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Gender Roles Within Greek Society


Gender roles in Greek society were determined by social and cultural traditions, position of women in society and their significance as citizens. The position of women in society was determined by absence of political rights acquired by men. Many Greek plays portray women as canny and jealous. The play Hippolytus depicts women as selfish and deceptive driven by personal gain only. Hippolytus gender representation is based on an opposition between positive image of men and unwise and selfish images of women.

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The main conflict

The main conflict of the play occurs between Hippolytus and Aphrodite who wants to punish him As the play gets underway, it seems that the action is already finished, and the hero of the drama is as good as dead. In her prologue speech, Aphrodite begins by reminding readers that gods require mortals to honor them and by vowing that she will make an example of Hippolytus’ arrogant neglect of her. She goes on to say that on this very day she will punish him for his crimes. and proclaims that her vengeance is almost complete (Fox 54). She foretells the manner of his death, struck down by his father’s curses, and as she leaves the stage, she announces, with her very last words, that Hippolytus “doesn’t know that the gates of Hades are open, and that this is the last light he will see” (Euripides 23). As the play begins, he is about to pay the penalty, poised on the threshold of death–and this is exactly where readers find him at the end (Segal 109).

The cruelty and slyness of women is evident from the very beginning of the narration. In the prologue, Aphrodite leads up to the present situation–the pathological love of Phaedra for her stepson by telling how Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus when he came to Athens to celebrate the mysteries and how she commemorated her love for him by establishing a shrine to Aphrodite:

Before coming here to the land of Trozen,
beside the rock of Pallas, this land’s
lookout, she set up a shrine of Aphrodite
in her foreign passion; and she named the goddess
as established hereafter in honor of Hippolytus (Euripides 29-33).

The prologue

The prologue is generally delivered by a human character who enters to describe the situation, review the past, and generate interest in the action that follows. In Hippolytus, by contrast (Fox 57). Aphrodite enters as a god, proclaiming at once her identity and divine authority, asserting her prerogative to reward and punish mortals, reminding the viewer of her active intervention in human affairs, and delivering both an aetiology and a detailed prophecy of events to come. The prologue aetiology is unique, and so too is this prologue prophecy. As readers have seen, the play begins and ends with the death of Hippolytus, and with verbal echoes reinforcing this similarity. It also begins and ends with the gestures, and concluding prophecy, and each of these involves further similarities. Critics admit that Aetiologies refer to a tomb and hero shrine of Hippolytus, but the parallels involve Aphrodite as well (Fox 56).

Another image of women is a naïve girl who understands nothing about the world around her. In the prologue, Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus is commemorated with a shrine of Aphrodite that looks toward Trozen while the epilogue alludes to a shrine of Aphrodite the Spy where the love-smitten Phaedra used to watch Hippolytus at his exercises And just as Aphrodite in the prologue withdraws at the approach of Hippolytus, who is about to die, and leaves events to play themselves out (Fox 54). Artemis in the ending makes an identical gesture, withdrawing from the scene as the hero is about to die, and allowing Hippolytus and Theseus to play out their grief and sympathy (Wohl 101). Aphrodite concludes her opening speech with the cold pronouncement that Hippolytus stands at the gates of death, and the servant ends the scene with an ironic comment upon the finality of her decision, asking the goddess to show forgiveness since gods should be wiser than mortals. The servant ironically, and the nurse directly, both acknowledge that Aphrodite’s destructive scheme is already complete (Fox 53). Aphrodite departs at the approach of the dying Hippolytus, leaving events she has set in motion to play themselves out in the course of the play. And in the epilogue, Artemis avoids association with death by leaving before the young man dies. This premature exit of the deus is unparalleled in Greek tragedy, handing over the stage to Theseus, Hippolytus, and the chorus for a brief closing scene of purely human pathos and human forgiveness (Segal 122, 152).

Hippolytus is Euripides’ most tragic play

In the play, men are manipulated by women characters who lead them to death and sufferings. This shift of focus to the mortal sequel is accompanied by a certain ambivalence in the play’s closing gestures. In Hippolytus, these gestures are more emphatically closed than in any other Euripidean drama–yet succeed in somehow remaining open (Fox 61). If every tragedy ends with a death, then Hippolytus is surely Euripides’ most tragic play since it is the only one that ends with the death of its protagonist. The problem of locating Hippolytus’ death is not just a verbal quibble, nor a tendentious illustration of the slipperiness of language. In his tour of the famous sanctuary of Hippolytus in Trozen, Pausanias mentions a statue of the hero, a priest of Hippolytus, various sacrifices, and continues: “they won’t have him dragged to death by his horses and they do not show his grave, even though they know it. Instead they believe that what is called the Charioteer in the sky is in fact Hippolytus, who receives this honor from the gods” (Euripides 2. 32.1). Artemis promises the living and suffering hero that his sufferings will not be forgotten, but neither here nor in the action that follows is the hero’s death clearly acknowledged (Segal 108).

