BMCR 2000.07.02

Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama

, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. 293.

As any student of Greek literature knows, the Athenians were unanimous in their approval of the silent woman. How then do we account for female characters in Athenian drama who do speak in public, often with purpose, intensity and results? Laura McClure [henceforth McC.] examines this apparent contradiction in the context of several discursive practices of fifth century Athens. As she acknowledges, women’s public silence was more the ideal than the norm, and male authored texts are by no means the most reliable sources for women’s speech patterns. Yet by a judicious combination of ancient commentaries on women’s diction and modern sociolinguistic categorization of gender specific language she constructs a plausible model of the function and parameters of women’s speech within such civic spaces as the theatre of Dionysus. It is her hypothesis that drama reflects women’s licence to communicate publicly by means of certain approved genres, lamentation or prayer for example, but such unauthorized female speech as gossip disrupts patriarchal society until feminine language is contained or changed into a ritual form suitable for women. Furthermore, because these fictional females often coopt the language of contemporary demagogues, the construction of women’s language in Athenian tragedy and comedy illustrates the potential dangers of persuasive rhetoric in other public venues such as the Assembly.

The work begins by enumerating speech genres associated with women in archaic and classical literature. Lamentation, the most frequent, is often seen as a threat to political stability; Antigone and the chorus of the Septem, for example, set female lamentation against male stability and order. Other forms of feminine discourse include ritual profanity ( Aischrologia), gossip and seductive persuasion (which often has a magical component), the ritual ololuge, and mimetic speech (e.g. the Delian Maidens, in H. H. Ap.). Quite often women’s speech is linked to their sexuality; obscenity at the Thesmophoria was a component of fertility, for example.

These first two chapters establish the theoretical framework for the remainder of this thoughtful and carefully researched book — a substantial contribution to the study of women in Classical drama. Chapters three and four treat the Oresteia and Hippolytus respectively. Of course issues of speech and gender in these tragedies are well trodden terrain. McC.’s unique contribution is an overriding theoretical approach which charts the common pattern of disruptive feminine discourse and its eventual necessary containment. She argues that Clytemnestra is “bilingual” in that she can appropriate male patterns of discourse to her profit, but also has recourse to feminine rhetorical strategies including mimicry and magical language. I am not persuaded that Clytemnestra’s welcome to her husband is an example of ‘incantation’ since many of the magical elements identified by McC., anaphora, repetition and alliteration, also happen to be poetic devices, and Aeschylus after all is writing poetry. Nevertheless I am intrigued by McC.’s identification of Clytemnestra’s ability to “code switch” (i.e. speak like a man or woman) when necessary, and certainly agree that she effectively feminizes the chorus’ communicative abilities until they assume the role of mourners, a traditionally feminine form of speech.

Having examined the treatment of feminine discourse throughout the trilogy, McC. determines that it is eventually eradicated from the polis at the trial of Orestes with the defeat of the Erinyes, although the female voice is contained within the acceptable form of their eventual religious procession. She concludes by hinting at a comparison between the speech of the two androgynous figures of Athena and Cltyemnestra, definitely an idea worth treating in more detail.

The Hippolytus, like the Oresteia has been analysed by others in terms of its treatment of communication issues, but to my knowledge this discussion of the Euripidean play is singular in its comparison with the Oresteia. Here the author suggests that, unlike the Aeschylus who makes Athena’s persuasion contain feminine discourse, Euripides illustrates how women’s gossip can ripple beyond private enclosures into the public realm and instigate a forensic debate between two men. This fictional representation may allude to a subtle and complex social reality in which women did actually contribute to the creation of male identity by spreading rumours and gossiping about sex. I was less convinced by the argument that Phaedra and her companions engage in a metaphorical form of Aischrologia in these discussions. And again there are sections of this chapter which seemed too ponderous, too painstakingly detailed — the analysis of Phaedra’s great rhesis, for example, is overdone — but overall the author succeeds in showing how the unfettered speech of women is eventually harnessed into the ritual song prescribed by Artemis at the play’s conclusion. McC.’s study of Euripides’ Andromache, which shares the theme of the absent husband and dangerous wife with the two plays already discussed, is an important commentary on this comparatively neglected play. She advances interesting parallels with the Hippolytus : both plays delineate separate discursive spheres based on gender, accordingly women’s discourse is identified as deceptive gossip which infiltrates and corrupts the public speech of men. Like Phaedra, Hermione is motivated by sexual concerns which instigate gossip (in this case slander against Andromache) culminating in deception and death. Both plays subvert the institution of marriage, but the Andromache takes matters further by letting Hermione’s deceptive discourse shape the rhetorical style of Menelaus and Orestes. Especially stimulating is the suggestion that with his depiction of Hermione Euripides is exploiting the Athenian construction of Spartan women as outspoken, licentious and domineering.

This, then, is the extent of McClure’s innovative discussion of women’s language in Greek tragedy, but it is a project with wide ramifications. While it is certainly understandable that the study must be limited to book length proportions, the absence of any discussion of Sophoclean women is an unfortunate omission. I would have preferred that the lengthy treatment of certain speeches be pruned to allow an exploration of Trachiniae, for example. Here is a play that undeniably demonstrates the dangers of women’s private speech regarding erotic matters. Deianira discusses her attempts to win back Heracles with the innocent chorus maidens and their mutual decision results in the agonizing death of her husband. There are potential parallels with the Hippolytus to be sure, and while Heracles does not subsequently indulge in public slander, he is reduced to emotional outbursts which to an essentialist observer might be described as womanish. More to the point however is the remarkable complete silence of any feminine voice (including the chorus’) in the second half of the play. Perhaps silence should be included on that list of approved genres of feminine discourse in tragedy.

The book ends with a discussion on the connection between obscenity, gender and social status in Old Comedy. McC. observes that the content and context of comic profanity is gender related — that is men and women swear differently — an original idea, and one that seems quite likely; but we have to bear in mind that the decks are not exactly stacked equally in Aristophanes, for whom the female character is a very specialized entity and relative minority. And is it worthwhile to suggest that Lampito’s obscenity in the Lysistrata has anything to do with the fact that she is Spartan? The evidence is just not that conclusive. Nonetheless this innovative and insightful exploration of gender and obscenity in Aristophanes contributes to the thesis that female characters’ expletives are related to women’s ritual aischrologia. These deductions on the nature of gendered obscenity lead to the suggestion that Agathon swears like a woman, while the cross-dressing relative in the Thesmophoriazusae gives himself away not only by his misogyny but also by his “masculine” obscenity, a very astute observation. The chapter also treats the other two “women’s plays”, the Lysistrata and the Ecclesiazusae with economy and insight. A brief final chapter summarizes the conclusions of the work.

Despite my occasional criticisms, I am impressed with the quality of argumentation and research of this very interesting book. In general one of its most praiseworthy features is the happy marriage of sociolinguistics and literary analysis. This is not some literal-minded attempt to reconstruct the language of ancient women (a project doomed to failure), or even to identify types of gendered dramatic discourse; instead it is an ambitious effort to situate the language of female dramatic characters within the sociohistorical context of fifth century Athens. All in all it succeeds very well.