Hovering "Between Wild and Tame": The Role of Women in "Elektra"

Posted by Cait Robinson, Publications Fellow

L to R: Caroline Lagerfelt as Clytemnestra and René Augesen as Elektra in Sophocles' Elektra. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Elektra continues through November 18.
Learn more about the production and order tickets.
To understand the role of women in Elektra, it is valuable to consider the classical concept of feminity. The Greeks viewed women ambiguously: though responsible for bearing children and propogating the human race, they were also descendents of Pandora and therefore members of a separate "race of women," less physically and mentally capable than men. Women were also considered more sexually voracious and predisposed to infidelity, naturally threatening to the order of the household, or oikos, which was their domain. Many texts from antiquity compare women to domesticated dogs—though they serve man and share his household, they forever hover between wild and tamed.

Athenians were preoccupied with dividing women by their social status and sexual availability. When she went out in public, a woman's appearance helped to identify her: respectable women rarely left their homes (lest they tempt men or be tempted themselves), so their skin remained pale. As a result, white skin was prized as a sign of purity and status. Wealthy women wore elaborate hairstyles and long chitons and shawls to conceal their bodies; slaves were identifiable by their short cropped hair and prostitutes by their transparent, gauzy garments dyed bright yellow with saffron.

Young girls, who were believed to be particularly lustful, were usually married for the first time—necessarily as virgins—at age 14 to a man of around 30. Marriage was a social and economic exchange between the groom and the bride's father. The woman's consent was not required, nor was love between the bride and groom expected. Divorce was not uncommon, and could be initiated by either party (a husband had only to send his wife from his house; a wife needed her father or another male citizen to bring the case before a magistrate on her behalf). Given the customary age difference between brides and grooms, widowhood was also widespread, and remarriage was viewed favorably.

The centrality of the oikos in Athenian life and government made it the patriotic duty of Athenian women to bear legitimate children. Hippocratic medical texts of the time indicate that a woman was not considered physically mature until the birth of her first child. A single male heir was most desirable, but raising multiple sons provided insurance against the high child and juvenile mortality rates. Raising girls held less appeal, and Athenians sometimes practiced infanticide to dispose of unwanted daughters. Infanticide provided both population control and financial planning: an oikos had to pay a dowry for each of its daughters when they wed.

It is easy to imagine the fears that Sophocles' Clytemnestra would have played upon in Elektra's original all-male audience. In many ways, she would have been their worst nightmare: in her husband's absence, she seizes control of her own sexual availability by taking her husband's cousin, Aegisthus, as a lover. This destabilizes her husband's oikos, introducing the possibility of illegimate heirs, diminished social standing, and even assassination and supplantation. In ancient Athens, Elektra was, in part, a cautionary tale, presenting a bleak confirmation of the destructive power of uncontrolled female sexuality.

Want to learn more about the world of Elektra? Order Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series, contains a synopsis, advance program notes, study questions, and additional background information about the historical and cultural context of the play.

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