Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.12

Maria Gerolemou, Bad Women, Mad Women: Gender und Wahnsinn in der griechischen Tragödie. Classica Monacensia, Bd 40​.   Tübingen​:  Narr Verlag, 2011.  Pp. 442.  ISBN 9783823365808.  €98.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Chiara Thumiger, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin​ (

This book is the expanded revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation. Even though much doxography, summarizing and restating remain Gerolemou has clearly put effort into shaping her research into a coherent and well-structured monograph.

The book comprises 8 chapters, followed by bibliography and index. The first chapter is the introduction; Chapters 2-7 consider each a different ‘mad woman’ case-study from a play (Clytemnestra and the Suppliant Women of Aeschylus; the Sophoclean Deianira and Antigone; Euripides’ Medea and the female characters of the Bacchae. A Résumé concludes the work.

The Introduction presents the topic, a comprehensive interpretation of gender and the status of women as they appear in extant Greek tragedy, in the light of various theoretical approaches, recent and quasi-recent, and through precise examples. Gerolemou reviews some of the steps of this strand of scholarship, starting with the mention of the écriture féminine of French feminist critics to ancient literary studies which engage with gender. Hers, she points out early on, is a literary study in the first place, aimed at exploring the connection, for Gerolemou seminal, between feminine and insanity or madness, Wahnsinn, in the tragic genre. The order she will follow in her review of tragedies is chronological, from Aeschylus to Euripides. Two main themes underlie her approach to the gender topic: (1) what she calls the motif of the ‘wahnsinnig Frau’ as part of the power discourse of the socio- cultural context of tragedy and (2) the possibility of an independent female stance being brought forth by these ‘mad women’, a position capable of defying the binary constraints of a male paradigm on the one hand and ‘otherness’ to it on the other. In this section one misses some more in-depth engagement with recent works, from Butler’s seminal (whether one likes it or not) reading of Antigone to Zaijko and Leonard’s volume Laughing with Medusa (this last surprisingly not in the bibliography).1

Gerolemou moves then to the topic of madness. This is the most problematic part of the enterprise for this reviewer, in the sense that the topic is in itself both difficult and much explored in the case of tragedy, and necessitates qualifications and discussion. In addition, madness is one of the central, characteristic features of the ‘tragic world’, if the expression can be allowed, and very evidently not gender-specific, an objection that Gerolemou does not address.

In the book Gerolemou generally sees madness as a way to catalyze and neutralize the risks and subversions implicit in female initiatives in tragedy. She recognizes two opposed types in the tragic female world, the rollenentfremdete and the rollenauslebende Frauen, women ‘alienated from their role’ and ‘complying with their role’, the Clytemnestra and Medea type, she explains, and all the others, it seems: whether the Danaids, Deianira, Creusa, Antigone in Phoenissae, Electra in Sophocles and Euripides, the Euripidean Hecuba in the homonymous play.

From Chapter 2 on the focus is brought closer to the individual plays, beginning with the Agamemnon, the first example in Gerolemou’s chronological narrative but also the archetype of the masculinized, threatening empowered woman – Gerolemou chooses the label ‘career woman’ to express the domain in which, in her view, Clytemnestra defies the received gender order most prominently: control and power. There are many perceptive an interesting remarks here; the element of insanity is however only tangentially noted and commented on – and indeed, madness in a broader metaphorical sense in the play is also the marker of Agamemnon’s morally flawed decision- making.

Chapter 3 considers Aeschylus’ Hiketides. The author discusses the maiden’s phyxanoria, angst of men and its roots (psychological and anthropological, so to say, their being autogenes). The women are strongly characterized by their status as foreigners and barbarians, by the freedom of movement they have appropriated, and by the threat they pose to the city of Argos. The element of madness finds here more extensive treatment, in connection with the reference to the ancestress Io. One notices however that madness is also used to qualify the Egyptian suitors, and this prompts the question whether it is female gender or rather eros that is deeply interconnected with madness.

Chapter 4 is about the story of another strongly individualised woman, Deianira, and her handling of the drama that unfolds out of Herakles’ love for two women. In her attempt to win back her man, she remains within her gender- assigned role as wife and mother, in this sense setting herself apart from the model of a Clytemnestra. She will nonetheless meet the end of a Maenad and decide to kill herself in isolation from the rest of the community; her last moments are characterized by the markers of madness and evoke the fate of another heroine, Medea, who received a similar fate (and yet, handled it very differently). Here, again, my reading would rather connect madness with eros and its imperatives, not so much to gender roles. This erotic madness is indeed spelt out as a female – rather, a ‘womanish’ flaw – but can take hold of males too: and so Herakles, in his agony, feels as if pain ‘has turned him into a woman’ (at 1075). The feminine becomes thus a common currency to signal weakness and emotionality, beyond the social construction superimposed on the female sex.

