Gender and the Family

Tragedy depicts a world where the normal sources of stability and authority are challenged and broken down. Since the primary unit of society is the family (or oikos), it is not surprising that tragedy is filled with dysfunctional families, where husbands and wives show hostility rather than loyalty to each other, and the parent–child relationship is one that brings danger instead of protection. The household was the source of authority and status for women in the Greek world, and so tragedy’s focus on family roles also means an interest in the lives of women. Out of the thirty-two extant tragedies, only Sophocles’ Philoctetes has no female characters, and the tragedians frequently select myths for their plays which involve gender conflict. This chapter will discuss how men and women behave towards each other in Greek tragedy, how this reflects real societal issues, and what the plays have to say about family life. Women and marriage are central to Greek tragedy, but we should not forget that gender relationships are reciprocal, and so these stories tell us much about masculinity as well.

In order to understand tragedy’s depiction of gender we must situate the plays in their historical and social contexts. There is no single answer to the question of what women’s status in fifth-century BC Athens was, since it depends on the arena in question (politics, law, religion, household), and on the social class of the women concerned. All women led circumscribed lives by modern standards, excluded from many of the mechanisms essential to the running of public life. They played no role in political life, and were forbidden from participation in the Assembly and law courts. They could not own property or be citizens themselves, although freeborn Athenian wives could transmit property and citizenship to their sons. Nor did they have any legal status independent of their male kin, and they were treated as perpetual minors, under the guardianship of a male relative. These ideals of obedience and silence are summarized by Pericles in Thucydides’ Histories: ‘[G]reat is your glory if you are no worse than your natural character, and greatest is that of the woman who is spoken about by men as little as possible, whether for good or for bad’ (2.45.3). The justification that lay behind this extreme control was that women themselves were believed to be intrinsically uncontrolled, less capable than men of mastering their emotional and animalistic impulses. Thus, the extreme females of tragedy can in one sense be seen as exploring the consequences that ensue when women slip loose from male control and take matters into their own hands.

Nevertheless, gender relations in any society are not simple, and when we start to analyse Greek society, the ‘rules’ laid out in ancient sources start to appear less rigid than we might at first think. In the absence of any authentic female voice from the fifth century, we must bear in mind that statements made about women’s lives are made by (and usually for) men, and they may reflect aspirations or cultural ideals rather than being an objective description. For example, we often find the ideal expressed in Athenian sources that women should be confined to their own quarters within the household and not go outdoors, but this can hardly have been the reality for poorer women, who would have had to work outside. When a man claims that his own wife or daughters never leave the house, it may tell us more about the way that Athenian men signalled their wealth or moral propriety than it does about the actual day-to-day lives of women. Indeed, Pericles’ words advocating female invisibility are spoken to the women in his audience, who are present in large numbers to play their part in lamenting the war dead, and this reminds us that even respectable women had reason to be out in public. Moreover, different standards apply in different contexts, and the types of women we find in comedy are different to those of law court speeches, and different again to those we find in myth and poetry. This tension between ideology and real life makes gender relations ideal fodder for the tragedians, and their depictions of intelligent and dynamic women explore the gap between the social ideal of the submissive woman and the experiences that Athenian men must have had with their own female relatives, who may not always have conformed to these expectations.

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Figure 7.1 Women fetching water from a fountain (sixth-century BC water jug). (Photo by DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images.)

Yet describing the limitations of women’s lives should not blind us to the value that they had to the Athenian system and to the individual men within it. As mothers, women were bearers of the citizens and soldiers who would ensure the city’s security. In 451/0 BC, the politician Pericles proposed a new citizenship law that decreed that a man could be a citizen only if both his parents were Athenian, and this made Athenian women essential to the continuity of the polis since only they could provide legitimate heirs. Marriage and childbearing had always been conceptualized as the ultimate goal of a woman’s life, but the new Athenian rules meant that a man must marry a freeborn Athenian girl in order to secure his family line, since he could no longer pass on his property to any illegitimate children produced through partnerships with foreigners or slaves. This justified close constraints on women’s activities, to ensure their sexual fidelity, but it also gave them an elevated status relative to foreign and slave women, and the respect that a man owes to his mother, wife and daughter is a recurrent theme in tragedy. Thus while tragedy in some respects legitimizes the power structures of Athenian society, by portraying the dangers women pose when they are not adequately controlled by men, it also illustrates that women are central to a functional society, and that men have a responsibility to treat them properly.

