Portrayal of Gender Stereotypes in The Oresteia

Portrayal of Gender Stereotypes in The Oresteia

Gender portrayal in media has been a main topic in today’s society. But the issue has been around for a lot longer than the media itself. In his own time, Shakespeare seemed to have been raising questions about the standard images of males and females, and about what the characteristics of each gender are. Thousands of years before him, the society of ancient Greece nurtured and cultivated its demeaning role of women. The women of ancient Greece endured many difficulties and hardships, elements that shaped and formed a mold of a submissive female. Given the historical era and the social mindset of society at that time, The Oresteia produces itself around misogynistic gender representation of its female characters as vulnerable animals, providing a foundation for a hidden aspect of the play.

The play starts with the watchman speaking about how he awaits the arrival of the king of Argos, Agamemnon who is fighting Troy to recapture Helen, and then rushes to find Queen Clytemnestra, when he sees the beacon of fire signaling Troy’s fall. The Chorus then enters and explains the story of the war and then recount the terrible story of when the Greek fleet was trapped by horrible winds, and Agamemnon learned that the winds were sent by Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, as the Chorus sings:

“Yes, he had the heart

to sacrifice his daughter,

to bless the war that avenged a woman’s loss. . .

Her father called his henchmen on

on with a prayer.

“Hoist her over the altar

like a yearling, give it all your strength!

She’s fainting! — lift her.

Sweep her robes around her,

but slip this strap in her gentle curving lips . . .

Here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house…” (223-236)

The Chorus describes in detail her pitiful cries for mercy as her father’s men cut her throat. Iphigenia cries for her father to save her, but he tells his men to “slip [a] strap around her… gag her.” Agamemnon goes on to compare her to “a yearling” and orders his men to throw her over the altar. He treats her as any other animal he would have hunted. Her emotions mean nothing to him, even as she begins to faint and he feels her soul being sucked out of her body. Aeschylus paints a portrait of Iphigenia’s violated innocence as he describes her cry for help, which Agamemnon continues to ignore. Compared to the pride he would get after he won the war, this action was nothing to him. “She strains to call their name” depicts the pathetic portrayal of women in the view of the men, living in a society where misogyny places a huge roll, even in plays for entertainment. Since the story telling takes place on the lower level of the tiered stage, it depicts the worthlessness of the act of sacrifice to Agamemnon. It shows how insignificant his daughter was to him; however, it goes on to place sympathy in the audience’s heart for Clytemnestra’s act of revenge.

In Eumenides, Orestes goes on trial in Athens for the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, whom he gets revenge on for murdering his father. The Furies believe that the act of vengeance should be punished and Athena decides to hold a judiciary council to resolve the case. Apollo explains that he has come as a witness for the defense, explaining that he ordered Orestes to kill his mother, and subsequently purged the mortal of all guilt. He argues that a father’s life is worth more than a mother’s:

“Here is the truth, I tell you – see how right I am.

The woman you call the mother of the child

Is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed,

The new-sown seed that grows and swells inside her.

The man is the source of life—the one who mounts.

She, like a stranger for a stranger, keeps

The shoot alive unless god hurts the roots…

The father can father forth without a mother…” (665-678)

Here. the strong and disturbing misogyny of Ancient Greece is in full effect. Apollo essentially argues that women are simply not as important as men, and that fathers have a greater claim over their children than mothers do. As an example, he uses Athena herself, who was birthed fully-grown from her father, Zeus’s head. Her very existence, Apollo states, proves that men alone can conceive children, which means that men deserve their children’s allegiance to a greater degree than women do.

The animal like features of the men in his argument in that era can be compared to the Micaria sociabilis, a type of ground spider species, where the male eats the female after the delivery of the offspring. The portrayal of women as useless, vulnerable creatures goes hand in hand with animal species in today’s world. Because of this strict divide between characters and ideas, The Eumenides, a tale of justice and civilization prevailing over vengeance and savagery, can also be told as a story of men prevailing over women. The fact that men were superior figures in this society, contributed entirely to the degrading of females in the play.  The restrictions and turbulences the ancient Greek women tolerated, maintained the fragile and subordinate view of females.

The definition of misogyny is encrypted into The Oresteia in its very core element. The characters’ actions, soliloquy and dialogue help formulate this cowardly representation of women as weak human beings. The use of animalistic descriptions to define the nature of being a woman provides this play a basis of focus on issues of gender and masculine power.


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