Though the realities of life meant that lower class women might work – and slaves certainly would – wealthier Greek women were expected to stay in domestic isolation, limited to childbearing, weaving and managing the household. They had no choice in marriage, becoming an object of exchange between the father and bridegroom, and had little control over property. Greek houses had an andron or men’s room, equipped with a door to the street so that no woman need pass through; here men would recline on seats to sing, drink and talk politics, as recreated in Plato’s Symposium. But the only women permitted in these discourses were servants, entertainers or hetairai (prostitutes).
Women were the targets of various hostile ideas: they were high-pitched, polluting creatures, inferior imitations of men. It was a woman, Pandora, who in Greek mythology was responsible for opening a jar and releasing evil into the world . Aristotle held many sexist views, arguing for example that the female character was “a sort of natural deficiency”. The historian Xenophon wrote that women should “see and hear as little as possible, and ask the fewest possible questions”.
There is always a difference between the world of such statements and life as it was actually lived, but we would not expect female characters and deeds to be celebrated in such an atmosphere. It is typical of the wonderful contradictoriness of real life that in spite of all this misogyny, classical Greek theatre provides us with arguably the world’s first ‘feminist’ plays. Here we shall pick out three outstanding texts: Antigone, Lysistrata and Medea.
Sophocles’ drama Antigone, written around 441 BCE, is one of his three ‘Theban plays’ that chronicle the dark fortunes of the house of Oedipus, king of Thebes. After Oedipus’ death, there is a struggle over the kingship between his two sons Eteocles and Polyneices. The army of Polyneices marches on Thebes and is defeated, but both brothers are killed in the battle. The new ruler, Creon, decrees that whereas Eteocles will be buried with full honours for defending the city, the rebel Polyneices must be denied holy rites and left to rot in the field.
Shortly afterwards, a sentry runs in, reporting that someone has disobeyed and performed a burial. The guards exhume the body and watch from a distance in the hope that the culprit will return. Their trap succeeds and they arrest the rebel trying to rebury the body. She is Antigone, sister of Polyneices and Eteocles, and niece of Creon.
Athenian vase painting by the Dolon Painter, ca. 380-370 BCE.
Antigone raises several key questions around the relationship between human beings and the gods and the nature of kingship. However, one of the play’s most interesting features for a modern audience is its embryonic feminism. Antigone takes centre stage, showing us that not all the rebels in her family are men.
In the opening scene of the play, Antigone tries to win her sister Ismene’s help in burying their brother. Ismene refuses, taking the traditional, perhaps stereotypical, female role:
Now we two [are] left; and what will be the end of us,When Antigone is brought before Creon, she does not deny what she has done, even though the admission means a death sentence, and she shows no fear of Creon, the dominant male of the drama. Instead she directly challenges him for putting his own human law before that of the gods.
If we transgress the law and defy our king?
O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us
To fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we
And we must obey in this, or in worse than this.
May the dead forgive me, I can do no other
But as I am commanded; to do more is madness.
CREON: Did you know the order forbidding such an act?Religion offered women one of their few public roles. Priestesses managed funding of temples, held the keys to temple wealth, and helped society to function through the performance of ritual. It is probably no coincidence therefore that it is a woman who performs the ritual burial and shows the greatest concern for religious correctness.
ANTIGONE: I knew it, naturally. It was plain enough.
CREON: And yet you dared to contravene it?
That order did not come from God. Justice,
That dwells with the gods below, knows no such law.
I did not think your edicts strong enough
To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws
Of God and heaven, you being only a man.
Creon is unbending and orders Antigone to be shut into a cave to slowly die. The reason for this harshness partly lies in his anger at Polyneices’ attack and in his belief in the importance of strong kingship. But it is also explicitly because Antigone’s rebellion threatens the sexual hierarchy of ancient Greece, in which women’s proper place is to be kept indoors – “we’ll have no woman’s law here, while I live.” As he later explains to his son Haemon:
...I hold to the law,When the blind prophet Teiresias warns Creon that the gods are angry at his treatment of Polyneices’ corpse, the king is shaken. He orders the body to be buried and tries to release Antigone, but it is too late – she has already taken her own life in despair. Haemon, who was Antigone’s betrothed, has done the same; and when she hears of her son’s death, Creon’s wife Eurydice adds her own suicide to the bodycount.
And will never betray it – least of all for a woman.
Better be beaten, if need be, by a man
Than let a woman get the better of us.
