GODDESSES, WHORES, WIVES, & SLAVES: The Archetypal Roles Assigned to Women in Theatre PART 1

Plays by women and the roles for women in theatre represent a developing, dynamic field–historically, a much neglected field. If women wrote throughout recorded ancient history, most of it never saw the light of day, or was lost, if not systematically destroyed.

Based on the available evidence, the origins of Western theatre began in ancient Greece. Susan Pomeroy asks in her book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, “What were women doing…” during this period (xiv)? Were the classical male playwrights accurate in their depiction of women (93)? There is no evidence showing that women were even allowed to attend the ancient dramatic festivals (80). Men portrayed women onstage until the seventeenth-century C.E.. What, if anything, did women actually write for theatre throughout recorded history?

Pomeroy also asks, “If respectable Athenian women were secluded and silent, how are we to account for the forceful heroines of tragedy and comedy”(93)? The simplest answer may be the best; men wrote these stories, promoting and perpetuating the most dramatic and entertaining archetypes from their cultural religion. Greek women may have been sequestered, but Greek Goddesses, like Athena, the Goddess of War and Wisdom were not.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the renowned mythologist, defined archetype as follows:
They (archetypes) are elementary ideas, what could be called ground ideas.

These ideas Jung spoke of as archetypes of the unconscious. The Freudian unconscious is a personal unconscious, it is biographical. The Jungian archetypes of the unconscious are biological. The biographical is secondary to that.

All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes. The differences in the costumes are the results of environment and historical conditions (Campbell 61).

For this discussion the term “Virgin” signifies an Archetype with a valuable commodity traded in society, as well as a sexual state. Most of the Goddesses of myth enjoyed lusty sex, so in this context the title of Goddess signifies a woman who can decide her own fate. The only power earthbound women held until recent history resided in their “Virgin” state, and the brokering ability this virginity gave them through the men who manipulated them. The prostitute was the exception. Prostitutes were historically the only women who exercised control over their own money (Pomeroy 91), but this was a power only fit for a life in the shadows.

Throughout recorded history prostitution was one of the very few positions open to women. Playwrights, male and female, have used the role of “Whore” with dramatic effect. Art mixes with life, and dramatists have painted the Whore/Mistress as a hapless character in soap-opera stories played out in every village and town from ancient history up to now, as recent events surrounding New York Governor Spitzer will attest, but the Whore can also have power and influence history making events. The famous courtesan, Aspasia, was vilified by later writers for influencing the Greek General Pericles of Peloponnesian War fame in the 5th century B.C.E.. Madame Pompadour exchanged sex, then companionship with married King Louis XV (1710-1774) for titles and funding, but she was the one blamed for the disastrous Seven Year War, not the King or Queen. The Whore is always the convenient scapegoat.

Although being a prostitute meant a woman without other means could survive, it also generally meant being subjected to societal scorn and ridicule, after all, prostitutes had no real authority to object otherwise. Playwrights generally left the whore in the dust. Even the rebel Aphra Behn leaves her character, Angelica, the prostitute in The Rover, unmarried and unsupported. Angelica sums up her ending with, “He’s gone, and in this Ague of My Soul/ The shivering Fit returns” (Behn 74). Until recent history, men have not traditionally been excoriated in text or in life for having extra-marital sex (Garton).

The Wife Archetype portrayed social respectability, a role that centered around the affairs of domesticity and childrearing. In the lower classes (even today) the role of wife was (and is) synonymous with that of a slave worker. Ask any working wife trying to raise a family with a lower income about her life.

Historically, playwrights often used the role of slave or servant to ridicule the upper classes and speak to the heart of the matter i.e. in Aphra Behn’s, The Rover (1677), it is the servant Moretta that quips to the roguish Cavalier, “Your Linen stinks of the gun room” (35).

Reducing the sum of assigned roles/archetypes to women as “Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves” catalogues broad categories that reflect the female stock characters on stage and in life. By scrutinizing how playwrights in the West and elsewhere have used these archetypes throughout recorded history, the next extrapolation would suggest Goddess/Virgin, Whore/Sex-No-Marriage, Wife/Married, and Slave/Worker.

With ancient texts labeling women as the “root of all evil” (Kramer & Moore), it would seem that a discussion about women and their role in theatre should begin with an examination of language, segueing to a look at Euripides’ Medea, as an early example of Greek theatre to kick-off the discussion.