Chapter 5 addresses the classic (and most problematic) example of Antigone. Gerolemou proceeds along the well-known critical lines of the opposition between state and family, public and private that has shaped criticism of the play from Hegel onwards (‘Antigones autonomer Weg’, ‘Antigones Anomia’), to analyse the way in which Antigone not only defies the gender roles proper to her age and status, but rises to challenge more radical ideological presuppositions, through and beyond her competitive relationship to her sister, embodying the stance of adaptive ‘politics’ as inherently feminine as opposed to male rigidity and inflexibility. Here some important bibliography is missing; apart from chapters in the already mentioned Zaijko and Leonard, Irigaray’s famous treatment, and other recent works.2

Chapter 6 turns to the Bacchae, where feminine and madness are found in the behavior and destiny of a collective group, as well as of the two isolated characters of Agave and Pentheus. On the whole, Gerolemou analyses the behavior of the Theban women beyond their subjection to the Dionysiac spell of possession to interrogate their motivation and self-assertion beyond the exogenous nature of their derangement.

A Résumé concludes the book, which could be summarized in the following points:

•Women are important in Greek tragedy, and they seldom behave in a manner compliant with rules and received gender structures.

•In particular, there are two patterns: women who are forced by circumstances to step out of their territory, so to speak (Deianira) and women who willingly appropriate male authority, posing a threat to the state order (Clytemnestra); in addition, there is in Euripides a combination of the two, women who begin in fulfilled compliance with the rules but are then led to step outside them by the misdemeanors of men: Medea, or Electra.

•The point of departure for these female behaviours is always in the private sphere, a matter of safeguarding of the oikos. Women are forced to act by a failure in the male ‘regency’ of the world; this action, again, can be aimed at restoring the previous order (Deianira) or overthrowing it (Clytemnestra); in the second case, female initiative generates suspicion and alarm, and the accusation of irrationality and madness.

•There is a systematic association of madness and women who go against the received order. In so far as it is so, this ‘Wahn’ reflects the expected Greek cultural response to female ambition to legitimization and self-determination. In addition, however, this female madness expresses also a ‘potential to change the representation of women through tragedy’ (401).

•On the whole, however, this subversive drive remains a tangential force, and the tragic genre ultimately reaffirms a ‘stabile conservative Grundanschauung über das Weibliche’.

As a whole, in my opinion this book is a valuable illustration of themes and plots relevant to gender – or rather, one should say, to female characterization in Greek tragedy. Gerolemou addresses a selection of central texts, and offers a thorough reading of the dramatic action, with bibliographical backing for each play. In this sense, this work is useful, well produced and competent.

When it comes to the topic of the study as theoretically engaged, however, a reader might remain somewhat frustrated both by the analysis and by the conclusions. In particular, Gerolemou revives, and sometimes poses afresh, questions that I would have liked to see answered in greater depth, such as:

How is the paradox or women’s importance in tragedy, their power and dangerousness, explained within the wider frame of Greek culture? Does this presence reinforce the paradigm of male dominance, or does it offer subterranean venues through which women’s marginalized voices can be heard? Gerolemou suggests the second of these in the introduction, but ultimately closes the book with a quite definitive statement of the first.

Greek madness: is it simply the main currency through which social and political marginalization operates, or is there more to be said about this genre-specific (but also characteristically Greek) insistence on insanity? Tragic madness, I repeat, is in no way specifically female: this point is important and potentially undermining to Gerolemou’s argument, and deserved more explicit treatment.

And a related point: how do we define madness? Not even in the opening of the introduction is madness properly qualified or problematized, even though Gerolemou seems at times to include much under this definition that is not explicitly or straightforwardly defined as ‘madness’. All the ‘insane’ women she discusses are so only in a very qualified, almost metaphorical sense (Clytemnestra, the Danaids, Antigone, Deianira, Medea). Only the women of the Bacchae and Agave are deranged in a ‘proper’ (i.e. pathological) sense, and, in fact, these are very different cases from all the others, and surely more resistant to socio-political interpretations. The ‘unreason’ of Orestes, Ajax, or Pentheus appears indeed much more ‘serious’ and pathologically real than those cases of female madness. How can we interpret this?

I also have some remarks on presentation: the book has much restating and summarizing, that sometimes make the reading tiresome, especially with reference to the content of the plays. Also, categories and sub-divisions may clarify the material but also work against the argument, forcing an artificial clarity where matters are more complex and definitions more blurred. The ‘types of women’ Gerolemou depicts (pp. 20-26) appear sometimes forced onto the material and reliant on what appears as a naïve view of dramatic characters as social or anthropological data.

The index nominum et rerum includes in fact very few res and almost no thematic or theoretical items, which would have helped consultation of a fairly long book.

Finally, one might or might not warm to wordplay and winking at the modern or contemporary (Hiketides as ‘lost in transition’; ‘Antigone as mad woman in the Attic’; ‘in Medeas res’…), and it is not in point here whether I do or not; but since these phrases are in part taken from the work of contemporary theatre practitioners, there is the question of what use of this element of reception Gerolemou is making, and why and how this relates to the discussion of gender.

On the whole, however, this book is the product of thorough preparation and can be a useful tool; the main title advertises ‘women’, and of ‘women’ it ultimately speaks, in the sense of female characters more than theoretical constructs.

[For a response to this review by Maria Gerolemou, please see BMCR 2013.01.47.]


1.   J. Butler, Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York (2000); Zajko, V., Leonard, M. (edd.) Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought. Oxford (2006).
2.   Irigaray, L. ‘The eternal irony of the community’. In Speculum of the other woman. Ithaca (1985); to add just one recent reference, the issue of the journal Mosaic 41.3, dedicated to Antigone (2008), where some essays engage directly with feminism and gender.

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