Euripides! Master! How Well You Knew Women! Essay, Research Paper
In this paper I will demonstrate why I believe, contrary to widespread opinion and possible even his own, that Aristophanes, not Euripides, was, of the four major dramatists fo Athens’ Golden Age, the one who least respected women.
Having become aware at the ouset of this leterrature course of the position of women in the otherwise enlightened thought of Greece in the Fifth Century B.C., I kept my eyes open during our reading for evidences of, if I may comit an anchronism, chauvinism in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Consoled by the knoledge presented in the text that Aristophanes had accused Euripides of hating women. I didn’t look for it in Lysistrata. Nevertheless, that is where I found it.
In interpreting attitudes toward women in the dramas, I accepts certain prevailing tradtions as given and tried to give the playwrights the benefit of the doubt, turning my head at such practices as using only male actors in the plays and leaving the women in the kitchen while attending the plays. Having concedes those points, I set about “listening” to the playwrights.
In Agamemnon, Aeschylus addresses some remarks toward his Clytaemnestra which could possibly be interpreted as disparaging. She is said to “maneuver like a man,” and Cassandra exclaims, “What outrage–the woman kills the man!” The chorus asks her “What drove her insane” enough to kill a man. Her lover, Aegisthus, although he gloats over the body he cringed from cutting down, allows that “the treachery was the woman’s work, clearly.” Far from denigrating women, however, I believe these parrotings of the prevailing attitudes, when juxtaposed with Aeschylus’ portrayal of an intelligent, capable Clytaemnestra, a gullible, ususpecting Agamemnon and a spineless, parasitical Aegisthus, achieve the result of satirizing those attitudes. At the close of the play, Clytaemnestra challenges her listeners, on-stage and off: “That is what a woman has to say. Can you accept the truth?”
Sophocles takes it one step further. His heroine is not a murderess, but a young women driven by deeply held ideals and familial love. I don’t know there could be any doubt in any viewer’s mind as to who is the “good guy” and who the bad. Antogone is more ethical and intelligent than Creon. Creon’s rejection of “one whose friend has stronger claims upon her than her country” she meets with her own bold philosophy: “I do not think your edicts have such power that they can override the laws of heaven,” humbling Creon in his egoism. The remarks dergrading women do come along: Ismeme avers that, “We who are women should not contend with,: we who are weak are ruuled by the stronger.” Creon vows that if Antione “triumphs and goes unpunished, I am no man, she is,” instructing Haemon not to “unseat your reason for a women’s sake” and to “support the law, and never be beaten by a women” and ejaculates, “This boy defends a woman, it appears….Infamous! Giving first place to a woman!” However, the contrast between Creon and Antigone renders these remarks part of the blindeness, egoism an stupidity that make Creon remiscent of Agamemnon and Oedipus.
I was prepared to bristle at Euripides’ treatment of women. Even in his own time, he was accused of misogyny by, among others, Aristophanes. In fact, legend has it that at his death he was torn apart by dogs or women. I found, instead, surprising sensitivity. Medea laments the husband’s possession fo the wife’s body, the impossibility of divorce by a woman, the double standard of fidelity. She scoffs at the men’s excuse that women live free from danger while they (the men) go out the battle with the pointed, “Fools, I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear a child.” The adulterous Jason sounds supercilious and hard-hearted adjuring her that she has “talked like a fool” instead of “quietly accepting the decisions of those in power” and banishing her–prancing to his own fate. Medea is, as the Nurse puts it, a “frightenning woman.” She does murder her own children. However, she does so in a red haze of pain and anger. Her entire identity has been wrapped up in her man; she has no other life of her own. Abandoned and rejected by the man who means so much to her, subjugated woman is thus robbed of her very personhood. She has no legal or emotional recourse. After the fact, Jason incredulously asks Medea, “You thought that reason enough to murder them, that I no longer slept with you?” Medea replies with a question of her own: “And is that injury a slight one, do you imagine, to a woman?” Jason doesn’t really hear the queston and–perhaps unwittingly–get off his paring shot: “Yes, to a modest woman….” Medea eloquently expresses the feelings of every woman who has been spurned by the man who commands her sense fo worth. I don’t believe this agony could be more movingly depicted by a woman.
Aristophases lampoons Euripiedsa and his perceived hatred of women. I have not read Thesmophosriazusae, in which the text informs us women avenge themselves on Euripides, so I cannot respond to it. I have, however some reactions to Lysistrata. The very concept of the sex strike gives credence to the idea that sevice of men is the only value women have, that withholding that sevice is their only way of wielding power. The status quo is defended. In that light, the “humorous” self-deprecating comments of he women do not achieve satire and I don’t believe are meant as satire,. The satire is on the war. Indeed, to all appearances, the heroines believe the myths. Lysistrata remarks, “The way we women behave! I don’t blame the men for what they say about us.” When she tells Kalonike that “only we women can save Greece,” Kalonike responds, “only we women? poor Greece….We belong at home. Our only armor’s our perfumes, our saffron dresses and our pretty little shoes!”
Aristophanes names one of his heroines Myrrhine, a pun on the Greek word for female genitalia, and has her hail from Anagyros, a stinking marshland. The sybolism is very pointed, and very derogatory. There are several references in the play, by both men and women, to men slapping their wives to make them comply, as well as to spousal rape. The men, when the battle lines are drawn, call the women bitches, subersive whores, trollops, wild animals, with no evidence of anything but approval. There is also an upholding of the male phallus as that which women most need. Kalonike objects to Lysistrata, “I’d walk through fire for you….but don’t ask us to give up that!” A Boiotian woman says it again: “I’d rather walk through fire.” Even Lysistrata herself later moans, “There’s only one thing we can think of.”
Aristophanes does employ satire when he has the Comissioner say, “The idea of women bothering themselves about peace and war!” and, “It would take a woman to reduce state questions to a matter of carding and weaving.” I believe Lysistrata does clumsily try to do women justice, and that is precisely why I believe Aristophanes to have been the most profoundly smitten with the disease of perceived male superiority. At one point, when the women respond to the taunts and threats of the men with taunts and threats of their own, the male chorus calls out, “Euripides! Master! How well you knew women!” I believe Euripides did understand a great deal more about women than was common in his time. I believe Aristophanes thought he knew women, and I don’t think he ever even realized the serious injustice Lysistrata does them.