BMCR 2002.01.21

Female Acts in Greek Tragedy

, Female acts in Greek tragedy. Martin classical lectures. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. x, 410 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0691050309 $39.50.

One hears talk these days of an ‘orthodoxy’ in the study of Greek tragedy, one that examines the plays in light of the changing fortunes of Athens—political, social, religious, intellectual—at the expense of the appreciation of individual genius and the artistry that transcends historical particulars.1 While it’s going too far to call much of anything an orthodoxy in the study of tragedy, there’s no doubt that the social sciences have been making inroads into literary studies for so long now that the line between the two is hardly distinct. For better or worse. The dark side is all too familiar: plays read only to illuminate cultural and political realities, and prose that is practically unreadable. Helene Foley has long been engaged with this overlap of the social and the literary, and her work has been consistently influential. But, as this volume reminds us, her ability to combine interpretative flexibility with philological rigor and a sensitivity to the poetry keeps her well clear of the darkness.

Readers familiar with Foley’s previous publications will recognize much of the ground in Female Acts : a start with the gap between female powerlessness in Athens and female assertiveness onstage; a self-consciously historical/anthropological approach; and the conclusion that for all its apparent subversion and questioning, tragedy finally serves in most cases as public support for Athenian social institutions. Also recognizable are five of the nine essays, previously published (one in a mainstream journal, the other four in well-known collections) and revised here to create a coherent volume and to update bibliography.

So, what’s new? Quite a bit, as it turns out. And the value of the book lies not only in the first publication of the four new essays, but in the combined impact of the approaches Foley has been pursuing since at least 1989. The titles of the four (unequal) parts of the book are fairly transparent and, where applicable, unchanged from earlier versions: Part I, “The Politics of Tragic Lamentation,” revised from Sommerstein, Halliwell, Henderson, and Zimmermann, eds., Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis (Bari, 1993); Part II, “The Contradictions of Tragic Marriage”; Part III, by far the longest, subdivided into six essays (three of which we’ve seen before), “Women as Moral Agents in Greek Tragedy”; and Part IV, ” Anodos Dramas: Euripides’ Alcestis and Helen,” revised from Hexter and Selden, eds., Innovations in Antiquity (New York and London, 1992). The bibliography is full, and there are indices both General and Locorum. I hardly need comment on the five essays that appear here in revised form; students of Greek poetry and society have been learning from and responding to them for years. More, then, on the new essays and the book as a whole.

The plan is ambitious, a look at “the fictional female position” in tragedy, as well as the reflection of contemporary society in those positions (p. 4). Athens, thus, illuminates the plays, the plays illuminate Athens, and all is brought to bear (however lightly) on “twentieth-century women as well as men” who “now find themselves in the position of creating and enforcing social and political ideology” (p. 13). Toward that end, Foley carefully situates her work within the recent tradition of feminist criticism of tragedy, both drawing on advances and setting her boundaries against fields recently worked. In one sense then, the plays for her are storehouses of insight into non-literary matters, particularly valuable storehouses since the tragedies extend into private as well as public worlds, giving us access to the many voices typically silent in other forms of Athenian discourse (such as philosophy and rhetoric). If we find the argument in “The Politics of Tragic Lamentation” less uniquely gripping than we did at its initial publication, we can blame Foley herself (along with Alexiou before her) for spawning the growing interest in the subject in recent years. The extent of female mourning within tragedy does indeed seem to ebb and flow in inverse proportion to actual funerary practice in Athens (as far as we can tell, from laws and material remains); and the daily papers, in addition to anthropological reports, confirm the political force of funeral lament. To pursue these ideas now, we might not turn first to Foley’s treatment—although she does usefully list the pertinent work published since her article first went to press (noted on p. 21). But for incisive comment on particular instances of female lament in tragedy (especially Choephoroi, Euripides’ Suppliants, and Seven against Thebes), this essay is still the place.

