“My Inquisitive Girlish Gaze”: How Women Speak in Greek Drama

Imogen Stead

The position of women in fifth-century Athenian society has been a much-debated topic in recent scholarship, but the broadest consensus remains that women’s raison d’être, as exemplified in Xenophon’s treatise on household management, the Oeconomicus (c. 360 BC), was primarily to stay indoors and lead domestic affairs. Even when women were seen in the public sphere, most typically at funerals and religious festivals, their behaviour seems to have been closely monitored and controlled. For instance, a law attributed to the sixth-century Athenian legislator Solon dictates women’s dress, accoutrements and behaviour at such events.[1] Similarly, in Thucydides’ account of the public funeral for the city’s casualties in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), the Athenian general Pericles is said to have exhorted the recently-widowed citizen women not to become the subject of men’s conversations, be it in a good or bad way.[2]

The evidence as we have it suggests that women in Classical Athens were expected to be ‘seen but not heard’, in similar fashion to the maxim once used of Victorian children. And yet, in some of our male-authored literature – most notably Old Comedy and Tragedy – female characters of all social classes and dispositions, good and evil, are unexpectedly abundant not only in presence but also in speech. By taking a closer look at this male-constructed female speech, we are provided with an interesting window into how the portrayal of women’s voices in particular can influence the broader representation of female characters on stage.

A scene from Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, where a woman’s ‘baby’ is discovered to be a wineskin with Persian boots (Attic red-figure bell-krater from Apulia in Southern Italy, c. 370 BC; now in the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany)

One such method of characterising women through their speech can be seen in the recurring linguistic patterns associated especially with the depiction of ‘ordinary’ women in Athenian drama. This style of speech is particularly evident in Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria (Θεσμοφοριάζουσαι,, Themosphoriazusae, 411 BC), in which a group of Athenian women, fed up with being portrayed negatively in Euripides’ tragedies, hatch a plot against him at the female-only Thesmophoria festival.[3]

In response, Euripides sends in one of his relatives (often called ‘In-law’ in modern editions of the text), disguised as a female festival-goer, in order to clear his name. One particularly striking feature of this gender impersonation is the way in which the newly-disguised ‘In-law’ also attempts to imitate how he thinks ‘real’ women speak, fabricating a conversation with an imaginary slave-girl on his way to the festival:

δεῦρό νυν, ὦ Θρᾷτθ᾽, ἕπου.

ὦ Θρᾷττα, θέασαι, καομένων τῶν λαμπάδων

ὅσον τὸ χρῆμ᾽ ἀνέρχεθ᾽ ὑπὸ τῆς λιγνύος. (279-81)[4]

Come over here, Thratta, follow me. Oh Thratta, look at the size of the crowd coming up here under the smoke of the burning torches!

The volume of commands and direct addresses to the imaginary ‘Thratta’ lend an acutely conversational tone to the language, while vivid descriptions of the character’s surroundings amount to a sort of ecphrasis – a literary technique through which the audience is invited to view an object or scene from the perspective of the narrator. This male attempt at speaking like a woman could be interpreted as simply another facet of the play’s broader metatheatrical irony, since by disguising himself as a woman, ‘In-law’ becomes in the play what the other female characters are in reality: male actors impersonating women.

The Thesmophoriazusae in action (Ethal Theatre, Limassol, Cyprus, 2016: reproduced with permission of Natalie Kyrmizi.)

However, remarkably similar representations of women’s speech are found in some of the choral odes of Euripides’ plays, suggesting that a particular style of language began to be associated more widely with certain male representations of women on stage. In Euripides’ Ion (c. 413 BC), for instance, a chorus of Athenian slave-women arrive onstage at Delphi, one of Greece’s most important religious sanctuaries. Their reaction to seeing this impressive site for the first time is to behave like tourists, pointing out and admiring the decorations on Apollo’s temple; in today’s world, they might instead be taking selfies outside the Vatican and posting them to Instagram.

This ‘tourist’ depiction comes directly from the chorus’ speech itself, which is presented in lines 190–218 as a conversation among themselves, but is conveyed to the audience through the technique of ecphrasis. For instance, one half of the chorus suddenly exclaims to the other “come and have a look at this!” (ἰδού, τᾷδ᾿ ἄθρησον, 190), describing the temple sculptures which happened to catch their eye; the other half then replies “I see it!” (ὁρῶ, 194), and describe in turn what they’re looking at in that moment.[5]

The Theatre and Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

The immediacy of the chorus’ pictorial descriptions of the temple art is undeniably similar to the attempt at “feminine” language made by Aristophanes’ disguised male character in Women at the Thesmophoria, albeit this time in the mouths of ‘real’ female characters as opposed to a male impostor. In the specific context of Euripides’ play, the representation of ‘female’ speech also intersects with the chorus’ low social status as slaves, furthering the humour inherent in the characterisation of the chorus as excitable but uneducated admirers of one of the most famous religious sanctuaries in the ancient world.

The author in the chorus of Euripides’ Electra (dir. David Raeburn. New College, Oxford, 2014).

