Writing about the Tragic Comedy of Ancient Greek Women

Euripides (circa 480 – 406 BC) was the last of the three great tragedians of Classical Greece – the other two being Aeschylus, the ‘Father of Tragedy’ who, among many others wrote Agamemnon (458 BC) and Seven Against Thebes (467 BC), and Sophocles, who is famous for such plays as Oedipus Rex (429 BC) and Antigone (442 BC). Euripides had a very different style than the other two great tragedians. Euripides’ plays show his questioning attitude towards both religious belief and the ancient myths and legends, which formed the traditional subject matter for Greek drama, whereas Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote about both topics with a lot more conviction. Therefore, even from this standpoint alone, Euripides’ dramas were considered to be very unusual in his time.

Vladoša Simčič in National Theater in Ljubljana's production of "Antigone" (1939)
Vladoša Simčič in National Theater in Ljubljana’s production of “Antigone” (1939)

Tragedy of Euripides: Social Critic Murdered by Dogs and Women

Euripides was not only critical towards religions and ancient legends, he was also considered to be the biggest social critic of all the ancient Greek tragedians. Euripides reshaped the formal structure of traditional Greek tragedy, which was heavily focused on the adventures of heroes and demigods. Instead, he introduced strong female characters and intelligent slaves, as well as satirizing many of the heroes of Greek mythology. Instead of the larger than life characters, as drawn by Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides favored relatable protagonists. The protagonists in Euripides’ plays are mostly regular men and women with all the flaws, vulnerabilities and complications of ordinary human beings. He deployed these characters to express the doubts, problems and feelings of the audience of his time. Perhaps understandably, because of his questioning attitude of the status quo, Euripides gained a reputation as a controversial character himself. He also gained somewhat of an unfortunate reputation as a misogynist. Euripides has been accused of hating, denigrating and slandering women. 

Bust of Euripides By NikonZ7II, CC BY-SA 4.0
Bust of Euripides By NikonZ7II, CC BY-SA 4.0

At the invitation of King Archelaus I of Macedon, Euripides left Athens in 408 BC and lived out the rest of his life in Macedonia. He is believed to have died there in the winter 407 or 406 BC, possibly due to an exposure to the harsh Macedonian winter. However, in keeping with his controversial reputation, an improbable variety of other explanations for his death, has him being torn apart by dogs or perhaps an even worse fate befell him, that he was torn apart by women who disapproved of what he had written about them.

Fake News: Enduring Criticism of Euripides

Many of the conceptions about Euripides and his motivations for writing about such imperfect women were collected by Satyrus the Peripatetic, a third century philosopher and biographer. He wrote biographies of many eminent people which included kings, statesmen, philosophers, orators and poets such as Euripides himself. As he lived around 200 years after Euripides, Satyrus acquired most of his sources from the works of the comedic poet Aristophanes, a contemporary of Euripides. Like Euripides, Aristophanes produced many plays that dealt with the political and social issues of his time. The butt of Aristophanes’ jokes included many public figures such as Cleon, an Athenian general in the Peloponnesian War; the popular philosopher Socrates, and Euripides himself.

uripides By Paolo Monti - Available in the BEIC digital library and uploaded in partnership with BEIC Foundation.The image comes from the Fondo Paolo Monti, owned by BEIC and located in the Civico Archivio Fotografico of Milan., CC BY-SA 4.0
Euripides By Paolo Monti – Available in the BEIC digital library and uploaded in partnership with BEIC Foundation.The image comes from the Fondo Paolo Monti, owned by BEIC and located in the Civico Archivio Fotografico of Milan., CC BY-SA 4.0

Euripides is mentioned in many of Aristophanes’ works, which includes Lysistrata (411 BC), Thesmophoriazusae (Women at the Thesmophoria) (411 BC), Acharnians (425 BC) and Frogs (405 BC) from which Satyrus took the comedic quotes and interpreted them as factual details about Euripides and his life. For example, the first comedy in which Aristophanes features Euripides and his relationship with women is Lysistrata, in which women are referred to as “Hated by God and by Euripides, by God!” (Lysistrata, 283) and Satyrus then referred to this to describe Euripides as a hater of women. Unfortunately, Satyrus’s writings then gained traction and was referenced by other authors such as Athenaeus and Diogenes Laertius.

Relying on Aristophanes’ comedies as a character reference for Euripides is a dangerous option for any biographer, not only because Aristophanes was a humorist, but also because Aristophanes was actually criticizing the content of Euripides’ works instead of Euripides personally. More specifically, Aristophanes was criticizing the female characters depicted by Euripides and the behaviors that they exhibited. In fact, the whole plot of the Women in the Thesmophoria revolves around this concept, and intentionally overlooks other women that Euripides also wrote about, such as Andromache who was famous for her fidelity and virtue; Alcestis who was known for her love and unshakable loyalty to her husband; and Iphigenia who was willing to give her life as a human sacrifice for her father and her people – all three of them were very virtuous women. In a scene in Women in the Thesmophoria, Euripides’ relative attempts to defend Euripides who is on trial for slandering women by dressing up as a woman to infiltrate the Thesmophoria (a religious festival dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone). In the play, the women say to him, “What! We ought not to punish you, who alone have dared to defend the man who has done so much harm, whom it pleases to put all the vile women that ever were upon the stage, who only shows us Melanippes and Phaedras? But of Penelope he has never said a word, because she was reputed chaste and good.” (The Women in the Thesmophoria, 544-548).

