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


Ancient Greek and Roman Influences



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2. Ancient Greek and Roman Influences


The influences of Ancient Greek and Roman writers are important because the whole idea of the Renaissance is the rebirth of the Classical era – the rebirth of its art, its literature, its philosophy centred on ethics, its interest in the human. Only four authors were chosen to represent this great era – Euripides, Virgil, Ovid and Seneca – because they created female characters that outlived their times and were reborn in the Early Modern period in the plays of Italian and English writers.

2.1 Ancient Greece


The Ancient Greek drama from the fifth century BCE is the original drama – this fact is assumed mainly because “there is no evidence for the existence of, e.g., Chinese, Indian, or Japanese drama as early as the fifth century BC.; and Egyptian ritual did not develop into drama proper” (Miller 126). N.P. Miller in his “The Origins of Greek Drama: A Summary of the Evidence and a Comparison with Early English Drama” claims that the Ancient Greek drama has many origins and that it can be compared to the English Renaissance drama in its development: “However much an artist is influenced (as he must be) by the conventions and inheritance of his own age, we should remember that the inheritance will include conscious intelligence and individual genius, as well as primitive ritual and superstition” (Miller 126). The origins are, among others, religious rituals and processions and vulgar native farces, “perhaps including mythological burlesque” (Miller 128). Tragedy as a genre was “a part of a religious festival; its chorus was of much greater antiquity than its actors, and, to begin with, had the finer and more important part” (Miller 135) and the “subject-matter tended generally to be drawn from the heroic legends for the simple reason that there almost alone, for the moment, could the poet find inspiration for his dramatic thinking” (Miller 136). The comedy then evolved from satyr-plays under the influence of the quickly developing genre of tragedy. Then the “material, the context, and the genius came together” and in “486 BC the first comedy was produced at the Great Dionysia” (Miller 136), a dramatic festival which was previously focused only on tragedy, and the great period of Ancient Greek drama could begin.

Ancient Greece is a period that brought to the literary history many important writers and theorists, but not all of them were sufficiently challenging for the cause of development of female characters. However, among those playwrights whose plays survived at least through the Middle Ages, there was one important author, who was even by his contemporaries described as a sort of social critic – Euripides. He belongs together with Aeschylus and Sophocles among the greatest dramatists of the 5th century BCE.



2.1.1. Women and their Social Position


To understand Euripides’ criticisms on behalf of the social situation of Athenian women of his era – and thus to understand also his creation of female characters and their influence on future plays – it is important to outline the women’s situation and hint several problems that occur in Euripides’ plays. In the heroic societies of the world of Homer women had greater freedom – they were subordinated to men, but they were in charge of their own work and were oftentimes consulted in important matters.1 But in the 5th century BCE the situation became different. The type of government switched from monarchy to democracy and so did the power switched from women to men. In former monarchy the ruling body was a family and women were important members of the royal or other aristocratic families. Their position in the society was given by the position of the family, but they were not restricted to the oikos, yet. When the monarchy gave its way to democracy, it brought many changes for women. Marilyn Katz in her “Ideology and ʻThe Status of Womenʼ in Ancient Greece”2 quotes Karl Julius Beloch’s theory from Griechische Geschichte that the Ionians (Athenians belonged to them) were influenced by their neighbours in Asia Minor – they excluded women from the public sphere, the polis, and confined them to the private sphere, the oikos. Beloch claims that among non-Ionian Greeks this practice was not customary. By the fifth century the seclusion of women resulted in the popularity of hetairas – female companions (Katz 73). These women were courtesans – they were educated and men in their presence looked not only for sexual pleasure but also for “intellectual stimulation which they had sought at home in vain” (Katz 73). This social paradox is similar, or rather the same, as in the Early Modern Europe – women are not allowed to be educated – and one of the reasons is their incapability of learning and lesser intelligence3 – yet there exist courtesans, who are not only educated women, but are also sought after by men, who are unsatisfied by the simplicity of their wives. It is only their marginal position in the society – being prostitutes – that makes the patriarchal societies of both eras acquiesce their education and accomplishments.

This paradox is connected to the ideology of gender that was in use in (or since) the Classical Greece. According to this ideology different behaviours and characteristics were attributed to men and women. A part of this ideology was the Pythagorean “table of opposites” into which the philosophers divided the universe.4 The female is associated with “the many, unlimited, left, dark, bad; the male is associated with the one, limit, right, light, good” (Women 50). While masculinity and femininity are binary opposites, they define each other and “cannot be understood apart from each other” (Women 50). If a man could not act according to his gender, he was laughed at as feminine. If a woman did not act according to her gender, she committed a violation of the rule by behaving as a male. In the 5th century BCE starts the tradition of degrading weak men as feminine and describing active women as a violation of nature, which was still very much in use in the Early Modern Europe. Back in the Classical Greece fulfilling one’s gender role meant basically being heroic in the battlefield, capable in polis, helping friends and harming enemies for a man; and managing the household and being obedient to her husband for a woman. The drama played an important part in problematizing the female-male dichotomy – because in Greek, Roman and Early English drama female roles were played by male actors, it pointed out that gender is performative rather bound to the sexes – if a man can behave as a woman with all gender-attributed details, it means that this performance of a gender role is not given genetically and that women could as well perform the male gender roles. This aspect of the all-male dramatic performance was probably a problem as big as the assumed homosexual influence it had on its audience.

There was a particular difference in the gender role of a 5th century Greek woman from that of a woman from the Early Modern times – a woman could achieve kleos (fame or glory) only when she “is least talked about among men, either with blame or praise” (Women 51). Because of this rule there is not much known about the life of Greek women who lived according to their gender role – if they were not seen or even talked about, it is like they never existed. Euripides’ female characters often transgress this rule and become if not famous, than at least infamous (Medea). So far it seems that in the position of women in the patriarchal society only a little was changed by the Early Modern era (apart from the above mentioned rule of not being spoken about, which was not in use anymore, but influenced the history of women to a great extent because without being deprived of a voice there would be no reason in trying to gain one), but there was another change – in the Classical Greece the virtue that was demanded of women was sōphrosunē, which meant a whole range of virtues: “self-control, self-knowledge, deference, moderation, resistance to appetite, and chastity” (Women 52). Yet at the beginning of the Early Modern times women supporters had to prove in their literary proclamations that women are even capable of these virtues.5 Since the beginning of patriarchy, women’s sexual appetites represented the biggest fear of their husbands, because the wives were in charge of bearing heirs to the husbands’ estates – and the shift from “demanding” self-knowledge and moderation to “not being sure if women are capable of” resisting their appetites shows that two thousand years of historical events, new discoveries, new religions and philosophies did not make it any easier for women.

The characterization of feminine as bad, incapable and passion-driven, and masculine as good, reasonable and self-controlled brought many distinctions in moral standards for both women and men. One of these distinctions is the attitude towards infidelity – women have to moderate themselves and be chaste, while men can seek various kinds of pleasures with the hetairas. This double standard is commented on in several Euripides’ plays, the criticism is oftentimes proclaimed by a female character outraged by this double morality.6 Nevertheless, he never produces a correction of this attitude and behaviour towards women, as it will be commented on later in this chapter.




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