Women Representation Essay

Mar 20, 2009 Filed under:Samples — admin @ 4:03 am

Women Representation in Ancient Greek Theatre

     This paper encompasses an examination of ancient Greek theatre.  More specifically it entails a perusal of how women are represented in these ancient works.  The ancestry of ancient Greek theater is positioned in the religious group of Dionysus who was the god of wine and fertility.  In addition, this distinguished supernatural being was one of the Olympian divine beings and   treated as privileged in the Greek world.  This can be seen myth. ionysus' followers were satyrs, drunken half-animal, half-human creatures, and maenads, or "mad women" (http://www.historyforkids.org,  2007)

     The plays and works of Homer, Plato and Aristotle are just a few of the great times.  As Lesky (1966) explained “Ancient Greek literature refers to literature written in the Greek language until the fourth century C.E. This period of Greek literature stretches from Homer until the fourth century C.E. and the rise of Alexander the Great. Ancient Greek literature together with the Hebrew Bible provides the foundation for all of Western literature”.

     In the pre-classical period one can see distinct evidence for the freedom and respect given to women – in certain social classes at least, both Homer and Hasid giving a clear and realistic picture of the influence and status of a wife and her position in the family. In addition early lyric poetry, in the seventh and sixth centuries, was both aristocratic, the product of well-born men and women, and much of it romantic. Alkalis, Sapphic and Aaron wrote of a world of youth and beauty, in which the pursuit of love was refined and all-pervasive, and their emphasis particularly highlights the aristocratic taste for homosexuality and lesbianism, possibly a contributory factor towards Solon's legislation against such practices. The bourgeois poetry of the time, in contrast, has a markedly different view of women and love, resoundingly condemning women in all their functions. Of particular note here, are the vitriolic diatribes of Simonies of Amigos, a writer of the second half of the seventh century and a middle-class traditionalist who maligns woman's sensuality and laziness as part of his polemic against aristocratic luxury. He lists ten different types of women all compared with animals such as the sow and ferret, and of whom only one, who was made from the bee, is respectable (Booklet 3, Topic 2, document 7), thus highlighting the gloomier view of marriage. At every point in Greek history we naturally have to consider the differences inherent in the various social classes. It is of course understandable that aristocratic women had a better life-style and more freedom that their lower-class counterparts (in the classical period Liplike, sister of Kimono, is perhaps a case in point). Women of the lower classes would have had to work hard at domestic duties to keep the family solvent – but this does not of course mean that they are more inferior in relation to their husbands than their higher born contemporaries: in fact often in such classes, because of the nature of their commitment to the family and contribution to its economy, they achieve greatest equality, despite the disadvantageous conditions (in our terms) of their lifestyle (Easterling 1965).

            It is generally agreed that, politically and legally, the condition of the women in classical Athens, if not in Greece as a whole, was inferior both to that of the man and to that of women in our own day. Nevertheless, the subject of the position of Athenian women within family and society is one which has given rise to major controversy among modern scholars. For example, according to Gomez and Kato, women in Athens held a position of great esteem: Lacey and Ehrenberg, however, emphasise the duties and living conditions which were the lot of Athenian ANCH 304 Society and the Individual in wives, as well as their complete lack of access to education, culture and politics. This difference of opinion is due not to the prejudices of the scholars, but to selective use of the evidence, which itself is often inconclusive in its nature. For example, if one takes classical tragedy, and particularly the works of Aeschylus and Sophokles, with their heroines such as Antigone, Elektra, and Clytemnestra, as being directly modeled on the women of fifth century Athens, then clearly such women can hardly have been secluded or markedly socially inferior to their men folk. It can be argued, however, that these awesome protagonists are pre-classical mythological figures, presented in the context of traditional and well-known tales, and thus not relevant to the society of contemporary Athens. It should also be remembered that the work of Euripides, the latest of the tragedians, is more realistic, and that his heroines – Media, Alkestis and even Elektra – have more social forces ranged against them, and less independence in their actions and status, which may well reflect contemporary attitudes and reality. Similarly, the orators, of course, in their speeches relating to actual legal cases, deal in great measure with marital disharmony – divorce, adultery and unhappy marriages, as well as property disputes – and accordingly paint a gloomy picture.  (Beye 1967)

          Examples include (1) Homer, Iliad VI. 490-3.

