Jun 25, 2020 in Literature

Women in Greek Literature and Society


One of the most prevailing issues that have survived the test of time in the world is the struggle between men and women. The first stereotype that is harbored by almost all societies is that men are superior to women in almost all comparable aspects. Despite the current trends that have attempted to bring a balance between the two sexes, it remains difficult to eliminate the prejudices about female inferiority that have been embedded in humankind since many ages ago. The situation was worse in ancient times when women were only considered as bearers of children and housekeepers. No woman was expected to actively participate in serious societal matters like war, politics, or theater. In fact, plays in Ancient Greece were written specifically for male audiences.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming popularity of the feminine inferiority, some playwrights and poets in Ancient Greece defied the norm and created literary works whether women were portrayed as strong protagonists. Some outstanding examples were Aristophanes and Sophocles, who created Lysistrata and Antigone respectively. Both plays were written in times when women were considered as submissive subordinates in a society controlled by men. Ironically, both plays featured female protagonists whose subversion proved that women could still control the society. Ideally, the playwrights may have had various reasons for depicting these two women as powerful and unrelenting. Therefore, despite the fact that women in Greek culture had minimal rights and freedoms, Lysistrata and Antigone are unique Greek literature characters who portray strong traits that could only be associated with men at that time.

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Antigone and Lysistrata

Both plays stray off the norm that saw women regarded as weaker and slavish. In Antigone, Sophocles reveals how the society had set strict rules concerning women. First, Ismene reminds her sister that “the law belongs to men”. She implies that they are expected just to be there to be seen; that they should never intervene in any societal issue regardless of its gravity; and that they should always submit to the men. It is the dictation of the society. However, Antigone knows deeper within herself that something must be done to change this perception. Antigone feels compelled to initiate change. She decides that she would bury Polyneices despite the absolute understanding of the prejudicial ramifications that might befall her. Evidently, Antigone has swerved from the norms in the Greek culture at that time which decreed women as meek and timid followers of the rules set by men.

Aristophanes, too, uniquely defies the norm in Lysistrata. The role given to Lysistrata reflects many features that would only be expected to be portrayed by men during Ancient Greece. She assembles all women and unveils her strategy that would force the men to stop the war and go home to their wives. Her actions her overly masculine and at times she even regards herself as strong. Nonetheless, she faces serious challenges trying to convince the women to join her in the plan. All women in Greece are already convinced that they had no chance in trying to persuade the men to stop the war. After all, women had no weapons, nor did they have the strength to face them. In one of the initial conversations in the play, Calonice reveals the paucity of hope and intensity of abjection embedded in the women of Greece by asking Lysistrata what they could ever be able to do.

Creations of Male Playwrights

The contrast between the strong women protagonists and the inferior women in the culture of Greece was elevated by the male playwrights and poets, probably to highlight several issues in the society. In Greek literature and mythology, the trend of constructing atypical female characters was common. For example, the Helen of Troy was a male construct meant for the depiction of the imaginations of men about women. Men invented these unique female characters so that they could use them to deliver particular messages that would not have been done by men effectively. Wilson believes that the Greek literature’s treatment of female protagonists can teach the audience nothing about the real lives of women in that time.

For example, Antigone, in the real Greece culture, would not have taken it upon herself to bury Polyneices however much she claimed to love her. Also, nobody would dare assemble women to persuade them to deny their men sexual rights because it would be detrimental to the women. Lysistrata and Antigone are evidently creations of male playwrights whose imaginations were beyond the actualities in the Greek culture. They were also stage pieces intended for the evocation of feelings of fantasy among the audience in Greek theater. Ironically, women were not even allowed to watch these plays in Ancient Greece. It can be perceived as a mockery of the women since they would never know whether there was a possibility of bringing change to the societal perception regarding their weaknesses. Worse still, all actors were men. Men acting plays about dominant women, to be watched by men, can only be kenned as sheer ridicule to the reality.

Criticism to Men

Traditionally, men believed that they possessed all powers and total control of the universe. The assumption was more pronounced in Ancient Greece and some other regions in the world. However, some critics, including philosophers, artists, poets, and playwrights had contrasting views which led to creations which criticized the position of men in the world. Aristophanes and Sophocles are some of these men.

The delusions harbored by men regarding their ability to control all actions, including war and law, are challenged by both Lysistrata and Antigone. Men in Antigone felt that no decree passed by men could be reversed by a woman, which in the real culture of the Greeks was the case. When Haimon attempted to persuade Creon to pardon Antigone, the ruler humiliated him by wondering how the boy could take the woman’s side when she had broken a decree. Nevertheless, Creon's pride diminishes when he ultimately comes to find out that his actions against Antigone had triggered the death of three of his family members. The King admits that all those were as a result of his wicked heart. Thus, Sophocles used an unrelenting woman to teach men that pride and nefariousness could lead to regrettable situations. The scenes end up under the control of a lady despite the stereotypic feeling that they had no say in the society.

In Lysistrata, the criticism is clearer when it is revealed that men are obliged to stop the war because of the women's strategy to deny them sexual favors. In a real-life situation in Ancient Greece, that would be not only unimaginable but also injurious. The severity of the sex-strike makes men realize that women can indeed control the world. The men are taught that, like Helen, other women can still mobilize men to take action whenever they want. According to Katz, women have always wanted to look for ways of countering the overt power that nature has granted to men. Thus, the use of sex-strike in Lysistrata is a perfect example of such power that was crafted by the strong protagonist herself. Overall, men are criticized both on the stage and in real-life for failing to contain the situations despite their overwhelming ego, arrogance, and pride.

Inner-self vs. Outer-self

Literature has for long argued that people have some different inner and outer traits. The portrayal of Greek culture women as inferior compared to some compelling female protagonists in the plays is an attempt to emphasize this. Women, particularly, are perceived as having two distinct sides, the inner-self, and outer-self. The inner-self represents the factors that motivate them to take the actions against the men, and the outer-self is how they would wish the men to perceive them in the real-life.

The inner-self of Antigone is what drives her to ensure that she buries her fallen brother. It is what propels her to defy the rules and culture of the land despite the outcomes. She, at one point, says that she would rather honor the dead than the living. Just like Helen of Troy, she decides to go against the societal patriarchal conventions. Her outer-self is the humble and timid lady that is seen pleading for mercy after being held for the deeds since it is what she wants the men to see in her. When she says "no one weeps for me," it shows her inner-self still yearns for compassion and mercy despite her strong position on her brother's burial.

Lysistrata’s inner-self is the drive to have the world without war. She shows that by assembling all women to support her in the mission to stop men. She explains to the women that it would be crucial to go on a sex strike so that men would listen to their pleas. Her outer-self is depicted by her acceptance that women are the seductresses in the society. Overall, while the Greek culture dwells on the outer-self traits of the women, the literature heroines attempt to portray their inner-selves.


The contrast seen between women in Greek literature and culture has various implications. Lysistrata and Antigone are unique characters in Greek literature whose depiction shows that women can go against the stereotypic construct whereby they are taken as weak and abject, with very few freedoms and rights. Criticism of men is one of the implications brought about by this contrast include. The strong protagonists are used to show that men can still be defeated by women despite the real-life situation presented by the culture. Also, the contrast can be used to portray the difference between the inner-self and outer-self among the female protagonists. It is further understood that the characters are creations of men, whose intentions might have been to mock the unfortunate position of women in the society.

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