Bad husbands, bad wives

The menacing Clytemnestra of the Oresteia is one of tragedy’s most memorable women, and influenced subsequent portrayals of tragic females. The Oresteia not only explores Clytemnestra’s experience as a powerful woman, but uses her dominance to underline the faults in the two men she calls husband, Agamemmnon and Aegisthus. Aeschylus greatly expanded Clytemnestra’s role in the myth of Agamemnon’s murder, since in the Odyssey it is Aegisthus who kills Agamemnon at a banquet, while Clytemnestra kills her rival Cassandra. In the Oresteia, by contrast, Clytemnestra is at the centre of the action, and commits both killings herself, while Aegisthus is a mere accomplice who takes no active role until Agamemnon is safely dead. Thus Clytemnestra transgresses against gender norms, making herself the head of her dysfunctional household, as is signalled in the opening words of the trilogy, when the Watchman describes her as ‘a woman whose heart plans like a man’ (Agamemnon, 11). Clytemnestra is sexually as well as socially dominant, and her speeches are filled with erotic imagery, culminating in her description of the murders, where she describes Agamemnon’s death in the charged language of fertility and gushing liquids (1390–2) and calls Cassandra’s death a ‘side-dish’ to her own sexual pleasure (1447). In Athenian society, a respectable woman’s sex life was not to be spoken of in public, still less her sexual pleasures, and Clytemnestra’s brazenness would be deeply shocking, as is later picked up by her daughter Electra, who prays that she might be ‘much more chaste than my mother’ (Libation Bearers 140). Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, demonstrates faults in his masculinity that reflect the problems with her femininity, since (as the chorus taunt him at the end of Agamemnon) he is cowardly and weak, prepared to sleep with another man’s wife but afraid to carry out the murder plan he has put in place, and he leaves it to his lover to commit the crimes he has devised (1633–5, 1643–6).

Just as Aegisthus is unmanly in his cowardice, so too is Clytemnestra unfeminine in her violence, and Aeschylus uses her transgression of gender roles as a way of undermining any potential sympathy for her. When Clytemnestra acts in a feminine way, we are shown that she is merely playing the role of the good wife, and her docility is an attempt to manipulate the men around her. Thus, for example, Clytemnestra tells Agamemnon how she feared for his safety while he was away, going so far as to claim that she repeatedly attempted suicide on hearing false rumours of his death (874–6). Yet the audience knows that by pretending affection for her husband she will more easily trick him to his death. Similarly, in Libation Bearers Clytemnestra pleads for her life and bares her breast as a sign of her maternal affection for Orestes (896–8), yet shortly before we have seen her call for a weapon to defend herself against him (889), and her tenderness is only what she falls back on when all else fails.

Yet despite Clytemnestra’s excessiveness, it is made clear that she has been offended as a wife and a mother, and that she has legitimate grievances against Agamemnon. Clytemnestra herself justifies Agamemnon’s murder by reference to his killing of Iphigenia, whom she describes as ‘the darling of my labour pains’ (1417–18). Agamemnon has also offended Clytemnestra as his wife by bringing a concubine (Cassandra) back to the marital home. This scene is staged in a way that would evoke a wedding procession for a fifth-century audience, as Cassandra arrives at her new home on a chariot (as in a marriage procession). It was not problematic in Greek society for a man to have an extra-marital affair, but it was expected that he did not insult his wife’s position within her household, as Agamemnon does by flaunting his new partner in front of Clytemnestra and expecting her to accept the other woman in the home. Thus Clytemnestra argues that Agamemnon’s death is deserved, and that he has brought his ruin upon himself (1395–8). Of course, the audience is aware that Clytemnestra is not merely an aggrieved wife, and she has herself committed adultery, and we see the hypocrisy in her complaints (she abhors Iphigenia’s killing but abandons her other children; she resents Agamemnon’s adultery but rejoices in her own). Yet Clytemnestra’s many negative qualities should not obscure the fact that her grievances are legitimate: just because she is a bad wife does not mean that Agamemnon is not also a bad husband.