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The murder of the children in the course of the play will be commemorated in two ways: by their burial at the shrine of Hera Akraia and by rites performed in their honor in Corinth, the land of Sisyphus. The epilogue refers to rites established in honor of the play’s central figure, and it does so without contradicting common knowledge of those rites. Yet given the exceptional nature of this aition, it remains to acknowledge its failings. After all, if the action commemorates the hero’s death, it does so only by implication. The play itself makes no direct mention of the death of Hippolytus (Fox 59). The aetiology makes no mention of the hero’s tomb in Trozen, nor does it refer to his death or burial. Instead it describes a custom associated with wedding ritual; as Pausanias reports, “each virgin cuts off a lock for him [Hippolytus] before marriage and after cutting, takes it to the temple as an offering” (Euripides 2.32.1). The ritual connections between marriage and death are widespread and important. Both marking an important point of transition and using similar ritual gestures to confirm a successful passage from one stage to the next. At least as Artemis describes it, the ritual of the virgins is as incomplete as the death it commemorates. The young women of Trozen are frozen in lamentation, harvesting tears “throughout long time,” preserving forever a musical memory of Hippolytus in their capacity that is, as women who have not made the transition to married status. The hero who seems to linger forever on the threshold of death is commemorated by an endless succession of lamenting women, lingering forever on the threshold of marriage (Segal 122). “This confusion of sexual roles also questions the gender-specific nature of morally colored terms such as noble, glorious, manly, and brave. When Artemis from on high “reveals” the truth to Theseus, she would make him “conceal” his body in the underworld, like Phaedra” (Segal 122).

Euripides depicts that love of a woman leads to death and a tragic end for a man. Phaedra’s love is not an end but the means to an end. Her passion is the instrument Aphrodite will use to punish Hippolytus, and her death is less important than the goddess’s demand for revenge and satisfaction. What survives from the action, what lives on into the present day, is not the goal announced in the prologue and apparently fulfilled in the epilogue, but a prior means to that end. Incompleteness is immortalized; the in-between lasts forever. Phaedra’s love bears the seeds of its own destruction (Fox 77). It is a curious reversal that punishes the abstinent Hippolytus by inspiring passion not in him but in someone else. From this point of view, the passion and death of Phaedra are necessary not in causal terms as means to the punishment of Hippolytus, but in symbolic terms as a counterpart to, and reflection of, her stepson’s death. Yet after both mortals are dead, Phaedra’s passion is neither spent nor destroyed. Her love for Hippolytus will return forever in the longing of Trozenian women, and a passion once hidden by her modesty and guarded by silence will finally have both a name and a voice (Wohl 103).

In rejecting the unseemly Phaedra and in endorsing a new, chastened, and formally perfect drama, the spectator plays an important part in the death of the plot. If Phaedra herself is no longer disgraced, those who pass judgment upon the action–Theseus who demands death for her death, Artemis who demands retribution for retribution, and the spectator who requires a barren perfection–all are disgraced in her stead (Wohl 101). The prologue speech of Aphrodite would have no place in the earlier play, in which Phaedra’s illicit passion sets the drama in motion, but is required by the second, in which a chaste and unwilling Phaedra becomes a vehicle in the goddess’s punishment of Hippolytus. And without a divine plan announced in the prologue, there is no place or need for a similar plan in the epilogue. If a God appeared at the end of the first Hippolytus, he or she may have explained more or less of the preceding action (less if, as is likely, Phaedra’s false accusation had already been exposed), but there would be no question of the announcing reciprocal revenge in particular, or future schemes in general (Fox 76).


In sum, the play Hippolytus demonstrates that women in Greek society were seen as callous and deceptive, selfish and arrogant. Their love and “care” caused death and sufferings to men depicted as positive characters. The hero dies at the end of the play, and a god proclaims that his tragic death will be commemorated in rituals performed at Trozen. In Hippolytus does the protagonist die in the course of the play; and only here does the contemporary vestige directly commemorate the action. The three women in Hippolytus are portrayed as selfish and deceptive, unfair and dishonest driven by personal gains and interests only.

Works Cited

Euripides, Four Plays: Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae. Trnsl. Halleran, M., Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company; Corr. Ed edition, 2001. pp. 93- 148.

Fox, M. S. The Troubling Play of Gender: The Phaedra Dramas of Tsvetaeva, Yourcenar, and H.D. Susquehanna University Press, 2001.

Segal, Ch. Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow: Art, Gender, and Commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba. Duke University Press, 1993.

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Wohl, V. Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy. University of Texas Press; 1st University of Texas Press Ed edition, 1997.

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