Subaltern, as described in Spivak’s essay, is the marginalized, subordinated, and oppressed people who are subjected to be silent. The reason for the existence of the subalterns is the social strata between the citizens of a country where authority belongs to a limited number of people. The social hierarchy worsens the conditions for those who come at the lowest part of the social strata’s division. Hence, subaltern includes working-class, slaves and definitely women who have no voice. In contrary to Spivak’s definition of subaltern, Lysistrata is a comic play by Aristophanes in 411, where women are the main characters who demand peace and end of the ongoing war between the two Greek cities, Sparta and Athens. While Spartans and Athenians conflict with each other to gain more power, women of both states are concerned about their fathers, husbands, sons, and domestic lives and feel responsible to end the war. Women in Lysistrata challenge men; unlike subalterns who keep silent. Additionally, Aristophanes in Lysistrata portrays women as rebels who challenge the social strata and stand against powerful and authoritative men and their demands. Lysistrata is the heroine of the play who calls on other women to assist her in her rebellious plan to bring peace to the cities. She ultimately attains her goal with the help of women’s solidarity and resistance. The goal of this paper is to analyze whether women in Lysistrata are subalterns as Spivak defines or not. They are not subalterns because the definition of subaltern does not fit them. They challenge the social order by their persistent insurgency, civil disobedience, and revolutionary behavior and harsh language.
They are not subalterns because they are mostly from the upper or middle-class families who are obstinate and insurgent. Like Spivak, Aristophanes also mentions the social hierarchy between the genders and as well as between females. In Ancient Greek, women certainly did not have any special position; however, women who belonged to the upper and middle-class families were wealthier. Women portrayed by Aristophanes in Lysistrata belong to a higher social position. Lysistrata is the one who plans to fight against men and persuades other women too to stand against men and challenge them. They are no more submissive to their husbands, fathers, and brothers. In fact, they now have made men be submissive to them by not performing their domestic duties and specifically denial of sex with their husbands unless they act upon their demand. Women take an oath not to perform sex with their husbands until they agree to leave war and come home. As stated in the play when they take the oath, ‘But never willingly should I surrender to my husband’, ‘If he should use force to force me against my will’, ‘I will submit coldly and not move my hips'(Aristophanes 53). These are the lines uttered by women not to be submissive to their husbands and lovers and not to have sex with them. Besides, a more specific example of insurgency is the discussion of Kinesis and Myrrhine, typical wife and husband, where Myrrhine does not agree with her husband to have sexual intercourse, but in return demands for peace in a deceitful way (Aristophanes 75). The characters who are portrayed by Aristophanes in the play are women who belong to upper and middle-class families who challenge the social order by their insurgency. Hence, the idea of subalterns does not match women in Lysistrata because they belong to higher social strata who stand against men and their demands by obstinateness and insurgency.
Another reason that they are not subalterns is that they commit civil disobedience which is a challenge to the social order. Lysistrata’s first conspiracy against men is the conjugal strike, which makes women civil disobedient as they no more do their domestic and family duties. Her second conspiracy is an occupation of the citadel by which she controls the money which is used to finance the war. Their plans and conspiracies prove that they are the ones who are making decisions for the society and challenge the social order by suggesting men leave the war and join the reconciliation. They do not only deny domestic duties but also take part in the politics that subalterns are not able to do. Furthermore, they are powerful and authoritative because the goddess Athena, who has business in the citadel, assists them (Aristophanes 40). In addition, they advise men how to spend the money of the state, as expressed by women’s leader,
‘And even if I was born a woman, don’t hold it against me if I manage to suggest something better than what we’ve got now. I have a stake in our community my contribution is men. You miserable geezers have no stake, since you’ve squandered your paternal inheritance, won in Persian wars, and now pay no taxes in return. On the contrary, we’re all headed for bankruptcy on account of you!’ (Aristophanes 66).
Suggestion from women is more rational and reasonable than what men do to state’s money, which shows that women challenge social order by their plans and ultimately by controlling the money and denial of their domestic duties. Hence, women are not subalterns because they challenge social order by participating in social and political decision making.
The third reason that women in Lysistrata are not subalterns is their brutal behavior and harsh language towards men to overcome men. The subalterns are the silent women who do not speak out and raise their voices. Unlike subalterns, women in Lysistrata are not silent when they face men who condemn and accuse them of their plans and actions. Instead, they face men bravely and fearlessly. During the parodos of the play, in the discussion between men and women, the language which women use is harsh and extremely violent. For instance, ‘I’ll rip out your lungs and your guts with my fangs’ (Aristophanes 57), ‘I’m watering you, so you’ll bloom’ (Aristophanes 57) and during the episode using language like, ‘if you so much as lay a hand on her, by Pandrosos I’ll beat the shit out of you’, ‘You’ll be begging for an ice-pack!’, ‘I will rip out your hair until it screams!’ (Aristophanes 59-60). These sentences cannot be expressed by subalterns because they do not dare to speak to men, but by courageous and brave women who challenge the social order by using abusive and harsh language to determine that they are fearless defenders. In addition, their behavior is also courageous. For instance, during the choral debate women’s leader ‘raises her foot to men’s leader’ which means that she dares to kick him (Aristophanes 67). Kicking a man by a woman is something rebellious for that period time. The other example of rebellious behavior of women is taking out their veils and showing parts of their bodies that should be hidden from other men except for their husbands (Aristophanes 63). Hence, subalterns are those who are silent when they are treated rudely; however, women in Lysistrata are not subalterns because they use critical behavior and harsh language to defeat themselves.