The status and role of the two sexes is a major theme of the trilogy’s final play, Kindly Ones. In Libation Bearers Orestes had to choose between loyalty to his mother and his father, and the relative priority of the two parents becomes the main issue in his trial. Apollo, arguing in Orestes’ defence, puts forward the extreme argument that the mother has no rights over the child at all, and should be viewed solely as the host that nurtures the male seed (657–66), while Athena says as she rules in Orestes’ favour, ‘I support the male in all things’ (737). Apollo’s argument is tendentious, and no Greek would have agreed that a mother had no relationship with her child. Nevertheless, within a patriarchal society, most Greeks would probably have agreed in the primacy of male authority and seen the father as the more important parent in the event that one had to choose. However, the Furies, who represent Clytemnestra’s claims, are not repudiated entirely, but are incorporated into Athenian society as goddesses of marriage and fertility. Apollo’s attempt to exclude women is shown to be untenable, and the value of the female is reaffirmed after the inversions of proper behaviour that have marked the trilogy. We see a similar pattern in Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women trilogy, where mistakes made by both men and women cause disaster, followed by ultimate reintegration. In the surviving play, Suppliant Women, the daughters of Danaus reject marriage completely, while their suitors attempt to abduct them. In the lost plays of the trilogy, the Danaids are forced to marry and resort to violence in order to escape, since all but one kill their husbands on their wedding night. This crisis is resolved in the final play, where (in a surviving fragment) Aphrodite affirms the power of love and sexual union over everything on the earth. At the end of the trilogy, the importance of harmony between the sexes is reaffirmed. The suitors have been punished for their attempt to abduct girls rather than achieve a lawful marriage with their father’s consent, but the Danaids must accept that women cannot avoid marriage and motherhood forever. Thus proper roles within the family are re-established, and both sexes are reminded of the legitimate status and claims to respect that the other holds.

In Euripides’ Medea, another story of a vengeful wife, the failings of the husband emerge still more strongly. Gender conflict runs through Euripides’ work, and women play a prominent role in his tragedies, since most have female leading roles, and all but three (Alcestis, Children of Heracles, Heracles) have female choruses. Euripides’ discussion of gender is also more topical in its engagement with the dominant sexual ideology of Athens. The fact that Aristophanes mocked him as a misogynist because of his sexually transgressive women suggests that these female figures had a great impact on the Athenian audience. In Medea, Jason fails to reciprocate Medea’s many favours to him (475–519) and is even prepared for his children to go into exile in order to facilitate his new marriage. His dishonesty and shameful abandonment of his family are highlighted when he claims that he is making a new and more prestigious marriage in order to help his existing children (559–67). Not only do the chorus condemn Jason’s behaviour, but so does the neutral (and Athenian male) Aegeus (695). In her opening speech, Medea appeals to the chorus of Corinthian women by appealing to them as fellow females (230–51). She complains that women are dependent on their husbands, points to the sexual double standard that permits men, but not women, to pursue extra-marital affairs, and ends with the ringing declaration, ‘I would rather stand three times with a shield in war than give birth once!’ Medea’s speech points out the tensions inherent in a patriarchal society, and exploits these tensions to win the chorus’ support. Conversely, even by the end of the play, Jason refuses to accept the importance of marriage in a woman’s life (1369). Yet Medea is not a typical Athenian wife, and in her opening speech she also explains how she lacks the usual safety net that protects women in bad marriages (252–8):

But the same argument does not apply to you as to me. You have this city and your father’s house, the benefits of life and the company of friends, but I, deserted and citiless, am abused by my husband, taken as booty from a foreign land, with no mother, brother, or relative to give me refuge in this disaster.

Women are dependent on their husbands, but in the worst case they should normally be able to rely on other male relatives and the wider community to support them. Because she lacks these protections, Medea claims that she has no option but to punish Jason. Yet the audience would be aware that she too bears some responsibility for the position she finds herself in. Medea betrayed her father and murdered her brother in order to elope with Jason (rather than, as she claims, being abducted as ‘booty’), thus cutting off any connection to her birth family. It is therefore Medea’s aggression, and her single-mindedness in pursuit of her goals, along with Jason’s faithlessness, that have led to this catastrophe. These character traits are also those that cause her to kill her innocent children, placing her desire to punish her husband above her feelings as a mother. Like Clytemnestra, Medea reveals a softer side to trick her male interlocutors by appealing to their assumptions that women must be weak and emotional, while the audience knows that this is a facade adopted to enable her vengeance. Thus Creon is taken in by her weeping and her plea that he must respect her maternal feelings (340–7), while in her second scene with Jason, Medea draws on the stereotypes of the emotional and foolish woman in order to convince him that she poses no danger (889–91):

But we are what we are, I won’t say bad, but we are just women. You should not imitate our bad deeds, or return our childishness with childishness.

