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the representation of women in the Greek tragedies

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Introduction

Discuss the representation of women in any of the tragedies (at least two) you have read so far. For example, (and these are just suggestions): what are the common features of these ancient portrayals of women? Are women portrayed as essentially “different” from men (physically, socially, mentally)? Do women have power, and where can/does it lie? Should one draw distinctions between mortal and immortal women, or living and dead women, or noble and slave women, or married and unmarried women? What (if anything) might these representations of women tell us about the society of men that produced them?

One of the great ironies of Greek tragedy is that it saturated with female characters when actual Athenian women were consigned to the private sphere of the home. The pervasive presence of women in the public domain leads one to question how far these tragedies draw upon female stereotypes in their representation of woman. While many of the plays in one form or another illustrates the female sex as emotionally unstable, motivated by sexual desire, driven by passion and by nature deceptive, one stereotypical trait that is not apparent is the powerless of women. Their ‘feminine wiles’ and their ability to produce legitimate male heirs appear to provide woman in these plays some sort of strength. While undoubtedly the works of the three great playwrights -Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus- are andocentric, their depiction of the ‘fairer sex’ cannot be easily pigeonholed.

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Middle

   Although initially, Medea’s manipulative qualities appear to engage in the stereotype that this was ‘typical’ of women, the audience cannot condemn her for using this strategy. Confronted with her predicament, Medea has nothing to depend on but what might be termed as traditional female wiles. It is this representation of Medea as an assertive woman who refuses to become yet another female victim in male dominated society that the audience relates and sympathizes with.

   Euripides’s, however, presents another side to Medea’s character with which the audience is undeniably uncomfortable and appalled with.  This representation Medea is derived form Greek mythology.  This Medea was not a common mortal woman; she was a powerful witch, a monster beyond the bonds of rationality. It is this side of Medea’s character that finds revenge more potent than her maternal instincts, a barbarian capable of the most horrendous of crimes. Yet, Euripides’s downplays Medea’s supernatural abilities until the very end when, along with her murdered children she in spirited away in a chariot sent by the Sun god. Euripides’s concealment of Medea’s magical abilities and her emphasis as an ordinary Athenian woman at the opening the play “manipulate[s] the audience into a false sense of both sympathy and empathy.”

The American feminist writer Camille Paglia has suggested that Euripides’s representation of Medea

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Conclusion

As illustrated above, women in Greek tragedies often played the role of the fetishized victim or the powerful “masculine” avenger. The Greek playwrights also endowed their female characters with many stereotypes usually linked to their gender. The vindictive, irrational, jealous woman is portrayed alongside the submissive placid female. However, Euripides’ occasionally diverts from this typecasting of women as he portrayed an independent and intelligent, and initially sympathetic, female figure. Yet, even the most complex and well-developed female character reinforces the Athenian stereotypes of women’s nature. While whether the male writers were actually misogynists will never be known, several of their plays contain a subtle misogynistic undercurrent. Conspicuously, the majority of Greek tragedies reflect the fear and suspicion held among the Athenian male population about woman. Moreover, female characters assisted in the male construct of identity as they often “serve as anti- models as well as hidden models for the masculine self” and to serve to reinforce the prominence of the ruling male class. However, the representations of woman in most plays do not gratuitously take part in simple ‘female bashing.” The Greek dramatists, most notably Euripides’, often treated woman with great insight and fairness.

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