Women in Ancient Tragedy and Comedy
Both the drama of Euripides' "Medea" and the comedy of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" seem unique upon a level of even surface characterization, to even the most casual students of Classical Greek drama and culture. Both in are female-dominated plays that were produced by male-dominated societies and written by men. Both the drama and the comedy features strong women as their central protagonists, whom are depicted under extreme circumstances, in relatively positive lights. And both plays, despite their very different tones, also have an additional, unique feature in that they show 'the enemy' -- or the non-Greek or non-Athenian, in a fairly positive and humane fashion.
The sympathies of the viewer for female's plights are immediately arisen by Aristophanes from the first scene of "Lysistrata," as Cleonice, the friend of Lysistrata, and a common Athenian housewife states, regarding the lateness of the other women that frustrates the organizing title character: "Oh! They [the other women] will come, my dear; but it's not easy, you know, for women to leave the house. One is busy pottering about her husband; another is getting the servant up; a third is putting her child asleep or washing the brat or feeding it. (Aristophanes, "Lysistrata," retrieved on 6 November 2004 from Exploring World Cultures Website, 1997) As observed by Bill Hemminger, a classical scholar on Exploring World Cultures Website "a culture includes both the dominant tradition and its transgression," in other words, both dramas and comedies such as these two validate cultural values such as male dominance, a dislike of foreigners, and military prowess, and also subvert them through humane and humanizing characterizations of the feminine and the feminine plight of dependence upon men for status and protection. (Hemminger, 1997)
True, asserting that Euripides' characterization of Medea as a positive and sympathetic character may seem a more dubious proposition, on the outset. Yet there is no question that this woman is a wronged woman. "She, poor lady, hath by sad experience learnt how good a thing it is never to quit one's native land," says the Nurse at the beginning of the play. (Euripides, "Medea," MIT Classics Archive, Retrieved on 6 November 1997 at http://classics.mit.edu/Euripides/medea.html)...
This woman, although highly born and comfortable in her own native territory, sacrificed herself and provided crucial and indispensable aid to Jason, so that he was able to realize his quest for the golden fleece and assume full kingly authority over his people.
Thus, to the likely all-male audience, Medea functioned a woman of power, in a frightening way, given her mastery of the arts of witchcraft, yet without this power Jason would indeed be nothing. The title character of "Lysistrata" is likewise a powerful figure, albeit not in a supernatural fashion. However, she is powerful sexually, for by withholding sexual favors and encouraging other women to follow her example, Lysistrata changes the course of a nation's destiny and ends the too long war between Athens and Sparta. Of course, Medea changes the course of a nation's destiny too, through her uniquely feminine gifts. At first she does so positively, as through her witchcraft, she helps Jason gain power. But when he attempts to leave her, Medea kills his prospective bride, kills the heirs apparent to the throne (her own children, as well as Jason's progeny) and leaves her former husband in a state of psychological tatters.
It could be argued although the characterization of these central female protagonists is strong, these women's respective powers derive from conventional feminine sources of power, namely that of sexuality in the comedic setting of war torn contemporary (for the first viewers of the play) Athens in "Lysistrata" and witchcraft in the mythical setting of Medea. In other words, although the women as characters seem strong, the plot structure is not actually and actively transgressing of female roles of the era where it is set. But without the help of other women, Lysistrata's actions would mean nothing. It is her political and moral leadership and drive, her ability to martial the collective will…
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