In his previous scene, Jason has expressed his belief that women are foolish, emotional and petty (570–5), and Medea appeals to these pre-conceptions to persuade him that her earlier threats should not be taken seriously and that she is liable, as an irrational woman, to change her mind unpredictably. Jason’s arrogance and his belief in his male superiority clouds his judgement; he is taken in by her trick and so allows her to send the children to his new bride with a poisoned robe.

Clytemnestra and Medea are both women who fail to conform to the gender norms of Greek society: they are active and violent, and set out to avenge themselves on their husbands. In Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, the poet explores how a marriage can be destroyed even where the woman is much more conventional in her character. Deianeira begins the play as a passive and compliant wife, who is eagerly expecting her husband’s return. Like Agamemnon, Heracles insults his wife by bringing a concubine (Iole) to the marital house, but to the surprise of his servant Lichas, Deianeira appears to feel no anger. Yet although she does not seek vengeance, even the meekest tragic wife cannot tolerate another woman in her house, and she confides in the chorus her fear that she will lose Heracles’ love, and her plan to regain it using a magic potion (in fact a deadly poison that ironically kills the husband she hopes to save). The dangers of insulting one’s wife are highlighted by the negative portrayal of Heracles, and Women of Trachis explores the dangers of extreme masculinity as much as the role of women. Heracles’ strength is demonstrated through violence, first his sack of Oechalia to pursue his lust for Iole, and later his killing of the innocent Lichas, which is described in gruesome terms (779–82):

He grabbed him by the foot, where the ankle joins it, and dashed him onto a sea-swept rock, and the white brains gushed out from his hair along with blood, as his head was smashed.

Heracles’ selfishness is further revealed in the scene where he forces his son Hyllus to marry Iole out of sexual jealousy that someone else might now possess her. Heracles ignores Hyllus’ horror at marrying his father’s concubine and the woman implicated in his mother’s suicide, and forces his son to obey him (1221–51). In insisting on this marriage, Heracles distorts the usual hope that sons will continue the family line, effectively turning his son into an extension of his own sexuality.

Bad fathers, bad sons

When women go wrong in tragedy, then, they are often presented as having done so because of the mistakes made by the men around them. While tragic women embody men’s worst fears (of being aggressive, scheming, vengeful, manipulative), the audience can also appreciate the degradation of their legitimate roles as wives, mothers or daughters. The social breakdown is thus two-sided, and tragedy has as much to say about men’s roles as women’s. It follows, therefore, that tragedy engages with the question of what makes someone a good man, in the private familial sphere as well as the public one.

We see these themes clearly in ‘coming of age’ plays, where we find a youthful hero trying to establish himself in the world, but reluctant to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. Euripides’ Hippolytus portrays a young man who rejects the two major facets of male Athenian identity – marriage and fatherhood – and participation in public life. It is often said that marriage and children were the ultimate goals of a woman’s life, but it is important not to overlook the fact that they were of equal importance to a man’s. While males had an obligation to be citizens and soldiers, they were also expected to become fathers, since ensuring the safe continuance of one’s family line was a central part of male identity, and a man who did not produce legitimate heirs had failed in his duty to his forebears. The historian Herodotus reports the parable of Tellus the Athenian, who is deemed to have achieved the pinnacle of human happiness (1.30.18–26). Tellus’ achievements are twofold: he fathered virtuous sons who lived to beget their own children; and he died well on the battlefield. Herodotus also tells many stories of divine punishment where the ultimate suffering is the destruction of the family line, which reinforces the importance of fatherhood in Greek eyes. Hippolytus’ refusal to honour Aphrodite, therefore, is not simply a dislike for a goddess, but represents a problematic rejection of sexuality, and hence adult responsibility. He wishes to remain in a childlike state of innocence and rejects the need for change in human life, as is reflected in his wish to ‘end life’s race as I began it’ (87). We see this same tendency in his speech to Theseus where he rejects politics and public life, saying that he would prefer to spend his time doing athletics (1016–18), an activity associated with young men, like Hippolytus’ other pastime, hunting.

