned above as the Great Dionysia), where the plays of the best known authors Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed (among others whose names and works are lost). This particular festival is very important because it is not possible to prove with certainty that women were not banned from theatre performances in public arenas, but they were certainly allowed to this festival, due to the above mentioned importance of women in the cult of Dionysos. The proof for their presence at at least some of the performances can be found in comedies written at the time – there are comments on the bad influence of tragedies on women.7

2.1.3 Women and Tragedy


Even though women were marginalized in real life, on the stage they oftentimes took the central position. Yet because all the action in the classical plays occurs outside of the house, the female characters transgress the Athenian gender protocol, which says that upper-class women should not appear in a public discussion.8 Michael Shaw in “The Female Intruder: Women in Fifth-Century Drama” comments on this transgression – the coming outside always “implies that something is wrong inside the house which is driving her outside” (256). The woman has to feel betrayed by the society or by the men who should protect her and thus needs to get out of the oikos and get the retribution she seeks. Euripides’ Medea says: “Women of Corinth, I have come out of the house to forestall criticism. [...] This unexpected blow has crashed down on my head, destroyed my spirit. [...] I’ve lost my joy in life. [...] For he on whom my all depended, my own husband, turned [...] the evilest of men” (Medea 214-229). This declamation is a beginning of Medea’s monologue, in which she criticizes men and the society for downplaying dangers that threaten women at home. She ends this monologue with a threat: “Elsewhere womankind is full of fear, a coward both in self-defence and at the sight of steel; but when she meets injustice in the marriage-bed, no mind exists that is more bloodthirsty” (Medea 263-6). She summarizes the whole situation – while women tend to be weak and do not fight for their rights, when they are betrayed by their husbands, who are their only connection with the public world, they have to leave their place in seclusion and become active – in Medea’s case with no mercy. This entering the outer space and acting for themselves makes women masculine and in many cases turn the men feminine. Michael Shaw in his essay describes how this transition happens: “(1) a man, acting as pure male, does something which threatens the pure female; (2) the pure female comes out of the oikos and opposes the male; (3) there is an impasse; (4) the female, taking some male attributes, acts; (5) a previously invisible feminine aspect of the male is destroyed; (6) there is a new formation, with male and female no longer pure” (Shaw 265-6). He claims that a similar pattern appears in other Attic literary works, e.g. Oresteia by Aeschylus, Antigone, Trachiniai and Ajax by Sophocles, and Alcestis and Medea (on which he described this pattern) by Euripides. He offers a theory why this pattern exists – “in each of these plays, the male represents certain qualities, and the female counters, protecting certain qualities” (Shaw 266). These qualities are for example love, hatred or profit. According to Shaw’s theory members of the society should be fully human, but as the society evolves, certain qualities disappear – “a man is taught to keep a hard eye on his interests and to be wary of appeals to his emotions” (Shaw 266). The artist then has to restore the balance “to insure that the necessities of power do not make its holders mere creatures of power” (Shaw 266). And to this purpose he uses women, who live secluded in the oikos and different qualities are important for them. By showing the opposition between these qualities and those selected by the political life he finds the harmony. Shaw then uses an interesting example – the Funeral Oration of Pericles – which contains this balance of qualities and that is why there are no women mentioned in it – “the true Greek ideal, harmony of male and female, is achieved. There is no need for the woman to intrude into this society, because it has not betrayed her” (Shaw 266). According to this theory, female characters are only a sort of a tool to remind men of the qualities of love, care and mercy which are missing in their everyday lives in polis.

Other theories described in Women On The Edge include Aristotelian argument that the significance of women and family appears in mythology, because the legendary stories are about a few aristocratic families; the tragedies happens among close family members, so the importance of women is based on the position of women from the heroic times and their depiction in the myths rather than on the fact that they were important in real life. Or, another theory claims that tragedies offer warnings what would happen, if women were not suppressed by men. In that case Greek drama “contains no information about the experience of real women” (Women 61) and the plays and their performances were a part of “the project of suppressing real women and replacing them with masks of patriarchal production” (Women 61). Another approach focuses on the complexities of representation of the gender division – even though the gender roles are sharply distinguished in theory, in real life and in tragedies the boundaries are not that sharp – and suggests that the tragedy has tensions between various binary oppositions built in in order to provide “an ideal environment for exploring these same tensions within contemporary Athenian society and ideology” (Women 61). This theory seems to be in accordance with Euripides being described as a social critic – even in Ancient times the criticisms by Aristophanes and Aristotle show that Euripides wrote differently from his contemporaries.




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