BLS 340 – Big Plays, Big Ideas
November 4, 2010
I asked my aunt, who works with the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, what she had to say about the depiction of women in the plays we have read thus far this year. She summed up each play from her decidedly feminist point of view, ending her comments with “What a wild conglomeration of plays, there is no through line in these at all!” At first glance, it seems she may indeed have a point, for the seven plays, Oedipus Rex, Lysistrata, Everyman, Othello, The Misanthrope, Woyzeck and Miss Julie, each have rather different stories, each explore different themes. Some look at the class struggle, some look at relationships, love, trust, redemption; all of these are touched upon, but not by every play, certainly not enough to call them a common thread. It is the women, though, that ties the plays together, their presence in the plays and their role as characters. Each play portrays women in very different ways, from the comically powerful Lysistrata to Marie, who is seen as weak and doomed, to Iocaste and Desdemona, both of whom are devoted wives but their lives end in tragedy. In each of them however the women themselves are significant; without their presence the plays would lose all meaning.
The tragedy Oedipus Rex, written by the Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, shows us a single female character – Iocaste – as it tells the story of a man who is doomed to follow a path set out for him by prophesy. Iocaste made a great sacrifice in giving up her only child in an effort to safe her husband’s life, only to lose him anyway. She remarries Oedipus, has more children by him, only to discover in his quest to cure the plague being visited upon his city that he is the son she abandoned. Her grief is twofold then; she not only married her own son, but her sacrifice had been in vain for Oedipus was the one who killed his father anyway without knowing the truth of his birth.
Iocaste is depicted as a woman who is at the mercy of outside forces, as she is unable to escape the prophecy by any means. In her interactions with Oedipus we see that she is a devoted wife, patient and observant until it becomes clear she has born“double fruit from her marriage/ a husband by her husband, children by her child” (Oedipus Rex Exodos163-4). When she learns that horrifying truth, and when Oedipus seems determined not to rest until he learns it as well, she commits suicide, unable to live with what she has done. Iocaste is both the reason Oedipus lives, for she gave birth to him, but also the reason for his self-inflicted blindness and exile; she is in this way a focal character of the play despite having a rather small part in it.
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is dominated by female characters, one in particular being the title character. In this play, a Greek comedy, the women are sick and tired of being left alone by their men. Lysistrata, shown to be shrewd, bold and opinionated throughout the play, presents a plan to the women of several nations which she is certain will bring an end to the warring. Her two-pronged proposition is that the women withhold sex from their men, so that “they’ll soon make a truce” (Lysistrata 191-2), while the older women of Athens bar the men from entering the treasury and thus keeping them from funding their wars. The comedic approach to the play may make it seems as though the women are not taken seriously, but in the end the men beg for someone to “arrange a peace for us – any way you like!” (Lysistrata 1313)
The eponymous leader of the women is painted as a woman who is wiser than she might be given credit for. Clearly the women all look to her in admiration, for each of them agrees to the oath to abstain from their husbands and lovers amorous intentions. When the Athenians and the Spartans finally seek a truce, they appeal to the woman who describes herself as having “a mind”, “native wit” and “decent schooling” (Lysistrata 1363-65) despite being only a woman. Lysistrata is powerful and wise enough to have brought about a truce between two warring nations, and without her, the story of this comedy simply wouldn’t exist.
Everyman, whose author is unknown, may at first seem to not have male or female characters (except for the title character Everyman of course) but Good Deeds and Knowledge are revealed to be attributed to feminine presences. It’s interesting to note that the two aspects of life represented by Good Deeds and Knowledge are the ones that best prepare Everyman for his end; they are the aspects that help him to come to grips with Death, with Good Deeds the only one who will stand by him in the end. As Good Deeds says, “I will not forsake the in deed/Thou shalt find me a good friend in need” (Everyman 853-4). In this way we can see that even in this play which seems to have no obvious connection to the others in respect to the portrayal and depiction of women, the feminine is crucial to the resolution of Everyman’s plight, and therefore crucial to the play itself.
