Gender is a social construct, not tied to sex in any neat, definitive manner and hence, amenable and open to (re)construction in order to challenge power relations. This paper explores gendered power relations in Euripedes’ Medea and Sophocles’ Antigone, in an endeavour to explicate upon how such relations manifest themselves in the text, and thereby, shape, influence and contribute to an understanding of the overwhelmingly misogynist and patriarchal social reality of ancient Greece. The paper also seeks to take issue with the use of language as mediating an elucidation and plurification of meaning/s in the text, and aiding in the concerted endeavour of critics, reviewers and commentators alike in deciphering and salvaging voices within the text that are protofeminist/feminist, or at least non-misogynist despite the patriarchal ethos. Another aim of the paper is to pit the heroines of the plays against each other, in a cogent, coherent comparative study in order to investigate their plight and foreground their power/powerlessness within the rubric of the text. Thus, the paper is a sincere effort at engaging in a critical dialogue with the ancient texts and the critical literature published upon them since, in order to develop and shape our understanding of women’s roles and contest the gender power-imbalances in society.
Medea has more often than not been construed as a play endorsing and bolstering feminist views and challenging conventional gender roles and societal exhortation to subscribe to them. In the light of several ancient texts being culled, analysed and (re)analysed by the critics and plebeian alike, in order to salvage feminist voices from the oppressive patriarchal Hellenistic milieu, Euripedes has been deemed by many to be just such a voice. While this contention might be tempting to adhere to and pursue, in the light of his heroine being a woman ruled by masculine passions and transgressing the realm of the oikos, thereby subverting the coda by which women in Greece were supposed to lead their lives, a close reading of the play suggests otherwise. Far from being sympathetic to the plight of Medea, Euripedes, in attributing the heroic masculine coda to his heroine’s characterization, succeeds in painting quite an opposite picture. The claim can be evinced by a close consideration of the elements of the play. However, a look at the evidence that hails Euripedes as a champion of women’s rights might be necessary to put the tokens that evince the opposite claim in proper perspective.
Medea’s opening speech is often touted as more than just an avalanche of raging rhetoric or a mere feminist harangue, dabbed with strokes of finesse. It is seen as Euripedes’ master stroke in social criticism, spelled verbatim by the female protagonist, on whom the play is strategically named. The incendiary and explosive nature of the critique of marriage, as espoused from a male vantage point, voiced by Medea is evinced in the fact that the speech opened the English suffragetes’ voting campaigns and meetings. As such, Euripedes’ feminist allegiance was validated and established. Also, the character traits with which Euripedes has endowed his ‘revolutionary’ heroine seems to cast Euripedes in the ‘protofeminist’ mold. Even the act of murdering her children, an act that would be equally abhorrent and monstrous to the audience (readers and viewers) of any era and society, is viewed as Euripedes’ attempt to sympathetically portray the plight of the beleaguered woman’s overwhelming desire to overcome her stifling state of torment and agony. However, as already mentioned at the outset, the above is a misreading of Euripedes’ intent, in a partial critical attempt to unravel feminist tenets endorsed by certain excerpts of the play, in a divorced state from the entire narrative that the play unveils.
The examination of the play from this critical vantage point requires an analysis of the play at three levels- the narrative, the spectatorial and the authorial level. While the former remains the same throughout, the spectatorial level is analysed, for the purposes of this paper, keeping in mind the ancient audience (primarily male) and who could, in no way, be extricated from their socio-cultural ethos and worldviews. The latter level might be opposed on the basis of any critique being a speculation, however, it must be kept in mind that Euripedes’ writ passages and the play, as a whole, shall be examined in the light of the cultural milieu, and thereby, such a reading shall not be entirely misplaced in context.
First, at the level of the narrative, the opening speech, referred to above, does not quite take place until about two hundred lines in the play, before Medea comes onstage. By that time, the nurse’s speech and the emotional outbursts of Medea have already placed her in her rightful context of the ‘wailing wife,’ disturebed by the latest denouement in her oikos. At the spectatorial level, this conformation to the-then prevalent gender stereotypes makes her acts of transgression appear all the more ghastly to the Greek audience. The very sympathetic portrayal, that was an argument in case for Euripedes as protofeminist, then transmutes into a deceptive stroke of portrayal in order to evince conformity to the-then established paradigm of the destructive power of a ‘distraught woman,’ who attempted to subvert traditional gender roles and transgress the familial code to attempt a heinous and detestable act. The sympathetic portrayal of Medea consequently metamorphoses into an incisive stroke of reinforcing male supremacy. Second, the initial choral interjections merely serve to reiterate Medea’s status as the meek, submissive, docile wife, who bemoans her pitiable state and displays no verbal invective for her husband. Instead, her tone is self-deprecating and she wishes for death as a preferred alternative over betrayal, further conforming to the gender role. As such, at the spectatorial level, pity for such a helpless creature is incited and evoked, but this pity never translates to sympathy, much less empathy, contrary to the misconstrued authorial intentions behind such a portrayal. Third, Medea’s speeches are prone to be looked at with suspicion, given the male spectators of the play. Her deployment of deception to win over the chorus, is an authorial strategy to further the gender stereotype- of women as scheming, deceitful, manipulative creatures, with an inherent propensity for destruction. Critic Foley concurs, “as several critics have pointed out, her eloquent first speech on the wrongs of women deceptively applies only in part to herself. For Medea is far from the passive victim of marriage and masculine brutality that she claims to be.” At the spectatorial level, the unease would just grow further until about the end of the play. At the authorial level, the spectatorial anxiety and scepticism is further bolstered by furthering Medea’s transformation from the relatively safe role of a passive wife to a dangerous female who evokes misogynistic apprehensions. “Medea’s transformation is quite startling: her boldness knows no obstacle, and she is completely fearless. For the first time she indicates the source of her powers, Hecate” (Mursurillo 55). Therefore, one finds that the titular protofeminist schema of Euripedes’ ‘deceptive agenda’ in devising a seemingly feminine hero is increasingly deflated in connection to the entire rubric of the play, and casts veritable aspersions on the protofeminist Euripedes. One can blatantly see the authorial motivation to cast suspicion on and evoke enormous disapprobation for his feminine ‘antihero.’
