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Uncontrollable Urges: Women’s Frightening Presence in Classical Athenian Drama and it’s Reflection on Athenian Society

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  1. Introduction
  2. Aristotle: Women are capable of virtue
  3. Their political clout or social control
  4. The great contradiction with women
  5. Man's ambivalent feelings about women
  6. Medea's most well known monologue
  7. The opening of the play
  8. Conclusion
  9. Works cited

In classical Athenian society, anxiety about gender roles abounded, as women were regarded dichotomously as pillars of purity as well as receptacles and originators of filth, both moral and physical. Many ancient sources, often funerary monuments or epitaphs, praise individual women for their virtue, chastity, and obedience, but beneath these affectionate words lurks a darker perception of women. In addition to ideals of what a good woman and wife should aspire to be, ancient literature offers a laundry list of traits and habits that betray women's inferiorities and inherent dangers. The strict control that men maintained over their wives and daughters was only secondarily aimed at representing their legal interests; more importantly, men wanted to ensure that women could not break out of their boundaries and destroy the existing social structure: ?it did always seem a terribly dangerous possibility to the Greeks that their women might get out of hand and become a threat, endangering male order, life, and sanity.? Athenian drama often addressed these topics of female nature and female boundaries in both tragic and comedic forms

[...] (l.184-88) It may seem that she is lamenting Medea's misfortune, but in a society where gender is so visible and so separating, this comment may actually be her fear that Medea will be the cause of hellish and ruined family. Without any boundaries holding her in, Medea has full license to commit her terrible crime. In her most well-known monologue, Medea leaves her home, enters the public space, and speaks out in her own defense, defying both the tradition of women staying in the home and the expectation that women be silent. [...]


[...] Inscriptions on tombs beginning before classical Athens and extending all the way through the Roman Empire extolled women who exhibited traits that showed their obedience: ?worker in wool, pious, chaste, thrifty, faithful, a stayer-at-home is how one Roman woman was described. Although this tomb is Roman, the ideals it expresses stretch back to classical Greece, when women were actually even more restricted in their behaviors and movements outside of the home. In these inscriptions and in philosophical texts, women were portrayed as having inferior intelligence, and fulfilled their duties by obeying their husbands completely. [...]


[...] kept life going, but they generated constant, eternal anxiety and revulsion and fear of pollution,? but their presence in the home was necessary, since ?their only civic role consisted of giving birth to citizens their status as wives and mothers could never be wholly degraded without degrading their husbands and sons (Grant Women were pollutants who spread their disease primarily through the act of sex - again, a contradiction between the sex of legitimate childbirth and the sex of female sexual desire. [...]

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