In both Sophocles Antigone and Aeschylus' The Oresteia,masculinity is framed and defined within the context of power and the handlerof this power. Both Creon and Clytemnestra wield power over thepolitical/public realm respectively, and use this to define their ownconstruction of masculinity as a direct contrast to the feminine traits ofsubmissiveness and passivity. To support this reading ofmasculinity as the wielding of political power it is prudent to examine thecontext in which Ancient Greek audiences would read this, and take note of theauthors of both Antigone and The Oresteia as being male. Laura McClure argues this in her book, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama, that"because adult male citizens were the exclusive possessors of political powerin the classical polis, fifth-century Athenian drama, produced by men and formen, may be regarded in the words of Case, 'as allies in the project ofsuppressing real women and replacing them with masks of patriarchalproduction'" (5).
To unpack this, because in large part the drama that has beenpreserved from Classical Athens was mainly written by men, it is an essentialinsight into the minds of Athenian men and the expectations that were attachedto notions of masculinity and maleness as operating largely in thepublic/political sphere. To shed some more light on how power is gendered andregarded as a masculine trait, we need only look at the separation of spheres soevident in Antigone and to a lesserextent The Oresteai: the oikos and the polis, or the domestic sphere and the political sphere. Josine Blokargues in her article, "Toward aChoreography of Women's Speech in Classical Athens," that "the separationof the sexes ranked highest. It was sustained by a special and conceptualdistinction between public and private spheres" (115). This is important tonote as it gives weight to our understanding of masculinity as beinginexplicably aligned with power as Adriana Cavarero argues that the political structure "identifies itself with a limitedgroup of free men… that has definitively expelled women from its androcentricsphere" (48). To understand Ancient Greek audience's definition of masculinityis to be mindful of the way in which it is informed by its rejection of femininityand female influence, as the power was held primarily by the men in thepolitical/public sphere and thus is definitively masculine.
Blok further supports our understanding of theseset distinctions between male and female by pointing out the extent of theconstraint present in the oikos asshe explains that in Classical Athens "women should not be seen, nor shouldthey speak or be spoken of" (97). To apply this to both The Oresteia and Antigoneis prudent as it provides a framework for us to understand why Clytemnestrafluidly slides between her position as a female, and ultimately adopts a masculinisedidentity in order to utilize the established power in Classical Athens thatmasculinity affords her for her ends. Whilst also allowing us to recognise howCreon is able to wield his power over the political/public sphere due to hismasculine identity. In Sophocles Antigone, masculinity is positioned through a skewed power dynamicthat is defined by its subjugation over women. This is presented early on inthe play as Ismene tells Antigone, "we two are women, / so not to fight with men" (61-62), alluding to theinferior position that women played in Theban Society and the re-affirmation ofthe separate spheres of public and private.
This is further cemented by Creon'sdeclaration that "I won't be called weaker than womankind" (680) which pointsto his understanding of his masculinity and to him the intrinsic ties thatalign masculinity with power and dominance, and femininity with subservienceand weakness. For Creon it is unfathomable that a woman could enter thepolitical sphere and challenge him as he proclaims, "no woman rules me while Ilive" (525). Creon's use of the word 'woman' as opposed to specificallyhighlighting Antigone indicates that he sees this feud not as a matter betweenthe state and the individual but rather as one between men and women. To shedlight on Creon's mindset, John Gould explains that in Classical Athens womendid not have the right to exercise free speech in theassemblies, which was a hallmark of being a citizen. Neither did they have theright to vote, to serve on juries, or to own property. And that the woman isincapable of a self-determined act, as almost in law an un-person" (44).
Thusfor Creon the very thought that a woman could dominate him in any sense of theword is one that is unfathomable and a direct threat to his masculinity. His useof the words "rule" and the finality in the line "while I live" also serves toshed light on his belief that the political sphere is one that is firmlydesignated as masculine and that women have no business transgressing theboundaries laid out during his lifetime. This is perfectly exemplified byCreon's reaction to the news of Polyneices' burial when he angrily exclaims, "What man has dared to do it?"(248), he incorrectly assumes that this political transgression, could onlyhave been committed by a man. Thus assuming that all acts of politicaldisobedience and transgressions of power are inherently masculine. Followingon there is no character perhaps other than Creon who embodies this masculinitywe are exploring through power, better than Clytemnestra in The Oresteia as she is forced to "adoptcharacteristics of the dominant sex to achieve her goals" (Pomeroy 98). Clytemnestraoccupies a space in which she is the sole commander of control in herinteractions with Agamemnon, and thoroughly emasculates him in order toexercise her power, dominance and adopted masculinity over him.
