This essay focuses on the author Aristophanes’ view of male and female gender roles in ancient Greece. Insightful literary interpretations are just one of the many features provided by Ultius.
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as a representation of Greek gender roles
Greek culture has long been cited as one related to sophistication, social progress, and intellect. However, gender relations in ancient Greece still reflected a tendency to undermine women and limit their autonomy. While this was not the case throughout the whole of Greece, as some regions such as Crete prized the roles and contribution of women to society in daily life, it represents the predominant views of the time.
In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, a group of women attempt to end the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex. Within this play, there is clear evidence that women were subject to strict behavior within their sphere of domesticity. Also, the play illustrates how women are characterized as the weaker sex in Greek culture. Numerous examples in dialogue give extensive insight into how women were not only subjected to control by their men, but also limited in their capacity to speak out. Ultimately, the play represents unequal gender roles through women’s overall domesticity, their lack of social power and tendency to be punished with violence.
Lack of complacency
While men were at war, the women were expected to stay at home and maintain the domestic aspect of family life. The gender roles were clearly defined where women tended to children, cleaning, and cooking. This limited women in terms of how much respect they garnered from men. For example, when Lysistrata and Calonice were talking, Calonice lamented about her lack of time:
“’tis not easy, you know, for women to leave the house. One is busy pottering about her husband; another is getting the servant up; a third is putting her child asleep or washing the brat or feeding it” (1).
This dialogue clearly shows dissent and frustration about how her daily life is structured. Because her daily tasks are limited to household duties, her overall autonomy is greatly diminished. This is representative of Greek culture because the gender roles enforced women’s place in the home and her activities solely related to familial matters. Obedience and compliance were their expected traits when dealing with men.
Women in Lysistrata
Indeed, the play depicts women as the weaker sex in many facets of individuality. For instance, since the women plan to negotiate with the men on the basis of depriving them of sex, this is a clear form of power. However, it is a passive means and is indicative of physical allure, a trait that is feminine and lacking authority. Even with this power, characters like Calonice are depicted as being too weak to even exercise it properly:
“If I had to, I’d be willing to walk through fire—sooner that than give up screwing” (10).
Such a statement suggests that women are subject to the will of their physical desires and cannot control them. It also shows that women are truly the weaker sex because they cannot control their bodily drives. This is sharply contrasted to men, who are usually characterized in Greek culture as strong, reserved and in control. Lysistrata lamented this facet of women in Greece by arguing,
“what a debased race we women are! It’s no wonder men write tragedies about us. We’re good for nothing but screwing Poseidon in the bath tub” (10).
Lysistrata’s attempt to persuade the women to neglect the sexual needs of men represented a clear acceptance of the cultural norms of Greece that women were intended to be subservient to men. This marginalization of women in literature would continue throughout history and is particularly evident in the works of William Shakespeare.
Men in Lysistrata
The play also clarified Greek culture and its gender norms by detailing how men used their physical power and violence to undermine women. Even the brace Lysistrata acknowledged that men have an upper hand in this respect. When the other women asked what to do if their men beat them, she replied by lamenting that:
“Then you must submit— but do it grudgingly, don’t cooperate” (11).
Such submission to male authority shows that violence and physical means of coercion were the norm. Women had no choice but to accept it and deal with the repercussions. Later in the play, there were also numerous instances where men threatened women with physical violence directly. For instance, when the Chorus reflected shared dialogue with women, a question posed was:
“What if I thrashed you with my fists?” (15).
Clearly, such a statement is indicative of physical power and coercion over women and summarizes men and women and the relationships that they share at this time in history. This paints Greek culture in a light that undermines women and their freedoms. While it may be a broad generalization to assume that all men beat their wives, the play does show that society sees it as an acceptable means by which to deal with unruly women.
With a life of dealing with children, cleaning and other familial tasks, gender roles were oriented towards men being the breadwinners while women were passive and submissive. In Greek culture, women were burdened with:
- Being limited to domesticity
- A lack of power
- Violent coercion when men disagreed with their actions
This shows that Greek culture was conservative in terms of gender interaction. Moreover, instituting a sexual double standard where women wield sex as a means of persuasion, the play portrays women in a negative light. Despite being limited to only bodily pleasure as a bargaining tool, evidence from the play shows that apprehension towards using this power stemmed from an inability to control sex drive. Clearly, women in Greece were depicted as weak, sexual creatures that were powerless to men (despite the fact that they ultimately achieve their goal in the play). Finally, the ubiquitous use of violence to deal with the women shows that this was an accepted facet of Greek gender relations. Women had to deal with violent means of coercion as an acceptable form of discourse.
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Mineola, NY: Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. Print.
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