Thus, one finds that despite the seemingly feminist act of transgression of patriarchal boundaries and subverting the gender ‘coda,’ Medea remains not a prototype of feminist triumph, but a lesson in the realm of the necessity of masculine power and control. This ‘powerlessness’ of Medea, despite the blatant exhibition of a potentially subversive act that she accomplishes, is the real purport of Euripedes’ misogynist self and text. As Rabinowitz rightfully avers, “we can look for traces of female subjectivity, but let us not fool ourselves that Euripides applauds it” (154).
Sophocles’ Antigone emerges as a play that enables a comparison of two models of femininity, each of which are authorial (re)presentations. Antigone, the heroine, starts off the play as the ‘ideal daughter, fiance,’ complicit in her socially subscribed role befitting the oikos and herself asserts, “we must remember, first, that we were born / Women, who should not strive with men” (15). Yet, as the play progresses, she chooses to defy the male decree/authority by going against Creon’s order forbidding the burial of Polyneices. In choosing to bury Polyneices, and bear punishment for the same, Sophocles is thought to have displayed a leaning towards feminist tenets of non-conformity to male authority and control. Whilst critics have noted this act of transgression and subversion as a feminist act, it is, as contended in the case of Euripedes’ play, not so much an act of civil disobedience as an act of cultural conformity. The only sufficient argument in point would be Antigone’s self proclamation: “It’s best to keep the established laws” in relation to the cultural ritual of burial of the deceased, especially people one shares familial ties with. However, one can examine further how Antigone’s act constitutes more of cultural conformity than female transgression against male authority.
In depicting Antigone as the heroine who defies male authority, and exercises an act that constitutes disobedience to patriarchal bidding, Sophocles has delineated not a feminist prototype who rebels and does not conform to patriarchal coda, but instead castigates the laws of the state in favor of the laws of the Gods. Seale views Antigone’s disobedience to “man's legal systems" as obedience to a "higher and more mysterious realm" (92). McCall agrees, “Antigone in her defence of the individual claims for her side the higher justice of the gods" (116). Goldhill, too observes, “For Antigone, it is as if Creon and the law he has passed are to be disobeyed because the treatment of a traitor and enemy is at odds with the divine law concerning the family" (97). Thus, one finds that in choosing to bury her kin, antigone hardly goes beyond the fulfilment of the duty to which she owes allegiance as part of the oikos which is hers’. While Creon’s decree is a mechanism to restore public order, :
Eteocles, who died fighting for Thebes,
excelling all in arms: he shall be buried. . .
But as for his blood brother, Polyneices,
. . .a proclamation has forbidden the city
(218-19; 222; 227-28)
Antigone’s choice is a choice of conforming to what Bourdieu calls ‘doxa’: "the world of tradition experienced as a `natural world' and taken for granted" (164). Antigone’s act of disobedience is thus, in turn, an act of obedience to this unnamed edict, a concept she has internalised, as growing up in the socio-cultural milieu of her epoch. She states as much:
These laws I was not about to break them,
not out of fear of some man's wounded pride
and face the retribution of the gods.
. . . if I had allowed my own mother's son to rot, an unburied corpse --
that would have been agony! This is nothing.
Thus, one finds her obligation as being indelibly inscribed in the cultural code of ancient Greece. Her ‘power’ to act upon her chosen modus operandi, in the given circumstance, then is not an act of generous feminist inscription on the part of Sophocles, as much as an explicit enunciation of the ‘powerlessness’ that women are conditioned to ‘naturally consort to’ in the face of the dicta they have been taught to internalise since birth. Thus, one finds that the transgression constitutes an act motivated by the interpellation that the ‘natural order’ ideology inspired.
Having explored the gendered universe of both the plays, and seen the seeming ‘power’ the playwrights have endowed their heroines with, one is well situated to decipher the deceptive mode of portrayal that seems to foreground the rebellious, transgressive, subversive and apparently ‘feminist’ nature of their heroines’ volition, whilst subscribing to and endorsing an antagonistic view that lies hidden beneath the veneer of ‘protofeminist/feminist’ support. The above critical dialogue with the texts, along with a discussion of the excerpts from the plays, have evinced the case of ‘powerlessness’ of women that such gendered milieus give rise to. As such, one can clearly proclaim, the voices of the playwrights aren’t pro-feminist, and so is the case with the portrayals of the heroines. Later adaptations might have altered the conception, as must have the drastic alteration in the spectatorial and narrative levels, and as such redeemed the plays from what could truly have been ‘potent incendiary feminist rant/recital’- whatsoever one may choose to call it!
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