One suchinstance, is when Clytemnestra greets Agamemnon upon his return with clothesfor him to walk on and he rebukes her stating that it is "embroidered stuffs –stuff for gossip," (Agamemnon 1012-3). "Do not by woman's methods make meeffeminate … nor strewing my path with cloths make it invidious … I tellyou honour me as a man." (1015-1020). After stating this, Agamemnon submits toher desire and is lead into the palace to his slaughter. Agamemnon's easysubmission to Clytemnestra is inextricably linked to the fact that he views heras feminine first and thus incapable of murdering or even emasculating him ashe states. Thus whilst Clytemnestra's feminine wiles serve to benefit her it isultimately her fluidity and complete command of her masculine identity whichallows her to triumph.
This is explained by McClure who states that"Clytemnestra plays the part of a faithful wife before the male chorus, themessenger, and ultimately her husband, but abandons this disguise once she hassuccessfully carried out her plan" (27). This is best seen when she recountsher murder of Agamemnon and states 'Twice Istruck him, and with two groans his limbs relaxed…here is Agamemnon, myhusband, now a corpse' (Agamemnon 1385-1405). Clytemnestra appears tospeak about Agamemnon as if he were an enemy whilst presenting the defence ofher actions, reiterating the justifications for the murder on a number ofoccasions (Lefkowitz 175). Clytemnestra's complete detachment and coldacceptance of the success of her revenge frame her ultimately as masculine asshe has achieved ultimate power and dominion over another human being bymurdering them and exacting this through revenge which the chorus state is theduty and act of a man (1643-5). Thus rejecting any attachments ofsubmissiveness or femininity that could be attached to her because of hergender, and ultimately embodying the masculine ideal of command and power whicheven the chorus begrudgingly admit she has achieved through her revenge. Moving on from Clytemnestra, it is importantthat we focus our attention on the Chorus in both Antigone and The Oresteia,as the chorus subtly reinforces our accepted definitions of masculinity byaligning masculinity with power and strength and femininity as a directjuxtaposition to this.
In Antigone, the Chorus'first appear in the play with a narration of "Sun's own radiance" (99) shiningon "the man who had come from Argos with all his armor / running now inheadlong fear as you shook his bridle free" (106-107). The animalistic imageryused to compare the warrior coming from Argos with a horse shaking his "bridlefree", serves in aligning masculinity as a forceful, natural energy that'spower is entrenched within the natural world and thus timeless and unshakeablein its position as a constant. The equation of "radiance" with the man fromArgos, also serve to make us as readers associate masculinity as somethingwhich is light and good and thus not something which we should refute or deemas a risk to us. It is important to note however, that the chorus would haveconsisted entirely of Theban men and thus their vision and ideals of the worldwould've aligned with the masculine and patriarchal ideal that we are arguingin this essay as being a rejection of feminine traits among others. This iseasier to see when the chorus describe Ismene with traditionally femalecharacteristics of excessive emotion and beautified grief: "She loves hersister and mourns, / with clouded brow and bloodied cheeks, / tears on herlovely face" (40).
There is no allusion to power or strength in the chorus'description of Ismene but rather a sad fragile image of a young woman, a directjuxtaposition to the strength and animalistic imagery that was used to describethe man from Argos. This is further emphasised by the chorus' description ofthe masculine warrior as "screaming shrill, / like an eagle over the land heflew" (111-112). The use of similes to liken the man to a hunting bird onlyserves in furthering the argument that masculinity for the chorus and for thepeople in Classical Athens to whom this would have been performed would largelyalign masculinity with power, virility and the very act of being and doing.Where Ismene is described as passive and grief stricken, the chorus' cementsinto the audience's head that the masculinity which runs the public sphere isone which rejects these feminine traits and is deeply aligned with the naturalworld and thus intrinsically linked as a result of that to power and strengthas the natural world is a constant. Whilst the Chorus in Antigone immediately recognize and respond to any traits ofmasculinity that are displayed by a man, they are not so quick to offer thissame description to Clytemnestra and only acquiesce as the play goes on and herrole as Agamemnon's successor in his absence is cemented.
Yet despite this,Clytemnestra manages to be recognized instantaneously as having a masculinerole by the watchmen who claims she is a, 'woman in passionate heart and man instrength of purpose.' (32-35). This isparticularly interesting to note as Sarah Pomeroy states that 'womanlybehaviour was characterised then…by submissiveness and modesty' (98), yetClytemnestra's language is anything but modest as she uses her oratory power tocommand men. Simon Goldhill supports this as he argues that "Clytemnestradominates the stage, recounts the most impressive speeches and skillfullymanipulates language in order to achieve power.
(35)". The significance ofClytemnestra's command of speech as a means of exercising power must not beunderstated as McClure elaborates that "to be a citizen meant to participateactively in the speech of the city, whether in the courts, the Council, theAssembly, or the agora" (8). However, this was only reserved for men, makingClytemnestra's command of language as a tool of power another way in which sherejects her feminine traits in order to embrace the power and freedommasculinity affords her to exact her revenge. In Agamemnon's absenceClytemnestra cements her power among her people by adopting masculine traitsand infiltrating the public sphere that was reserved for men, yet the only wayshe is able to do this is to shed her feminine traits and become masculinizedthrough her control of language and the success of this is displayed by thechorus' recognition of her as a peer.
