Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy

Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy

Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy

Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy


Theatrical tragedy, like all other major civic institutions of the fifth-century B.C. Athenian democratic patriarchy, was exclusively male. The course of western drama changed when women characters (played by transvestite male performers) were introduced. Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy explores themes and issues of gender identity and political ideology in plays by Aeschylus (Suppliant Maidens, Oresteia), Sophocles (Antigone, Philoctetes), and Euripides (Alcestis, Medea, Orestes, Helen, Iphigeneia in Aulis, Bakkhai). This is the first book-length treatment of the themes of gender and politics in ancient Greek tragedy.


The Greeks of the Periclean age were widely different from us. It is to be lamented that . . . there is no book which shows the Greeks precisely as they were; they seem all written for children, with the caution that no practice or sentiment, highly inconsistent with our own present manners, should be mentioned, lest these manners should receive outrage and violation.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancients"

From my first encounters with Greek tragedy as a sixteen-year-old student at the all-male Bishop's Latin School in Pittsburgh, I was puzzled to learn that roles like Medea were originally played not by women but by men. When I questioned my teachers about this, I was told that this was "how things were." They added that this was not especially significant because most important institutions were still all male.

As I continued to study and teach the Greek plays over the next three decades, I found that more and more of what I saw in them was being passed over or ignored in the reverential mist that continues to keep them distant from most readers and enthusiasts of drama and theatre.

This book is my attempt to recover some of the immediacy which I believe the original audiences experienced. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were not writing timeless masterpieces but contemporary and imaginative readings of their culture and the events and problems confronting it. That the issues their plays confronted twenty-five centuries ago still spark debate, interest and even controversy is testimony to how unflinchingly honest they were in their examination and questioning.

Greek tragedy was born of and never wholly left the context of Athenian politics. As democracy emerged in Athens, tragedy and democracy became inextricably interwoven. Also interwoven with both tragedy and democracy was the concept and practice of patriarchy. Fifth- century Athens was rigidly masculine in its values and gender ideology.

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