Women were regarded as inferior to men in ancient Greece, and their roles were limited to domestic duties such as childbearing. The oppression and disempowerment of women solely because of their gender was at the heart of the social order. This trend can be seen in two plays, Antigone and Medea, where society expects all women, including the main characters Antigone and Medea, to follow the established social norms. The two protagonists, on the other hand, challenge men by breaking traditions, but they must face the consequences of their actions. For these reasons, it is important to discuss how Greek viewed women in the society, and the causes of Antigone’s death, while Medea survived, despite both of them having violated the social practices. The Greek civilization viewed women as lesser beings and expected them to respect men’s decision without considering their implications.
Brief Overview of Antigone
Sophocles wrote Antigone in 442 B.C. Antigone, the play’s heroine risks her life willfully by violating man-made laws, in particular, commands of Creon, and emphasizing the natural customs, social decency and familial devotion. The playwright explores important themes that include state control, man-made rules, free will, citizenship, femininity. The play focuses primarily on the decision by Antigone to defy the laws of the state by burying her brother and the catastrophic consequences of her actions. The work allows readers to gain an in-depth understanding of the ancient Greece, and the battle between men and women in a male-dominated social order.
Brief Overview of Medea
Medea was written by Euripides in 431 B.C. The work explores the myth of two central characters, Jason and Medea, especially, the latter’s revenge against what she considers as the act of betrayal. The play, which was set in Corinth, a Greek City, presents critical themes, including revenge, betrayal and love. Through Medea’s actions to murder her brother and children, the playwright portrays women as powerful and resilient creatures who are ready to respond to their plight in the ways that the society does not expect. The work allows an audience to examine the position and role of women in the community.
Reasons for Antigone’s Death
King Creon sentences Antigone to death for violating his commands and the law which prohibits her from burying Polyneices. In spite of incessant pleas from her sister Ismene to change her mind, Antigone is determined to bury her brother, even if her actions mean disobeying Creon’s proclamation. When Ismene asks her to think about the severity of the punishment she would receive from Creon, the play’s protagonist says that the king “is not enough to stand in my way” (3). As a consequence, the ruler of Thebes summons Antigone, and upon interrogation, he finds her guilty and orders some people to entomb her alive. The woman later commits suicide by hanging herself. Antigone’s death penalty shows that men are ready to ensure that women remain faithful to man-made laws and should not attempt to violate them.
Reasons for Medea’s Escape
In contrast to Antigone’s consequences, Medea escapes a death punishment, despite murdering several people, because the playwright wants to portray women as people who may react to their plight just like any other person. The mother of two tells her husband that “As a man you’re the worst there is” because, in addition to abandoning her, he does not care for the children (14). Besides killing Glauce to hurt Jason for abandoning her, Medea murders her children as a way to offend her former husband for the betrayal. The readers view her actions as a revenge mission for the problems she has endured in life. Medea’s representation of human flaws engenders empathetic emotions from readers, who sympathize as opposed to condemning her. Therefore, unlike Antigone who dies due to her actions, Medea escapes her punishment – and in that way Euripides demonstrates possible reactions and human flaws that a woman can have too.
How Greek Viewed Women in the Society
The Greek society regarded women as inferior to men. Hence, the social order restricted female’s role to center primarily on performing home chores and bearing children. The community expected a woman to remain faithful to one’s wifely duties and not to question husbands’ decisions, irrespective of their ramifications. As it is evident in Medea, protagonist was expected to continue caring for her children, despite Jason’s action to marry Glauce. For this reason, her acts of murder appeared not to meet expectations of a woman in the society. In the same way, the Greece social order expected Antigone to perform her household duties without making decisions, even those that affected her family, for instance, burying her brother. Therefore, the society considered women as people who should only perform family activities without making any major decisions.
Correspondingly, the Greek culture expected women to submit to men without a question. In other words, men commanded women to respect their decisions and not to attempt to violate them at any given moment. As an illustration, Antigone was fully aware of the punishment that awaited her due to her resolve to bury her brother in defiance of king’s proclamation and Ismene’s warnings. Whereas she was a special character who defied man-made laws, other women in the community, as epitomized by her sister, sought to follow the rules and regulations as men stipulated. In the same way, in spite of her suffering and pain, the community does not expect Medea to question Jason’s decision to marry Glauce. The two illustrations show that the Greek society emphasized subordination of women at the expense of their welfare and happiness.
What is more, the Greek social order did not show its womenfolk respect similarly to men. To put it differently, the community set clear gaps between the two genders, whereby men commanded reverence, while women did not. To illustrate, whereas King Creon rules that Eteocles, a male, “is to be buried with full military honors,” he condemns his niece to death only because she is a woman and she seeks to bury her brother with honor (7). King Creon in Medea orders Medea to “go into exile” just because she is “scowling in anger against your husband” (8). Indeed, the ruler did not expect Medea to oppose her husband’s choice, regardless of the implication of the decision on her life. Certainly, both illustrations demonstrate two levels of standards that the society treated its men and women just because of their genders.
In essence, Medea and Antigone prove that the Greek society regarded women as inferior human beings, whose primary roles were to perform household duties and to respect men’s decisions thoughtlessly. Despite these entrenched ideas in the social order, Euripides and Sophocles attempt to challenge the norms by depicting women as powerful people who can make independent decisions, in spite of what men rule. However, whereas Antigone ultimately dies after disobeying her uncle, Medea escapes even after killing several people. Their different outcomes show the possible repercussions women endured as they fought for justice and rights in a male-dominated Greek community.
Euripides. Medea. Translated by Ian Johnston, Richer Resources Publication, 2008.
Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.