Study Guide

The Eumenides Gender

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This play is, to put it gently, really crazy freaking misogynist.

The verdict in Orestes's trial ultimately ends up hinging on two gender-related issues. The first issue is whether or not he is related to his own mother. Apollo says that mothers aren't actually related by blood to their children; that mothers are only baby-warming receptacles for the sperm implanted by the father. You might think that no female judge would accept Apollo's appallingly sexist argument—but you'd be wrong. Athena, the judge of the trial, explicitly says that she is biased towards men, and that's why she votes to let Orestes off the hook.

One of the major themes of The Eumenides—already foreshadowed in its opening lines—is the rise of a more patriarchal society, in which women like Clytemnestra and the Furies are increasingly marginalized. The logic? Basically: "women be crazy."

Questions About Gender

  1. Some of the imagery in The Eumenides suggests a transition from an earlier, matriarchal order to the more patriarchal order of Athens on the road to democracy. Why do you think Aeschylus chose to emphasize this theme in his play?
  2. Is there any other basis for Athena's judgment in favor of Orestes than sexist bias? If not, does that mean it was a bad decision? In other words, can the right decision be made for the wrong reasons?
  3. Who is the most sexist character in the play?
  4. Do you think Aeschylus wants his audience to interpret Apollo's theory about mothers not being parents as literally true? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Aeschylus focuses on a transition from a matriarchal order to a patriarchal order because he is tapping into the traditional association of women with nature. In this framework, civilization—including the law-court—is thought of as a male activity that tames irrational feminine nature.

Athena's judgment in favor of Orestes has no other basis than sexist bias. Even so, it is a good decision because it puts an end to the cycle of bloody revenge.

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