ThePosition of a Woman in Ancient Greece
Thewritings of Euripides reveal his fascination with women and thecontradictions that were inherent in the Greek sex-gender system(Porter 163). Euripides` treatment of gender is perceivable as one ofthe most sophisticated in the works of all ancient Greek writers.Medea`s opening speech is perhaps Greek literature`s most eloquentstatement about the injustices that befell women. Euripides alsoproceeds to reveal how the subordination of women to men underlinesthe core of social order in Greece. The injustices that were presentin the Greek society helped the community function more effectively.Although Athens prided itself as a place that was less tolerant ofoppression, compared to neighboring dictatorships, the city washeavily reliant on the oppression of women and slave labor. Euripidessaw these hypocrisies and did not shy away from revealing the mannerin which the Greek society effaced these injustices. This paperexplains the premise behind the spatial differences between men andwomen in Ancient Greece it tries to reveal why women were requiredto remain indoors at all times.
Fifth-centuryAthens was critical to the construction of the public and privatespheres (Powell). In essence, the contrast between men and women wassymbolized and emphasized by spatial differences (Mendelsohn 39). Menusually met in the open, public places that were linked to the city,for example, the assembly, Agora, or the theater. Conversely, womenwere required to confine themselves to the interior spaces of theirhomes, in the unseen and dark quarters of the most interior part ofGreek houses. In other words, they were supposed to stay in therecesses known as mykhoi.The logic for embracing such a way of life is somewhat subtle, butrecent literature reveals the motive behind this separation.
Variousscholars have studied the fifth-century appraisal regarding thefeminine and the reason behind the vast spatial differences among menand women (Mendelsohn 39). Patricia Easterling brings together theseconclusions in her debate of ‘women in tragic space.` Easterlingcontends that women can be viewed as attractive, helpful, andpathetic at the same time. However, the less favorable images can bebalanced with the desirable traits. Easterling posits that thesexuality of women makes them dangerous. Reason being, they cantrigger male conflict, their wiles and guile are destructive, andtheir proximity to untamed nature is conducive for dark activitieslike the use of magic, in addition to making them overlyunpredictable. Since men are not capable of dispensing with women,they seek ways of controlling their dangerous characteristics byconfining them within the boundaries of their houses thus, limitingtheir access to the wider world in ways that are defined cautiously.
Theabove premise is perceivable in Medea`s case. Medea is the daughterof Etes, the King of Colchis (Porter 163). After falling in love withJason, Medea proceeds to extricate him from all the dangers that hefaces through magic, in addition to helping him acquire thecelebrated Golden Fleece. Upon his conquest, Jason decides to marryMedea and elope with her. The two settle in Corinth, after some time.Later, Jason decides to abandon his obligation to Medea and marriesGlauce, the daughter of King Creon. King Creon chooses to exile Medeaand her two sons from the city since he is afraid of Medea`s powerand cruelty. He also desires to secure his daughter from the wrath ofMedea`s revenge. Medea pretends to submit to Creon`s sentence andobtains asylum at Athens. Upon settling in Athens, Medea decides tosend her sons with rich presents to the bride, Glauce. Afterdelivering the gifts, the youths go back to their mother, and Glaucerushes to wear the robes that Medea had sent her. The robes had beeninfused with poison, which, later, proves fatal to both the king andhis daughter, Glauce. Fearing for the lives of his sons, Jason rushesto rescue them but realizes that Medea has already sacrificed them tocompensate for his infidelity. Medea ridicules Jason`s agony andflies through the air with her slaughtered children in a chariotdrawn by winged dragons.
