Breaking the Mold: An In-depth Look at the Evolving Role of Women in Theatre


Amy Herzog won the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Drama in 2013 for her female playwright in 4000 Miles and Mary Jane (Buhler, 2019). This is a glimpse of the current status of women in theatre; they are bold and making big strides in the film industry. The Purple Seven collected data from at least 6,000 plays across 159 venues between 2012 and 2014 and found that there was considerable progress in the industry (Puchner and White, 2017). They found that women made 39 percent of theatrical casts, female directors in charge of 36 percent of plays and 28 percent of plays had a female playwright. However, another organisation, Works By Women estimates that in each year women playwrights, designers and directors account for only 20 percent of theatre professionals hired (Solga, 2019). Therefore, statistics for women in modern day theatre elicits mixed reactions depending on the perspective taken. In any case, the situation today is a stark difference with the place of women in Greek Theatre where women were rarely involved in theatre in the early days. In case any female characters were involved, their roles would actually be played by men.

Field Review

Helen Foley (2001) traces the role of women in Greek theatre to the social and political foundations during ancient times. The author opines that women were generally restricted from public life and as a result they were excluded from political and military life in the city. Attic women were not allowed to attend assemblies, serve in juries or even to speak in court; they received no meaningful education that would position them for these roles. She further explains that women were not registered as citizens upon birth. She describes the women in this era as lifelong minors who mostly remained indoors and could only make important decisions under the supervision of a guardian known as kurios. Further, they married young and had no say in the decision on whom to marry, divorce or even conduct financial transactions. Against this conservative and restrictive background, Helen believes that Greek Tragedies was a reflection of customs and traditions (Syssoyeva and Proudfit, 2016). The author examines in depth the relationship between Greek tragedies and reality at the time. In contrast, tragic women were rebellious, strikingly assertive and made important decisions without the sanction of any guardians.


Lauren Taaffe (2014) undertakes an in-depth analysis of the representation of female figures in Aristophanes’ plays before 411 BCE. In this regard, the author looks at the casting of women as men, men as women and the legacy of Aristophanes’ women. Unlike Helen, Lauren’s work is more specific and narrows down to the genre of comedy and analyses specific works of one writer. At the outset, Lauren laments that the study of women in Greek theatre is limited to one dimension considering that there were no women writers during those ancient times. It was not until the 5th century that women writers began to emerge and as a result a study of Greek literature relies heavily on the constructs of male writers. Lauren suggests that Aristophanes in Lysistrata presents the theme of rebellion with female protagonists who conspire to deny their men sex to achieve a peace treaty that would end the Peloponnesian War. In the play of Ecclesiazusae, Aristophanes depicts women dressed up as men take over the government from men. In all the three plays including Thesmophoriazusae, the general opinion at the time according to Lauren was that they were mere impossibilities and detached from reality.

Lauren’s work is interesting because the author went over and above to question why male actors would be cast in female roles. She concludes that the intended audience of such plays were men and the plays were merely male interpretation of a woman. Although the plays portray women as taking over power from men and being rebellious, Lauren believes that these were mere fantasies that had underlying message that masculinity should be protected to avert such situations. Ben Potter (2018) considers two major Athenian theatrical festivals of The Lenaia and The City Dionysia and the place of women in them. The author imagines that women must have been allowed to participate in these festivals in one way or the other. However, he is doubtful as to whether they were allowed to act in these festivals just like it was the case with Shakespeare. Ben Potter’s work is aligned to Lauren’s because he also explores the plays of Aristophanes and argues that women were not allowed in comic shows probably because it would have been a bad influence on them. In fact, he quotes Aristophanes’ The Frog thus: ‘every decent woman or decent man’s wife was so shocked by plays like Euripide’s Bellerophon that she went straight off and took poison’.

Ben further contends that women in Greek theatre were portrayed more favourably in comedies than tragedies. For instance, Aristophanes’ comedies represented women behaviour as bad in some instances but tragedies were worse. The author illustrates that tragedies such as Medea, a woman murders her husband, in Agamemnon, a woman also kills her husband and in Electra a woman kills her mother has incestuous feeling towards her father. The common thread in these tragedies with women roles is blasphemy, murder, treachery, suicide and incest. From this perspective, it appears that it would be very difficult for women audience to enjoy the plays even if they were allowed to attend or participate. Although the plays could have majorly targeted male audience, Ben argues that because women were never really educated, these performances were an opportunity for mass enlightenment.

