The Greek tragedies of Classical Athens frequently portray mothers in central roles, but despite this significance, the relationship between mother and child has long been overshadowed in secondary scholarship by the relationship between husband and wife. This study demonstrates the direct relationship between a female character's active possession of her children and her autonomy, or her ability to act in her own interests, in three plays of Euripides: Electra, Medea, and Ion. In general, women who internalize their ownership of their children, expressed on stage both in word and action, have greater influence over the men around them and the power to enact the revenge they desire. Once their ends have been achieved, however, these tragic mothers often devalue their relationship with their children, leading to a decrease in power that restores the supremacy of the patriarchal order. Within this broad framework, Euripides achieves different results by adjusting aspects of this cycle of maternal empowerment. The Electra follows this outline just as its predecessor the Oresteia does; however, Euripides invents a fictional child for Electra, extending the concept of maternal empowerment to Electra and defining Clytemnestra as both mother and grandmother. In Medea, Euripides demonstrates the significance of Medea's children to her power, and Medea does devalue her children enough to destroy them, the source of her influence, but she is not punished and cannot be reabsorbed into the patriarchal structure, which leaves an audience with a heightened sense of anxiety at the threat of maternal empowerment. Finally, the Ion initially demonstrates a cycle similar to Medea: empowered by her ownership of the child she believes she has lost, Creusa attempts revenge against the young man who threatens her but is in fact her lost son. In the end, however, Creusa uses her empowerment to achieve recognition between mother and son and voluntarily relinquishes her ownership, resulting in a peaceful reabsorption into patriarchal society and a happy ending. Despite the variations on this cycle presented by Euripides, one theme persists: motherhood was both empowering and threatening, and it required strict male control to avoid tragic results. Thus as scholars of tragedy, we cannot ignore the mother-child relationship, not only for its power to illuminate the feminine, but also for its capacity to reveal the vulnerabilities of the masculine.
College and Department
Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Hoyt, Maggie Sharon, "Giving Birth to Empowerment: Motherhood and Autonomy in Greek Tragedy" (2013). Theses and Dissertations. 3613.
Greek tragedy, motherhood, Euripides, Electra, Medea, Ion, Oresteia