Through two strong characters, Medea and Lysistrata, the playwrights Euripides and Aristophanes paint the abject situation of total dependency of women in ancient Greece. In those patriarchal societies the significant cells —the family, the society, and the state— often erupted into conflicts for which no remedies, redress, or justice was afforded to women.
In each of the stories we clearly see that man has abrogated all the power. Medea is a woman in Euripides’ tragedy, who is driven to madness by her anger towards her husband for whom she had given up so much. Lysistrata, a woman in Aristophanes’ eponymous comedy, concocts a comical plan in order to obtain peace by coercing men to it.
As it turns out, Lysistrata sees and uses the withholding of sex as a mighty weapon.
According to the text, Medea and Jason (her husband), have been living together for ten years in Corinth. Their home is a model of unassailable married life and devotion to each other and their children. Medea, a princess, gave up privilege and fortune for the love of Jason. Even knowing that in her new life she would be considered a barbarian —and not a citizen— she journeyed to Corinth, the city-state where Jason was a nobleman. But fate intervenes; causing Jason to betray her by seeking to married a royal princess of his own people. Not only does Jason scorn Medea by rejecting her, but he also humiliates her by intending to keep her as his mistress.
What is a wife, a barbarian princess to do? Suffer in silence? This is the crux of the tragedy; as she exclaims: “I am the mother of your children. Whither can I fly, since all Greece hates the barbarian?”
She has no options, for she sees herself as a loveless, homeless foreigner. A passive woman would have accepted the treatment, for women had neither rights nor means of redress. But Medea wasn’t a tame citizen—a wild passionate woman she was! And Jason had not counted on that.
Although both Medea and Lysistrata were both Greek women, Medea was considered a barbarian from a backward region (Colchis). Lysistrata, on the other hand, cared not only for her husband, but also for her city-state and neighbors. At that time, Greece was fighting a series of wars, so the men had to join the army or navy. Death occurred daily. Wives lost their husbands or suffered in silence their long absences without news of their fate. Life without men in the city caused untold hardships.
Lysistrata, one of the wives, seizes leadership, appealing to other women to deny sex to their husband and coerced the men into peace. In the end, her plan yields good results, winning thereby the city’s approval, and gaining much respect.
In principle, Medea and Lysistrata have the same problem; their husbands leave them because of status or wealth, however, the ways that they get status or wealth is different. Jason (Medea’s husband) chooses to sacrifice Medea to marry to a princess to change his status and wealth. Lysistrata’s husband decides to leave Lysistrata to fight a war in order to get wealth. Medea reacts in a negative way to deal with her husband’s betrayal. Betrayal brings hurt to both men and women alike; but specially, for women.
For the love of her man, Medea kills people, leaves her home country, and also her family. And when she learns that Jason will leave her, all the pent-up feelings of love in her memory change to sorrow and hurt; at this time, the sorrowful memory prompts her to plot revenge against Jason. Memory not only impairs her judgment, but also determines her actions—her inescapable future. Her revenge would take place indirectly; that is, by killing those close to Jason: King Creon, his daughter Glauce, whom he had promised in marriage to Jason, and her own two children. Both anger and a deep felt resentment move her to commit such violent vengeful acts. Reason fails her. Only after she destroys Jason will she feel liberated from her trauma and unbridled hatred.
Creon guesses correctly: “You are a woman of some knowledge, versed in many an unsavory skill.” His remarks show that Medea is not only feared, but also powerful, dangerous, and malicious. The “unsavory skills” Creon mentions, refers to Medea’s reputation for being a witch, a fact that is already well known since she saved Jason’s life by her magic powers. Medea knows that no matter what she says, the king won’t let her her stay. To gain time to commit her crimes, she uses her children as an excuse; in our language today we’d say that action is premeditated murder. In addition, by exploiting King Aegeus’ childless condition, she gains his promise of protection.
Lysistrata’s actions, in contrast to Medea’s, show a lack of malice. She acts with sincerity. Warm memories motivate her: she recalls her love for her husband and that emotion lingers within her. But her country happens to be at war, a war that deprives her of those warm memories. Deprived of happiness, all she has is an abundance of sadness. At the same time, she realizes that there are a lot of women like her, whose husbands leave them to cope with that same feeling of abandonment. Given women’s lower social status, they have no recourse and must accept their condition. Futility is their lot—they can’t change anything.
Lysistrata moves the other women to action by the sheer power of her speech. Not by malice, nor by deception, nor outright lying —unlike Medea— but by persuasion, by the art of rhetoric. And although much has been written about Gorgias, Demosthenes, Pericles, and other great Greek orators, little has been said about Lysistrata’s way with words. She tells the women money is root of all evils, providing thereby a strategy for women to follow her plan to stop the war.
And her end justifies the outrageous means she proposed: female sexual veto.
Even though Medea and Lysistrata share some characteristics, Euripides and Aristophanes portray two opposite images of woman; one is a devil incarnate, and the other an angel. Though parts of the stories defy credibility, the audience suspended disbelief since the stories were well known and based on well known myths.
To accept that a woman could kill a king lacks realism. Or that a woman would stop a war through sex deprivation seems an utter impossibility.
For women without any options, they could still get what they want by appealing to extreme measures. While Medea —a woman of wild passion— sacrifices her children and herself, Lysistrata — a woman of strong leadership abilities—makes men capitulate by using the extreme weapon that sex (or absence of it) can become.
From these acts we can infer that both Euripides and Aristophanes wanted to portray the injustices of their ancient system under which the city-states functioned. And that unless some changes were wrought, the system —family, society, and the state— was bound to collapse.
The abundance of male-dominant passages in Medea and Lysistrata are evidence of the lowly status that was assigned to women. In ancient Greece, in some households, slaves were treated more fairly than women. Medea is not only the victim of abandonment, but also of legal divorce because in ancient Greece men could divorce their wives with the simple announcement of separation. All the husband had to say, in front of some witnesses: “I thee divorce. I thee divorce.” And that was it. Neither rights nor privileges were afforded to the wife, much less redress.
The wrongs, misdemeanors, torts, and crimes that were committed against women were committed with total impunity; frequently such acts were also condoned by the family, the society, and the state. Besides suffering untold abuses and much misery during peace times, females also had to suffer during war time. Neither war nor peace did bring improvement to women’s lot.
In conclusion, each of the two characters —Medea and Lysistrata— experience a modicum of satisfaction in the midst of much inequality and injustice. Their warm memories keep them going; also, passionate love, wild love, and lighthearted love motivates these women. What the authors wish to accomplish with their portrayal of the sufferings of these two strong women was their redemption—the redemption of women surviving in a society in much need of change.