Aeschylus’s Portrayal of Gender Roles and Social Status in Classical Greece

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Throughout the course of our respected world history, there have been characterizations, depictions, and stereotypes of the two commonly accepted genders, male and female. These clichés have ultimately been mirrored in plays and other forms of artwork, often coinciding with specific eras of time. This lends today’s viewers or readers insight about gender roles and social rankings in past societies. Aeschylus, the great ancient Greek tragedian who wrote The Oresteia in 5th century BC, successfully constructs a realistic view of Greek culture by clearly defining perceived male and female attributes within their designated social statuses. He does so by centering his play around a misogynistic society that cultivates submissive, overlooked females in contrast to controlling, aggressive males. Aeschylus displays a threatening idea throughout this trilogy: the questioning of masculine power in society, the house, and even above in the heavens. The Oresteia allows him to play with the idea of a powerful, masculine woman who uses violence as a means of justice (Clytemnestra) in contrast to the docile nature of other women in the play. Aeschylus creates distinct gender roles and relates them to what was expected in society at the time, while also underlining man’s fear of an authoritative, independent woman. The trilogy is composed of Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides.

It tells the legend of the curse of the House of Atreus, a never-ending series of brutal and bloody murders within the family, and its ultimate demise that led to the formation of a judicial system and democracy in Athens. The Oresteia portrays characters in two main categories: male and female, representing the main grouping of members of Greek society during 5th century BC. Gender ultimately determined their role in the polis, a city-state and its government, and in the oikos, a household defined by three different relationships: master and slave, husband and wife, and father and child. Aeschylus emphasizes the lack of importance of women in the oikos with Apollo’s speech defending Orestes’s matricide in the Eumenides, stating “The person called the mother’s not the parent./She only nourishes the embryo/planted by mounting her, and for a stranger she keeps the shoot alive—if no god blights her.” Although the woman physically gives birth, Apollo argues the man is superior and has a greater claim over their child. This belief mimics that of Greek culture, a woman’s sole purpose was to provide children and raise them; however, if the husband and wife disagreed over how to handle their children, the wife would ultimately be dismissed. Women were unable to vote, own land, or inherit property from their families leaving each facet of their life controlled and taken up by men. Beyond the biological differences separating women and men, Aeschylus further segregated his characters according to status: members of a royal family, servants, and religious deities. Royal men dominated women, their children, and people of lesser socioeconomic status; even within these separate social statuses, men were still at the top of the food chain. A few exceptions displayed by Aeschylus in The Oresteia include Clytemnestra and the Erinyes (or Furies), which by the end of the trilogy are overpowered by man.

He begins the play with a Watchman on the roof of the palace, awaiting a gesture indicating the fall of Troy, and a choral ode detailing the brutal sacrifice of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s daughter, Iphigenia, by the king himself in order to successfully sail to their enemy’s land. Iphigenia was characterized as worthless and barely human, stating “her pleading, her shrieking for her father/the girl’s short life—these were worth nothing.” Agamemnon ignored her pitiful cries for him to save her, counteracting them by telling his soldiers to “keep her facing the ground, to guard her exquisite mouth.” Aeschylus creates a vivid image of Iphigenia’s violated innocence, going as far as to describe her as a “goat” for them to throw over the altar. This is further emphasized by the scene taking place on the lower level of the tiered stage, illustrating the lack of significance of the act to Agamemnon. Her father, and any ancient Greek male, considered military prowess and notoriety more important than their own child. Aeschylus then introduces an unusually masculine woman, Clytemnestra, spreading the news of a fiery beacon signifying the end of the ten-year Trojan War. She is doubted by the Chorus, composed of respected, male elders that serve as her advisors, and also the Watchman. Despite being the ruler of Argos in Agamemnon’s absence, she is still undermined by the men of the palace, illustrating the instability of a female ruler at the very beginning of the play.

