Comparative Literature | Comparative Literature Women in World Literature: Drama
C340 | 14846 | Marie Valverde


It is the year 431 BC, and you
(a male Athenian citizen) are attending
the festival of Dionysus in Athens.
A performance of Euripides’ Medea begins,
and the first person on the stage is the nurse. Medea
makes her appearance on stage shortly thereafter.
But wait! Both women are males, disguised in female
garb.  Indeed, men are the only actors in a Greek theater.
As Froma Zeitlin explains “in order to represent women
on stage, men must always put on a feminine costume
and mask.” To be sure, “It is not a women who speaks
and acts for herself and in herself on stage; it is always
a man who impersonates her.”

Though women did not perform their own roles and
represent themselves on stage in the classical era and even in
Shakespeare’s day, women played crucial roles in dramatic
performances.  In fact, women in tragedy and comedy often assumed more
powerful and prominent roles than men. The question then arises, how
accurate of a representation do dramatic texts (written by and
presumably for men) provide us regarding the role of women in society?
Even during the Elizabethan era, female parts were performed by men,
and yet women frequently attended the theater.

Theater provides us with a very unique and enlightening perspective
from which to examine the role of women in society. Though we
primarily read dramatic texts today, the presence and cohesion of the
audience was a crucial dimension of the production of plays.  The
experience of going to the theater in classical Athens and in early
modern England was very different than it is today.  Attending a
dramatic performance today is an individual experience and we are
merely solitary spectators; however, attending the theater used to be
an exercise in self-definition in which the audience formed a
collective and cohesive whole. Consequently, the performance of a
man-as-woman or later of a woman-as-woman served to continually
(re)define the role of women in society.

In this course, we will examine how women are portrayed in dramatic
texts (both comic and tragic) from the classical era to the modern,
and we will read a variety of comic and tragic playwrights, such as
Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Shakespeare, Racine, Isben, and Miller.
We will even read a few adaptations of classical texts, such as
Maureen Duffy’s Rites, that are written by female writers who attempt
to refocus the attention of and on women.