The experience of the masculine and feminine in the ancient Greek canon is one that belies a tension over social constructs and how individuals should inhabit them. In Oresteia and Medea, Aeschylus and Euripides recall traditional dichotomies between the genders. These constructs paint the leading female and male characters into two-dimensional and polarized roles. Men are warriors, leaders, and heroes, virtuous for their actions in battle, and in support of it. Women are passive and accommodating, expressing neither agency nor opinion. She who does is regarded as monstrous and inhuman.
Just as these dichotomies are limiting to the growth and fullness of the characters, they are at the same time subverted. Clytemnestra and Medea are bold, cunning, and even ruthless, asserting themselves wilfully and violently, while the heroes Agamemnon and Jason present as arrogant, physically vulnerable, and easily fooled; their hubris deflates the notion of “heroic.”
The further a character evolves from these tropes, the more humane their actions and interactions, and the more robust their character and conscience. Orestes inadvertently charts a path to a different kind of masculinity, and Sappho, a woman speaking in her own voice, embodies an authentic and quite different feminine than her fictional counterparts.
As these aspects of character and gender tropes evolve, so too does the experience of justice, literally a man-made construct that is gendered in its design and dispensation. In Oresteia it moves from the coarse to the civilized, while in Medea the movement is reversed; yet in both cases the move toward the divine. Athena and Helios shape the outcome of each respective story, perhaps suggesting by their actions that the divine would see oppression cast off.
Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon without remorse or regret, ostensibly avenging his sacrifice of Iphigenia. She makes a spectacle of his return, publicly professing her patience and love, and showering his footpath with rich fabrics. It is as if he is elevated to something beyond human, and almost divine. Yet this is a cunning ploy; Agamemnon simply cannot, in his arrogance, imagine anything untoward might be afoot. Clytemnestra exacts her revenge in the very domestic space where she is expected, as a wife, to be confined.
Likewise, Medea is cold blooded when avenging a personal injustice, killing her sons simply to cause Jason maximum pain. She would sooner be a warrior than a mother and banished as she is from Colchis and Corinth, she deftly negotiates safe harbour in Athens before ruthlessly executing her vengeance. Like Clytemnestra, Medea makes an outward profession of approval toward Jason, which is in fact a cunning slight-of-hand. Just as she laments privately about a wife’s lack of social opportunity, she tricks Jason into acting as the tool of his own undoing by delivering his bride the poisoned garments, and similarly killing in the domestic space.
These two women are steely, gritty, focused, and willing to slay that which stands between them and their ambitions. Their actions are doubly horrific, not just for exhibiting traditionally “masculine” qualities, but for doing so in traditionally “feminine” spaces. They are fearsome because they are too cunning to predict, too smart to be controlled, and because they invert socially expected mores.
Just as Clytemnestra and Medea invert the traditional feminine trope, Agamemnon and Jason invert the alpha-male “hero” trope. Both present as arrogant, self-important, and blind to questions of morality surrounding their actions. Clytemnestra and Medea premeditate their murders, and each suffers some psychic pain as a result: Clytemnestra by way of haunting dreams, and Medea in anticipation. By contrast, Agamemnon betrays no emotion as he sacrifices his daughter as a war offering, to men’s violence upon each other and innocents. He sees this as an appeasement to the gods, but others may see this as horrific and cowardly.
While Jason’s heroics are in the past, he is glorified for them, and Medea likewise suffered no reproach when killing on his behalf. The Jason whom readers meet hardly seems heroic, chauvinistic and condescending as he is toward Medea. He is either too proud or ignorant to have availed Medea of his plans to marry the princess, and faults her for the intense emotions she feels on learning of his betrayal. Where killing on support of Jason was welcomed, doing so for her own ends makes her a “terror,” and Jason the hapless victim.
Both men are egocentric, presuming themselves to be infallible. It is this very hubris that leaves them vulnerable, however, and both of these so-called heroes meet inglorious ends: the former killed in his bath, and the latter shattered by the death of his bride and sons, upending their heroics with a pathetic coda.
By contrast, Orestes fails at traditional heroism. Instructed by Apollo to avenge Agamemnon, he is immediately beset by the Furies on killing Clytemnestra. Unlike Agamemnon, who was untroubled by enacting the gods’ supposed will, Orestes is immediately distressed. He appeals to Athena for protection, who in turn dispenses previously unknown civil form of justice.