Go home now, and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and see that the maidservants get on with theirs. War is men’s business.

(Hector to Andromache)

(2) Homer, Odyssey I. 356-9.

But let thy heart and mind endure to listen, for not Odysseus only lost in Troy the day of his returning, but many another likewise perished. Howbeit go to thy chamber and mind thine own housewiferies, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their tasks. But speech shall be for men, for all, but for me in chief; for mine is the lordship in the house.

(Telemachus to his mother Penelope; see also See also Odyssey XXI. 350-3)

(3) Homer, Odyssey VI. 180 ff.

‘And may the gods grant thee all thy heart’s desire: a husband and a home, and a mind at one with his may they give — a good gift, for there is nothing mightier and nobler than when man and wife are of one heart and mind in a house, a grief to their foes, and to their friends great joy, but their own hearts know it best.’

(Odysseus speaking to Nausicaa)

(4) Hesiod, Works and Days 53-105.

But afterwards Zeus who gathers the clouds said to him anger: ‘Son of Iapetus (Prometheus), surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire — a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.’

            So said the father of men and gods, and laughed aloud. And he bade famous Hephaestus make haste amd mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of humand kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face; and Athene to teach her needlework and the weaving of the varied web; and golden Aphrodite to shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. And he charged Hermes the guide, the Slayer of Argus, to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature.

So he ordered. And they obeyed the lord Zeus the son of Cronos. Forthwith the famous Lame God moulded clay in the likeness of a modest maid, as the son of Cronos purposed. And the goddess bright-eyed Athene girded and clothed her, and the divine Graces and queenlyPersuasion put necklaces of gold upon her, and the rich-haired Hours crowned her head with spring flowers. And Pallas Athene bedecked her form with all manner of finery. Also the Guide, the Slayer of Argus, contrived within her lies and crafty words and a deceitful nature at the will of loud thundering Zeus, and the Herald of the gods put speech in her. And he called this woman Pandora (The All-endowed), because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread.

But when he had finished the sheer, hopeless snare, the Father sent glorious Argus-Slayer, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood.

For ere these tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sicknesses which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar (The casket contained the gifts of the gods) with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them. So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus.

(5) Hesiod, Works and Days 695-705.

            Bring home a wife to your house when you are of the right age, while you are not far short of thirty years nor much above; this is the right age for marriage. Let your wife have been grown up four years, and marry her in the fifth. Marry a maiden, so that you can teach her careful ways, and especially marry one who lives near you, but look well about you and see that your marriage will not be a joke to your neighbours. For a man wins nothing better than a good wife, and again, nothing worse than a bad one, a greedy soul who roasts her man and less independence in their actions and status, which may well reflect contemporary attitudes and reality. Similarly, the orators, of course, in their speeches relating to actual legal cases, deal in great measure with marital disharmony – divorce, adultery and unhappy marriages, as well as property disputes – and accordingly paint a gloomy picture of the wife's position and family life in general. The modern reader has to be careful to bear in mind that any random selection of quotations from literature of our own time would prove equally contradictory regarding such issues, and that we must therefore rely on objectivity and careful evaluation of the evidence in our deductions about family life in classical Athens from the evidence available. A valuable source in this regard is Aristophanes, who in his Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae and Ecclesiazusae is writing in great detail about women and their activities for the amusement of audiences of contemporary Athenian husbands. To take his humour literally would be greatly to misinterpret his point of attack: his jokes cannot be taken as fully representing Athenian men's views of their wives, with their emphasis on women's propensity to drink and sexual misdemeanour. Rather it shows that the Athenians were prepared, in comic productions, not only poke fun at their wives and jokingly to attribute influence and political power to their womenfolk, but also to present on stage characters such as Lysistrata and Praxagora, whose views on society and politics are meant to be taken with extreme seriousness by both actors and audience alike.

