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The plays Medea and Lysistrata both portray title characters that are women in Ancient Greece. In each of these plays the title characters feel they must confront the patriarchal society in which they live. The men of Ancient Greece see the women as the lesser gender. The women’s place is at home taking care of her husband or father; there are no places of influence for women in Ancient Greece, outside the home. This impotence is a major factor of Medea’s slip into mindless revenge, and also on Lysistrata’s grand idea for achieving peace in Greece. Both of these women use the weaknesses of the men around them to work against the patriarchal society in different ways and for different goals. These two plays can be used together to gather a sense of how women were considered in Ancient Greece.
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In Medea, gender inequality is immediately exposed by Jason’s betrayal of Medea. When Jason discards Medea, out of hand, for no reason other than to further his own name, by marring a rich princess, it is shown how little attention is paid to the needs of the woman. Medea tells Jason that if he “were honest, [he] ought first to have won [her] over, not got married behind [her] back” (ll 533-534). Jason feels that Medea should just go along with the divorce so that he can make himself rich and share his wealth with her and their children. He tells Medea, “[A]s for your scurrilous taunts against my marriage with the royal family, I shall show you that my action was wise, not swayed by passion, and directed towards your interests and my children’s” (ll 495-499). Jason insults Medea’s intelligence, showing that not only does Jason not consider Medea’s feelings for him, but he also thinks her simple and tries to convince her that it was in her best interest to be divorced from him. What is a woman to do? In Ancient Greece there is little recourse for Medea. She comes up with a plan to rob Jason of everything that his position affords him.
At first Medea decides to kill Jason, his new wife, and his new father-in-law. Medea eventually realizes, after killing the king and princess, the only way for Jason to pay is for him to lose everything but his life. Although she could have taken her children with her and not killed them, Medea realizes that as long as women have no power she will have no true sway over her sons. The sons of Jason will never forgive their mother for killing him. Medea decides that Jason must live and the boys must die. This way she will eliminate Jason’s name and his future supporters all at once. After Medea kills her sons, she tells Jason, “[Y]ou were mistaken if you thought you could dishonor my bed and live a pleasant life and laugh at me” (ll 1227-1229). Medea feels this is a great insult to her and her only recourse to get even with Jason is to kill their sons. Jason just illustrates the Greek man’s opinion of women by saying, “[N]ow, out of mere sexual jealousy, you murder them” (ll 1213-1214). Jason’s statement just shows his opinion of women: they are more affected by sex than by the betrayal of love. If women were allowed to bring grievances to the courts in Ancient Greece, these tragic events may have never occurred.
Lysistrata finds herself in a completely different situation, but with the same controlling factors, as Medea has to face. In Lysistrata’s case it is not an unfeeling husband that is her problem, but all the uncaring men of Athens. Lysistrata’s response is much different than Medea’s, because she is not discouraged by her lowly status but inspired instead. The reason for Lysistrata’s distress is that all of Athens’ men are being sent of to war and killed. This is causing problems for the women of Athens, because “as for lovers there’s not even a ghost of one left” (Lysistrata, 1052). Lysistrata realizes that the men of Athens will never listen to her, because the men feel “women must never defeat us” (Lysistrata, p.1060). She decides a better way to stop the war and bring the men back to Athens.
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The women are told to withhold sex from their lovers and husbands until a peace treaty has been signed. Lysistrata is successful in getting all the women of Greece to participate in her protest. She has realized that even though women have no political power they do have one undeniable power to wield, the male libido. Since they have no way to lobby the lawmakers and military leaders of Athens, the women must find another way to affect the men. The lack of power of the women, has given them no recourse but to “torture” their men into the peace Lysistrata feels is necessary. The women swear that even if they are forced to have sex they “shall do it badly and keep from moving” (Lysistrata, p.1054).
When they can take it no longer, leaders from all over Greece gather to strike a peace treaty. With unusable erections and plenty of sexual frustrations, the men are now ready to hear the logic of Lysistrata’s pleas. She shows them the wisdom of all Greece joining forces, so that they will not be overpowered by invasion. After some time of the men of Greece not having sex, they all decide that it is time to listen to this woman and make peace with each other. Even though the men of Greece are in power Lysistrata has figured out how to make them do as she pleases. This shows both that the men of Ancient Greece see women as sex symbols and that the women know how to exploit this fact.
Medea and Lysistrata combine to give a picture of a woman’s place in Ancient Greece. Both of these women went against this patriarchal structure, but they were not the average Greek woman – they were exceptions to the rule. It is clear that the Greeks cared little for their women’s views, desires, or feelings, and cared more for the things that a woman can give the man. Living under these oppressive conditions, it is no wonder that Medea and Lysistrata had to do something to improve their situation. These powerful women should still be seen as role models, if not for their actions then for their desire to take action at all.
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