Through this process, Orestes evokes a new kind of heroism based on soft power, diplomacy, tact, and equality before the law. Heeding a woman’s voice and counsel breaks the cycle of violence that defined justice previously, and in so doing, frees Orestes from his psychological demons. This new system allows the masculine to be more subtle, humane, and complex, while at the same time allowing the feminine to enjoy agency and provide counsel, and to offer intelligent, sensitive, and nonviolent solutions.
Justice matures over the Oresteia, from sacrifice through revenge, vengeance, and finally, rational analysis and restitution. It moves from crude to refined, earthly to divine. But while Athena dispenses justice to save Orestes from the Furies, Medea leaves Jason in a fury, and in despair. She has no higher court of appeal in casting off the shackles of her oppression than to wage justice herself.
In Corinth, justice is “civilized,” governed by laws ostensibly created by men; there is no evidence that justice serves or has concern for women, and Medea is clear in her disdain for a wife’s lack of agency and social voice. Though she is an outsider, she attempts to fit in with local customs. Yet she cannot, for she is too personally strong to be disabused by Jason, and cannot accept passively whatever fate or men dispense upon her. Jason mocks her in invoking Greece’s seemingly superior, civilized brand of justice, and warns her that she will suffer for her wilfulness.
He is blind to the fact that she is suffering as a result of his actions. She requires justice and will obtain it. Unlike Clytemnestra, Medea betrays clear, strong, even frightening emotions, but she is likewise a cunning planner with steely will. In sending poisoned garments to the princess, she belies the taint of greed, vanity, and status, those very qualities Jason is compelled by. At the same time, she demonstrates how much greater her personal power is than any notion of “civilized” justice, which offers her no recourse.
Though she is increasingly minimized by the men making decisions around her, and pushed therefore further into a monstrous response, Medea refuses to abdicate her agency, and there is a kind of integrity in her ownership of her actions, however despicable. The grief she unleashes on Jason is one that the Chorus says that “justice has demanded” (Euripides, 52). The legendary hero is now the powerless victim. That Medea escapes in Helios’ chariot suggests the will of the gods behind her; with their support she is firmly in control of her destiny.
All of these characters are voiced by male playwrights, who surely could only imagine woman’s experience and attempt to craft a faithful portrayal. It is curious that both Clytemnestra and Medea are given extraordinary agency and power. They are written with complexity and strength, even as they are, on the surface, portrayed as monsters. Yet at the same time, these same playwrights invert the heroism of Agamemnon and Jason, demonstrating the fallibility of violence and self-interest as a means to an end. They seem to seek a balance, perhaps what Aristotle’s writings on justice might term proportionality, bringing both the masculine and feminine into fuller relief, imbuing them with agency and reason, and bringing soft power to the fore as a better way forward for all.
While Aeschylus and Euripides make compelling work of the women they write, there is no substitute for a woman speaking in her voice and from her power. Able to inhabit and express her humanity in all its passion, Sappho show us the potential of a woman to betray powerful emotion, to focus on beauty and goodness, and to create unabashedly. Absent any oppression, she has no need of concerning herself with matters of justice and restitution.
Rather, she is authentic, fully human, and freely passionate. She literally makes music, for the enjoyment of others and the expression of her feelings. She creates the opportunity for literal and proverbial harmony through her words, and prepares young women for adult life, giving of her knowledge as a social contribution. In contrast to Clytemnestra and Medea, she is uninhibited, and can concentrate on creating and giving, rather than asserting, scheming, and destroying. The contrast is even starker against the war-making of men like Agamemnon and Jason, who betray no thought of the pain their actions may inflict on others.
Indeed, Sappho seems to delight in nature, in feeling, in self-acceptance, and in goodness and beauty. These themes, alongside those of longing and love, are so timeless and universal as to feel modern even 2,500 years after their writing. She may be viewed as a kind of Platonic form for the idealized feminine experience: beautiful, passionate, authentic, and unencumbered. She has no need of being wilful, for she suffers no oppression. She is not threatening to those around her, despite her incredibly deep emotional expressions.
The problem with “wilful” women like Clytemnestra and Medea is that they serve as an uncomfortable reminder to the men in charge of their societies that there are other ways of being, organizing, and perceiving the world. They represent the potential for what could be, which is too threatening to the existing social hegemony to be rendered acceptable. This feminine potential, too long and painfully repressed, emerges as its worst iteration. Perhaps men like Agamemnon and Jason would be wise to heed Mencius’ advice: it is unwise to set people up to fail and then punish them for it. It is wiser indeed to harness the best of people when they are able to be themselves, with all the dignity, acceptance, and respect that befits that kind of existence.
Aeschylus. Oresteia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Euripides. Medea. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.
Sappho. Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments. UK: Penguin Classics, 2015.