Promiscuity, Deception, and Lamentation: The Advancement of Women’s Rights and Democracy in Ancient Greek Tragedies

By Ashtin Ballard

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Image Credit: Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, "Murder of Agamemnon," 1816. Public Domain

For most of ancient Greek history, women were silenced: a woman's supposed inferiority doomed her to a fate inside her home, subject to ridicule and adultery, never realizing the promise of full citizenry, or, for that matter, true humanity. Marginalization was not the only misfortune of ancient Grecian women. Indeed, vilification of women in Greek society was just as prevalent and harmful, and women were nearly always associated with promiscuity, weakness and deception; therefore, women were not seen as equal, rational beings and were unable to participate in politics. Obviously, such treatment of half of the population is not conducive to a functional democracy. This dilemma was addressed by several of the tragedians, particularly Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Although some may argue that these men warn against extending rights to women through the creation of such complex, aggressive women characters, in fact it is their characterization of women as powerful, however that is presented, that refutes this idea. These authors argue through the creation of strong, assertive and clever female characters that women have great potential, and the horrific sadness that is brought about as a result of these characters' actions suggest that disempowering half of the population is disastrous for a society; therefore, they address the need for the advancement of women's rights in order to create a civilized democracy.

Grecian women were particularly hurt by harmful stereotypes. It is through the knowledge and employment of these familiar but inaccurate stereotypes, however, that authors such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides actually advanced the image and cause of women in society. Through careful adherence to their appropriate sphere of speech, characters like Aeschylus' Clytemnestra, Sophocles' Antigone and Euripides' Medea are able to illustrate the social harm of disempowering women and turn stereotypes on their head to create strong, lasting impressions, for these stories were certainly shocking at the time they were written and continue to be studied and debated today. The powerful rhetoric of these three women generally falls into three categories women would have been expected to exhibit at the time, namely, deception, lamentation, and promiscuity. The harmful actions of these characters and deeply unsavory consequences illustrate the harm in stereotyping and objectifying women, ironically weakening the force of such assumptions by actively embracing them.

The widespread acceptance of male promiscuity in both Greek culture and literature at this time existed in stark contrast to female promiscuity; fidelity and loyalty were not expected to be and were not reciprocal in marriage. In Athenian drama, because "women's talk" was equated with "promiscuity and adultery," this assumption often led to women being silenced – literally and symbolically – in the public sphere and in the household (McClure 20). Athenian texts "universally praise female silence" and often depict timid female characters that exist only to serve the men, at least mortal females (McClure 20). Andromache, Breseis, and Cassandra all embody this ideal woman that is found more typically in earlier texts. As democracy gained traction in Greece, however, the role of female characters began to change dramatically. Not only were women increasingly vocal, as opposed to silent, but they also began to gain power, though not in traditional ways.

Aeschylus' Clytemnestra perfectly illustrates how the dynamic of women began to change as democracy evolved in Ancient Greece. She embodies "the greatest threats to the cultural system" of the time by refusing to be silent and standing up for herself through the murder of her husband, and act which, in her mind, at least, is justified (Foley 201). Clytemnestra's speech is "inextricably bound with her adultery," and in this way, though she stands out in the tragedies as a strong female character, she does not break her social contract and manages to use social restrictions actually to empower her (McClure 26). By adhering to exactly what society would've expected of women at this time, she deceptively serves as the "climactic female challenge to a masculine system of justice, language, and ethics" (Foley 203). It is not so much Clytemnestra's actions that are able to serve her in this role, but her words, for her language is very carefully crafted to appear obedient and culturally feminine, and in this way her strength proves how ineffective disempowering women in society is.

