Euripides ranks as one of the great Athenian dramatists. A distinguishing feature of his work is his consistent use and development of female characters. Roche writes, “As to women, Euripides was obsessed with their plight. Out of his nineteen extant plays no fewer than twelve are about women”(vii). According to Zeitlen, Euripides’ “affinity for the feminine” was noted by his contemporaries, and the debate between Aesychlus and Euripides in Aristophanes The Frogs, may be interpreted as the struggle between the “new intellectual trends that confuse and unsettle the older, simpler (hence more manly) values of the city...”(90). Euripides’ use of the feminine was a deliberate and controversial move, understood by the Greeks as more than the revival of ancient stories about the lives of women.
Euripides’ handling of the feminine is a subject of ongoing interpretation, and his plays are now read with a modern sensitivity to the notion of a “woman’s voice.” Vellacott, one translator of his work, summarizes three themes that appear repeatedly; “the destructive folly of violence; the sordid ugliness of revenge, and the subjection and suffering imposed upon the female by the injustice of the male”(38). Paul Roche goes even further, asserting that, “Medea and Alcestis are propaganda tracts for women’s liberation”(vii). But Christine Downing observes that investigation of Euripides’ treatment of the feminine has resulted in claims that he was a misogynist, as well as a proto-feminist (3).
was Euripides purpose? I think that the concerns of modern day feminism are an
overlay brought to the work by the modern reader, and the search for evidence
of a “feminist” attitude is a tangent. That women suffered at the hands of men
is not disputed,
and Euripides may have been more sensitive than most of his peers. But if one
approaches his work with the intent to understand the struggles of the Greeks
at a particular point in time, rather than extrapolate themes with contemporary
applicability, then the concept of feminism as we know it must be held in
abeyance. To use the lens of feminism in analyzing these tragedies is to miss
both the point of Euripides’ work, and the insight that his plays provide into
the Greek notion of the “Other,” powerfully represented by “woman.”
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