The Ideal Image: Women in Fifth-Century Drama

Greek women were restricted to living within a patriarchal society in Classical Greece; however, they were depicted in prominent roles in fifth-century drama. Although some plays presented women as mere housewives, others often put them in the position of political leaders, heroines, and murderers. The purpose of the female being staged in socially unconventional ways is to reinforce what will be defined as the ‘ideal image’: a perfect wife, regarding a woman’s familial, social, cultural, and lawful role in the oikos. The oikos is a term describing the many aspects of both the home and family.[1] The emphasis of the ideal image can be seen through varying works of fifth-century dramatists. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, female citizens work together to end the Peloponnesian War for the sole purpose of returning to their homes as wives, mothers, and homemakers. The female protagonist of Sophocles’ Antigone breaks the law and risks her life for the honour of her family. Euripides’ Medea presents a woman who had lived as the ideal image until her husband left and the play theatricalizes the aftermath. The thoughts and actions of female characters, such as Lysistrata, Antigone, and Medea, are used to stress the importance of the Greek patriarchy and the women fulfilling their duties.

Misogyny is a reoccurring theme in Ancient Greece, and women were not only thought of as inferior and having dangerous intentions[2] but they were “an evil thing in which [men] may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction”. [3] The only independence women were permitted was within the oikos, as they were expected to obey their husbands at all times;[4] however, in Classical Greek drama, there are instances where women would challenge men, society, and politics. In doing so, Greek playwrights attempt to give advice about the role of women, as “it is always clear in the drama, that these are not foreign women acting normally but Athenian women acting abnormally”.[5]

All Greek tragedians and comedians were male, usually writing plays for male audiences.[6] In comedies, male playwrights would both blatantly and subtly reinforce female inferiority through mockery, such as in Lysistrata; an all-male audience would find it humourous to witness women being involved in politics, as it is irregular. In tragedies, the ideal woman, wife, or mother is depicted and, through the actions of the play, act as an example of what a woman should and should not do. These tragedies, in particular, use the effect of “fear and pity, . . . aroused by . . . the inner structure of the piece”,[7] as well as katharsis, the release of tension experienced by the audience following powerful emotions.[8] These methods are used so the audience is emotionally invested in the play, and therefore able to consider the meaning. Through this medium, playwrights were both entertaining and didactic.

Lysistrata, in Aristophanes’ Old Comedy, gathers women from various city-states who work together in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. Although the broad concept seems proto-feminist, it is rather the opposite: depicting women as lustful and selfish. The initial reason these women agree to band together is because they “pine for [their] children’s fathers when they’re off at war”[9] therefore insinuating a woman’s first concern is sexual. Regardless of their oath to refuse sexual activity until the war is over, Lysistrata finds it difficult to “keep the wives away from their husbands”[10] suggesting women are weak and lack self-discipline. The women’s reasoning to end the war is, ultimately, to return to their families, especially their husbands, re-establishing the “domestic order” of the household.[11] In doing so, the women must leave their temporary role in politics, to return to mundane housework and the responsibilities of the oikos. Not only does this maintain that women should obediently fulfil their duties, but as the ideal image, women should enjoy doing them. This play has a positive and encouraging influence on the ideal image, as it could give Greek women a sense of pride in their responsibilities, and their completion of them.

It is arguable that, based on the plot, Lysistrata and the group of Greek women succeeded in some form of liberation from the patriarchy; however, this exists for entertainment, rather than a criticism of the system. The Greece that is depicted in Lysistrata is a fantastical one, where all men are idiotic and insatiable. The concept of women “protecting” the men, and “manag[ing] the money”[12] seemed so improbable that it was something to laugh at, and this mockery reinforces the ideal image by stressing women’s subordination. When the women “keep men away from their hair-pies”,[13] it causes the Greek men to complain that their genitals are “bursting out of [their] skin”,[14] and that they are incapable of completing everyday tasks. Not only does the unlikelihood of this occurring insult women, but it also supports the ideal image, insinuating the little influence women have on men is sexual. Therefore, the women’s attempt to take control of the acropolis in Lysistrata acts as a form of comedy, strengthens the belief that women are inferior, and proposes that women should be satisfied with their position in the oikos.

Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter in Sophocles’ tragedy, begins the play with a clear conception of what the playwright believes to be the ideal image. Antigone tells her sister, Ismene, “we must remember, first, that we were born / Women, who should not strive with men”.[15] This establishes that Antigone’s morals coincide with the ideal image, identifying her as a grounded, loyal character. Creon, the King of Thebes, decrees that “No one shall honor [Polynices] with a grave, and none / Lament, but let his corpse be left unburied”.[16] Polynices, Antigone’s brother, returned from exile and “tried to burn his native land”[17], and for that reason, it was ruled that his body may not be buried, a dishonour for both him and his family.

Sensitive to both her religious and familial duties, Antigone justifies the idea of burying her brother, despite the personal consequences[18]. In doing so, Antigone dismisses Creon’s order for the honour of her oikos, and therefore reinforcing the ideal image of women. Ismene, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Sophocle’s perception of this image: unwilling to assist her sister, Antigone, in burying Polynices and honouring her family. Additionally, Ismene attempts to lie, claiming her “sharing in this burial”[19]; however, Antigone does not allow this. Ultimately, Antigone acts upon her strong morals, accepting her punishment.