A similar form of pictorial language also occurs in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, during which a chorus of young women arrive onstage, having run from their nearby hometown, because they are keen to catch a glimpse of the Greek army gathering to prepare for the Trojan war. The chorus’ ensuing description of the Homeric heroes, in lines 192–302, is presented as an ecphrasis, inviting the audience to ‘see’ the assembled army from a woman’s perspective. The chorus even make the feminine perspective of their ecphrasis explicit, explaining that they made journey to see the soldiers “in order to indulge my inquisitive girlish gaze” (τὰν γυναικεῖον ὄψιν ὀμμάτων | ὡς πλήσαιμι, 233-4).[6] These women are married citizens and therefore of a higher social standing than the slaves in Ion. However, their identity is more akin to that of typical women in Athenian society than remote aristocratic heroines such as Iphigenia, which further reinforces the gulf in social status between the Homeric heroes and their ordinary onlookers.

Chalcis (modern Chalkida), the setting of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.

The femininity of the chorus, in contrast with the macho subjects of their gaze, is heightened by the women’s description of themselves as “reddening my cheeks with a youthful blush” (φοινίσσουσα παρῇδ‎ʼ ἐμὰν‎ | αἰσχύναι νεοθαλεῖ‎, 187–8).[7] The chorus’ “rosy cheeks” are ostensibly the result of the women having run some distance to catch sight of the army, and yet in lines 185–6 the women explicitly state their route as being through the grove of Artemis, the virgin goddess associated with maidenhood. Since lines 185–8 also introduce the chorus’ ecphrasis of the Greek warriors, their “rosy cheeks” seem almost flirtatious, as if these married women have reverted to teenage groupies in admiration of their heroic idols. If we interpreted the episode in this light, it becomes tempting to imagine Euripides purposely undermining his audience’s expectations of how respectable married women ought to behave, by portraying housewives who are ironically not only out of the house, but even running off to gawp at their celebrity heroes.

Can we trust these men? Busts of Aristophanes and Euripides (Roman copies, from the first and fourth centuries AD, of Greek originals).

The literary evidence, then, suggests that the speech of ordinary female characters was portrayed with some consistency across Euripides’ and Aristophanes’ plays. Any conclusions as to how recognisable such depictions of female speech on stage might have been to the original audience are necessarily tentative, in part because the male-dominated sources, literary and historical, hinder any authentic reconstruction of the voices of real Athenian women.

There is also the further issue of who exactly would have constituted the ‘original audience’, and more specifically whether women were even permitted entry to the dramatic festivals.[8] The paucity of evidence renders it impossible to reach any consensus on this issue; as such, deeper connections between the fictional women on stage and real Athenian women, whether or not they witnessed these portrayals first-hand, remain tantalisingly out of reach.

Athenian women by an altar (interior of an Attic red-figure kylix, c. 450 BC, discovered in the Etruscan town of Vulci and now in the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, Vatican City).

Instead, I prefer to visualise the similarities between Euripides’ and Aristophanes’ depictions of ‘ordinary’ female speech in terms of a literary, rather than social, dialogue. Since Euripides’ Ion was first performed around 413 BC, it may have given Aristophanes inspiration to parody the chorus’ language in his Women of the Thesmophoria a couple of years later, which in turn laid the foundations for Euripides’ flirtatious housewives in the Iphigenia at Aulis of 405 BC. While this interpretation is necessarily speculative, the existence of this recurring speech pattern in the Athenian dramatic tradition raises interesting – if unanswerable – questions. Were there certain linguistic features in Greek drama which had ‘feminine’ connotations to an Athenian audience? And if so, how closely did these speech patterns echo the spoken Greek of real Athenian women? Did the male actors of Greek drama in fact allow contemporary women, if not to be seen, then at least to be heard?

Imogen Stead is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford working on the choral voice of Greek tragedy. As an avid fan of all Athenian drama, she is – perhaps unlike her ancient counterparts – often to be found in the audience of Greek plays

Further Reading

There has been an abundance of recent work on women’s roles in Athenian drama, of which the following are just a few examples: Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (Schocken, New York, 1975) gives a fantastic overview of the historical evidence for women in Classical Athens, while Froma Zeitlin’s Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (Chicago UP, 1996) provides an interesting interpretation of gender roles in Greek drama within their cultural context. Laura McClure’s Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama (Princeton UP, 1999) remains the seminal work on the social contexts for female speech in Athens and the Greek plays. Finally, two recent views on either side of the debate over whether women were present at the original performances of Athenian drama can be found in Simon Goldhill’s “The Audience of Athenian Tragedy,” in P.E. Easterling (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge UP, 1997) 5468, and Jeffrey Henderson’s article “Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals” (Transactions of the American Philological Association 121, 1991) 133–47. 


1 The tale is told in Plutarch’s Life of Solon 21.4-5, which can be read in Greek and English here.
2 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 2.45.2, accessible in Greek and English here.
3 The festival’s name means “Law-giving”, which was a common epithet of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, in whose honour the festival was held around the Greek world in late autumn.
4 Text and translation can be viewed here.
5 The passage can be read in Greek and English here.
6 Text and translation of the passage are available here.
7 The passage can be explored further here.
8 See Henderson (1991) and Goldhill (2006) in the Further Reading below: the former argues for women in the audience, the latter against.

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