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Ancient Greece found women inferior to men and limited their duties to family tasks such as child-bearing. The injustice and disempowerment of women were at the forefront of the social order only because of their gender. This pattern is apparent in two plays, Antigone and Medea, in which society requires all women, including the lead characters, Antigone and Medea, to comply with established social norms. The two protagonists, however, defy men by violating customs, but they face the repercussions of their deeds. For these reasons, it is important to discuss how Greek viewed women in the society and reasons Antigone died while Medea survived despite both of them violating social practices. The Greek society 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 natural laws, social decency and familial devotion. The playwright explores important themes that include state control, man-made laws, 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 Greek 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 acts 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 ways that the society does not expect. The work allows an audience to examine the position and role of women in the society.
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 means 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 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 persons. 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 betraying her. 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 punishment as a way Euripides uses to demonstrate possible women reactions and human flaws.
How Greek Viewed Women in the Society
The Greek society regarded women as inferior to men. Hence, the social order restricted women’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 one’s husbands’ decisions, irrespective of their ramifications. As it is evident in Medea, Medea 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 major decisions.
Correspondingly, the Greek culture expected women to submit to men without 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 society 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. Indeed, the two 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 humans 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 Publications, 2008.
Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.
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