Ben (2018) traces the place of Athenian women in Greek theatre in almost the same way as Lauren and Hellen but his point of departure is the interpretation of Aristophanes’ tragedies. For Ben, the Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen where women take over power from men is an example of Aristophanes championing for women rights at the time. Equally, he interprets Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as an attempt to educate Athenians about the power of women and their capability to play a political role. However, the author admits that women were insignificant in Athens at the time and the plays may not necessarily have been all about women and their plight but about other things plaguing the society. For example, when we see women engaging in sex strike to achieve peace, the message may not be about the ability of women but about the importance and need for peace. Similarly, when we see women obtain power by taking over leadership from men, the message could be about politicians that were failing the society rather than the power of women.

Jessica Lamb (2017) traces the history of women in theatre since drama productions in Greek society pegged on heroines and goddesses. She reiterates that although women were at the centre of Greek theatre they were for a long time prohibited from appearing onstage in any role. To buttress this point she observes that tragic heroines like Antigone were never played by women, rather it is men who performed those parts. She notes that for a long time there were no women writers and it was not until 10th century that Hrosvitha wrote comedy. Even after the 16th century women’s participation on the stage was still limited by the tendency of Christian rules which controlled women’s behaviour. In addition to this she observed that the Elizabethan era was central to women’s role in theatre because it is at this time that Shakespeare developed some of the strongest female characters in theatre (Lamb, 2017). Thereafter, the role of women in theatre has rapidly expanded so much modern day theatres are unrestricted areas for women, there women directors and writers and more actresses are involved plays and films.

According Alan Hughes (2008), it is accepted history that there were no women at all in Greek drama and their characters were played by men who cross-dressed. However, he looks at the history of women in Greek theatre as a story of change. While the possibility of women performing in theatres was unthinkable during the ancient times, over the years change have occurred and women’s role has transformed a great deal. For Sue Ellen Case (1985), she takes a feminist perspective in looking at the history of theatre and the conspicuous absence of women. On the other hand, Emily Wilson (2017) writes that from the background of marginalisation in theatre generally, women are slowly getting more engaged in theatre. She points out that there are more female scholars and translators engaging in the study of ancient Greece and Rome. She suggests that the translation of Greek tragedy by female scholars is important because they moulded community perspectives of gender roles at the time. The essence of the translations in modern ear is to achieve complete sexual, social and political liberation of all women. The author claims that the translations present the same works in more expansive and fluent versions.

Another interesting perspective is provided by Wilmer and Dillon (2014) who is concerned with role of women in Greek Tragedy. Aristotle’s words are startling to the author especially when he says: ‘Goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in a woman or a slave, though the one is perhaps an inferior, and the other is a wholly worthless being’. He further states that it is not appropriate in a female character to be manly, or clever. The author interprets these assertion by Aristotle in The Poetics as reflection of the manner in which patriarchy was deeply entrenched in the Greek society. The authors make reference to Medea character that as a woman plotted and executed an inhumane crime within the family. In this play we see Medea killing a bride and the father and her own children. In the Trojan Women, we see slaves captured in war becoming rebellious and disobeying military rules imposed on them and they attempt to stand in solidarity with each other. It brings out the theme of female solidarity that is equally exhibited in Antigone.

Donna Zuckerberg (2015 laments that whenever she reads Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, she feels like she was never the intended audience. In this tragedy, we see a man in an attempt to infiltrate a group of women dresses like a woman to achieve this. In her text, Zuckerberg suggests that since the play was written by a man meant for men, then just like the man in the play she has to disguise herself as a man to resonate with the message. She concludes that very little has changed from the times of literary ancient representations of women. She contends that ideal feminism is still in most cases expressed in terms prescribed by men. On a different note, she suggest that while the male writers portrayed women as objects of exchange in ancient times, today female scholars have changed the phenomena so that it is female character that are finally being exchanged between women instead of men.

In response to Sue-Ellen Case and other scholars in Greek tragedies who maintained that they were written by men and for men, Steve Wilmer wrote a piece deconstructing that narrative. Wilmer (2007) contends that despite Greek tragedies being termed as misogynistic, today’s feminists are increasingly using the same tragedies to express their conceptions of the society. Wilmer gives examples of a number of writers and directors who have used plays like Medea, Antigone and Electra severally to interrogate moral values, political issue and gender roles today.

Case Study

In the foregoing discussion this paper will narrow down its comparison of the role of women two Greek tragedies namely: Medea and Antigone. The two plays are key to the above filed review on the place of women in ancient Greece in theatres versus women in modern day theatres. It is important to explore these two plays in this case study because they are relevant to the research question. This research aims to establish the link between ancient Greek theatre and modern day theatre with regard to the place of women. Further, the paper seeks to find out to what extent has ancient Greek tragedies affected or influenced women in modern theatres. Additionally, the paper will also explore the perceptions of misogyny and feminism in these two plays. To achieve the above, this paper will critically explore each play while taking into account existing literature in this area.