Written by master playwright William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice shows us a pair of notable women: Desdemona and Emilia. Desdemona is the devoted wife of the title character, and is shown throughout the play to be a loving wife even as her husband begins to doubt her fidelity. Emilia is the wife of Iago, who blindly does his bidding, aiding him in wreaking havoc in Othello’s life and his marriage.
Although from the very beginning Othello is warned about his stolen bride, “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” (Othello 1.1.290), it is clear that she loves him and is devoted to him despite her own father’s concerns. Throughout the play, even as Othello begins to show jealousy of Cassio’s assumed courtship of his wife, Desdemona remains faithful and quite confused by her husband’s increasingly angry state. Even when accused by Othello of deceit and adultery, she maintains her love for him, declaring the sins he accuses her of having “are loves I bear to you” (Othello 5.2.40), and further defends her devotion “I never did/Offend you in my life” (Othello 5.2.58-9).
Emilia is Iago’s wife, who he treats poorly from the beginning, and eventually kills when she realizes he has used her in his machinations and betrays him to Othello, the Governor Montano, and the nobleman Gratiano. She becomes the lady’s-maid to Desdemona, and we quickly see that she tolerates Iago’s insults, as it was considered unseemly for a wife to argue with her husband. Indeed, when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief she gives it to her “wayward husband” (Othello 3.3.291) instead of returning it to the Moor’s wife because she wishes “nothing but to please his fantasy” (Othello 3.3.297). She clearly does not know anything about Iago’s chicanery, for she has no idea what causes Othello’s foul demeanor “Pray heaven it be State matters, as you think” (Othello 3.4.156-7). In fact when she discovers that the Moor has killed his wife because of Iago’s dishonesty she turns against him “You told a lie, an odious damned lie” (Othello 5.2.176), and for that she herself is killed.
Both women hold important roles in Shakespeare’s play, for without their presence it would be much more difficult for the playwright to get his point across. Indeed, if one considers that the underlying theme is the risks of allowing rumors to infect your beliefs, it is clear that without the presence of the two women the story would lack the emotional associations they provide, making it more difficult to convey the message. Without Desdemona to love Othello, Iago would have a harder time inciting jealousy in the Moor. Without Emilia to do her husband’s will for the sake of duty, he would not have the tools with which to ensure his plan succeeds. As with Oedipus Rex’s Iocaste and Lysistrata’s title character, and even with Everyman’s personifications of Good Deeds and Knowledge, without these women existing, the play would lack meaning.
The Misanthrope, written by French Playwright Molière, shows us a trio of notable women: Celimene, Arsinoe, and Eliante. Each of the women are part of the nobility presented in the play, but each behaves as a sort of caricature of the types of people one might find in such a society. Celimene is the apparent love interest of Alceste, though the two of them couldn’t be more unalike. Alceste is forthright to a fault, while Celimene is the epitome of a harpy. She delights in gossip and in insulting others behind their backs, as is apparent by Eliante’s comment “The conversation takes its usual turn/and all our dear friend’ ears will shortly burn” (Misanthrope 2.137-8). Arsinoe, a friend of Celimene’s later speaks to her about a visit with some “virtuous folk” who had many things to say about her, not the least of which regarded her “dashing ways” and her “notorious coquetry” (Misanthrope 3.112-4), further characterizing Celimene as a selfish woman. Celimene counters with the recounting of a conversation she had regarding Arsinoe’s “affectation” of “virtue” “prudery” (Misanthrope 3.149-51), accusing her own friend of being a hypocrite. This behavior further exposes Celimene for a careless and selfish woman, one who, unlike the women in previously discussed works, cares little for anyone but herself. Arsinoe, for her part, seems to be very concerned with society’s perception of herself, yet she does not, if we are to believe Celimene’s accusations, live according to the image she projects to her peers.
