Detail of Frederic Leighton’s 1869 painting, “Elektra at the Tomb of Agamemnon.”
Theatre in ancient Greece was made by and for men. Yet, many of the plays we have from then display interestingly almost-feminist qualities—at least when viewed through a modern lens. The example usually cited is Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, a classic story of husbands getting “put out on the couch” to stop a war, but what really interest me are the tragedies. My senior year of high school, I auditioned for a university theatre scholarship with a monologue from a hysterically old-fashioned translation of Euripides’ Elektra. I got the scholarship but wound up attending a different school and majoring in biology. Still, this was the beginning of my love affair with the Greek tragedies. Or, more specifically, their heroines.
Women are portrayed in these dramas as they are nowhere else in then-contemporary literature, to the extent there is much scholarly debate on if they were supposed to be heroes or villains. Euripides’ Iphigenia nobly gives herself up as a young woman for the sake of the entirety of Greece in one play (Iphigenia at Aulis), but in another (Iphigenia Among the Taurians) has become a highly regarded priestess, capable of outsmarting her king to save the lives of her estranged brother Orestes and his lover. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the title character defies her own king, facing the death penalty, to bury her own brother. Euripides’ Elektra (of the complex) kills her mother and step-father to avenge the murder of her father.
On a superficial level, these women live and die for men, who are themselves living or dead. In that way, they are the ideal Athenian women taken to a heroic extreme. So why would there be so much debate as to their hero/villain status? The laws attested by their earthly kings are immaterial to them, and yet the only tools available to them are those given to them by men. Sometimes these tools are as great as the power-entrusted-priestess, but most of the time, all they have is love for a man—the value forced upon them by society. They care for the family—the domain of woman, rather than the polis or the city-state—the domain of man. They take their society-mandated but male-derided femininity and weaponize it. Their rejection of societal norms, through civil unrest, through creation of a self, even sometimes through martyrdom, would possibly make them villains to ancient men. And they do it all with nothing but femininity. Through a relentless devotion to their own morality, these women create themselves.
One of these such heroines, Elektra, is the namesake for the female version of the Oedipus complex. Over the course of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, it is gradually revealed that, by some twisted fate, Oedipus had mistakenly killed his father and married his mother. (His mother/wife, Jocasta, is the first to put the pieces together before retreating to her chambers and hanging herself in shame.) To correspond with the “psychosexual competition with the father for the mother” of the Oedipus complex, the Elektra complex is the “psychosexual competition with the mother for the father.” I consider this a gross misnomer (whether or not the Oedipus complex is also misnamed would be a whole other article, albeit perhaps one less charged with gender politics), because Elektra’s morality is entirely consistent within itself, albeit unconventional for her time and for ours. Also entirely consistent, arguably, is the morality of her mother, Clytemnestra, albeit somewhat more conventionally.
The backstory to the various Elektra plays is this: before the Trojan War, the goddess Artemis demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, the commander of Greece’s army. Against his wife Clytemnestra’s wishes, he kills her for good luck for Greece. (In Euripides’ version of that story, Iphigenia at Aulis, she is rescued by Artemis at the last second, but what was important was that Agamemnon allowed it to go that far.) When the war is won and Agamemnon returns, he is killed by Clytemnestra and her lover. Elektra and her brother, Orestes, eventually manage to kill Clytemnestra to avenge the death of their father. The extent of Elektra’s involvement in the murder varies from Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, where she literally just watches the door, to Sophocles’ Elektra, where she’s a madwoman, and finally to Euripides’, where Orestes is a mere side character, almost underdeveloped compared to his ruthlessly just sister, who also has her hand on the blade as he kills their mother.
While much can be said of the masculine and insane Elektra of the Sophocles version, Euripides’ play is the one of primary interest to me. In it, neither Elektra nor Clytemnestra take anything from men and both act on the family-centered values instilled in women—the justice they create is for the family members they have loved. They are not senseless, as Elektra is in Aeschylus’ play and to a lesser extent in Sophocles’. They fully understand the repercussions of their actions and yet they act, unrelentingly, in a very humanlike sacrifice of the immediate for the eternal, for the creation of the self. The men and their earthly concerns with the polis, with Greece, with honor in the afterlife, seem subhuman in comparison.
Elektra is a prime example of “feminine irrationality.” Her morality is consistent within itself; from her view, she is right. Her father was killed by her mother and therefore she must kill her mother. Her entire world, as far as she is concerned, as it was constructed for her out of societal norms, revolves around her father. She looks at the hand she was dealt and reacts exactly as anyone in her situation would. Her peasant husband, who has never once taken advantage of her, not even to consummate the marriage, treats her with chivalry, a result of his submission to society, and she perceives his kindness as such, respecting it on an almost meta level for what it is. Feminine submission and acceptance becomes an acceptance of the world’s absurdity.
This meta-awareness of the nonsensical world in which she lives further supports the case for her sympathy. Within the narrative, she is aware, and so she must be aware that she is acting irrationally. She has been shaped by the world and she will shape that world for herself, using what she has around her.
So why is she considered a villain? Well, one reason is she killed blood kin, nearly the worst crime someone could commit in ancient Greece. Another and probably more powerful reason is seen if you imagine you are a man watching the first performance of the play: the main character is part of the 50% of the population confined to the home, and here she is, the most powerful individual in the drama, but very distinctly not masculine.
Maybe you’re tired of the phrase, “weaponized femininity,” associating it with wealthy companies selling you red lipstick and stiletto heels to turn you into a “classy, stone-cold bitch.” There’s nothing wrong with being a “classy, stone-cold bitch,” if that’s what you want to be, if you aren’t actually mean to people, and if you aren’t just doing it because the male gaze corporealized into a corporation told you to. Weaponized femininity doesn’t have to be that. It can be as simple and as great as taking the society-mandated and male-derided tools given you and creating your own self—even if men read you as a villain.
Annie Jo Baker is a library assistant and biology undergraduate in Kentucky, but has a myriad of other passions, especially literature and activism. This is her third piece for The Attic. You can find her previous literature piece, entitled “Sappho–Everyone’s Favorite Lesbian Lesbian,” here.