From the outset, Clytemnestra is obviously not playing the role of a typical female character in a Greek tragedy. She does, however, utilize her knowledge of gender roles in her speech from the start, accusing the Chorus of "[scorning her] intelligence, as though it were a young girl's" when they doubt her account of the fall of Troy (Agamemnon 277). The Chorus' doubting of her account illustrates just how untrustworthy and unintelligent women were supposed to be, and Clytemnestra picks up on this right away. Later on, after she is proven correct, the Chorus lauds her wisdom and knowledge of the Trojan War, saying she is "like a prudent man" (Agamemnon 351). It is no accident that Aeschylus frames Agamemnon with such a gendered lens, for Clytemnestra's breaking of cultural expectations is only significant if these expectations are at first made clear. Throughout the remainder of the play, her speech is linked either directly or indirectly to her adultery – directly when she speaks of it, indirectly when she knowingly makes false statements related to her love for her husband. For example, she speaks longingly of her "honored husband" (Agamemnon 600), "the city's darling" (Agamemnon 605), claiming she knows "no more of delight… from another man" (Agamemnon 610-611). Of course, all the while she proclaims her love for Agamemnon she is an adulteress, laying with Aegisthus. Because, according to McClure, women's words were often linked to adultery, Clytemnestra is following exactly the script laid out for her by society. It is also significant that Cassandra is silent, for in this way she offers a direct contrast to Clytemnestra's boisterous speech throughout the play, emphasizing more clearly how at once she is both within her bounds and outside of them. After murdering Agamemnon and Cassandra, Clytemnestra speaks of both her adultery and Agamemnon's, saying his disloyalty is an "outrage" (Agamemnon 1438) and that Aegisthus has "kindled" the "fire upon [her] hearth" (Agamemnon 1435). Nearly every time Clytemnestra speaks, she is somehow tying her speech to deception or adultery, both things that were commonly associated with women at this time.

Through her speech and actions that correlate to social expectations, on the surface, at least, Aeschylus through Clytemnestra actively and knowingly discredits the stereotypes of women that plagued Greek society. Her careful adherence to expected norms, insofar as being promiscuous and deceptive, ultimately ends in many deaths and the utter ruin of a family, and this destruction is the perfect platform for Aeschylus to introduce the importance of gender to a democracy, which he does in Eumenides through Orestes' trial. Although Aeschylus' approach to democracy is not perfect by any standard, as is evident in his depiction of Orestes' trial and the arbitrary judgment of Athena, his obvious treatment of gender serves to begin a conversation about democracy and gender and how those two influence each other.

Along with promiscuity and adultery, deception was often used to label females and their speech and actions during this time period. Deception's link with women has its roots, according to McClure, in "women's reproductive power" (McClure 27). Men, uncertain in their paternity, often resented the fact that "women alone know the truth" and came to associate women with deception in order to discount their opinions in the political and social sphere, thus giving a justification for women's objectification that kept women out of democracy for many years (McClure 27). Any attempt by a woman to be persuasive at this time was assumed to be the result of "trickery and deception to challenge or subvert the status quo" (McClure 26). Many men often pointed to this notion in order to undermine women's role in society, or deny them such a role, but some authors capitalized on this understanding of gender roles in order to promote change. Like Aeschylus, Euripides realized the rhetorical potential of utilizing stereotypes to discredit them, and he illustrates this phenomenon through his character Medea.

Similar to Clytemnestra, Medea embodies through her speech exactly what would have been expected of women at the time. At the beginning of the play that bears her name, she laments her husband's leaving, saying "Oh, what misery! Oh, what pain!" and wishing for death (Medea 111). Because, as will be discussed later at great length, lamentation was typical of Greek women at this time, she is setting herself up to follow these social expectations – at least in speech – from the start. Later, when she addresses the women of Corinth, she speaks of a woman's duty in society and states, "Woman, on the whole, is a timid thing" (Medea 262). By painting herself as fragile and emotional, she is playing right into the hands of social norms, for women were expected to be submissive and lament losses, and she does exactly that through crying over her husband. After she resolves to kill her ex-husband and his new wife, she proclaims that she is a "born woman…marvelously inventive over crime" (Medea 407,409) and the Chorus remarks that "ballads of ages…harped on the falseness of women" (Medea 421-22). Both Medea and the Chorus recognize that falsehood and deception are what society expects of them, and through the deceptive murders Medea commits, it becomes painfully obvious that women adhering to prescribed social expectations can indeed be disastrous, which is what Euripides ultimately argues. Again, Medea is deceptive in order to make selfish gains when she tells Aegeus that she can "end [his] childlessness" (Medea 717). The poisoned gown given to Jason's new wife is symbolic of women's deception, especially Medea's. Though it appears fragile, it is deadly. It is entirely covered in poison and exists for the sole purpose of murder. This image of the deadly gown is Euripides' illustration of just how destructive misjudging women and their potential can be.

