Iantha M Haight and Dr. Norbert H O Duckwitz, Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature
Euripides’ plays continue to be very popular today because of their powerfully human themes. Because of their strong, emotional impact, however, many critics disagree on how to interpret Euripides’ views on women. Since so much knowledge about Greek society in general and women in particular has been lost, classical literature, such as poetry and plays, though difficult to interpret, are important sources of knowledge about the lives and attitudes of the ancient Greeks, especially in regards to the politically disenfranchised groups of women and slaves who feature insignificantly in political writings. Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, the other great Greek tragedians, Euripides used slave women as the main characters in several plays: Andromache, Hecuba, and Trojan Women. In addition, his play Medea depicts a woman whose social status is threatened to the point that her husband could effectively reduce her to the status of a slave by her new marriage. Taken collectively, this collection of plays driven by feminine issues, strong female heroines and villains, and the element of social status and its relationship to marriage seemed too strong to be a coincidence.
In this project, my intent was to investigate the roles that slavery and women play in the context of several of Euripides’ individual works and try to identify an overlying attitude or message concerning women that the playwright may have attempted to convey to his fellow Athenians. This project was challenging because of the uncertain nature of literary interpretation and the compounded problem of fixing the plays within the context of a society about which our knowledge is quite limited.
In terms of the literary interpretation, I focused on using a feminist approach. I selected the plays Trojan Women, Andromache, and Medea because of the social issues they deal with and their raw, poignant power. In fact, I originally came upon the idea for doing this study as a result of reading Trojan Women in connection with my studies of Homer’s Iliad and being so affected by its emotional appeal. The interpretation of these plays and of Euripides’ beliefs in general is widely varied and has pinned on the playwright the widely varying labels of misogynist and feminist, with many variations and qualifications along a continuum between these two extremes. This dichotomy in the views on Euripides presents an interesting opportunity to present my on views on his attitudes toward women.
My feeling was that Euripides felt compassion for women and their gender-specific challenges in light of the emotional appeal Trojan Women makes for female prisoners of war. When placing that play and the others in my study in the context of Athenian laws and social customs regarding women, I hoped to find message in regards to women that what against the grain of normal Athenian practice and custom.
In Trojan Women, I found that the former noblewomen of the play who had recently become slaves gathered emotional strength by mourning together in a beautifully interwoven poetic ballet with Hecuba, the matriarch of the noble family, standing in the center of it. Andromache illustrates the conflict that could exist between a man, his legitimate wife, and his slave mistress and the difficulties that inevitably arose in some arranged marriages and from sexual unfaithfulness. Finally, in Medea, Euripides develops the tragedy of a foreign woman, Medea, who had been married to a Greek man, Jason: when Jason decides that his marriage to a foreigner is not giving him the socio-economic benefits he wants, he dumps Medea and their two children for a Greek princess. In this play, Euripides may likely have been illustrating the negative consequences of an Athenian law that only sons having both an Athenian father and an Athenian mother could possess citizenship. In addition, the only means Medea had for revenge on her husband and for getting free of his power was by killing their children and thus causing grievous pain in her own life and well as in her husband’s. Thus, Medea states that women could only escape domination and perpetual slavery to their husbands was through self-destructive means.
In sum, Euripides’ plays comment on marriage, on power, and on community, hoping to influence the attitude of Athenian men toward their women by arousing sympathy, as in Trojan Women and Andromache, and fear, as in Medea. But in all cases Euripides presents women not as martyrs, like Sophocles’ Antigone, or as women to be mocked, like Aristophanes’ comic heroines, but as interesting, powerful human beings who are proactive and justice-driven, like Medea, or role models for their families, like Hecuba.
My study is lacking an examination into one important characteristic common to all of the female protagonists in my work—noble birth. Hecuba was a foreign queen, and Andromache and Medea were foreign princesses before the beginning of their respective plays. Euripides’ pro-female message may have been restricted only to noble women, but it is also possible that noble female characters were the only ones “available,” as it were, from Greek myths who lent themselves to the playwright’s message. In any event, more work needs to be done on this element of my study.
In conclusion, studying Euripides was a very rewarding experience. Although it is sometimes difficult to come to any definitive conclusions about an author and his politics by analyzing his literature, the exercise has helped me to read Greek tragedy in a new way. The difficulty of climbing into Euripides’ mind through his plays only reveals how complex and challenging an author he is, and how relevant his work continues to be, even 2,500 years later.