Even in his early comedy, Acharnians, Aristophanes was already mocking Euripides by parodying him through expressions, characters, themes and entire scenes taken from his tragedies. Mockeries of Euripides as a basis for his comedies also occur throughout Aristophanes’ Frogs (405 BC) where Euripides is singled out and made the target of ridicule in the domain of literature, just as Cleon is in that of politics.

Bust of Aristophanes in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Head on a herm. 1st century AD. By Alexander Mayatsky, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Bust of Aristophanes in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Head on a herm. 1st century AD. By Alexander Mayatsky, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Despite all these mockeries, Aristophanes never takes swipe at Euripides’ personally. Instead, Aristophanes sniped at what he found provocative in the subjects and style of Euripides’ tragedies. In Aristophanes’ eyes, Euripides challenged the established socio-political and poetic conventions by constructing the plots of his tragedies around questionable themes and characters such as “unholy wedlocks” (Frogs, 850), “whores like Phaedra and Stheneboea” (Frogs 1043-1044), and “pimps, women giving birth in temples, sleeping with their brothers, claiming that life is not life.” (Frogs, 1071-1081).

Women in Euripides and Aristophanes’ Plays

In his plays, Euripides utilized characters such as Medea, Phaedra and Helen – all of whom were already villainesses in myths and tragedies even before Euripides’ treatments of them. Medea is well known from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts where she killed her brother and betrayed her father to help Jason, and later murdering her own children, because of Jason.

Portrait of Judith Anderson, as Medea (1951)
Portrait of Judith Anderson, as Medea (1951)

Phaedra, who was already married to Theseus, fell in love with Theseus’ son (her stepson) Hippolytus. When Hippolytus rejected her, Phaedra wrote a letter to her husband who was away at the time and claimed that Hippolytus had raped her. Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, left her husband Menelaus, for Paris and set in motion the events that would lead to the Trojan War. These women defied social norms and values in the socio-political culture of Athens even before Euripides’ time. However, Euripides reinvents them as women who were relatable to Athenian women.

Aristophanes discussed some of the problems created by Euripides’ characterizations of these women. In his plays, Aristophanes’ women claim that after their men had seen Euripides’ tragedies and had been made aware of the scheming of female characters, the men became suspicious of their wives so the women could no longer get away with their usual trickery, such as keeping lovers and secretly taking items from the store rooms (The Women in the Thesmophoria, 395-400). In short, Aristophanes implied after watching how wicked the women behave in Euripides’ plays, the Athenian men limited their wives’ freedom even further. This was creating problems for both husband and wife, as the husbands had to spend extra time suspiciously watching their wives and the wives could no longer indulge in little tricks to make their homelives more pleasant.

"Phaedra and Hyppolitus" by Jozef Geirnaert (1819)
“Phaedra and Hyppolitus” by Jozef Geirnaert (1819)

Aristophanes’ portrayals of his women are very different from Euripides’ characters. Aristophanes places his women in positions of power and has them taking on the normal duties and responsibilities of the Athenian men, only to later show the audience how these women proceeded to fail at these duties and made fools of themselves. In Lysistrata, Aristophanes has the Greek women joining ranks and cooperating to boycott the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their men. However, it becomes apparent that the women were hardly able to do this because they were lusty for sex themselves. In Women at the Thesmophoria, the women tried to hold a formal trial as they have seen the Athenian men carry do, but they were not able to do it properly, as they were too emotional.

Although in his criticism of Euripides’ characterizations of his women, Aristophanes also seemed to suggest that women were far nobler than Euripides gave them credit for and played a larger role in society. However, it is in fact Aristophanes who reinforced the stereotypical representation of Athenian women in the fifth century BC and applied the same characterization of women, he accused Euripides of doing. Aristophanes depicted his women as sex-starved drunkards and whose gossip cause trouble for men. On the other hand, although Euripides wrote about female characters who were considered morally depraved, he made them more sympathetic as the women who generally react desperately to events far beyond their control.

Krater with scene from Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, Apulia, c. 370 BC
Krater with scene from Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, Apulia, c. 370 BC

Fifth Century BC Athenian Women

To better understand the contrast in which Euripides and Aristophanes characterize women in their plays, it is important to understand the views held by probably most fifth century BC Athenian men about women and their roles in Athenian society. In the fifth century BC Athens, it was the men who made the public contribution in many different fields such as literature, medicine and philosophy. Therefore, women’s voice and representation in society could only be given through the men. This would also have made a woman somewhat of a mysterious figure as, apart from mostly occupying a very different domain as he men, public knowledge of her life and thoughts were virtually non-existent. Therefore, physical and mental differences between men and women occupied a great deal of thought among poets, philosophers and thinkers in Athens – all of whom were men. These men tried to make sense of these differences among themselves through their works of literature, medical theory, philosophy and politics. As these men presumably did not spend a lot of time in the company of women, these views and theories were often far from flattering towards the women. Poets such as Hesiod and Semonides, as well as Aristophanes himself portrayed women as a bane of men’s existence, the butt of men’s jokes and the subject of contempt.