McClure goes on to support this as shestates that "her control of public discursive practices contingent upon herpossession of masculine power reflects a profound inversion of gender roles"(74). The chorus eventually succumb to Clytemnestra's oratory skills andproclaim, "you have spoken like a man and our protector" (261). This validationof Clytemnestra's oratory skills as being equal to a man cement just how muchshe has embodied the masculine identity and just how far removed hermasculinity now is from the feminine traits which it is in direct juxtapositionto. Clytemnestra goes on to sustain this relationship with the chorus as ratherthan speaking with other women, McClure notes that she speaks to the malechorus for the majority of the play and they act as her audience (72). Thusreiterating the positioning of masculinity in The Oresteia as being a rejection of submissiveness and femininity,and rather an embracing of the power that masculinity can afford within thepublic realm as Clytemnestra uses for her own gain. In much the same way that Clytemnestra shedsher feminine identity in order to navigate the social realm of Classical Athensthrough adopting a masculinized identity.
Characters such as Aegisthus in The Oresteia and Haimon in Antigone are emasculated by Clytemnestraand Creon respectively as they are deemed to not be masculine enough or rejectthe definition of masculinity we have laid out. For Aegisthus, he is describedas tending to Clytemnestra's hearth (1435-1436), the ultimate gender reversalas the hearth lands firmly within the domestic sphere yet Aegisthus is the onewho is commanding it. This only adds to the strength of the masculinity thatClytemnestra has constructed around her and provides us with a measurement forjust how emasculated Aegisthus is that he as a Theban man is tending to ahearth in which we have not seen Clytemnestra described as doing once in theplay. Aegisthus is then repeatedly baited by the chorus who refer to him as a"woman" (1858-1872), due to his cowardly act in allowing Clytemnestra to strikeAgamemnon in his stead.
This insult is not only repeated by the Chorus but alsoby Orestes who calls Clytemnestra and Aegisthus "a pair of women – for he is a woman assurely as she." (Libation Bearers 286-287). The fact that Aegisthus'masculinity is being juxtaposed with Clytemnestra is a testament to howemasculated he is as she possesses all the masculine traits which he has failedto show, and the traits which he is left with reduce him to being described asa "woman" as he is not discernible any longer. This cements our reading ofmasculinity as being a rejection of feminine traits and submissiveness as if weare to take Aegisthus as an example of failed masculinity. It would be fair forour comparison to naturally leads us to Clytemnestra who possesses all themasculine qualities of power, command and lack of submissiveness whichAegisthus fails to show, ultimately placing her in control of the masculinerole in the relationship and play. Thisrelationship is echoed in Antigone asCreon questions Haemon's masculinity once he realises Haimon is a danger to thepolitical/public power he holds as a result of Haemon's love for Antigone.
Peter Miller argues that Creon's "tyranny hasundermined the ability of Haimon to claim a social and gendered identityoutside the bounds of his regime" (164). Creon's "regime" we can take tounderstand here as being his inability to allow women to have any form ofcontrol over a man, as he believes that power must be absolute and any form ofsubmissiveness is a sign of femininity. This is perfectly captured by Creon'ssubsequent insults laid upon Haimon, in which he refers to him as being on the"woman's side" (740), for being "weaker than a woman" (746) and a "woman'ssalve" (756). It is interesting to note that each insult Creon attaches to Haemonaligns Haimon with weakness and being submissive. To Creon his masculinity, isdefined by its juxtaposition to femininity and we can conclude that he does notfeel that there is any fluidity between masculinity and femininity.
Yet if weare to take Abrams definition of sex and gender to account then, "sex (a person's identification as male or female) is determined byanatomy, gender (masculinity or femininity in personality traits and behavior)can be largely independent of anatomy, and is a social construction that isdiverse, variable, and dependent on historical circumstances" (113). Creon'sdefinition of masculinity is firmly ensconced in what he feels a man inClassical Athens would have been like and lends strength to Peter Miller'sargument that tyranny has produced in Creon a hyper masculinity which preventshim from seeing anything beyond what he defines as masculine. To Creon thiswould be his political power and the firmly set boundaries between femininityand masculinity which he believes are there in order to sustain societal order.Thus Haemon's flaunting of Creon's set definition of masculinity only serve to fuelCreon's own hyper-masculinity which manifests itself as a direct rejection ofany and all feminine traits. Summarily both Antigone and The Orestaiexplore the representation of masculinity through the characters of Creon andClytemnestra and the ways in which masculinity for both of these characters areundoubtedly tied with the power they derive from it.
Within the context ofClassical Athens, the masculinity displayed by both Creon and Clytemnestra ishyper masculine at times in order to respond to the shifting power dynamicsthat occur throughout the plays. Yet ultimately, in both of these masculinityis firmly defined as the rejection of female traits of passivity and submissiveness.