Throughout the history of theatre, plays have been dominated by white, middle-class men who always have the space on the stage to tell their stories. Stretching back to Ancient Greece, where democracy was first founded, it’s easy to see that women had a specific role to play; to serve the men in their lives.
Looking back now, we can examine these plays through a new feminist lens, and reveal how the women in these plays were actually strong and independent. Throughout this article, I will be walking through some of the most important and famous female figures in Ancient Greek and Roman theatre.
Medea – a witch of Colchis, was always a secondary character in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, a woman who Jason briefly fell in love with, only for her to turn completely crazy and ended up murdering their children. But when you examine her story more deeply, there is more to it than that. The daughter of a king, she was always expected to be obedient and to marry well, but she had an extra ability; the gift of magic. When Jason came to Colchis in search of the golden fleece, she fell in love with him and he convinced her to betray her family and help him. She ended up fleeing the island, and killed her brother on the way, all for the love of a man who was soon to abandon her. Jason had only used to Medea to get help with attaining the fleece, and once he had succeeded he was keen to dump her in favour of a younger, prettier princess who was native to Greece. Driven by feelings of despair and hopelessness, Medea slays her own two sons in front of Jason to prevent him from being happy.
Euripides’ play, Medea, shows her story through her lens, and how her actions may have been too far, but the reasoning behind them is understandable. She wasn’t portrayed in a sympathetic or positive light, but looking at that play now its clear that Medea was a young woman who’d been taken advantage of, and the fact that she was a witch made her all the more powerful.
She was known to turn the men who visited her island into pigs with magic
Another witch in Greek mythology who has often been dubbed as evil but is actually powerful and strong, is Circe, witch of Aeaea. She is best known through Homer’s Odyssey as one of Odysseus’s lovers on his way home from the Trojan War. She was known to turn the men who visited her island into pigs with magic, and can perhaps be viewed as one of the first feminist figures in literature. Recently, Madeline Miller published a book titled Circe which explains Circe’s story through her point of view. It shows that Circe was abused and ignored by her family, her father being the Titan Helios and her mother being the nymph Perse. She was exiled to Aeaea for the magic that she possessed, and often had shipwrecked sailors washing up on her island. The first group of men she took care of, only to have them attempt at assaulting her. From then on, whenever men washed up on her island she used magic to transform them into pigs.
This put her back in control, and she was no longer a victim but instead was powerful and feared. She never married; she remained independent and strong-minded. Looking at her story now in the 21st century, it’s clear that Circe was a powerful woman standing up for herself and protecting herself at all costs. Back then she was seen as dangerous and an archetype of a predatory female, but now we can celebrate her strength.
Helen of Troy; the most beautiful woman in the world and the woman who caused an entire war to happen
Finally, but not least, I have to mention Helen of Troy; the most beautiful woman in the world and the woman who caused an entire war to happen. There are conflicting stories about Helen, as there often is in Ancient mythology, but the most famous one is that she was married to Menelaus, and then when he was away she eloped with Paris, thus causing the Achaeans to “reclaim her”. She is often a hated figure in mythology, as she is seen to have caused many deaths. But really, did Helen ask anyone to go back and reclaim her? Maybe she was kidnapped by Paris, as some of the plays do suggest, and went against her will. In a world where women had very little choice, it was as if she was treated as a valuable object, that men were willing to fight to get back, rather than allowing her the freedom to choose who she wants to be with. It wasn’t Helen that started the war, it was the men in her life that were perpetuating the patriarchal society by treating her as an object.
Nowadays, Helen could be perceived as an independent woman who was sexually liberated and took control of her own life by following her heart. She could also be seen as a victim in a world dominated by men who wanted to possess her, and she had very little choice but to go along with it. The two most famous plays she appears in, Helen and Trojan Women both written by Euripides, depict Helen either as a victim or as “the bad guy”.
We can be thankful that we live in a society where we have the freedom to choose who we want to be with
Whichever the case, more literature is coming back today that examines Ancient theatre and literature from a feminist perspective. We can be thankful that we live in a society where we have the freedom to choose who we want to be with, what careers we want to have and how we live, even if there is still more that needs to be done in terms of progress towards equality.
Featured image courtesy of Alexis Subias via Unsplash.com. Image license can be found here. No changes made to this image.
Article images courtesy of @spccperformingarts @alliesbookcase and @tollhousetales via instagram.com.
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