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Dec 31, 2015

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Euripides on the Woes of Woman

Euripides’s plays evince a concern for women and other disenfranchised groups in ancient Greek society.

As we saw last time, Euripides devoted a series of Trojan plays – Hecuba, Andromache, Trojan Women, and Helen – to the evils of war generally and to its malign effect on women specifically. To these we might add his Iphigeneia in Aulis, which harshly depicts Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter to the gods in order to secure a favorable wind for the Greek expedition to Troy.1

Euripides’ sympathy with the position of women in Greek society surfaces in other plays as well. In his Ion, for example, the chain of unhappy events is initiated when the god Apollo forcibly impregnates a mortal woman, Creusa, who subsequently abandons her half-divine offspring and tries to cover up the event in order to avoid scandal. Euripides presents Creusa’s plight sympathetically, while portraying Apollo with something like contempt; at the play’s end, when the goddess Athena descends ex machina to set affairs to rights, she explains that she has been “sent by Apollo, / Who did not think it right to come himself / Before you, lest he should be blamed for what / Has happened in the past.”2 In other words, Apollo sends his sister to clean up his mess because he lacks the guts to face the consequences of his actions.

Given Euripides’ frequently sympathetic portrayal of women, it may seem surprising that in his own day his plays had a reputation for being misogynistic. The comic poet Aristophanes indeed devoted an entire play, the Thesmophoriazousai, to dramatizing (though without necessarily endorsing) this charge against Euripides. 

Much of this reputation appears to rest on two of Euripides’ earlier tragedies, Hippolytus and Medea. In the former, Theseus’s young wife Phædra falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, and when spurned by him, commits suicide while leaving a note falsely accusing Hippolytus of rape, thus leading Theseus to call down fatal divine vengeance upon the innocent stepson before learning the truth too late.3 The play features a rant by Hippolytus on the theme “how great a curse is woman,” one that concludes:

I’ll hate you women, hate and hate and hate you,
and never have enough of hating ….
eternal, too, is woman’s wickedness.
Either let someone teach them to be chaste,
or suffer me to trample on them forever.4

But it is doubtful that Euripides himself intends to endorse Hippolytus’ hostility toward women, inasmuch as he begins the play by having Aphrodite, goddess of love, complain that Hippolytus “will none of the bed of love nor marriage” and “has blasphemed me / counting me vilest of the Gods in Heaven.”  Aphrodite vows that “for his sins against me / I shall punish Hippolytus this day,”5 and the ensuing events represent the promised punishment. In short, Hippolytus’s misogyny is depicted as a fatal flaw that leads him to his downfall. Just as Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchæ is destroyed for refusing to give the works of Dionysus their due, so Hippolytus is destroyed for a like failure as regards the works of Aphrodite.6

Moreover, while Euripides offers no approval of Phædra’s decision to raise a false accusation of rape against Hippolytus, he does present that decision in such a way as to engage our sympathies on Phædra’s behalf. Hippolytus, on discovering Phædra’s love for him, threatens to reveal her secret to the world, despite having just promised not to do so. This prospect drives Phædra into a panic: “Bitter indeed is woman’s destiny! … / Where shall I escape from my fate? … / He will fill all the land with my dishonor.”7 Her accusation of rape is a preemptive strike designed to discredit him before he can discredit her, thus enabling her to “pass on to my children after me / life with an uncontaminated name.”8 Euripides shows us how Phædra’s false accusation stems from her feeling trapped by Greek sexual mores and the prevailing standards for women’s reputation.

The other major basis for the charge of Euripidean misogyny is his Medea, in which Jason, legendary hero of the quest for the Golden Fleece, proposes to put aside his longtime lover Medea in order to marry a younger woman from an influential family, whereupon Medea takes her revenge on Jason by murdering her own children by him. But again, as with Phædra, while Medea’s action is not endorsed, her situation is treated with a sympathy that reflects a concern with the oppressed status of women in Greek society. 

