Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy

Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy

Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy

Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy

Synopsis

Wohl offers an illuminating analysis of the exchange of women in Sophocles'Trachiniae, Aeschylus' Agamemnon, and Euripides' Alcestis. She asserts that while the tragedies present an affirmation of Athens' reigning ideologies (including its gender hierarchy), they also offer the possibility of resistance to them.

Excerpt

In human society, it is the men who exchange the women, and not vice versa.

-- CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS, STRUCTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY

THE TRAGIC EXCHANGE

In the second choral ode ofSophocles' Trachiniae, the chorus sings of the matched contest between the hero Heracles and the river-god Achelous for the hand of the princess Deianira. The two heroes wrestle in the dust, the language of the ode vividly evoking the male world of athletic contests and war. Meanwhile, Deianira, the prize for which they fight, "sat on a distant hill, waiting for the man who would be her husband. . . . And suddenly she is gone from her mother, like a calf abandoned" (Trachiniae 523-30).

This scene is paradigmatic of a structure termed by anthropologists "the exchange of women." In the broadest sense, the term refers to the movement of a woman from one man to another as a bride, a gift, or, as here, a prize. Whether the exchange is amicable (as in a marriage) or hostile (as in this contest), the transfer of a woman between two men constitutes the social world, generating bonds between the men and defining their social identities. So, in this scene, the competition for Deianira brings the two heroes together in a wrestling match so intimate as to be almost erotic. Their relation of antagonistic equality gives way to a rela-

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