The prior choral ode also serves to get the viewer to sympathize with Clytemnestra through the gory death of her only daughter, Iphigenia, and sets up her motive for the murder of her husband upon his return from war. Agamemnon’s return should mark the end of her reign as ruler, but even after his arrival she asserts herself as supreme by physically deciding who will enter their home. Their reunion is marked by her pressuring him to walk across the purple tapestry -- the color historically being a symbol of royalty -- to gain entry into their home. While the tapestry represents their vast wealth and power, it also is a symbol of blood. The blood shed on the battlefield, the sacrifice to Artemis of Iphigenia, and the blood that is about to be lost in the murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Through a series of stichomythia, Clytemnestra convinces Agamemnon to obey her command which ultimately seals his fate: his murder at the hands of his wife. Clytemnestra using such violent means as a way to seek revenge can be seen as a cathartic response, a release of anger in regard to the death of her beloved daughter and to the strict limitations and injustice placed upon her as a woman. She is infuriated by the lack of respect that she garners from Greek citizens and from Agamemnon, with him publicly parading the Trojan princess Cassandra as his mistress from war. Cassandra is accepted, even welcomed and envied, by the men of Argos; she is seen as a battle prize left over from the Trojan War. While it is honorable for Agamemnon to take a mistress, it is unacceptable for Clytemnestra to be in a romantic relationship with Aegisthus.

This highlights the differences between male and female expectations; however, it is unique for society to allow Clytemnestra to partake in an affair as usually women would be immediately divorced or in extreme instances murdered. Aeschylus adds to Clytemnestra’s masculine nature by making her guilty of adultery which contrasts his depiction of Cassandra as an archetypal Greek woman. He portrays her as passive and feminine, going as far as to have her desired by the god Apollo. Cassandra was gifted prophetic powers by Apollo in his attempts to seduce her, but after her rejection of his sexual advances, he angrily declares that no one will believe her visions. Her rejection of a man presents a common fear for women, in that her reputation was tarnished and she lost her credibility within the community. Cassandra knew she was destined to die in the House of Atreus, along with Agamemnon, yet she yieldingly decided to accept her fate. In a time where women had no power in their lives, Cassandra ended up owning her power by embracing death and deciding when and where she would spend her final moments. Aeschylus’s description of the innocent Cassandra serves to paint Clytemnestra in the worst light possible foreshadowing the court decision in the Eumenides, clearing Orestes of matricide and leaving her without the justice she was seeking. There is a gradual decline in the power of women as the trilogy progresses, with Clytemnestra being the murderous vixen that ends up ruling Argos in the Agamemnon, to the slightly manipulative Chorus and servant members in the Libation Bearers, and finally the chthonic, female Erinyes losing their power in favor of the newer Greek gods in the Eumenides. The Libation Bearers introduces the first of the main servant characters, including the all-female Chorus and Clissa, Orestes’s childhood nurse.

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These characters, along with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s other daughter Electra, help Orestes to fulfill his mission of murdering his mother. This play opens with Clytemnestra ordering Electra and the members of the Chorus, composed of slave women from the palace, to go to Agamemnon’s grave to commemorate him in an attempt for her to evade her nightmares. Her night terrors foresee her death, with the rage of Agamemnon tormenting her. Aeschylus further characterizes Clytemnestra as a masculine woman, emphasizing her strict seven-year rule and unpopularity within Argos, causing the audience to pity her less. He also does this by pinning her own children and the servants of her castle against her, with them ultimately teaming up to murder her and gain justice for their king. While the women participate, their roles in the murder are minor compared to Clytemnestra’s gruesome slayings in the first segment; the killing is completed by Orestes, illustrating the transition of power from a woman to a man. The independence and unique masculinity experienced by Clytemnestra in Agamemnon dies with her, reinforcing that this scenario is unlikely to happen again in The Oresteia or in Greek society. Orestes commits matricide with this action of defending the death of Agamemnon, highlighting his undying loyalty to his father.

Aeschylus describes Orestes as the ideal Greek man: pious, upstanding, respectful, intelligent, and a warrior. He displays these traits throughout the play with confidence, never doubting the moral decisions that he made or his devotion to Apollo and the gods. Orestes is shown to designate small roles to each woman in the Libation Bearers, keeping the most physically demanding task for himself. This compliments the idea at the time that women were weak, unfit to complete manual labor. Electra is depicted as unmarried and still living at home, maintaining a close bond with the servants and staff of the palace that compose the Chorus. She is contemptuous of Clytemnestra for killing her father, despite his actions towards Iphigenia, and encourages Orestes in his revenge plot. The servants, the Chorus and Clissa, are unique in this series in that they are at the lowest social status; despite being at the bottom of society’s rankings (a woman and working class), they still decide to favor a man over a woman. Clissa is utilized by Aeschylus to further turn the audience away from Clytemnestra by accentuating her lack of maternal action. The Erinyes, female deities of vengeance, are first introduced in the Libation Bearers after being summoned and pushed into a frenzy by Clytemnestra to exact retribution for her death. They are mentioned, but not physically present until the Eumenides in which they serve as the Chorus. The Erinyes are described as “like gorgons, black-robed, with teeming, twining snakes instead of hair.”

