Female Acts in Greek Tragedy

Female Acts in Greek Tragedy

Female Acts in Greek Tragedy

Female Acts in Greek Tragedy


Although Classical Athenian ideology did not permit women to exercise legal, economic, and social autonomy, the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides often represent them as influential social and moral forces in their own right. Scholars have struggled to explain this seeming contradiction. Helene Foley shows how Greek tragedy uses gender relations to explore specific issues in the development of the social, political, and intellectual life in the polis. She investigates three central and problematic areas in which tragic heroines act independently of men: death ritual and lamentation, marriage, and the making of significant ethical choices. Her anthropological approach, together with her literary analysis, allows for an unusually rich context in which to understand gender relations in ancient Greece.

This book examines, for example, the tragic response to legislation regulating family life that may have begun as early as the sixth century. It also draws upon contemporary studies of virtue ethics and upon feminist reconsiderations of the Western ethical tradition. Foley maintains that by viewing public issues through the lens of the family, tragedy asks whether public and private morality can operate on the same terms. Moreover, the plays use women to represent significant moral alternatives. Tragedy thus exploits, reinforces, and questions cultural clichés about women and gender in a fashion that resonates with contemporary Athenian social and political issues.


What is it about women that interests Mr.
Jacquot? “I was born a man,” Mr. Jacquot said,
“and women are a part of humanity that is at once
familiar and very, very strange to me. It's difficult
for a man to ask the question, what is a man. It's
as if the question just doesn't arise. Or as if we
already know the response, and it's not necessarily
amusing. But a woman can ask herself the
question, what is a woman. I try to respond to
that question with the female characters I invent
and the actresses I film. And they always lead me
to further questions.”

(French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot, New York Times, August 2, 1998)

GREEK tragedy was written and performed by men and aimed—perhaps not exclusively if women were present in the theater—at a large, public male audience. Masculine identity and conflicts remain central to the enterprise, but the texts often explore or query these issues through female characters and the culturally more marginal positions that they occupy. Such indirection is basic to the genre as a whole. Tragic plots borrow from the whole repertoire of Greek myths, often myths about cities other than Athens, and the plays take place in the remote past. The heroic kings who dominate the cities of Greek tragedies no more directly reflect the leaders of Athenian democracy than the active and assertive women who make public choices and determine the outcome of the plot of so many Greek tragedies resemble their more restricted Athenian counterparts. At the same time, in part through deploying deliberate anachronisms or overlapping features of the fictional past and the lived present, the tragedies provoke an implicit dialogue between present and past, and the enduring fascination of these stories of powerful aristocratic families for a democratic polis (city-state) requires explanation.

The study of tragic women is both more limited and in a sense more elusive than that of tragic men. Tragedy at least makes a pretense of knowing what

On the question of women's presence in the theater, see most recently Podlecki 1990, Hen
derson 1991, and Goldhill 1994. I am of the opinion that a limited number of (perhaps predomi
nantly older or noncitizen) women were present along with metics, foreigners, and slaves, but that
the performances were primarily aimed at citizen men.

See esp. Vernant 1981 and Easterling 1985.

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