“The Contradictions of Tragic Marriage” does for marriage what the first essay does for lament: a systematic review of “what we know” about actual practice, followed by discussion of particular passages that show how tragedy responds to tensions or contradictions within and arising from those practices. Foley is conversant with the recent treatments of marriage from a variety of theoretical angles (prominently, those of Rabinowitz, Wohl, and Ormand), but chooses to follow Seaford in adopting a largely anthropological approach. She suggests that in its treatment of marriage tragedy retains traces of a pre- or even anti-democratic ideology, a hearkening back to an aristocratic Homeric ideal (for males at least). The prominence of the good concubine in tragedy suggests a reaction to the many problems that real wives presented the men of 5th century Athens: annoying attachments to the natal family; a degree of economic freedom, made possible by the woman’s control over the dowry; and a certain power derived from the wife’s exclusive ability to produce citizen heirs. Tragic concubines, on the other hand, are slavish in their devotion to the husband and the household (Tecmessa), and even contrasted with real (and really difficult) wives in their embodiment of wifely virtues (Euripides’ Andromache). We might choose not to follow Foley in her final suggestion, that Euripides’ increasing fondness for concubines reflects intensified Athenian interest in marital matters during the Peloponnesian War; but this chapter works well, illuminating both the plays and the times.

The heart of the book is Part III, an exploration in six chapters of distinctively female moral agency in tragedy. Starting with the idea that “ethical life can be properly understood as inhering in the fullest possible participation in the roles and practices of the community,” 2 Foley considers three particular roles that influence the decisions of tragic women: virgin, wife, and mother. She acknowledges her debt to Carol Gilligan in positing a variety of moral models but argues that these tragic women (Antigone in particular) extend beyond Gilligan’s standards for the female moral position (pp. 189-93). Essay III.1, “Virgins, Wives, and Mothers; Penelope as Paradigm,” introduces female moral agency, with the paradigmatic Penelope revised from “Penelope as Moral Agent” in B. Cohen, ed., The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey (Oxford, 1995). As Foley recognizes, Homeric conceptions of a woman’s moral capability are not the same as those in tragedy, but Penelope’s case does raise many of the questions that appear later: Are there female versions of arete and kleos ? What are the constraints and priorities that condition Penelope’s decisions, in particular her decision to stage the contest of the bow? And, especially in light of that conditioning, how do we respond to those decisions?

The next two essays apply those questions to tragic virgins: III.2, “Sacrificial Virgins: The Ethics of Lamentation in Sophocles’ Electra” and III.3, “Sacrificial Virgins: Antigone as Moral Agent,” the latter revised from M. Silk, ed., Greek Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond (Oxford, 1996). The obvious Electra question—Does Sophocles mean to justify or condemn the killing of Clytemnestra?—is subtly filtered through an “anthropological approach to the ethics of revenge tragedy” (p. 147). Foley argues that Electra enacts an ideology of revenge or vendetta that had been legally curtailed by the time of the performance but was still recognized by the Athenian audience as a part of their “cultural memory.” Evidence both ancient and modern is brought to bear to show that Electra, like Antigone, behaves as an unmarried daughter should in these situations. And that behavior, in both cases, is markedly different from what we see in their male counterparts, Orestes and Creon respectively. The strength of these chapters lies in that last point. Yes, we’ve heard before how Electra and Orestes respond differently to the call to revenge; and we might agree that the conflict between Creon and Antigone has been sufficiently gendered. But what we see here is a more careful examination of the changing nuances of female speech within each play. In fact, it is the very changeability of Antigone’s speech, altered to match her different audiences, that points the contrast with Creon, rigid and unchanging.3 And Electra responds differently to her role as avenger in response to changing information about the health and whereabouts of Orestes.

In her two treatments of wives, Foley focuses on the contrast between the private, domestic role expected of women and the public roles, more traditionally male, that the women often adopt. Medea, examined in III.5, “Tragic Wives: Medea’s Divided Self” (revised from the Classical Antiquity article of 1989), is divided not between passion and reason but between two selves, one of them private and female, the other public and male. The male wins, and that victory not only confirms “woman’s ultimate incapacity for independence” (p. 268), but also, interestingly, raises the problems inherent in the heroic masculinity that has consumed Medea. III.4, “Tragic Wives: Clytemnestras,” compares Euripidean and Aeschylean versions of the husband-slayer’s self-defense. While Euripides domesticates her, giving her conventional lines delivered before women, Aeschylus puts her before a male chorus, attempting to claim for herself a male role. In a close and largely persuasive analysis of “Clytemnestra’s Apology” ( Agamemnon 1372ff.), Foley traces a shifting balance of our heroine’s androgyny, from her initial “demands to be treated on the same terms as an autonomous, masculine agent” (p. 212) through to her reassumption of “the role of ‘wife,’ in which a woman is meant to follow the guidance of her kurios or guardian” (p. 228), namely, Aegisthus in the place of Agamemnon.4 The passage in question is unusually rich. Foley’s achievement is not so much her charting of Clytemnestra’s changes; others, well-cited here, have done that before. Rather, it is her locating those changes onto a larger map, with clearly delineated lines between appropriately male and female claims to justice and morality. Thus, Clytemnestra’s attempt to apply male reasoning and justification to her act becomes something larger and raises disturbing questions about women as moral agents (p. 233).