In the debate over the correct treatment of a dead rebel, both Antigone and Creon have valid arguments, but Sophocles chooses to vindicate Antigone, who is brave enough to defy the king to do what she thinks is right. She loses her life, but it is Creon who is punished by the gods. If Creon represents human law, Antigone represents divine law, which is infinitely greater.
Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata concerns an extraordinary plan to put an end to the Peloponnesian War. When the play was written in 411 BCE, the Athenian empire and an alliance led by Sparta had for twenty years shed one another’s blood, destroyed cities, and devastated the countryside. The war eventually exhausted Athens and brought the ‘golden age’ of Classical Greece to an end.
An Athenian named Lysistrata (‘Liquidator of Armies’) calls a meeting of women from across Greece – from Thebes, Corinth, even the arch-enemy Sparta – and persuades them to refuse sex until the men agree to stop fighting. Their abstinence is all the more heroic when we consider that the Greeks thought women were the more lascivious of the sexes. The women seize the Acropolis, where the treasury is kept, and bar the doors to stop the men taking it back. When elders, magistrate and constables turn up, the women respond with bad language and violence, ranging from hurling water to pitched fisticuffs.
Lysistrata explains to the magistrate that women know everything that is going on, but when they complain about the men’s mistakes they are told to keep quiet by their husbands. “Quite right too,” says the magistrate.
LYSISTRATA: Right? That we should not be allowed to make the least little suggestion to you, no matter how much you mismanage your affairs? But now every time two men meet in the street, what do they say? ‘Isn’t there a man in the country?’ And the answer comes, ‘Not one.’ That’s why we women got together and decided to unite and save Greece… So let’s make a deal. You listen to us – and it’ll be good advice we give – listen to us and keep quiet, like you made us do, and we’ll set you to rights.Women, too, argues Lysistrata, have made sacrifices in the war, watching their sons and husbands leave to fight. Their demand that the men come home so both sexes can live in peace is both legitimate and reasonable.
Eventually the sex strike takes its effect and the increasingly frustrated men meet with the women to negotiate. Lysistrata introduces a female companion, Reconciliation, and lectures the delegates on the common culture and interests of the warring Greek sides, and how they have come to each other’s aid in the past. Beguiled by Reconciliation, the delegates come to terms, and when the women agree to resume sexual activity the play closes with garlands and dancing. The women have succeeded in forcing peace.
In ancient Greece women played very little political role. The one example of a female ‘tall poppy’, Pericles’ partner Aspasia, appears to have been intelligent, witty and cultured, exercising political influence at the highest level in Athens – and she attracted loathing, political attacks and gossip. Plutarch wrote:
Aspasia, as some say, was held in high favour by Pericles because of her rare political wisdom. Socrates sometimes came to see her with his disciples, and his intimate friends brought their wives to her to hear her discourse.By contrast, he goes on to claim she ran a brothel – it’s impossible to know if this is true, or mere slander. Aristophanes himself, in The Acharnians, accuses Aspasia of being responsible for the Peloponnesian War, much as another woman, Helen of Troy, was often blamed for the Trojan War. Yet the loud, brash women who take the destiny of their nations in their hands in Lysistrata would be remarkable characters in any literature.
Critics may point out that the female characters are simply using their sexuality to gain their ends, that Aristophanes views the empowerment of women as comical, or that he exploits female stereotypes. The women’s goal is a return to the pre-war way of life, not a sexual revolution. But the play remains highly subversive. Lysistrata explicitly argues for greater respect for women’s opinions and abilities. When we watch her outshining the Magistrate in argument, or watch the women outfighting the men, Aristophanes is allowing, whatever his other intentions, that women can act on an equal basis with men.
Euripides’ tragedy Medea, written in about 431 BCE, tells how a woman takes terrible revenge on her husband when he betrays her for another woman.
The hero Jason (of Argonauts fame) married Medea after she helped him win the Golden Fleece, and they fled together to Corinth after bringing about the death of King Pelias of Iolcus. But Jason, to make an alliance and guarantee the future of his two sons, marries Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth. Medea – “a frightening woman” as her slave nurse warns us – is devastated: weeping, refusing to eat, and barely able to look at her sons. After the initial paroxysm of grief she becames cooler and plots her revenge.
Cruel, dangerous and fierce-willed, Medea could easily be a one-dimensional harridan.Yet despite the crimes she is about to commit, Euripedes allows her considerable sympathy, as when she laments the situation of women:
Surely, of all creatures that have life and will, we womenHer difficulties are aggravated by her foreign birth – Medea is from Colchis on the Black Sea, in modern-day Georgia.