From another perspective, women are still submissive to men because their insurgency is conditional to the time of war and conflict. Considering the problems of his time, Aristophanes finds the role of women as the only effective and available option for ending the conflict between the two states (Aristophanes 39). Women in prewar time were convinced with their roles and domestic duties. Therefore, they definitely cannot speak because they do not have the right to speak and are subjugated to silence and obedience. They are satisfied with how they are treated and behaved, as mentioned in the introduction ‘Though Lysistrata protests women’s exclusion from policy-making that affects women’s lives, women do not question their ordinary roles or seek in any way to change them.’ (Aristophanes 40). This quote demonstrates women’s submissiveness to men which is a common tradition and belief in 400s. The reason they protest against men is to have the ordinary prewar conditions of their lives. Moreover, there are women slaves, who do not speak but just obey what they are commanded, who fit the definition of the subalterns. They are the ones who are oppressed and have no voice. Nevertheless, women do take action when they have no other options to bring peace, save men, and save the country; however, after reconciliation of the cities and achieving their ultimate goal their lives will be similar to prewar time. Thus, they are submissive and obedient to men, because they do not question their duties and roles in the family and accept them.
They cannot participate in the social and political spheres of society because they do not have the right. Aristophanes portrays the reality of social and political spheres in his comic play. The fact that women were not citizens and were not allowed to participate in the social and political spheres is one of the realties which is reflected in Lysistrata. Women are not allowed to express their ideas or even ask questions regarding the government and politics from men. In the play, it is mentioned when Lysistrata replies Magistrate,
‘all along, being proper women, we used to suffer in silence no matter what you men did, because you wouldn’t let us make a sound. But you weren’t exactly all we could ask for. No, we knew only too well what you were up to, and too many times we’d hear in our homes about a bad decision you’d made on some great issue of state. Then, masking the pain in our hearts, we’d put on a smile and ask you, ‘How did the Assembly go today? Any decision about a rider to the peace treaty?’ and my husband would say, ‘What’s that to you? Shut up!’ And I’d shut up’ (Aristophanes 62).
This is the statement that explicitly demonstrates that women cannot participate in the decision making of the society. They should not speak up and raise their voice to ask anything about the decisions of the state. However, when knowing about the corrupt decisions of men with a painful heart by smiling, they ask their husbands but receive a punitive reply which results in silence. Women do not have the right to even know about the government, state, and the ongoing issues in the state. Thus, women are subalterns because they cannot take part in the decision making of the society.
The behavior and language of men to women in Lysistrata is even more brutal and violent because of their indignation. The language used by men in the play is full of ferocity when towards women. They are irritated and angry because women who they think do not have the right to stand against them, discourse them reasonably. They cannot tolerate seeing women challenge them and make them listen to what they demand. Therefore, they use harsh and abusive language while facing women; however, women do not just stand and listen but reply with the same kind of language and behavior. For example, ‘if you don’t shut up, I’ll knock you right out of your old hide!’, ‘what if I give one-two punch?’, ‘I am here to build a pyre and burn up your friends.’ (Aristophanes 57). These statements show men’s negative attitude towards Lysistrata and Lysistratos. Additionally, their behavior toward women is inhumane as they want to attack and ignite women who have occupied the citadel (Aristophanes 54). They are humiliated by women because women are deciding to end the war by opposing and challenging them. Therefore, they use violent and cruel behavior and language to show that they are annoyed and irritated. Thus, men’s violent and harsh behavior is because of their agony and anger.
To conclude, Spivak’s theory of subalterns does not apply to women in Lysistrata. Women in Lysistrata are those who belong to middle and upper-class families who stand against men and challenge the social order, which makes them not fall in Spivak’s definition of the subaltern. In contrary to the definition of Spivak, they are insurgent and obstinate because they do not listen to what men demand. The other reason is that they take part in the decision making of the society which subalterns cannot do. Last reason which excludes women of Lysistrata form Spivak’s definition of the subaltern is women’s behavior and language which they use during the play when facing men to defeat themselves and answer men and shut them up with their harsh language and brutal behavior. Their plans and strategies, the conjugal strike and the occupation of the treasure, work well enough to bring peace and reconciliation to the two states which subalterns cannot bring such a revolution. However, from another perspective, these women even relating to upper and middle-class families are submissive to men because they want normal prewar life. They are bounded to home and family duties; they cannot participate in the society or decision making process because they are not allowed to take part. Lastly, men too use harsh and violent language but their harsh and violent language is because of their anger and agony of women. As a result, they are not subalterns because subalterns cannot bring a huge change in the social order of the society but they are rather rebels who are enough courageous to bring peace by their powers in the society. The play and the roles of women in it is a voice of women which is raised in society.
- Aristophanes. Three plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women. Translated by Jeffery Henderson. Abingdon, Oxon [England]: Routledge, 2010.
- Spivak, Gayatri. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’. In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 24-28. London: Macmillan, 1988.