BMCR 2003.09.10

Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays

Daniel Adam Mendelsohn, Gender and the city in Euripides' political plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xv, 257 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199249563 $65.00.

Traditionally dismissed as propagandistic and incoherent, Euripides’ Children of Heracles and Suppliant Women have long deserved a fresh look. Indeed, it is remarkable that in a decade of emphasis on the political context of Athenian drama, so little attention has been paid to either of these two plays. Daniel Mendelsohn provides a masterful and compelling rereading of both plays and in the process not only challenges standard assessments of their value but also demonstrates the centrality of gender for structuring their political debates.

The book began as a Princeton dissertation, completed in 1994, under the supervision of F. Zeitlin, whose influence is felt strongly throughout. The book is divided into three parts followed by a brief conclusion. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the scholarly tradition on the two plays and lays the theoretical groundwork for the argument. Detailed readings of Children of Heracles and Suppliant Women form the subject of Chapters 2 and 3, respectively. Mendelsohn’s analysis demonstrates the pervasive importance of gender for these plays and its function as a vehicle for social and political critique as well as elucidates unexpected similarities between the two plays.

In Chapter 1, Mendelsohn sets out to prove that both plays have more aesthetic merit, and are more unified, than the previous generation of scholars have suggested. He argues that awareness of gender brings renewed appreciation of the plays, even though both lack central female protagonists but rather are structured around opposing feminine pairs. Because women in tragic space transgress gender boundaries, their presence implicitly critiques or calls into question masculine political ideology, particularly when they appropriate male heroic identity. Pairings of contrasting females, such as the sacrificial virgin and the vengeful mother in Children of Heracles, provide “a coherent structural device with particular implications for political theorizing (46).”

Mendelsohn envisions the same narrative movement from containment to disruption in both plays, embodied in contrasting feminine pairs: in the first part, males successfully control the intrusive female; in the second, feminine disorder schools the male to “play the other” and thereby achieve a fuller understanding of his world. Such negotiations dramatize the ways in which the other may threaten civic unity while at the same time showing the importance — indeed, the necessity — of diversity to the city. Whereas Euripides’ political theorizing may be viewed as complicit in a patriarchal agenda, it is simultaneously inflected with a feminine dimension to suggest that democratic ideology “imposes itself at a considerable price (49).”

Mendelsohn locates his argument between what he views as two basic strands of contemporary criticism on tragic women, the psychoanalytic approach and historicist feminist readings, neither of which he finds satisfying. N. Rabinowitz is made to stand for the “classic feminist reading of tragedy” (if there is such a thing) in which the victimized tragic female is seen as reinforcing patriarchal ideology.1 The “materialist and historicist” approach seems to be exemplified by the work of H. Foley, although accompanying footnotes mention only one of her articles.2 This “narrow” approach, the author argues, must yield to a “more symbolic feminist reading.” To this end, Mendelsohn leans rather heavily on A. Saxonhouse’s interpretation of the tragic female as a symbol of undesirable political and social diversity.3

This chapter more than any other suggests the book’s origins as a dissertation formulated in the early 1990s. There is almost nothing in the bibliography later than 1997; indeed, an early footnote explains that the study was “essentially complete” prior to 1995 (p. 27, n. 50).4 By framing the book around an artificial opposition of psychoanalytic and historicist feminisms, neither of which is adequately defined, Mendelsohn constructs a bit of a straw man to be knocked down in subsequent chapters. Fortunately, this theoretical positioning does not detract from the author’s final point, and his ultimate contribution to the study of Euripidean drama, that gender is central to the political agendas of Children of Heracles and Suppliant Women, as well as to their dramatic structure.

Chapter 2, ” Children of Heracles : Territories of the Other,” explores the play as a suppliant drama of dislocation. The wandering Heraclids under the guidance of the aged Iolaus flee Argos and the tyranny of Eurystheus to seek asylum at Marathon. Deprived of heroic identity by old age and of civic identity by exile, Iolaus in his flight creates a political crisis resolved only by the sacrifice of an unnamed parthenos. This death heroizes the girl while at the same time feminizing the male (by now a familiar trope in Euripidean studies, as exemplified by Medea and Jason, Alcestis and Admetus). And yet her speech and her selfless gesture serve to “soften and redefine key terms of masculine heroism” (92). The maiden’s unseemly intrusion into the world of men becomes a model of “correct and appropriate civic ‘boldness’ ” (93). Since her sacrifice on behalf of her family ultimately contributes to the political stability of Athens, she may rightly be compared to the ephebe as she “stands beside” her death like a hoplite in formation ( paristasthai sphagei, v. 502).

But the gender reversal is only temporary: the sacrifice of the girl to Persephone unexpectedly rejuvenates the aged Iolaus. Taking the hoplite’s armor from the feminine interior of the temple, he reclaims his status as warrior. And yet this is not simply a recuperation of aristocratic heroism; rather, the girl’s sacrifice effects a moral change in the old man. Whereas in the play’s opening Iolaus voices a pre-democratic world view, rejecting the claims of the polis in favor of the genos, the death of the maiden instructs him in the ultimate democratic lesson, the importance of the ephebe’s sacrifice for the city. The final, feminine intrusion of the wrathful Alcmene realizes and inverts the positive thrasos of the maiden; instead of teaching citizenship, she provides a lesson in how the unbridled female may endanger the well-regulated polis.