Easterling`sassertions are revealed in Medea`s reactions to Jason`s betrayal. After King Creon decides to banish Medea, she does not react angrilyor in a manner that suggests that she may retaliate (Porter 163). AsEasterling put it, women can trigger male conflict, their wiles andguile are destructive, and their proximity to untamed nature isconducive for dark activities like the use of magic, in addition tomaking them overly unpredictable (Mendelsohn 39). Thus, after beingbanished, Medea`s actions reflect all these presumptions. Medeasubmits to the king`s order to leave Corinth (Porter 163) this canbe advanced as a strategy to prompt Creon, his daughter, and Jason toassume that she has no ill intentions toward them. However, shereacts by poisoning Glauce and her father, sacrificing her children,and ridiculing Jason. All these actions reveal the unpredictable anddangerous nature of women.
Nonetheless,considerable disagreement, regarding the extent and actual force ofcodes that regulated the freedom of women in Ancient Athens, asEasterling describes, still looms (Mendelsohn 39). While this type ofdisagreement is essential for individuals interested in recreatingthe lived experiences of the persons living in fifth-century Athens,one should not prevent himself from using unwritten socialconventions to develop a framework for interpreting the literaryworks that the Ancient plays advance. The traditional division ofsexes, however, is a phenomenon that ancient writings have proven(40). Greek drama, for example, in the Athenian society, depicted menon the outside and women on the inside.
Thus,deducing from the above discussion, the ideal woman in the Atheniansociety stayed at home, and never went outside, except when the needarose. In the Athenian society, women relied on men forrepresentation, even though men never discussed issues that concernedthem in their meetings (Chong-Gossard 205). Even in courts,well-thought-of women were never referred to by their names oratorsused periphrases when speaking with them. In fact, Simon Goldhillsaid that a woman could never speak in public and not be out of placein Ancient Athens.
TheGreek culture, therefore, implicitly believed that women had thepower to change the social order if accorded the freedom toparticipate in public (political) activities. Medea makes thisassertion right when she transacts with Aegeus to gain entry into thepublic sphere (Powell). Aegeus and Medea meet as equals and developan exchange-based contract. In this relationship, what Medea offersand gets in return is similar to the transaction that occurs inmarriages. Medea gives Aegeus the power of fertility and, in return,she gets the safety of the Athenian polis, as opposed to theconventional Oikos.Consequently, Medea`s move out of the house is proceeded bysubsequent moves into the public sphere, and, by extension, thediscourse of male citizens. Thus, Medea set a precedence formarriages based on contracts and reciprocity among equals as opposedto a relationship premised on irrevocable and absolute differences instatus.
Medea`stransition into the public space is revealed in her conversation withCreon. She bluntly tells him that it is better to be born stupid thanclever, for men loathe the bright (Porter 172). Also, Medea expressesher frustration to the Chorus, regarding Jason abandoning her and hissons and marrying Glauce. Medea tries to influence Chorus to riseagainst the ills of a male-dominated society. She tells them aboutthe wrongs that Jason has done to her, with the intention of tryingto win over their sympathy (174 – 176). According to Easterling,women in ancient Greece were perceived as attractive, helpful, andpathetic at the same time. However, their sexuality was seen asdangerous, because they had the ability to trigger male conflict,their wiles and guile were destructive, and their proximity tountamed nature was conducive for dark activities like the use ofmagic (Mendelsohn 39). Thus, if Medea could influence Chorus to joinher to bring about a state of equality in ancient Greece, men wouldnot be able to stop the precedence of a new social order.
Ina recap of the above discussion, Euripides` treatment of gender wasone of the most sophisticated in the works of all ancient Greekwriters. He depicted women as being inferior to men, and, at the sametime, revealed their underlying power or capacity to set precedencefor a new social order. The above discussion shows the premise behindGreece`s fifth-century ancient culture, which asserted that womenwere required to stay in their houses and only get out on particularoccasions.
Chong-Gossard,J. H. Kim On. Genderand Communication in Euripides` Plays.Leiden: Brill, 2008. Print.
Mendelsohn,Daniel Adam. Genderand The City In Euripides` Political Plays.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Porter,R. EURIPIDES.NEW YORK: HARPER AND BROTHERS, PUBLISHERS, 1852. Print.
Powell,Anton. Euripides,Women, and Sexuality.London: Routledge, 1990. Print.