According to the earliest (male) writers of Greek antiquity, the Muses were goddesses of song and prophecy. They lived on Mount Helicon in Boeotia. The exact number of Muses and their parentage varies from source to source. Early on, there were three of them. Some claim that they were the children of Mnemosyne (memory), one of the few Titan relatives Zeus favored and found useful. The popular Greek poet Hesiod (7th century B.C.E.) was the first to name nine muses—all female. Later writers assigned them to nine branches of literature, art, and science (James).

The Musae

Erato – Erotic poetry
Urania – Astronomy
Polymnia – Sublime hymn
Melpomene – Tragedy
Euterpe – Lyric poetry
Thalia – Comedy and idyllic poetry
Calliope – Epic poetry
Clio – History
Terpsichore – Choral song and dance

It would seem from this that women were prominent in the original scheme of things, based on key positions of deity and power, but certain early male writers took umbrage as to why women even existed. Theories abound. One currently circulates that the act of writing and reading somehow rewired our brains, splitting the sexes into a power struggle that literate societies continue to wage. Non-literate aboriginal societies have typically not vilified women (Schlain).

Pomeroy suggests the advent of the city-state (polis) advanced a culture ruled by laws and courts, instead of tribal law. This city-state evolved outside of the home. This new realm of men excluded women whose realm of influence remained inside the walls of the home. “Misogyny was born of fear of women. It spawned the ideology of male superiority” (Pomeroy 97). Since records are sparse, historical context might be missing, but misogynistic examples are numerous in ancient texts, including the above mentioned Hesiod, who wrote in his Theogony that “Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil” (590-93).

One wonders if Hesiod was working off his angst after being jilted in love when he wrote that, but the Judaic canon written roughly about the same time corroborates the stiff sentiment with “in sorrow dost thou bear children, and toward thy husband [is] thy desire, and he doth rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). Even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the angelic doctor, refers to women as “defective and misbegotten” (Kramer).

Euripides’ Jason in Medea (431 B.C.E.) laments, “Life would be better without women if men could get children any other way” (564), and that was before Jason’s ex-wife, Medea, killed Jason’s virginal bride, the bride’s father, and his two young sons with Medea. Earlier versions of the Medea myth implicated an apparent unintentional killing of the children by the sorceress Medea during a ceremony to immortalize her sons. Another story blamed the Corinthians for killing the boys after Medea fled. Robert Graves catalogued the story about Euripides being bribed by Corinthian businessmen “with fifteen talents of silver to absolve them of guilt” (Graves 617).

Euripides upped the stakes by having Medea commit infanticide, which more than muddles the crimes committed by Jason. A mother killing her children betrays the most basic human interaction and therein the foundation of civic society.

It seems a girl can’t get a break from certain ancient writers.

PART 2: Next Week. Women Write, Too!


Behn, Aphra. The Rover. com. by Bill Naismith. GB: Methuen Drama, 1993.

Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Re-Viewing Hrotsvit.” Theatre Journal, Vol.35:4. Dec. 1983 533-42. http://www.jstor.org 8 Feb 2008

duBois, Page. Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: UCP, 1995.

Garton, Stephen. Histories of Sexuality: antiquity to sexual revolution. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths: Complete Edition. London: Penguin Group, 1960.

James, Vanessa. The Genealogy of Greek Mythology. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.

Jung, Carl G. The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin Group, 1976.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. 5th Ed. New York: Inst. General Semantics, 1994.

Kramer, Daniel & Moore, Michael. “Women are the root of All Evil: The Misogyny of Religions.” Secular Web Modern Library 17 pp. 2002. http://secweb.infidels.org/?kiosk=articles&id=203 30 March 2008

May, Rollo. The Courage To Create. New York: Norton, 1994.

Murphy, Brenda, ed. American Women Playwrights. UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.

McDermott, Emily. Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder. USA: Penn State U., 1989.

Partnow, Elaine T. with Lesley Anne Hyatt. The Female Dramatist. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken, 1995.

Schlissel, Lillian. Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag and Pleasure Man. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Theatre Theory Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. Ed. Daniel Gerould. New York: Applause, 2000.

Watts, Jill. Mae West: An icon in Black and White. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Women writing Latin: from Roman antiquity to early modern Europe
. Ed. Churchill, Laurie J.; Brown, Phyllis R.; Jeffrey, Jane E.. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own.
http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/complete.html 8 Feb 2008.

© 2008 Conrad Reeder All Rights Reserved

1 thought on “GODDESSES, WHORES, WIVES, & SLAVES: The Archetypal Roles Assigned to Women in Theatre PART 1

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