Mendelsohn concludes, contra Rabinowitz, that the virgin sacrifice depicted in the Children of Heracles does not support patriarchal aims but rather validates the place of the feminine within the polis. The representation of conflicts between opposing feminine types, the pure virgin and the vengeful mother, combined with the reduplicative blurring of boundaries between masculine and feminine, dramatize the need for a balanced political and civic identity. In the end, the goddess Hebe — youthful, virginal, but significantly not a mother — appears as a mediating force, an Argive who winds up as a protector of Athens.

The third chapter, ” Suppliant Women : Regulations of the Feminine,” elucidates subtle unities within the play through analysis of another pair of contrasting feminine figures, the mourning mother and the suicidal wife. The play’s Demetrian context suggests the symbolic significance of marriage and motherhood for the play. At Eleusis, the suppliant band of Argive mothers seeking to recover the bodies of their slain sons confront Aethra, the mother of Theseus, while Evadne through suicide seeks to join her dead husband in the realm of Persephone. Whereas Children of Heracles emphasizes the daughter, Kore, to whom the maiden must be sacrificed, and with whom she was identified, Suppliant Women focuses on the importance of marriage and motherhood for the well-governed state. Aethra’s marriage to Aegeus provides a positive model for the integration of women into the city, in contrast to the careless exogamy of the Argive Adrastus. Moreover, marriage as a joining of masculine and feminine may be effectively marshaled as a potent symbol for other forms of political integration (161).

For Mendelsohn, Suppliant Women dramatizes the perils of two different models of marriage, endogamy and exogamy, both with political ramifications. Adrastus’ haste in selecting his daughters’ suitors compromises the integrity of his city by involving Argos in the affairs of other states; indeed, it has led to the death of the Seven and their mothers’ sad plight. His uncivilized and dangerously bestial ( thersin hos, 145) form of exogamy betokens a feminine lack of self-control. In contrast, Theseus’ principle of marriage within the clan, informed by the rhetoric of autochthony, expresses a hyper-masculine need for self-sufficiency. Both positions are shown to be untenable: Athens and Argos have failed to master self-other integration both domestically and politically.

Like the maiden in Children of Heracles, Aethra must exploit masculine traits, in this case speech rather than valor, to ensure that feminine or cooperative values are upheld. In leaving the palace and confronting Theseus, she, too, must challenge male authority, and an aristocratic viewpoint, to effect change on behalf of a vulnerable group. Aethra successfully modulates her son’s heroic and epic value system, convincing him to fight not only for his own good name, but for his city, and even all of Hellas. Thus Aethra’s plea for intervention effects a moral transformation in the male: she “softens … her son’s outlook; he literally broadens his horizons” (170). Like the maiden, she endorses only that heroic ethos that puts the group first. More could have been made of the religious context of Aethra’s intrusion into male space and the appropriateness of her intervention as a mother and older woman.5 Indeed, she states that it is her religious duty to remind Theseus to do what is hosion (40). She claims to represent the will of the gods ( ta ton theon, 301) and to preserve the universal nomos of burial (310-11), a religious imperative not unlike that claimed by Sophocles’ Antigone.

The feminine transgression contained foreshadows the disruptive, and inexplicable, entrance of Evadne in the play’s conclusion. In Mendelsohn’s view, her gesture — the only on-stage suicide in extant tragedy — implicitly critiques the notion of euandreia embodied by her husband’s death. Evadne’s public proclamation of conjugal love as well as her refusal to submit to paternal control illustrate the dangers of the female incontinence. Like the maiden in Children of Heracles, she claims to die for the sake of arete, but she has redefined it in erotic terms. Her excellence as a wife consists of dying along with her husband rather than on behalf of her family, like that of the girl. Her heroic death mingles categories of living and dead, male and female, husband and wife; in so doing, it recalls the dangerous symmeixis of Oedipus that lurks in the play’s mythic background. This final feminine action enacts yet another gender reversal, forcing Iphis, her mourning father, to “play” Demeter (215-18). Only Athena ex machina can set to rights this all-too-feminine world.

While Mendelsohn’s overarching argument, that the feminine modulates the state’s “archaic, masculine and monolithically unitary modes (230-31),” ultimately persuades, his ability to bring to the surface some of the profound similarities between the two plays is truly compelling. Both are suppliant dramas structured by reduplications and reversals of gender. Both make use of the same dramatic structure in which a passive male is enhanced by an active female; the second half inverts this schema to show a female appropriation of male activities that in turn feminizes or educates the male. As Mendelsohn demonstrates, Children of Heracles and Suppliant Women should be interpreted as a pair, not simply because they praise Athens, or because they lack dramatic unity, but because they exemplify Euripides’ poetic technique during the 420s, as well as powerfully reflect the political turmoil of the early war years.


1. N. S. Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled : Euripides and the Traffic in Women (Ithaca, N.Y., 1993).

2. H. Foley, “The Politics of Tragic Lamentation,” in A. Sommerstein et al. (eds.), Tragedy, Comedy, and the Polis (Bari, 1993), 101-43.

3. A. Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought (Chicago, 1992).

4. For example, the following recent works on gender in Euripides and/or Euripidean drama are not cited: V. Wohl, Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (Austin, TX, 1998); L. McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama (Princeton, 1999); W. Allan, The Andromache and Euripidean Tragedy (Oxford, 2000); M. Cropp and K. Lee (eds.), Euripides and Tragic Theatre in the Late Fifth Century (Champaign, IL, 2000); H. P. Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy (Princeton, 2001).

5. For women’s religious authority in Greek tragedy, see E. Hall, “The Sociology of Athenian Tragedy,” in P. E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge, 1997), 93-126.