Some of Medea’s complaints are specific to the details of her personal history with Jason, as when she reminds him:

I saved your life, and every Greek knows I saved it ….
I myself betrayed my father and my home,
And came with you to Pelias’ land of Iolcus. …
And you forsook me, took another bride to bed,
Though you had children ….
Where am I to go?  To my father’s?
Him I betrayed and his land when I came with you. …
At home, I have, in kindness to you, made enemies ….
And how happy among Greek women you have made me
On your side for all this!  A distinguished husband
I have – for breaking promises.  When in misery
I am cast out of the land and go into exile …
That will be a fine shame for the new-wedded groom,
For his children to wander as beggars and she saved him. …
What profit have I in life?
I have no land, no home, no refuge from my pain.
My mistake was made the time I left behind me
My father’s house, and trusted the words of a Greek ….9

But her lament also ascends from the particularities of her life story to the constraints facing women in general:

It was everything to me to think well of one man,
And he, my own husband, has turned out wholly vile.
Of all things which are living and can form a judgment
We women are the most unfortunate creatures.
Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required
For us to buy a husband and take for our bodies
A master; for not to take one is even worse.
And now the question is serious whether we take
A good or bad one; for there is no easy escape
For a woman, nor can she say no to her marriage.
She arrives among new modes of behavior and manners,
And needs prophetic power, unless she has learned at home,
How best to manage him who shares the bed with her
And if we work this out well and carefully,
And the husband lives with us and lightly bears his yoke,
Then life is enviable. If not, I’d rather die.
A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home,
Goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom
And turns to a friend or companion of his own age.
But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone.
What they say of us is that we have a peaceful time
Living at home, while they do the fighting in the war.
How wrong they are!  I would very much rather stand
Three times in the front of battle than bear one child.10

And coupled to Medea’s plight as a woman at the mercy of men is her plight as an immigrant at the mercy of native Greeks.  As she again reminds Jason:

You have a country.  Your family home is here.
You enjoy life and the company of your friends.
But I am deserted, a refugee, thought nothing of
By my husband – something he won in a foreign land.
I have no mother or brother, nor any relation
With whom I can take refuge in this sea of woe.11

Euripides’ tragedies thus give voice to the grievances of the powerless in society – women, immigrants, prisoners of war.

  1. The version of Iphigeneia in Aulis that we possess ends with the goddess Artemis intervening at the last minute to avert Iphigeneia’s death, but scholars agree that this ending was not written by Euripides. Which version of the legend Euripides followed is not known, though Euripides does depict Iphigeneia’s survival in an earlier play, Iphigeneia in Tauris. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, by contrast, the sacrifice evidently succeeds.
  2. Ion 1556-1559; Ronald Frederick Willetts translation, in David Grene and Richmond Latimore, eds., Euripides III (University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 252.
  3. In the original version, now lost, Euripides apparently had Phædra proposition Hippolytus directly, to the audience’s displeasure. In the revised version, the one we possess, she struggles to suppress her desire, and the secret is instead broken to Hippolytus by Phædra’s meddling nurse.
  4. Euripides, Hippolytus 663-668; David Grene translation, in David Grene and Richmond Latimore, eds., Euripides I (University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 190.
  5. Hippolytus 11-21; p. 163.
  6. This similarity in theme (the danger of seeking to repress or devalue the passions) between the Hippolytus and Bacchæ, together with the fact that Hippolytus was written over two decades before Bacchæ, poses a problem for Friedrich Nietzsche’s thesis (The Birth of Tragedy (1872), section 12) that the Bacchæ represents Euripides’ deathbed retraction of a lifelong naturalistic rationalism.
  7. Hippolytus 669-693; p. 191.
  8. Hippolytus 716-718; p. 193.
  9. Euripides, Medea 476-801; Rex Warner translation, in Euripides I, op. cit., pp. 74-86.
  10. Medea 228-251; pp. 66-67.
  11. Medea 253-258; p. 67.

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