If the production of legitimate heirs was a crucial achievement for a Greek man, the relationship between fathers and their sons is also central to male identity. It is no coincidence that the bad tragic husbands we have examined thus far are also bad fathers: Agamemnon, Jason and Heracles all fail their children by disregarding their interests. The importance of male heirs is inherent in Medea’s punishment of Jason, since she realizes that despite Jason’s apparent lack of concern for his children, the best way to hurt him is through their death. By killing Jason’s existing children along with his new wife, she eliminates any possibility of him perpetuating his family line. Similarly in Euripides’ Heracles, the hero falls from the height of his powers to a wretched state by being driven to kill his own children in a fit of madness. Heracles ironically believes himself to be avenging and protecting his family even as he destroys it, and the death of his children at his own hands represents the worst punishment Hera can devise. Other tragic fathers are culpable for the deaths of their children: for example, in Sophocles’ Antigone Haemon commits suicide because of his father’s actions, while in Euripides’ Hecuba the wicked king Polymestor’s children are killed to punish him for the murder of Hecuba’s son. But sons in tragedy can be more than victims of their fathers’ mistakes, and many plays explore the father–son relationship in depth.

Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus depicts a dysfunctional relationship where fault lies on both sides. Oedipus has been treated shamefully by his sons, who have forced him into exile as a beggar, and in return he has cursed them. Their failure to live up to their filial responsibility causes a distortion in gender dynamics as well as generational ones, since it leaves only Oedipus’ daughters to act on his behalf. Oedipus himself remarks upon this oddity, criticizing his sons for acting like maidens, while the girls bear the hardships of the road in order to protect their father (337–45). During the play, Oedipus learns of the power that his tomb will have over the Thebans, and swears that his sons will never benefit from this. When Polynices comes to beg Oedipus to retract the curse and to give him his support, Oedipus adds new curses to his former ones, and rejects his son angrily (1348–96). His sense of outrage and aggrieved personal honour means that he would rather see his whole family line destroyed than forgive his son’s behaviour. Yet we are reminded that Oedipus’ intransigence will also lead to the death of the daughter he cherishes, since as Polynices leaves to face his death, he makes Antigone promise to give him an honourable burial (1405–13).

Euripides’ Hippolytus also depicts the breakdown of family relations, since it is Hippolytus’ alleged disrespect for his father (in raping his wife) that leads to the hero’s death. Theseus responds to Hippolytus’ apparent perversion of the father–son relationship with a distortion of his own, since rather than wishing for a healthy son to continue his line, he curses his son and brings about his destruction. The relationship between Theseus and Hippolytus is complicated by the fact that Hippolytus is an illegitimate son (the Greek term is nothos), and while Hippolytus acts like a confident aristocrat for most of the play, the question of his status remains an issue. When he realizes that Theseus will not relent, he laments the circumstances of his birth: ‘O wretched mother, o bitter childbirth. May none of my friends ever be a bastard!’ (1082–3). The implication is that his illegitimacy is relevant to Theseus’ inability to believe that he is not a base man. It is ironic that Hippolytus owes his existence to Theseus’ inability to restrain his sexual impulses, the very accusation made of Hippolytus here. Theseus and Hippolytus are reconciled at the end of the play, and Hippolytus’ willingness to forgive his father creates a final note of compassion. Yet Hippolytus’ bitterness still emerges in his dying moments. As Theseus praises Hippolytus’ generosity of spirit for forgiving him his part in events, he responds, ‘[P]ray that you may get such treatment from your legitimate children’ (1455), a further dig at the supposition that illegitimate children are inherently less virtuous than those born in wedlock.

Greek tragedy loves to depict dysfunctional families, and the crises of the plays are often caused by the disintegration of traditional forms of loyalty, or the failure of family members to keep to their proper role. Thus in tragedy we find parents who kill their children rather than protecting them, wives who plot against their husbands rather than obeying them, and men who dishonour their wives and fail in their responsibility as head of the household. It is notable that one transgression begets another, since in the tragic world, the way to respond to an insult is with retaliation. Tragedy stands out for its vivid depictions of powerful women, and characters such as Medea and Clytemnestra are terrifying because of their ability to overturn gender norms and take matters into their own hands. Yet we must not overlook the degree to which the male characters of tragedy are equally responsible for the events of the plays. The tragedians, then, are not proto-feminists but nor do they simply uphold a patriarchal order. Rather Greek tragedy explores the fault lines and tensions inherent in the social system that it represents, and portrays the disastrous consequences of a failure to honour and respect one’s family members. In doing so, their messages remain as relevant today as they were 2,500 years ago.

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