In the play Medea, we see a character who is filled with revenge for being ditched by her husband, Jason for the daughter of King Creon. She deceives Jason and his bride, plans and finally executes the murder of the bride and the father. To punish Jason, she proceeds to kill her children. It appears that revenge was more important to Medea than here family. Euripides the author of this work was described by Aristotle as ‘the most tragic of poets’ because he was one of the first playwright to feature women prominently in his works (Collits, 2000). Euripides casts Medea as a strong, powerful and rebellious woman who does not want to conform to the societal norms. Many scholars have taken Medea to be a barbaric villain in the play yet others have exalted her as a heroine and protagonist. Therefore the big question is whether Euripides was a pro-feminist or a misogynist playwright.

According to Messing (2009), Medea is an expression of masculine voice in ancient Greek society putting women in their rightful place. He believes that Medea was a way of painting women in bad light so that the men would see them that way and scorn or view them suspicion. In the eyes of Messing, if Euripides intention was to highlight prevailing norms and beliefs in the society at the time then he achieved that at the expense of women. He maintains that the characterisation of Medea does not in any way lend support to women. The author believes that Euripides conception of Medea was dangerous and negative in that it hurt the image of women who were already subjugated and ravaged by patriarchy and social constructs in the ancient Greek society (Messing, 2009). However, he admits that at the beginning of the play Medea is cast in a sympathetic manner and even the way the nurse describes does not reflect the person she becomes at the end of the play. Indeed, we see Medea crying in some of the scenes in the house and this would probably cast a picture of a weak and submissive woman. At this point even the audience would be pitying her when cries and begs the gods to witness her plight.

Therefore, Messing (2009) argues that the first scenes may deceive people into believing that the author actually intended to portray a woman in positive light. Admittedly, Messing has point given that Medea is soon transformed from the submissive woman to a manipulative, vengeful and dangerous person whom the audience, men should fear or frown upon. It is indeed true that the audience at the time would definitely loathe Medea for her actions but it is not certain that is what Euripides intended in the first place (Wilmer and Dillon, 2014). Nonetheless, Messing believes otherwise and maintain that Medea’s further association with witchcraft which was abhorred at the time is enough evidence of Euripides intention to denigrate women. In the same manner, Foley (2002) expressed her disapproval for Medea’s portrayal as being ‘a barbarian woman, to display the contradictions inherent in the heroic ethic and behaviour, Euripides has achieved a particularly devastating and grotesque demonstration of the problematic nature of this archaic heroism-and one he might have hesitated to make through a Greek or male protagonist’. Euripides finishes off the Medea character by portraying as heartless in pursuit of revenge which results in her killing her children with a sword.

In contrast, Medea is also controversially seen as a manifestation of criticism of societal social constructs that subjugate women. The play although set more than 2000 years ago speaks to some of the issues that affect women today such as marriage, children, infidelity and freedom (Walsh, 2008). About marriage Medea laments thus: ‘A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home, goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom and turns to a friend or companion of his own. But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone.’ In essence, Medea is decrying the issue of loyalty in marriage and the fact that a man does not answer to anyone and can come and go as he pleases. In other words, this was an attack or a challenge on the patriarchal society in Athens at the time. Euripides further challenges certain societal norms that had not been criticised before like motherhood and the happiness of having children. Even in the modern era there are still issues surrounding marriage, motherhood and children that are controversial. There is a link between the issue addressed by Medea in ancient Greek and social issues affecting women today. Perhaps that is the reason more directors and writers are using plays like Medea as a pro-feminist tool against prevailing gender inequalities.

Unlike Euripides, Medea which came out as a vindictive tragedy, Antigone delivered in a sacrificial manner which would have probably drawn the audience pity towards than the former. In Sophocles’ Antigone, we see the two sons of Oedipus have died in battle and Antigone disobeys the King’s order not to bury Polyneices. As a result she is condemned to death but she hangs herself before Haemon, her fiancé has convinced his father otherwise about the burial of Polyneices. As series of deaths follow as motivated by the suicide of Antigone. Sophocles depicts Antigone in the play as a strong woman capable of making her own choices (Holland, 1998). She rejects the traditional roles of women and decides to take an unchartered territory for the sake of her late brother. Antigone is fearless and oblivious of the fact that she would face death for actions says that ‘what Creon says is quite irrelevant since Polyneices is her brother and she will bury him anyway’. Notwithstanding the fact she has been caught she refuses to become remorseful for her acts, instead she is convinced that she will die for a good cause.

In the societal setting at the time, Antigone could not become a ruler despite being the next of kin to the King Oedipus who had died in battle. If it was not for the patriarchy, it is possible that Antigone would have been the next Kind after the death of her brother. Additionally, throughout the play, there is a recurring theme of punishment for everyone who sided with patriarchy. For the above and many other reasons, modern scholars have suggested and strongly so, that Antigone was the first known feminist. She is seen as a woman who refused to bow to conventions and held here head high even in the face of death. Her character is a stark contract to that of Ismene who was afraid of going against the social constructs for fear or condemnation, disapproval and death. On the other hand, Creon is depicted as a sexist ruler who takes advantage of social conventions stacked against women to take over power and rule with an iron fist, a trait for which he is punished with the death of his son and wife.