Sculpture of a theater masks dating from the Hellenistic period. By Giovanni Dall'Orto
Sculpture of a theater masks dating from the Hellenistic period. By Giovanni Dall’Orto

The famous physician Hippocrates developed and influenced the Hippocratic Corpus, an extensive collection of medical works, which included sections on women. In these texts, women were essentially viewed as little more than incomplete men, although they were also acknowledged as fundamentally different from men. According to the Hippocratic Corpus, medical problems that were usually associated with women, were best cured by sexual intercourse with men, or getting married and bearing children. The Hippocratic Corpus also described women as physically and mentally lacking compared to the men. Women were portrayed as not being in control of their bodies – proven by uncontrollable physical processes such as menstruation and childbirth – and they were therefore not in control of their appetite. This lack of control meant that they were prone to hysterics and not able to make sound decisions, which was an important skill to have in government. Therefore, although they were considered citizens and received the benefits of citizenship, women were denied any say in Athenian politics – they had no right to vote, participate in assemblies, or represent themselves in the courts of law. Instead, they were placed under the protection of a male guardian such as a father, husband, or brother who would financially and legally represent them.

However, despite public records seemingly marginalizing them, Athenian women played an important part in other facets of Athenian society. As men carved roles for themselves in the public domain, many significant roles that women performed took place in the οικος (household). The Athenian household was centered around the family, including extended family as well as slaves, animals and goods. Marriage was the foundation on which this household was built. Marriage was also very important in the Athenian society as it linked two families together, transferred property and transferred citizenship. In 451 BC, statesman Pericles introduced a citizenship law which forbade the son of an Athenian father and a foreign (as in non-Athenian) mother to become a full citizen of Athens. The purpose of this law was to curb the power of the aristocrats as, if their heirs could not be legally recognized, the aristocrats would no longer be able to forge alliances with aristocrats from other cities.

In Ancient Greece – illustration by Percy Anderson for Costume Fanciful, Historical and Theatrical, 1906

An Athenian woman’s duties also benefitted the city. In the fourth century BC, Demosthenes described his understanding of marriage. To live with a woman as a wife meant to have children with her and to introduce the children to society, specifically with the aim of securing potential careers for the sons and potential husbands for the girls. Xenophon, in his treatise Oeconomicus, compared the role of the wife to that of a queen bee, in which she stays in the hive/home and weaves, raises children to be good citizens and delegate tasks to slaves. Therefore, the care of home and family would have been the basis for a woman’s sense of belonging and honor in the Athenian society.

Although both men and women played an important role in Athenian society, they were not held to the same standards. Men had a great deal more autonomy and allowances in sexual matters than women. Although the men were allowed to keep other women as mistresses for their pleasure or concubines for their daily care, the main duties of the wives were to bear legitimate children from her husband and to guard his household. On the other hand, women were expected to remain with one man from the time she married until her death. Adultery committed by women was a major concern in Athenian society as it undermined the capacity of the household (the woman’s responsibility) to remain socially and politically stable. If the women, who bore the sons, were having intercourse with other men or worse with slaves or foreigners, there would be no way to confirm the child as a citizen of Athens, because paternity could not be determined. Therefore, as there were no major repercussions for adulterous men, an adulterous woman would be divorced from her husband, be denied participation in religious ceremonies and would have to spend the rest of her life as a pariah.

Athenian women also played an important part in civic rituals, which were closely associated with the household such as birth, marriage and funerals. Women had a public and civic role in the celebration of festivals and their participation in cults in Classical Athens, such as the Thesmophoria (in honor of Demeter and Persephone), Panathenaia (celebrated every June in honor of the goddess Athena), and Brauronia (in honor of the goddess Artemis), all of which required a woman to be a citizen of good standing. 

Grave relief of Iostrate, Attic, 4th century BC - Royal Ontario Museum
Grave relief of Iostrate, Attic, 4th century BC – Royal Ontario Museum

This was the sphere where Euripides’ female characters had to function. Euripides placed his female characters in similar positions as the fifth century Athenian women. Euripides’ women were often denigrated, restricted from playing a part politically and were socially kept in the shadows. Their roles and struggles were not publically recognized and they were denied understanding and sympathy for the problems and constrictions that they faced. Euripides’ female characters faced struggles that any Athenian woman might have encountered such as the loss of home and family, and lack of recognition for their strengths and abilities, as well as bearing the brunt of the stigmas held against women in the popular culture of the time. Euripides highlighted the women’s struggles and found ways to introduce their struggle to the men’s domain, thus forcing the men to notice them. Through his work, Euripides was able to make his audience, who consisted of Athenian men, aware of these issues and made them question their own beliefs and values relating to women, by projecting these thwarted views back at them through his tragedies. Although Euripides did not provide his audience with a solution, he facilitated a debate perhaps to promote gender understanding within Athenian society.  

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