Eliante is Celimene’s cousin, and stands as a sort of middle ground between she and Arsinoe. Where Celimene is brash and careless in her speech and behavior, and Arsinoe behaves differently in private than she pretends to be in public, Eliante seems to be the only genuine personality among the women of the play. She behaves calmly, believes in “frankness” (Misanthrope 4.59) and finds a “noble side” to Alceste’s ardent “honesty” (Misanthrope 4.33-4) – and in fact admits to being willing to “play the role of substitute” (Misanthrope 4.68) if Celimene casts Alceste aside. Eliante is the most noble of the noblewomen depicted in the play, neither the coquettish gossip that Celimene is shown to be, nor the hypocritical prude that Arsinoe purports herself to be. The play would not be the same without any of them, however. Each is necessary to the story in order to expose both sides (in Celimene and Arsinoe) as well as the better way to behave (in Eliante).
Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck is another play in which there is only one main female presence, that of Marie. We are never told if marie and Franz Woyzeck are married or if they simply have a child out of wedlock, but it is clear that they have a relationship. However, Marie is unfaithful, even if only emotionally. She knows what she is doing is wrong “What a bitch I am” (Woyzeck 4), but we are led to believe (though the play was found unfinished and we can only guess at the proper order of the incomplete scenes) that she continues her tryst anyway. Eventually we see Marie reading the bible, and each passage she flips to alludes to her falsehood and adultery. Marie is the catalyst for Franz’s insanity, for as he realizes, or at least believes that Marie has been unfaithful, he loses all sense of right and wrong. Again, without Marie’s presence in the play, we would lose an emotional connection to the characters. It wouldn’t be as profound for Woyzeck to kill another man; nor would it be as powerful an image if Marie had been an unabashed adulteress. Seeing that she is tortured by her actions makes the ending that much more significant.
Miss Julie, written by Swedish playwright August Strindberg, has very few characters, two of which are women; Miss Julie and Kristen. Miss Julie is flirtatious, and in that way she is not unlike Celimene. She is young, not quite exposed to the world she lives in, and acts in a manner that gets tongues wagging about her. She is the ingénue, seeking experience in things she only fantasizes about. As Jean says about her early in the play “Miss Julie’s too high-and-mighty in some ways, and not enough in others” (Miss Julie p593). We see continued evidence of this naiveté throughout the play in her interactions with Jean and with Kristen, even to the very end.
Kristen, on the other hand, is down to earth and sensible, not too unlike Eliante. She, like Jean, is a servant, and believes there is no time for the foolishness that people of Miss Julie’s station have the time for. She tells Jean ‘You’ve got obligations too, and you’d better start thinking about them,” meaning that she expects him to marry her and take care of her sooner than later, and he needs to put a stop to his “ideas” (Miss Julie 603), and focus on more practical matters.
Because of the nature of this play, it’s obvious there wouldn’t be much of a play without the characters of Miss Julie and Kristen. But even if the play was altered to involve only male characters, it would be lacking without the presence of the two women. The interactions between men – in general – are not the same as between women or between the sexes. The relationships are what draw the reader into this drama, and without the women, those relationships wouldn’t be present.
The plays we have examined explore many different themes; some touch on fidelity and adultery, others explore love and jealousy, still others probe class relations. Each of them however shares a common thread: the women involved in the play are crucial to conveying the message the playwrights have endeavored to reveal to the reader. From Iocaste, Desdemona, Emilia, Marie and Miss Julie, whose exits from the play are marked by their deaths, to Lysistrata, Celimene, Arsinoe, Eliante, Kristen and even the anthropomorphized Good Deeds and Knowledge, the women of these plays occupy roles without which the stories would seem far-fetched. Contrary to what my aunt said, it’s clear that while there is no obvious theme running through each of the plays, the importance of the female characters in them serves as the string connecting each to the others.
Aristophanes. “Lysistrata.” Trans. Charles T. Murphy. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 114-30. Print.
Buchner, Georg. “Woyzeck.” Trans. Henry J. Schmidt. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 532-41. Print.
Klaus, Carl H., Miriam Gilbert, and Bradford S. Field. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.
Moliere. “The Misanthrope.” Trans. Richard Wilbur. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 406-26. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice.” Ed. Alvin Kernan. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 290-332. Print.
Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. 52-70. Print.
Strindberg, August. “Miss Julie.” Trans. Elizabeth Sprigge. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 592-606. Print.
Unknown. “Everyman.” Ed. Kate Franks. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 186-96. Print.