Writtten by Phoebe McKechnie.
When reading Euripides’ The Bacchae and Medea, a comparison with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible does not instantly come to mind. Their settings are very different: The Bacchae and Medea are set in ancient Greece, and the Massachusetts town Salem is well known as the setting of Miller’s Puritanical play. However, within these geographical settings, all three plays revolve around male-dominated environments where the roles of women are seen to be traditional and inferior to men. Although the plays were written thousands of years apart, they share distinct similarities in their themes and their characterization of leading females. For a leading female, it seems near impossible to gain and retain a position of power or influence without losing it in a tragic way. This often results not only in her social and moral collapse but also the demise of those closest and dearest to her. Comparing these plays within the context of history exposes the limitations that leading female characters have constantly faced throughout written history.
In The Crucible, Abigail Williams uses her position of power and influence among her female peers to create religious hysteria in Salem in pursuit of revenge as a scorned lover. After her lover, John Proctor, rejects her she is dismissed from the Proctor’s employment. She feels rejected and humiliated and extremely jealous of John’s wife’s position, so much so that she goes to extreme lengths to destroy their marriage. She uses her position of control over the gullible young Puritan girls by creating a situation where witchcraft is a believable phenomenon. By exploiting her sexual precocity Abigail develops manipulates naive and susceptible teenage girls within the puritanically oppressed community. Abigail’s extreme and calculated measures result in her unintended ending of Proctor’s life following his confession, and, as a consequence, she ruins her own future.
In The Bacchae, vengeance is carried out by Queen Agave, via the god Bacchus. Bacchus seeks to clear his betrayed mother’s name and punish the city of Thebes by using his divine and supreme powers to entrance Queen Agave and the Theban women by controlling them in a subconscious state of hysterical frenzy. Within this emotionally volatile state, Queen Agave brutally murders her son, King Peleus. In doing so she ruins the royal household of Thebes and destroys the royal legacy. Bacchus’ true usurping intentions are revealed via his tragic manipulation of the Theban women. By entrancing Agave and taking away her power and consciousness she becomes a vehicle for Bacchus’ omnipotence. In a state of hysteria, and thinking Peleus to be a lion she is hunting, Agave beheads her son and returns to the royal palace to present the trophy head to Cadmus. Being under Bacchus’ control, Queen Agave’s savage act causes her downfall. The divine gods were believed by the Greeks to have heightened emotions, therefore explaining Bacchus’ extreme barbarous and fierce retribution. Nevertheless, Agave and her royal family are publicly humiliated and stripped of authority by Bacchus.
In Medea, the lead female, Medea, is a barbarian princess who marries the hero, Jason, after assisting him and his Argonauts in their quest for the golden fleece. As a barbarian, Medea is implicitly portrayed as uncivilized and inferior, and her power is removed from her by King Creon of Corinth, who wishes Jason to marry his daughter Princess Glauce and inherit his throne. Despite his marriage to Medea, Jason abandons her and their two sons and agrees to Creon’s proposal. Hence, Medea seeks harsh vengeance not only on Jason but also on the city of Corinth. Religious hysteria plays a central role as Medea uses her sorcery skills to carry out cruel acts of revenge; she kills Princess Glauce with a poison-laced dress and crown. Upon seeing his daughter suffer such a hideous death, Creon joins her in an embrace and they die together. In removing her position as a powerful woman, Medea retaliates through vengeance and religious hysteria to carry out the murder of her own two sons to ensure Jason’s eternal misery. Revenge gives her a position of power and she destroys Jason’s future as a powerful ruler of Corinth. Medea triumphs in her regained power by causing misery for Jason. The first act of Medea’s revenge by proxy on Creon and Jason and the turning point of the play is the death of Princess Glauce. This hideous murder changes the direction of the play and creates a hateful abyss in Medea and Jason’s relationship. Medea’s downfall is poignant by being so conscious, in that by ensuring Jason’s suffering, she destroys herself; her family and marriage have collapsed and her sons are dead. Yet her family and marriage would have been destroyed with Jason marrying Princess Glauce and inheriting the throne of Corinth. The imbalance of Medea’s vengeance is emotionally overwhelming in that she must sacrifice her own children to succeed.
Therefore, only after the removal of their power do the leading females in each of these plays actually have an impact on the outcome of the play. However, this impact is often self-inflicted and ultimately leads to their downfall and demise. For Abigail Williams, as an inferior woman in her society, the loss of her power ruins her life for the worse. In The Bacchae, Agave’s fate, too, is that of a powerless woman whose fate is decided by men. In Medea, Medea fulfils her vengeance on her husband with drastic and fatal results and sacrificially denies herself of her children. Hence, in all three plays, none of the female leads are left happy.
The desperate situations of the central female characters undoubtedly draw on the audience’s sympathy towards the portrayal of women in each of the plays. Euripides is generally sympathetic towards women, by depicting their disasters in situations often out of their own self-control; whereas, Miller has no intention of portraying Abigail as a pitied victim; she is the master of her own downfall. The themes that affect the central female characters in both the plays and theatrical society over the last two millennia reveal that even in our current society there has not been a hugely obvious and evident mark of change to society regarding the position of women. Clearly, there has been dramatic change, but considering the role of women in Euripides’ and Miller’s plays, it can be argued that the change has not been heavily altered. Their recent revival of the study and performance of Greek tragedies is partly due to the revival and resurge of the academic subjects of Classics, Greek and Latin. The legend of Greek tragedies is increasingly relevant in our current society. Looking back and reflecting on ancient times sheds much light on our present society and informs that there is much to be developed regarding the portrayal of women in the 21st century.