In this essay I will be comparing and contrasting the way in which two different authors portray femininity in their respective dramatic texts. The two works I am using are Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw and Medea by Euripides. I will be looking at how the way men and women are portrayed can affect the way we interpret the texts, and showing that femininity isn’t necessarily a trait restricted just to women.
I believe that femininity reflects expected female behaviour. There are certain traits which are believed to be typically male or female. Male traits tend to be more physical such as the fact that they are dominant, stronger whereas female traits are much softer, more emotional. In ancient Athenian society such things as ‘bravery in battle’ and ‘general competitive excellence in a public arena’(1) were considered masculine whereas women were relegated to ‘looking after the household and bringing up their children’(2). However, femininity has changed as times have changed. It reflects the acceptable social behaviour of the period. As women were seen as more equal to men, the restrictions on them lessened. So by the time Pygmalion was written in 1912 it was acceptable for women to support themselves: something that was unheard of in Medea’s time.
When Pygmalion was written the woman’s movement was well underway and women were starting to demand rights and become more independent. It was no longer assumed that women would marry just to be looked after. Men no longer automatically took the controlling role. Eliza is a prime example of this as although she is not very well off she is self sufficient as a flower-girl.
Medea on the other hand is set at a time when women were completely submissive to their husbands. Once married all of their property automatically became their husband's. Medea has no legal political rights; not only because she is a women but also because she is an outsider. Medea’s reference to women being ‘weak and timid in most matters’ (3) (line 260) reflects the general view of women by society.
The way the two pieces are written and acted are also completely different. Medea would have been played by an all male cast to a predominantly, if not exclusively male audience, whereas Pygmalion was acted by both men and women. In Medea actors would have worn female masks, which lack emotion and cover up facial expressions. Right from the beginning the play takes on an unrealistic air as women and men wouldn’t have been able to debate in public as Medea and Jason did.
Theatrical space is very important. It was traditional in ancient Athenian time for women to occupy inside space, however due to the physical arrangement of the theatre; this would have meant that Medea preformed the whole play from behind the Skene. Bringing Medea outside made for better viewing and meant that she was able to ‘compete(s) on equal terms with her male opponents’(4) .
Both Eliza and Medea display a number of what would be considered masculine traits. Right from the beginning we learn that Medea has a very forceful personality and is a very strong character. She points out to Jason that she ‘saved his life’ (5)(line 475) and helped him get where he is by making sacrifices herself. Although Jason disagrees with her he doesn’t take the credit himself, instead he credits the Gods. We can also look at Eliza in the same way. Although she is lower class she also comes across as strong and wilful and capable of looking after and supporting herself rather than needing a man to do it.
Eliza shows her stereotypically female side because she is fairly emotional and prone to outbreaks of crying. Medea uses her femininity to her advantage. She is very strong and forceful when dealing with Jason; however she assumes the submissive position of kneeling down when talking to Creon and cries to appeal to his sensitive side. She also turns on the charm with Aegeus and portrays herself as the suffering victim...
Bibliography: The Open University, Myths and Conventions, Block 5, Milton Keynes (1998)
The Open University, Resource Book 3, Milton Keynes (1998)
Shaw, B (1916), Pygmalion, London, Penguin
Vellacott, P (trans.) 1963 Medea, Harmondsworth, Penguin
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