First published by Headlong (2012)

Photo by RetroAtelier/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by RetroAtelier/iStock / Getty Images

Can a woman take on the role of a tragic hero? Medea may have a tragedy named after her and play the starring role in it, but can she be considered a tragic hero in the strictest sense of the term?

Greek drama abounds with feisty proto-feminist figures. While Orestes quakes in his sandals at the thought of murdering his mother, his sister Electra makes sure the deed gets done. Antigone buries her brother Polyneices’ body in open defiance of both her uncle Creon and the laws of the Thebes. When Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon sacrifices their daughter in order to get a fair wind to Troy, does she sit quietly by? No, of course she doesn’t. She takes over his throne, finds herself a new lover and when Agamemnon finally returns home after ten years of hard fighting, she murders him in his bathtub with an axe. Like Medea, these women are clever, determined and tough as nails, but are they tragic?

According to Aristotle, the answer is a resounding no. In the Poetics, his ‘how-to’ guide for budding tragic playwrights, Aristotle states that the characterisation of the tragic hero must meet several key criteria. He must be like us, but better. He must have a fatal flaw. He must behave in a way that is consistent. His behaviour must be appropriate to his position in life. Finally, he must be good.

Medea meets the first two criteria easily. Firstly, being both human and the granddaughter of the Sun god Helios, she is like us in some ways but better in others. Secondly, she definitely suffers from a fatal flaw. Her love for Jason is her undoing. After you’ve betrayed your father and murdered your brother to win a man’s love, defeated a giant bronze robot and won him a kingdom by tricking the some poor princesses into decapitating their father – all while the man in question lounges around on the beach – you should probably start questioning how healthy your relationship is for you.

When it comes to the third criterion, that of consistency, Medea just about scrapes through, despite the fact that her behaviour appears to lack any sense of consistency at all. As the other characters observe, you never quite know what she is going to do next. The only predictable thing about her behaviour is its unpredictability, but it is in this very predictability of her unpredictability that she meets Aristotle’s criterion for consistency. He allows inconsistent behaviour, like Medea’s, on the condition that it’s consistently inconsistent.

It is in terms of the last two criteria, appropriateness and goodness, that Medea fails to make the grade. In both cases, she fails because she is a woman. Medea’s behaviour is inappropriate to her social position. Aristotle clearly states that it is inappropriate for a woman to be clever or courageous, and Medea is both. At the level of decorum, she fails to fit the mould of Aristotle’s tragic hero. Her cleverness and her courage are qualities that, according to Aristotle, it is only appropriate for a man to possess.

Medea’s gender complicates her claim to the role of a tragic hero in one other way. In the Poetics, Aristotle states that the tragic hero must be good. It is on this more than on any other point that Medea is unable to meet his criteria. Medea fails the goodness test, not because she deliberately kills her own children – Aristotle finds Medea’s actions perfectly tragic in this respect – but because she is a woman.

Aristotle’s concept of the idea of goodness is slightly different to our own modern understanding of the word. Aristotle’s idea of goodness is not coloured with the legacy of Christian morality. For him, goodness is linked to the facility to make good choices. He states that characters are good, if they are able to make good choices, which will then naturally lead to good actions. A good choice is the right choice in the right situation. It is not necessarily, however, a morally sound choice. Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia for a fair wind to Troy is a good choice in that it can be judged to be the right choice in the situation. It is not, however, a good choice in moral terms.

Making good choices is not a simple matter. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that it is very difficult to perform a good action because it involves knowing how to do the right action ‘to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way.’ This means that goodness is a trait that is possessed by a small number of people. It is ‘rare, laudable and noble.’

Goodness is a quality, Aristotle argues, which is, to all intents and purposes, exclusive to men born into the highest social classes. A woman is unlikely to possess the quality of goodness because, as he states in the Politics, women are naturally inferior to men. In Aristotle’s eyes, the social order of Ancient Greece is organised with slaves at the bottom, then women, then male children and finally men at the top of the heap. This order is natural and reflects the capabilities of different types of people, because ‘the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.’ Men on the other hand possess both authority and mature powers of deliberation. Aristotle does state in the Poetics that any type of person could possess the facility of goodness. He admits that ‘there is such a thing as a good woman and a good slave’, but he makes it clear that is highly unlikely as ‘one of these is perhaps deficient and the other generally speaking inferior.’ As woman, Medea cannot be good. Therefore, she cannot be a tragic hero.

If a women cannot be a tragic hero, then it begs the question of who the tragic hero is in Greek tragedies, like Euripides’ Medea, that centre around a female figure. Aristotle defines the tragic hero as a good man who falls from good fortune to bad fortune on account of a fatal flaw. In Medea, the character who most neatly fits Aristotle’s description is Jason. Jason’s fatal flaw is lust, both sexual lust and a lust for power. At the beginning of the play he is a fortunate man. He is about to marry a beautiful young princess and secure a throne of his own. By the end of the tragedy, the God’s have brought him low. Jason’s children, his bride and her father are all dead. Medea, in contrast, is lifted to safety by the hands of the gods. In Antigone, the tragic hero is Creon, a man too inflexible to bend the rules of the state to the ancient laws of the gods. He starts the tragedy by gaining a throne. He ends it having lost his wife and his child.

So where does that leave our female protagonists? What is their role in tragedy if they cannot be tragic heroes? Women, it would seem, are trouble. They are the cause of the hero’s tragic downfall. Jason is the victim of Medea’s jealous rage. Creon is brought down by Antigone’s religious fundamentalism. On the one hand, these women are represented as the instruments of the gods, reasserting divine power over men who have grown too big for their boots. On the other hand, these are women over-stepping the mark, behaving out of their place, standing up to their men folk. They are terrifying. Their stories demonstrate the devastating consequences for men, when women step out of the shadows and raise their voices to challenge men’s actions.

Greek theatre, like Greek society, was a man’s world. There were no women on stage and there may well have been no women in the theatre audience either. Female characters were played by men. Each character was identified by their elaborate costume. The actors wore masks. To an extent, the costumes and the masks were the character. The identity of the actor underneath was hidden from view. In this sense, the fact that women were played by male actors seems inconsequential. These female characters, however, are men in women’s clothing in a more fundamental sense. They are women written by men, who behave like men and are performed by men for the eyes of, what may have been, a purely male audience. As much as the female characters in Greek drama may appear to be proto-feminist figures from a modern perspective, in their original context they are representations of women created by men for men.

So what happens to these women who both behave like men and are the product of a male imagination? The answer is that they suffer terrible deaths. Antigone is walled up in a cave. Clytemnestra is murdered by her own children. Phaedra hangs herself in shame after attempting to seduce her own step-son. When Greek drama shows women over-stepping the mark, it inevitably shows them being punished severely for their inappropriate behaviour. Greek drama betrays an anxiety around women. Women, who challenge the limitations of their social position pose a threat to the smooth running of a male dominated society. They must be punished. As Oliver Taplin points out, what may have offended the judges at the City Dionysia in 431BC who awarded Medea last prize, was not Medea’s actions themselves but the fact that she escapes punishment for them.

Modern playwrights and actresses, like Mike Bartlett and Rachael Stirling, may successfully re-imagine these characters as modern, dynamic and highly female women. Tragic heroines, however, are always haunted by their less emancipated past. The Greeks may have created fierce female characters, but ultimately they preferred their women tame.


This article was originally published by Headlong (2012).