BMCR 2023.03.09

Tragic heroines in ancient Greek drama

, Tragic heroines in ancient Greek drama. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2021. Pp. 314. ISBN 9781350103986



The recent influx of translations, source books, and textbooks on women, gender, and sexuality in Greco-Roman antiquity are a welcome sign not only of the pervasive interest in such courses among undergraduate students, but also of the breadth and diversity of the field as it has continued to grow and develop. Because most of the thirty-two extant Greek tragedies revolve around female characters, the family and household, they are central to the study of women and gender in the ancient world as well as to understanding the tragic genre more generally. In Tragic Heroines in Ancient Greek Drama, Hanna Roisman brings to the classroom four decades of writing and scholarship on the subject in the first comprehensive treatment of female figures in Greek tragedy intended for student use. Through a comparative analysis of characteristics and themes, this investigation brings to life the complexity of eleven major characters in Greek myth and drama, sympathetically exploring the dilemmas that confront them, their inner psychology and motivations, and the ways their actions reflect or resist Athenian gender norms.

The book is organized around eleven chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter is devoted to a specific female character and the major plays in which she appears, in the following order: Clytemnestra, Electra, Iphigenia, Antigone, Helen, Hecuba, Alcestis, Deianeira, Medea, Creusa, and Phaedra. These discussions are supported by various pedagogical aids, including a map, genealogies, shaded boxes that explain cultural practices, historical information, or literary features, and a glossary of names and terms. The stated goal is “to help students gain a more thorough understanding of the heroines’ personalities, roles, and agendas, through a close inspection of the texts.” The analysis of plays is guided by a set of larger themes or issues addressed by the tragic genre, namely, the place of women within Athenian society, the disruption or confusion of gender binaries, the alternation of female submission to and defiance of male authority, female guile and resourcefulness as a driver of dramatic action, often abetted by rhetorical skill, and the intersection of these qualities within each character and play. A particular advantage of the approach is the close attention paid to the texts and the author’s commitment to elucidating aspects of the original Greek, whether the precise wording of a passage or references to technical aspects of Greek poetics such as the ways meter enhances meaning.

The individual chapters utilize a similar structure throughout. They begin with a brief summary of the mythic background of the character to be discussed, offset by a shaded box. An introduction follows, outlining the various plays in which the character appears, their dates, and where they fall within the mythic cycle. Roisman then isolates a unique set of characteristics or internal contradictions embodied by the female principal, from the mix of masculine and feminine traits exhibited by Clytemnestra and Medea to the “highly feminine” and submissive attributes of Alcestis and Deianeira. The body of the chapter explores these characteristics and how they are deployed and developed in key dramatic moments, with particular attention to how they reinforce or challenge gender norms. Although detailed, the discussions are not overburdened by references to scholarly debates (of which there are many), rather, judicious use is made of secondary scholarship and footnotes. Each chapter concludes with a helpful summary as well as offers a series of thoughtful questions for discussion or written responses.

As Roisman observes in her final chapter, the variety of conditions to which tragic women are subjected combined with the diversity of their characteristics, personalities, and motivations, makes it difficult to generalize about their function and status, or to compare their representations, within Greek drama as a whole. Parallels, she argues, can more productively be drawn by age group. Adolescent girls tend to be intransigent and stubborn, unafraid of dying for their beliefs or exacting revenge. Older women, particularly mothers, act only when men harm, or threaten to harm, them or their children. Both groups, however, suffer the consequences of male decisions and face impossible situations which most cannot overcome. As a solution, Clytemnestra, Hecuba, Medea, and Electra, gravitate towards or commit murder, while Alcestis, Antigone, Deianeira, and Phaedra find no alternative other than to die. The last three, Iphigeneia, Creusa, and Helen, are survivors, who alone manage to endure their tragic circumstances, mainly through divine intervention.

Although there is much to admire in this volume and undergraduate students will surely find it a useful companion to their reading of Greek tragedy, a few things could have been more fully addressed. First, much of the cited scholarship is fairly traditional if not outdated, e.g., Winnington-Ingraham’s comment that Trachiniae is a “tragedy of sex” that takes “the sexuality of a normal woman and made it a motive force in tragedy,” which appears in the conclusion to chapter 8. Second, and related, is the lack of attention to by now standard interpretive approaches to gender and sexuality in Greek tragedy, whether structuralist, feminist, cultural studies, or, more recently, queer theory. It would also have been useful for students to have an overview of the structure of tragic drama, especially the function of the chorus, and a little about its performative context. Indeed, a separate chapter on the topic of the chorus, a major focus of recent scholarship on the genre, would have made a welcome and stimulating addition given that they regularly consist of women and girls. Lastly, the shaded boxes were hit or miss: some appear to have only a tangential relationship to the play under discussion (“George Lucas’ Strategy”); some seemed unduly circumscribed, such as the discussions of the Erinyes, lamentation, or sacrifice (“Polyxena and Macaria”), especially given their relevance to understanding women and gender.

These reservations notwithstanding, Tragic Heroines in Ancient Greek Drama would make an excellent addition not only to a stand-alone course on women in Greek tragedy, but would also be of service to a general course on women and gender in antiquity or as introductory reading to any course that covers Greek tragedy, such as ancient Greek civilization or classical mythology. It offers informed yet accessible readings of tragic women without oversimplifying them, and by elucidating their complex and shifting characterizations, their dramatic functions, and their intersection with contemporary debates and issues, has much to teach our students about the genre of tragedy itself.