The Congress of Women: Women in the Greek Drama

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Women in the Greek Drama

Mrs. Julia Ward Howe is a native of New York City. She was born May 27, 1819. Her parents were Samuel and Julia Cutler Ward; she was educated at private schools in New York, and devoted much time to the study of foreign languages and literature; has traveled six times to Europe, once to Egypt and Palestine, and twice to California. She married Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the eminent philanthropist and teacher of Laura Bridgman. Her special work has been in the interest of literary and philosophical culture, and of woman suffrage and higher education of woman. Her principal literary works are "Words for the Hour," "Trip to Cuba," "Later Lyrics," "Life of Margaret Fuller," "From the Oak to the Olive," "Modern Society," and "Memoir of Dr. Samuel G. Morse." In religious faith she is a Unitarian of the Channing or James Freeman Clarke school. Her postoffice address is 241 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass.

Extracts from Julia Ward Howe's Lecture

In some of the comedies of Aristophanes the women's cause is presented in a light intended to provoke ridicule.

The great comedian, it is thought, was moved to present these impersonations by those passages in Plato's republic in which the political rights of women are asserted as precisely similar to those of men, that is, from the point of view of ideal justice.

Barring the indecencies which belong to the common taste of the time, and which are largely omitted in translations, the Greek of Aristophanes does not appear to me very damaging to our position as advocates of the rights of women. In one of these plays, Lysistrata, the women of Athens, weary of the absence of their husbands in the Peloponnesian war, take the negotiation of the peace into their own hands. Lysistrata, the leading spirit among them, has summoned together the women from various parts of Greece, with the view of. wresting the management of public affairs from the hands of the men entrusted with them and of putting an end to the sinuous and devastating war. Whether intentionally or not, Aristophanes puts very sensible reasoning into the mouth of this leader among the women.

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Aristophanes, despite his satirical intention, preserves for us pictures of the Athenian women of his own time. Quick witted, public spirited, as far as opportunity will allow, devoutly attached to married life, a thrifty domestic worker and calculator, this is, or was, the reality. For ideal types we must go to those dramatists who deal with the historic and mythic traditions of the past. I have before me at this moment a vivid picture of two such women shown in startling contrast.

The Siege of Troy is over, and the beacons have flashed from one watch tower to another the signal of victory. The watchman, weary with ten years' waiting, thanks you that his long task is ended, and flies to communicate the good news to Agamemnon's Queen, Clytemnestra, who soon appears upon the stage with boastful words of exultation, beneath which she veils her wicked purpose. A herald arrives in haste to confirm the welcome tidings of the fall of Troy. Clytemnestra parleys with the chorus, expressing the joy she would be expected to feel in her husband's victory and near return. She says: "What light more welcome to a woman's eyes than this? When Heaven sends back her husband from the wars, to open him the gates ? Go, tell my lord to come at his best speed, desired by all; so would he find at home a faithful wife, just as he left her, watch-dog by his house, to him all kindness, to his foes a foe, and for the rest unaltered."

In the female characters put upon the stage by Sophocles we can trace within the influence of his friend Socrates, or the sympathy of view which may have formed the bond between them. My present limits will only allow me to speak of two of these characters, Electra and Antigone. Both of these women are rebels against authority. In both of them high courage is combined with womanly sweetness and purity. Electra is the unhappy eldest daughter of the murdered Agamemnon, condemned to live in the daily sight of her mother's contented union with her paramour, the accomplice of her bloody crime. In this crowned triumph of evil Electra does not for one moment acquiesce. Her first act after her father's death had been to convey her child brother, Orestes, to a place of safe concealment. Her only hope in life is that he will return to avenge his father's untimely end. In her first appearance upon the scene she bewails the tragedy of her house.

"And thou, my father, hast no pity gained,
Though thou a death hast died so grevious and so foul;
But I, at least, will never, while I live,
Refrain mine eyes from tears,
Nor get my voice from wailings sad and sore;
But, like a nightingale of brood bereaved,
Before the gates, I speak them forth to all."

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In the Clytemnestra of íschylus we are shown the full, fiery sweep of feminine passion, in the height and boast of its rebellion redeemed from vileness by the dreadful antecedent of Iphigenia's sacrifice, and the unquenchable anger sternly kindled in the mother's breast. In his Cassandra we have the wild sibyl, gifted with superhuman insight and touched with divine fire, but all unable to avert the doom which she foresees.

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And in these gracious and more purely feminine types presented by Sophocles, we admire the union of womanly tenderness with womanly courage.

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