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The Problematic Feminist Icons of Greek Tragedy by Isabella Green

Updated: Jul 13

In recent years, there has been an urgency to pull the Classics into modern day relevance and popular culture, with the field having previously been the realm of elite, male scholars. Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (2018) shines a light on how the words of ancient writers have been misused as justification for antifeminism, and the importance, therefore, of viewing classical texts from a gender critical perspective. The women of Greek tragedies, such as Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Medea, are often seen by modern classicists as anachronistic feminist icons, subverting the expectations placed upon the female gender and provoking the sympathies of a 21st century audience. It is vital, however, to acknowledge that they were not written with such an intention, but rather to demonstrate the danger posed by a woman with independent thought and will.

Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia (a trilogy of plays comprised of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides)

Before Agamemnon and his fleet went to Troy, he had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods. Ten years later, at the start of the first play, his wife Clytemnestra finds out that Troy has fallen and the Greeks have won. Agamemnon returns home with a Trojan princess called Cassandra, whom he has taken as his mistress. Clytemnestra welcomes them into the palace. They are murdered, off-stage, and the stage door opens to reveal Clytemnestra standing over their corpses. She explains that she killed him to avenge Iphigenia. She and her lover Aegisthus take over as rulers of Argos. In the second play, Agamemnon’s son Orestes returns to Argos. Alongside his surviving sister Electra, he plots to avenge his father and he murders Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

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The role of Clytemnestra constantly shifts throughout the Oresteia. Within the first few lines, she is described as a woman ‘in passionate heart’ and a man ‘in strength and purpose’: the Ancient Greeks expected women to be submissive and emotional, with their power tied to the household; acts of violence and vengeance existed within a male domain. Clytemnestra is an amalgamation of these different roles. First, she submissively greets her husband who has been away at battle and receives him in their home, as a dutiful wife would - but then their household becomes the gruesome scene of a long-anticipated revenge killing. It is important to note that other mythological accounts (such as Homer’s Odyssey) often describe Aegisthus committing the murders while Clytemnestra is merely an accomplice. Clearly, Aeschylus wanted to subvert this tradition, but this must not be misconstrued as a proto-feminism. The image of the vindicated Clytemnestra, standing in victory over her husband’s body, would have been abhorrent to the Greeks; she is portrayed as an unnatural and monstrous being. When Clytemnestra murders the passive Cassandra, an idealistic Greek woman, this symbolises the threat that reformed femininity presented to traditional gender roles. A feminist reading of Clytemnestra, as a suffering woman who took the opportunity to seize autonomy, is therefore in danger of disregarding the true misogyny behind Aeschylus’ portrayal.

Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone

In the city of Thebes, Antigone has a fiancé called Haemon and a sister called Ismene. Her uncle and future father-in-law, Creon, is the king. Oedipus was Antigone’s father, and on his death, it was agreed that his two sons would rule on alternate years. But after one year, the elder, Eteocles, refused to step down and the brothers killed each other. Creon, buried Eteocles in honour but left Polynices, the younger, to rot. Now, Antigone and Ismene disagree over whether they should break the law and bury their brother. When Haemon arrives, Antigone tells him that she cannot marry him anymore. It becomes clear that Antigone has already buried Polynices herself. She is arrested and brought to Creon. He appeals to her, explaining that her marriage is worth more to the city than her death, but she tells him that she will continue to try to give her brother a burial. Antigone is imprisoned, then walled in and left to die. After speaking to a prophet, Creon changes his mind and orders the stones to be removed, but Antigone has hung herself. Haemon stabs himself and dies in her tomb.


Left: Clytemnestra tries to awake the sleeping Erinyes [c.380–370 BC]

Right: Medea killing one of her own children [c.330 BC]

Both these items are in the Louvre Museum

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Antigone’s willingness to oppose patriarchal structures have caused many to acclaim her as a key feminist role model.  King Creon believes that the primary female function, and therefore Antigone’s true purpose, is marriage, whereas she views her familial duty as more important. With her father and brothers gone, she takes on a masculine role of avenging the wrong which has been done to a close family member, not through murder but burial rites, despite Ismene’s protests. A feminist reading might argue that the play serves as a warning to chauvinistic men like Creon - by the end of the play, he is alone, full of regret and praying for a quick death. However, this interpretation neglects the other prominent voice within Antigone, which is one of male fear. Antigone’s strong sense of loyalty and duty is sympathetic to masculine sensibilities, but these qualities in a woman are a threat to societal norms. The danger of an uncontrolled woman is realised throughout the play, when the subversive actions of Antigone set in motion a series of tragic events. Even she herself acknowledges to Creon that ‘if not for Antigone, all would have been at peace’. Arguably, the pervading purpose of Sophocles’ play is to point out the chaos that an unmarried, boundless woman can cause.

Medea in Euripides’ Medea

In Corinth, Medea has been abandoned by her husband Jason, who wishes to instead marry Glauce, the daughter of the king. His abandonment has sent Medea into despair, since she betrayed her family and left her homeland to be with him. King Creon (a different one from Antigone) is worried that she will seek revenge, so he banishes Medea, along with her two children by Jason, from the city. She is granted one single day before she must leave, during which she plans vengeance. King Aegeus of Athens offers Medea safety in his city, meaning she is now free to carry out her plan. She starts by pretending to sympathise with Jason by offering his new wife a crown and dress, but the gifts are poisoned and cause Glauce’s death. Creon, watching his daughter die, embraces her and the poison kills him too. As the final stroke, Medea murders her children and flees Corinth, leaving Jason alone and in mourning.

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The very character of Medea, a powerful woman who deals in magical arts, is a product of Greek male fear, and therefore the play Medea reflects the danger posed by an independent woman. Despite being both female and a foreigner, Medea exercises power over her husband which is enacted when she murders their children, his new fiancé, and the king. Much like Creon in Antigone, Jason is left alone at the end of the play, having suffered at the hands of unconfined femininity. As a playwright, Euripides often challenged traditionalism, and therefore Jason, the heroic figure of Greek masculinity, is also shown in a negative light, for he underestimates Medea and pays the price. It would be easy for an audience to view Medea as an entirely unsympathetic villain - after all, she slaughters her own children to spite her husband. But modern day feminist readings have enabled us to consider her side, that Jason had turned her against her father and homeland, and was now about to take away the one factor which remained to her as a woman: marriage. If the female experience was defined within the home and by a husband, and Medea was without both, it is little wonder that she was driven to such madness. 

Conclusion

In Greek tragedies, women who break gender norms are portrayed as disruptive, unlawful, unnatural, and, most significantly, a danger to society. Each story, though differing in content, sends the same message: that it is part of the inherent female condition to cause chaos and suffering, when left unchecked. Although it is true that, from a modern perspective, these plays expose the fragility of Greek gender roles, it is important to acknowledge that Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Medea are products of, rather than exceptions to, patriarchal societal structures.

Feminism has, arguably, transformed the subject of Classics. Clytemnestra and Penelope are no longer considered two wives waiting for their husbands to return from war, but individuals with pain and motivation in their own right. It is good that we can apply our concept of feminism to ancient texts, in order to add more depth to the characters and bring them to relevance in the modern day. It is necessary too, though, that we constantly read the texts with a critical eye and an understanding of the true animosity that these women would have faced. While we may view Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Medea as early feminist icons, we must also recognise that these plays were not written with such a purpose, but were rather intended as cautionary tales to men about female independence.


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