Part III concludes with mothers: “Tragic Mothers: Persuasion in Euripides,” a perceptive study of the different means available to older tragic women in their promotion of a particularly female point of view. Aethra, Jocasta, and Hecuba rely not only on their age, but also on maternal authority in their attempts to persuade males. In every case, the woman supports ancestral laws, traditional values, or universal truths while the male is bent on overturning those laws for momentary advantage. The success or failure of the persuasion is less important than the public expression of the female point of view. Foley argues that Euripides’ use of women as the voice of tradition reflects “a changing and increasingly marginalized status for these [ancestral] laws during the Peloponnesian War” (p. 276); a suggestive argument, particularly in light of the Thucydidean parallels brought in here, but, as Foley recognizes early on, the nature of the material makes it difficult to establish trends.5

In the final essay, Part IV: “Anodos Dramas: Euripides’ Alcestis and Helen,” Foley applies to these tragedies aspects of the anodos myth pattern, most familiar from the story of Persephone’s descent into and ascent ( anodos) from the realm of the dead. While the anodos pattern is often raised in the context of the change of status from virgin to bride, in these plays we see married women forcibly removed from their homes, but then achieving remarriages of sorts. In the process, and aided by the authority of the story pattern, both women achieve an immortal reputation, a degree of kleos not historically allowed to women. Alcestis, though, is silent at the end, and Helen safely recommodified. Further examples, then, that “tragic play with gender is permitted in a sphere carefully circumscribed and authorized by the strictures of myth and ritual, but ultimately subject at its conclusion to the constrictions of social and political reality” (p. 331).

Foley’s envisioned audience—philosophers, anthropologists, historians, theater scholars—might well profit from this book. (All Greek is translated and/or transliterated.) Classicists certainly will. As my minor reservations suggest, I’m less convinced by Foley’s few discussions of the plays as reflecting the changes in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Entirely persuasive, though, is her distillation, from both the texts themselves and the world that created them, of a model of female moral agency. Foley shows us the power of that model in her several discussions here; and others, undoubtedly, will find it useful in going even further.6


1. And finds it in print, as in Jasper Griffin, “The Social Function of Greek Tragedy,” CQ 48 (1998) 39-61.

2. On p. 117, Foley quotes this passage from Christopher Gill. Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue (Oxford, 1996) 68.

3. On this multi-vocality of Antigone, see now Mark Griffith, “Antigone and Her Sister(s): Embodying Women in Greek Tragedy,” in L. McClure and A. Lardinois, eds., Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society (Princeton, 2001).

4. Part of this argument turns on the vexed passage, 1497-1504, where Clytemnestra distances herself from her role as wife of Agamemnon and first mentions the alastor as involved in the deed. (Even this bald summary doesn’t avoid interpretative nuance.) Foley joins those who see this claim as an extension of Clytemnestra’s responsibility rather than an attempt to deny or minimize her role in the murder. She argues well that what Clytemnestra denies is her status as wife, with the moral limitations inherent in that position. But in response to her next point—that mention of the alastor brings Aegisthus into the picture here (p. 220)—I’m with the befuddled chorus in missing the reference.

5. The most careful language is on pp. 290-291.

6. Especially for a book that will be so widely read and used, the production is surprisingly careless. Possibly the only (momentarily) misleading error is the omission of ‘no’ in the first line of the first full paragraph on p. 16. The other 30 or so errors that I count are simply an embarrassment to the press.