Are the most wretched. When, for an extravagant sum,
We have bought a husband, we must then accept him as
Possessor of our body. This is to aggravate
Wrong with worse wrong. Then the great question: will the man
We get be bad or good? For women, divorce is not
Respectable; to repel the man, not possible.
She goes on:
...If a man grows tiredThe king of Corinth comes to Medea to order her into immediate exile, fearful of her reputation and what she might do. Medea persuades him to allow her one more day so she can make arrangements for her sons, a concession that will prove fatal for the king. When Jason pleads his case with her, Medea shows none of the submission we might expect from a traditional Greek wife. She calls him a ‘filthy coward’ who has abandoned her sexually and remarried behind her back, reminding him of the lengths she went to so he might win the Golden Fleece – including murdering her brother to delay pursuers, and convincing Pelias’ daughters to boil their father alive.
Of the company at home, he can go out, and find
A cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look
To one man only. And, they tell us, we at home
Live free from danger, they go out to battle: fools!
I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear
Medea begins her revenge by securing asylum from the unsuspecting Aegeus of Athens. Then, feigning contrition, she makes a gift to Glauce of a dress and coronet treated with poison. Her most dreadful plan however is to break Jason’s heart by murdering their two children.
Medea killing her son. Vase by Ixion Painter, ca. 330 BCE.
Medea is not entirely cold-hearted, and understands perfectly what she is about to do. As Jason talks about what his sons will be like when they are fully-grown, she breaks down and weeps, and in a moment of doubt it seems that perhaps she won’t be able to go through with it. But once Glauce and her father have died in agony from poison – described for us in ghastly detail by an eye-witness – there is no turning back, as the boys would be hunted down anyway by the vengeful Corinthians.
Medea is guilty of one of the most unacceptable crimes: a mother killing her own children. Yet she is also an incredibly willful woman with a sense of honour as strong as any Greek hero. “Yes, I can endure guilt, however horrible; / The laughter of my enemies I will not endure.” And in a remarkable conclusion, her actions go unpunished. As Jason bursts in seeking his children, Medea is lifted aloft by a chariot drawn by dragons, sent by her grandfather, the sun god Helios. She has won her revenge against Jason by slaying his new bride and his children, and instead of being struck down for daring to stand up to her husband and perverting the norms of womanhood, she is carried off to sanctuary in Athens. The gods – themselves fickle and vengeful beings – actually appear to vindicate her behaviour.
The Chorus of women of Corinth sum up Medea’s impact thus:
Legend will now reverse our reputation;This challenging subject matter may explain why Euripedes came third out of three in the tragedy competition of 431 BCE. If the Athenian judges didn’t like the play, posterity has a different view. Of course, we may interpret Medea as a hysterical female, a warning of what women are capable of if not held in check. But Euripedes’ work is more complex than this. Medea is always articulate and human, and she cannot be explained away by casual sexism or xenophobia. In the male-dominated world of ancient Greece, Euripedes has created a woman whose sex drive is more powerful than her maternal instincts, and done so triumphantly.
A time comes when the female sex is honoured;
That old discordant slander
Shall no more hold us subject.
Male poets of past ages, with their ballads
Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion...
We’d counter with our epics against man.
Even the female parts in Greek theatre were played by males, and it is uncertain whether they were even allowed to attend performances. Given the origins of theatre in ritual, a thoroughly female social activity, it would be strange if women were forbidden to attend. But even if they did, the target audience was generally assumed to be male. There is no evidence that women played any part in the writing, production or judging of plays.
It is unlikely therefore that any of these three plays was intended as a ‘feminist’ text. Antigone, Lysistrata and Medea were all written by aristocratic men, many centuries before a coherent body of feminist theory began to be assembled.
Yet there are always contradictions between cultural conventions – such as ‘women are born inferior to men’ – and the richness of actual lived experience. This creates opportunities for artists to develop an awareness that goes beyond stereotypes, and write characters or discourses that run against the societal norm even without intending it. We can stage convincingly feminist interpretations of these plays today because the opportunities are in the texts themselves; strong female characters shine through despite the misogyny of the culture. The best Classical Greek writers were engaging dynamically with one of the first truly literate societies, and infused their work with the stuff of real life – including in the relations of men and women.
 Unwittingly, it must be said.
 Quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone are from E.F. Watling’s translation in Penguin Classics.
 Quotes from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata are from Alan Sommerstein’s translation in Penguin Classics.
 Plutarch, Lives, ‘Pericles’ v24.
 The ‘extravagant sum’ refers to a dowry. Quotes from Euripedes’ Medea are from Phillip Vellacott’s translation in Penguin Classics.