The strongest connection between Antigone and the ideal image is not the sacrifice of her finite life, but the sacrifice of her afterlife. Antigone’s integrity and pious life would have granted her a pleasant afterlife; however, the honour of her family is more important than this. She fulfils her duty to bury her brother, knowing that it could be means for punishment in her afterlife. She says she “must please the dead below [for] much longer”[20] than she must please Creon, insinuating that she will spend eternity with her immoral family.[21]

Sophocles, as Aristophanes did, comments on a positive aspect of the ideal image. When Antigone is found hanged in her rocky prison, Haemon, her fiancé, kills himself. His disastrous actions are due to the loss of his love; however, it expresses that the heart and soul of the oikos lie within the woman. In doing so, Sophocles conveys his impression of the ideal image of women being that of a loyal, honourable, and committed wife and lover. It is clear that Sophocles has expressed through his play that he believes sacrifices must be made for the good of the oikos, and that the ideal woman would do anything to honour the family.

Medea, from Euripides’ tragedy of the same title, is introduced as a woman who has been living  “an unassailable married life of devotion to [her husband] and their children”.[22] Euripides seems to use the character Medea as an example of why a woman must control her emotions and consider the greater good; otherwise, the oikos is unstable. The events of the play commence after it is discovered Jason, Medea’s husband, is to marry the king of Corinth’s daughter. Medea, “spurned and desolate”,[23] decides to take her revenge on both Jason, and his new bride. Medea sends a poisoned gown and diadem as a gift, so when “she puts it on, / the girl will die in agony”.[24] Medea has selfish intentions, rather than considering what is best for the oikos, as Jason attempts to explain to her that he “wanted [their] children to be reared in a manner worthy of [his] ancestry”[25]. Although Medea’s situation was dreadful, she was unable to consider what was best for her family, and therefore contradicts the ideal image.

Euripides expresses the idea that Greek women take their lives and positions in society for granted. Jason, who at times represents an authorial character, continues to remind Medea that she “[has] a home in Hellas instead of some barbarian land”.[26] In doing so, Euripides explains that women have no need to reject their position in society, as they have a home, a family, and a loving and protective husband. This point is emphasized when Jason responds to Medea’s stubbornness: “You women are all the same. If your love life goes all right, everything is fine; but once crossed in bed, the liveliest and best that life can offer might as well be wormwood”.[27] Thus said, Euripides is indicating the correlation between a woman’s sense of self-assurance and the strength of her oikos.

As part of her act of vengeance, Medea drastically rejects the ideal image: “Never again alive shall he see the sons he had by me”.[28] For the mere fact of Jason not being able to be with his sons, and despite the chorus’ attempts at changing her mind, Medea slaughters her two sons.  In doing so, Medea has contradicted all her duties, representing the opposite of all women. Medea, “think[ing] it right to murder just for a thwarted bed”,[29] has corrupted and destroyed all aspects of her oikos. She has been banned from Corinth, rejected by her husband, and has murdered her children, instead of rearing and protecting them. The chorus, which, in fifth-century drama, often gives advice to characters, as well as the audience,[30] sing “Those that spill the blood of family / Stain themselves with heaven’s anger, / Haunt their homes with doom forever”.[31] This message is a clear indicator of Euripides’ moral standing. Medea’s actions have resulted in the destruction of her oikos, and, arguably, her sanity. Euripides has emphasized, through drastic measures, the importance of commitment, loyalty, and, selflessness, and, essentially, the antithesis of the ideal image.

Although many Greek playwrights have depicted women as inferior for the purpose of comedy and entertainment, it greatly reflects their idea of the ideal image. While some portrayals of Greek women attempt to encourage their duties within the oikos in a positive manner, the majority tend to do so in a demeaning fashion. The ideal image of women is represented and reflected upon through the abnormal occurrences in fifth-century drama. The women that want to return as housewives in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the self-sacrifice for familial honour in Sophocles’ Antigone, and the vengeful rampage of the heart-broken wife in Euripides’ Medea indicate the respective playwrights’ concept of the ideal image; therefore, bridging the gap between the reality of women in Classical Greece, and what is depicted onstage.


     [1] Morris and Powell, “Chapter 3: The Greeks at Home,” in The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society, 28

     [2] Ibid.

     [3] Hesiod, Works and Days, 58

     [4] Morris and Powell, 28

     [5] Shaw, “The Female Intruder: Women in Fifth-Century Drama,” Classical Philology, 256

     [6] Rich, Lysistrata and Old Comedy, 19 September 2012

     [7] Aristotle, Poetics in The Longman Anthology of Drama and Theater, 34

     [8] Morris and Powell “Chapter 15: Fifth-Century Drama,” in The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society, 328

     [9] Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 196

     [10] Ibid., 209

     [11] J. Ellen Gainor, Aristophanes, Vol. I, in The Norton Anthology of Drama, 188

     [12] Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 203

     [13] Ibid., 216

     [14] Ibid., 219

     [15] Sophocles, Antigone, 158

     [16] Ibid.

     [17] Ibid.

     [18]  Walter R. Agard, The Antigone of Sophocles, Vol. I, in Classics in Translation, 155

     [19] Sophocles, Antigone, 163

     [20] Ibid. 157

     [21] Antigone’s father, Oedipus, killed his father and slept with his mother. Her mother hung herself after hearing this, and her brother was later exiled.

     [22] Greenwald, Pomo and Schultz, Medea in The Longman Anthology of Drama and Theater, 164

     [23] Euripides, Medea, 20

     [24] Ibid., 787-88

     [25] Ibid., 562

     [26] Ibid., 536

     [27] Ibid., 570-573

     [28] Ibid., 803

     [29] Ibid., 1367

     [30] Rich, Performance Conventions of Greek Theatre, 21 September 2012

     [31] Euripides, Medea, 1267-1270




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