Ironically, Medea's power stems from her disempowered status that she's been granted by society. Like Clytemnestra, she utilizes deception in order to achieve her personal means; thus, again, her "apparent helplessness" serves her greatly, and she is able to accomplish a great deal through deception and greed, both things that women were typically expected to do (Foley 243). In this way, Medea utilizes "stereotypically feminine duplicity" in order to exhibit "heroic masculine…standards" (Foley 243). Euripides' argument, then, is that this system that disenfranchises women is not one that should be upheld, for not only can women easily evade stereotypes, destruction of a functional society is imminent when half of the population is powerless. He argues that Medea is merely a product of her toxic environment, and uses the grotesque image of the gown that "curdled" (Medea 1200) flesh with "fire" (Medea 1194) to drive his point home.

Lamentation, along with deception and promiscuity, stereotypically characterized women in Ancient Greece as well. Lamentation was the "province and prerogative" of women due to their supposed "innate affinity for weeping" (McClure 40). This makes sense, given that it was culturally a man's duty to go to war and a woman's to take care of him when he returned, which would naturally include mourning. This duty being carried out is illustrated through Andromache's mourning of Hector's death in The Iliad. Traditionally, ritualistic lamentation served a "positive function" in society, but eventually it came to be seen as a "source of danger and disorder liable to undermine the stable, masculine community" (McClure 40). This phenomenon is illustrated in Sophocles' Antigone, in which Antigone's determination to lament and bury her brother, Polyneices, clashes directly with the orders of the king, Creon.

Antigone, like Medea and Clytemnestra, breaks the mold by first conforming to it. From the outset of the play, Antigone is unwaveringly committed to her goal of burying her brother; therefore, she is committed wholeheartedly to lamenting him properly, which would be, by typical standards of the day, acceptable, were it not for Creon's specific orders to prevent a proper burial. Antigone decries Creon's cruelty by saying that Polyneices will face "unburied shame" (Antigone 23) and states that she will "do [her] duty" (Antigone 45). Throughout the play she speaks of "the heaviest grief that [her] heart" holds, lamenting the death of her father and her brother, as well as her impending death (Antigone 793) and how she "miserable [is] led" (Antigone 808). For the entirety of the play she gives "equal weight to concerns of justice and familial responsibility" through her continual sorrow and misery, thus exhibiting traditionally feminine roles through her bearing the responsibilities of burial and lamentation (Foley 182).

Sophocles' treatment of gender is not quite as explicit as Aeschylus' and Euripides in terms of Antigone's speech patterns, but the message surrounding gender and stereotypes is just as clear through the strategies that he does utilize. Antigone "adopts a range of styles" throughout the play, "each suited to a different private or public context" (Foley 183). When she speaks with her sister, Ismene, she attempts to "evoke family bonds and shared goals," yet when she justifies her actions to Creon, she begins to explain her actions with a "religious motive," and to the chorus she stresses her "role as the "last" member of their royal family" in order to justify her burial of Polyneices (Foley 182). With each audience she adopts a different argument, skillfully crafting language and using it to her advantage, both exhibiting a kind of skillful deception to advance her cause and discrediting the stereotype of women's silence through the power of her words. In addition, through Antigone's unwavering commitment to lamenting her brother properly, coupled with her mourning of her father and her own fate throughout the play, she adheres strictly to roles that were typical of women at the time, and eventually, according to McClure, this began to undermine the role of males in society. This transition is illustrated through Creon's objection to the burial because it undermines his authority. Through Antigone, Sophocles, more than any other author mentioned in this paper, promotes women as an integral, healthy component of democracy, for Antigone defies stereotypes and unapologetically pursues justice in the face of monarchial oppression. In this way, Sophocles argues for the intertwined promotion of democracy and women's rights; one cannot truly, justly exist without the other.

Ultimately, it becomes clear through the analysis of these texts that along with democratic agendas in the tragedies are hidden gender agendas, for Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles all promote their definition of democracy to include women's participation. In addition, each author illustrates the disastrous consequences of having a population in which calling half of the people citizens would be a mockery of their actual status in society. Through the utilization of knowledge of stereotypes and social norms of the time, characters like Medea, Antigone and Clytemnestra are able to flip perceptions of women through appearing to adhere to strict social rules. Similarly, by depicting the restriction of women's freedom as harmful and disastrous for society as a whole, authors of the tragedies are able to justify the inclusion of women in democracy and advocate on their behalf, inspiring change unique to this largely misogynistic period in history.