Holland (1998) while quoting Elshtain (1989) suggests that Antigone was the fuel behind the different waves of feminist movements. In fact she quotes Elshtain proposing that modern feminists should see themselves as Antigone’s daughters. Consequently Holland believes that feminists have embraced Antigone and used the play to champion for equality and other plights of women. In this regard, it is understandable that Antigone raises issues that are familiar to modern challenges and issues in the society. They are thus reading and assimilating past texts to the present to address present issues just as Antigone did.

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From the above case study, there are two distinct characters both of which have been viewed differently by scholars in the field of literature. Medea has been categorised as vindictive and Antigone as sacrificial. The difference in this categorisation by some scholars is because of the manner of writing involved. Euripides has been criticised for delivering his message to the society too explicitly and without decorum while Sophocles is conceptualised as gentle and censored in his delivery (Ferris, 2017). Assuming that the two plays were showing side by side, it is possible that one audience would be gasping and even cursing at the unfolding more than the other especially considering the setting at the time these works were released. Bridging the gap between women in ancient Greek theatre and the modern woman, there is a stark difference. Today, women play major roles in theatres as directors, actresses, writers, scholars and other important roles (Killough, 2016). The situation is totally different from 2,000 years ago when women were restricted to domestic affairs and could not engage in public life and politics.

Although both tragedies display elements of feminism, we cannot adequately and with finality pigeonhole these works as either feminist or misogynist (Jaqua, 2015). In a wider perspective, both tragedies can be appreciated for the various elements that they portray. Medea can rightly be said to be at the time both feminist and misogynist in nature and the same can be said of Antigone although the latter attracts less criticism than the former (Morales, 2019). One way of connecting ancient Greek tragedies with the place of women in theatre today is by looking at how women are interacting with these ancient literature in the 21st century. In this regard, we find that female novelist, poets, and playwrights are rewriting individual Greek and Latin texts to reflect current social issues that were not present during those times (Jaqua, 2015). For instance, Margaret Atwood has written a novel titled The Penelopiad (2005) that narrates the story of Odyssey from her own point of view and Ursula Le Guin has also rewritten Virgil’s Aeneid in her novel, Lavinia (2008). Black women have also joined the movement and are also rewriting some of these ancient stories from the perspectives of people of colour (Rankine, 2013). Additionally, an area has developed in literature known as Classica Africana which analyses the impact of ancient literature on black writers.

In modern theatre, perhaps the two characters in Antigone and Media could be likened to the Netflix series House of Cards or the HBO’s Game of Thrones. For illustration purposes, both television shows have women characters who had to worker twice as much to gain power. In House of Cards, Claire Underwood has to strategically rely on her husband in order to reach the reins of power and the story of Daenerys Targaryen is no different. In essence, these modern theatre films represents some of the struggles that Medea and Antigone went through during the ancient times. Nevertheless, the film industry is now advanced since 2,000 years ago and it is clear from their cast that there are more women characters which are actually played by women themselves.


Broadly, ancient Greek tragedies like the works of Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles presented different themes that targeted their male audiences at the time. The plays were a reflection of a society that limited the role of women and subordinated them to domestic affairs. They were lifelong infants in the eyes of the ancient Greek Society. Aristophanes’’ three plays exhibit the trend of men dressing as women and women dressing as men but more importantly all the ancient tragedies women characters were played by men (Elder, 2015). These writers attempted to criticise and interrogate through tragedies, the social constructs and conventions of the society. In particular, Euripides and Sophocles’ work stand out as key texts that conspicuously challenged the societal norms of gender roles.

Although, these works premiered 2,000 years ago, their impacts on the role of women in theatre and society at large are still felt today. Modern theatre is advanced and largely inclusive of women especially with regards to positions such as directors, writers, poets, novelists, actresses and among others. However, there are still issue of discrimination in the industry concerning the opportunities available for women. In addition to this, the society is still grappling with themes like marriage, customs, children, traditions and other social and political issues. In the wake of feminism in the 1960s, these Greek tragedies have been a source of motivation for feminist as well as points of departure, discussion and interrogation. It is a great milestone for the theatre industry considering the number of women currently in the film industry especially in the United States Hollywood industry. This positive trend transcends the US to other continents and countries including the booming Bollywood industry in India. Be that as it may, Medea and Antigone as ancient Greek literature are a still relevant to the modern theatre as reflection and point of reference for the need for change and for the milestones that have already been achieved in the 21st century.


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