Philosophy and Physiology

Aristophanes' jokes against women and their frailties as a sex in general need not be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, the law dealt severely with sexual misconduct on the part of women, this standard of morals imposed in law being also reinforced by the fact that the Greeks believed that women, as opposed to men, were driven by sexual needs that they could not control, thus resulting in a tendency to promiscuity which necessitated the close guardianship of wives and daughters. Plato, in the Timaeus (Booklet 3, Topic 2, document 14), gives us the theory of the 'wandering womb', which considers that women were driven by a physiological need for children, while both great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, believed (Booklet 3 – Notes and Resources 9) that women were inferior to men (though their beliefs may not necessarily reflect the views of their contemporaries). Although in the Republic Plato advocates education for women and freedom from housework for the 'guardian class' of women, in the Timaeus men who behave badly in this present life receive several warnings that they may be born again as women, on their way to reincarnation 'in more bestial form' as an animal (Booklet 3, Topic 2, documents 12 & 13). Aristotle also heavily stressed the fact that the spheres of activity of men and women were different, as of course was true, and that a man's life takes place mostly outside the house and a woman's within: as a result, they have different functions and virtues (Booklet 3, Topic 2, document 19). Nevertheless, Aristotle is clearly a misogynist, though he does make a distinction between female and slave, believing that it is both proper and natural for men to rule women and that, since they are in fact unequal, there can be no true friendship between a man and his wife: the wife has to love her husband much more than he loves her, for 'affection must be related to what is deserved' (Booklet 3, Topic 2, documents 18, 20-23). Aristotle theorises too that Nature is trying to reach a goal in everything she creates, but that in some circumstances she falls short of this goal, as she did in creating woman, who is a 'mutant or deformity' (Booklet 3, Topic 2, document 8). We need not of course assume that this view was shared by the ordinary man-in-the-street, nor that he agreed with the belief that woman should be denied her creative role as mother. Aristotle suggested that it is the father who creates the child, the mother being simply a host for the embryo: this view is also stated by Plato, but its appearance in the Eumenides of Aeschylus (Booklet 3, Topic 2, document 8) should, perhaps, be taken not as evidence for the general acceptance of this belief, but the opposite, as it is put forward by Apollo, whose case is intended to appear weak and implausible.

Conventions Concerning Attitudes to Women in Classical Athens

The most famous quotation concerning Athenian women is that of Perikles in his funeral speech in 431/0, at least as reported by Thucydides, whose speech unequivocally praises the Athenian way of life at a time when war threatened this lifestyle. In one brief sentence of advice he tells the women now widowed, 'It is high credit in a woman not to fall below her natural character, and to have least said of her among men either in praise or in blame' (Thucy. II. 45). This typical Athenian generalisation in praise of the great virtue of 'moderation' is not meant to be disparaging – the social and monetary status implicit in the ability to seclude one's womenfolk made such seclusion a social ideal, especially amongst the middle classes. Athenian literature is full of gnomic utterances such as 'silence is a woman's glory' (Sophokles, Ajax 292) and each remark has to be taken in context Their frequent utterance could imply not that Athenian women were continuously down-trodden, but, to the contrary, that they were often in need of


Beye, Charles Rowan. 1987. Ancient Greek Literature and Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801418747.

Easterling, P.E., and B.M.W. Knox (eds.). 1985. The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Greek literature: Volume 1. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521210429.

Flaceli?re, Robert. 1964. A Literary History of Greece. Translated by Douglas Garman. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co. OCLC 308150.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn. 2007. A Guide to Hellenistic Literature. Blackwell. ISBN 0631233229.

Hadas, Moses. 1950. A History of Greek Literature. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. OCLC 307596.

Lesky, Albin. 1966. A History of Greek Literature. Translated by James Willis and Cornelis de Heer. New York: Crowell. OCLC 308152.

Schmidt, Michael. 2004. The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-64394-0.

Trypanis, C.A. 1981. Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226813165.

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2004. Ancient Greek Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 0745627927.

Order Now