Aeschylus paints them as repulsive, terrifying creatures when in reality they were divine servants of the people, aggressively going to whatever means necessary to gain justice for Orestes’s murder. This idea of women with authority, specifically that overpowered that of men, was considered such a threat in Greek culture that any woman who dared to break out of their expected gender role was considered a pariah. Aeschylus successfully portrays this by utilizing words with negative connotation in regard to them, further emphasizing the dichotomy between them and the Olympic gods. There is an apparent reason behind the tension between the Olympic gods and the chthonic gods, the punishment of Orestes for his crimes, but an unsaid grievance, too. The newer Olympic gods, dominated by men with the exception to the unsexed Athena, are intimidated by the historical power of the female Erinyes. The end of the Eumenides essentially marks the end of the Erinyes, and thus the end of women with power and the ability to give demands. Aeschylus characterizes the final part of the Oresteia as ending on a triumphant note, with the miasma (pollution) and curse of the House of Atreus resolved, and Orestes being acquitted of all charges within a newly formed judicial system. This judicial system, mimicking the democracy founded in Athens around this period, was formed as a result of the Erinyes and Olympic gods disagreeing over whether Orestes deserves to be tormented or exonerated. The Erinyes represent women of society, while the Olympic gods are rallying for the men. Athena, born from Zeus alone, is the judge of the case but is not unbiased; she states, “There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth/And, but for marriage, I am always for the male/With all my heart, and strongly on the father’s side” which depicts her as voting in Orestes’s favor, regardless of whether or not he is guilty.

This court case marks the end of the chthonic deities, with them gratefully accepting the role of patron goddesses of Athena. With them no longer needing to exact revenge for crimes in response to the formation of a jury and trial, their new job in society is to provide the city with peace and prosperity. The Erinyes’ willingness to accept this new position illustrates the expectations of women to adapt to a misogynistic culture in which women are forced into domestic roles, rejecting independence and the possibility of a life on their own. While this democratic feature of society is depicted to be fair and just, it is not inclusive of the women of the earth or the heavens as they did not have the right to vote further limiting their actions. A trial ran by men silences their voices all the while encouraging them to obey cultural laws. Why would a group of men ever vote in favor of a woman exacting justice with her only means, as seen by Clytemnestra? Aeschylus successfully appealed to his audience of Greek men by characterizing women as weak and subordinate as compared to the dominant, right-minded male, all the while keeping them intrigued with the legend of the formation of the first democracy. He achieves this by cautioning women of disobeying their stereotypical roles and behaviors, as seen by Clytemnestra who loses her reputation and her life. He also acts as a champion to men, illustrating that the gods are on their side, even in the case of committing a crime as serious as matricide. Aeschylus manipulates the expected gender roles of ancient Greek society in order to explain what is and is not acceptable.

This is further demonstrated by his characterization of citizens of lower social status, who really must follow the rules of society, as they do not have the recognition or funds to remain safe. Aeschylus constructs a story revolving around the demise of women that transitions from a protagonist, female ruler in Agamemnon to the antagonistic, dreadful Erinyes in the Eumenides in order to mirror the events occurring in Greek culture and to remind the viewer of the weakness and powerlessness of women, specifically those of servant status.

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Aeschylus’s Portrayal of Gender Roles and Social Status in Classical Greece. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/aeschyluss-portrayal-of-gender-roles-and-social-status-in-classical-greece/
“Aeschylus’s Portrayal of Gender Roles and Social Status in Classical Greece.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/aeschyluss-portrayal-of-gender-roles-and-social-status-in-classical-greece/
Aeschylus’s Portrayal of Gender Roles and Social Status in Classical Greece. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/aeschyluss-portrayal-of-gender-roles-and-social-status-in-classical-greece/> [Accessed 21 Apr. 2024].
Aeschylus’s Portrayal of Gender Roles and Social Status in Classical Greece [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2024 Apr 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/aeschyluss-portrayal-of-gender-roles-and-social-status-in-classical-greece/
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