Heroines from Greek plays

This month we want to show images of Ancient Greek play, featuring tragic heroines.


Electra by Sophocles

The women of Athenian tragedy are often used to embody the idea of total, selfless devotion to the interests of the man of the family – father, husband or brother.  Electra was the daughter of the great king Agamemnon, who was murdered on his return from Troy by his faithless wife Clytaemnestra.  After this, Electra lived only to see her father avenged and her exiled brother Orestes restored, and was prepared if necessary to lay down her own life without a moment’s hesitation to achieve this.  Since the women of Athens could not own money or property and had no vote, perhaps they had no choice about an idea of self-sacrifice.

Electra and Orestes at the grave of Agamemnon

Electra and Orestes at the grave of Agamemnon.
Greek tragedy by Sophocles.
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection


Medea by Euripedes

If Electra represents the ideal female, Medea could be seen as its diametrical opposite.  She was a wild witch-woman from a distant land whose spells helped Jason to win the Golden Fleece.  She returned to Greece with him and bore him two children, but a few years later he decided to abandon her and marry the daughter of the local king.  Medea, no submissive Greek wife, promptly deployed her magic to kill the king and his daughter and then, to make sure Jason has no comfort left, she killed both their children.  Her actions were unspeakable, but the playwright makes the point that Jason’s heartless, selfish cruelty is partly responsible. He suggests that since women are at the mercy of men, then men have a duty to be merciful – not exactly a feminist message!

Medea killing her children, 2nd century AD. Arles. Roman period sculpture. Greek tragedy.
Musee de l’Arles Antique, Arles, France
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection


Helen of Troy by Sophocles

Many artists have chosen Helen as a subject, but she presents a major problem.  She is never actually described.  We know that she is flawlessly beautiful and irresistibly desirable, but there are no specifics.  This may be because she is much more than a mortal woman, and perhaps represents everyone’s personal dream of hearts’ desire, which nothing can ever damage or destroy.  She has caused the appalling horrors of The Trojan War and the upheavals of its aftermath, but a later visitor to her husband’s court find her comfortably at home, as if nothing had happened.  The Neo-Classical sculptor Canova sees her as calmly lovely, but her demure ringletted hair is distinctly unconvincing.

Helen of Troy bust by Antonio Canova. Neo-Classical Period

Helen of Troy bust by Antonio Canova. Neo-Classical Period.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection