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Greek Tragedy: Sophocles’ Women

One of the standard criticisms of the Great Books approach is that nearly all of the texts are written by “dead white guys” and therefore have less resonance with members of other groups.  This is especially true of women who, despite making up more than half of the population of Western Civilization, are noticeably absent from most Great Books reading lists.  I have already mentioned Y, the (probably) female editor of the first four books of the Torah.  The books of Ruth and Proverbs were also quite possibly written by women.  Overall, though, very few women prior to the nineteenth century had the sort of educational background to produce a Great Book.  Of these, even fewer had the wherewithal to get their work published.  Nor were the male scribes of of the middle ages as interested in copying and preserving the work of women.  The result is that the writings of the few women we know of who might be included–Sappho of Lesbos, for example, are either completely lost or exist only in a few fragments.

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

While regrettable, this situation would be less of a problem if the male authors of the Great Books had written more about women, their issues, and their experiences.  In general, though, they did not do a good job at this.  It has been observed by many people in modern times that, while most female fiction writers are adept at writing male characters, relatively few male writers can write believable female characters.  This seems to have also been true in the ancient world.  Our first two Greek authors, Homer and Aeschylus, betrayed a rather shallow understanding of women.  Their female characters exist as prizes to be fought over or are on stage only to react to the words and actions of the male characters.  Even Aeschylus’ Electra, one of the great tragic heroines of all time, is almost painfully under developed.  This treatment is interesting since we know that the women of ancient Greece were actually fairly outspoken and aggressive compared to their contemporaries in the ancient world.  It is hard to reconcile the scared and fawning female choruses of The Supplicant Maidens or Seven Against Thebes with the angry female lynch mobs who occasionally tore men limb-from-limb or stabbed them to death with their broach pins.  Homer’s Penelope, waiting patiently for Odysseus to return and rescue her bears little comparison to Queen Artemisia, the Greek commander of a Persian Trireme squadron, whom Herodotus describes as deliberately ramming an allied ship in the straits of Eripus, then receiving a commendation from Xerxes after convincing him it was actually an enemy vessel.

Sophocles is different from Homer and Aeschylus in that he did write strong female characters.  His Antigone, Electra, and Deianira are all different portraits of an ideal woman:  brave, principled, and loyal.  All are internally conflicted between their perceived duty and emotional needs.  His Tecmessa (Ajax’s concubine) is a much more vulnerable and submissive character, yet still completely believable, torn between her loyalty to Ajax and her awareness that if he dies or is disgraced there will be no protection for herself or her son from the other Greek soldiers.

There are still deficiencies in the way Sophocles dealt with women.  Not one of his plays actually passes the modern Bechdel Test, a measure of female inclusion in a script–although the some of Antigone-Ismene scenes come close.  Then again, relatively few modern screenplays pass the Bechdel Test.  Overall, however, his writing does a better job of representing women than most in the Great Books.

Allison Bechdel's test for female inclusion in a script

I am myself a white male.  As a writer in the 21st century, however, I can not get away with writing stories about white males for consumption for other white males.  Aside from the fact that I would be frightfully boring, , white males make up an ever smaller share of the market.  Besides, our pluralistic society demands a literature that conveys the experiences of many different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds.  This begs the question, then, “Why am I spending all this time studying a canon of works that were written by white males?”  One answer would be that I am heir to, and continue to write in a particular literary tradition and it isn’t my fault that the authorship lacks diversity.  A better answer is that Western Civilization’s Great Books contain timeless and universal ideas.  My challenge as a writer is to adapt them from their original context and make them accessible to everyone.