In the Ancient World, women were not portrayed as they are today in modern literary works; women usually played controversial roles where their actions ranged from killing their own family to destroying their own town. Women in ancient Greek plays and Roman stories did not posses the social standing that we naturally think of today, many times their only power was to strike back when they were hurt. Medea, Phaedra, and Dido, admirable or dangerous, are among the most complex literary characters of any period.
Medea, of Euripides’ play Medea, represents the destructive quality of possessive desire often portrayed by Greek women. Medea becomes enraged by Jason when he leaves her to be with the daughter of the King of Corinth. She reacts by destroying everything around him. She destroys his new wife, her father the King, and even goes as far as to kill her own two children she had with Jason in order to hurt him. Medea rationalizes her actions by saying if she cannot have Jason, the thing she wants the most in life, then he cannot have the things that matter the most to him in his life.
Medea illustrates her nature of possessive desire for Jason with the line, “At last I understand that awful deed I am to do; but passion, that cause of direst woes to mortal man, hath triumphed o’er my sober thoughts (Euripides 104). From this you can see that Medea is only concerned with herself and her desires as opposed to her famil; she kills her own children to hurt her husband.
Like Medea, Euripides writes another play Hippolytous, with a similar character named Phaedra. Phaedra is the wife of Theseus that has become obsessed by an incestuous passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. Phaedra attempts to win over Hippolytus in a love letter. Hippolytus, however, is a follower of Diana, the goddess of chastity and therefore refuses her. Phaedra’s distraught revenge includes her suicide and his succeeding, undeserved death by his father. In this case, like Medea, Phaedra could not possess her alleged good, her life and his must be sacrifice.
Yet another example of this misplaced desire is in Virgil’s Aeneid with the character of Dido. In Aeneid, Aeneas is persuaded to leave his fate to found Rome and stay with his new found love, Queen Dido of Carthage. By the intervention of the gods, Hermes and Jove, Aeneas is able to resist Dido and does not marry her but does in fact go on to found Rome. Once again this possessive quality is aptly shown by Hermes, “Degenerate man,/Thou woman’s property (Virgil 166).” Dido verifies this and pleas with Aeneas, “had you deferr’d, at least, your hasty flight,/And left behind some pledge of our delight,/Some babe to bless the mother’s mournful sight,/Some young Aeneas, to supply your place,/Whose features might express his father’s face;/I should no then complain to be left bereft/Of all my husband, or be wholly left (Virgil 168).
Obviously Dido’s “love” is not actually true love since she is willing to compromise for an alternate Aeneas, whom she will be able to possess more fully be raise him to her satisfaction. Aeneas refuses Dido this as well and she, like Pheadra, burns herself. But as her sister mourns, she points out that Dido’s death was not a solitary destruction; “At one thou hast destroy’d thyself and me,/Thy town. Thy senate, and thy colony (Virgil 818)!” By destroying her own town, something that she devoted a lot of her life to, she hurt many more people than just herself and Aeneas.
In these three works, Medea, Hippolytus, and Aeneid, the female roles defiantly had an agenda. The women were all overwhelmed by “love” and were blinded by it. Medea, Phadrea, and Dido committed unthinkable crimes in an attempt to cast revenge on the object of their affection. In the end, none of them possessed the man they were longing for, they only ended up hurting themselves and those that supposedly meant the most to them.