Rape Culture: Teaching Greek Tragedy

by Abigail Akavia

A few years ago I taught an undergraduate seminar on Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis and late 20th century adaptations of the play. Halfway through the quarter, a student confided in me that she was a sexual assault survivor, and that the content we were dealing with in class was bringing the traumatic experience back to her. I was caught off guard. I do not wish here to get into the fraught questions of whether or not trigger warnings are appropriate in higher education, or of whether or how instructors should attend to students’ emotional needs when dealing with potentially triggering subject-matters; this was not the point of the conversation with my student, nor was she trying to excuse herself from any assignment or to modify her participation in the seminar. (Indeed, she was one of the students whose contribution to class was most consistent and significant.) Our conversation was and still is momentous for me because I had not realized until then that a statement like “this play evokes rape” is an appropriate preface to a discussion of Iphigenia in Aulis.

This conversation was pivotal for my understanding of Euripides’ play; it changed the way I see my role as a teacher in general and a teacher of classical texts in particular. So focused was I on the ancient version of Iphigenia’s story, even when reading its reformulations in contemporary texts, that I failed to acknowledge the centrality of gender-based violence to this story. This, despite the obvious importance of the topic in one of the modern adaptations of Iphigenia we read, Caridad Svich’s 2004 Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell that was Once her Heart. Something about my experience and my training allowed me to go on thinking that Euripides’ play is not really about assault; after all, Iphigenia is not raped in any conventional sense of the term (some might say: nor in any sense of the term). But once I had met that student–truly met her–it became clear to me that Euripides’ play is, indeed, “about” sexual violence against women. The next realization, following close on its heels, was a gestalt switch, at once radically transformative and absolutely obvious. Of course it is about sexual violence against women: isn’t most of Greek tragedy and classical myth about that?

Late in his career, Euripides wrote two plays about Iphigenia. In one, we see the young woman after she was miraculously transported from Aulis to a faraway land, and eventually becomes reunited with her long-lost brother Orestes: that’s Iphigenia among the Taurians. In Aulis unfolds the better-known, crueler version of her life. Here she gets duped into believing she is to wed the great warrior Achilles, only to be used as a ritual offering before the Greeks’ voyage to Troy. The Greeks have been stranded on the beach of Aulis, waiting for a favorable wind from the gods, when Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s father and chief commander of the army, receives news that they will not be able to set sail unless he sacrifices his own daughter to Artemis. We see him waver between the parental impulse to protect his child on the one hand, and obedience to the religious authority and the blood-thirsty troops on the other hand. He concocts a plot (the fabricated betrothal) to get Iphigenia to come to the camp; he then rather meekly and ineffectively tries to back out of this plan. Achilles, at first outraged that he was non-consensually tied to a false claim of marriage, vows to defend Iphigenia, but eventually succumbs, realizing the futility of standing up to the entire Greek army, and also becoming smitten by Iphigenia’s own heroic zeal. If the greatest Greek warrior of all times cannot resist the mob of soldiers, what can we expect of Agamemnon, not one to be celebrated in the Greek sources for his particular courage or moral backbone? Ultimately, we get the sense that he all too easily gives in to the warmongering zealots, aptly joining their ranks as commander in chief. Iphigenia makes it easy on her father: she does not go kicking and screaming. Rather, she becomes the proud flag-bearer of a fundamentalist movement to annihilate the “Barbarians” and restore the purity of “our” disgraced women, idealistically believing that by her death Greece will be saved. Agamemnon is gratified and relieved to have his young daughter indoctrinated into a belief system where “Greeks must rule over barbarians, not barbarians over Greeks”, as she herself proclaims.

The first time I saw this play performed was in Israel in 2009. This production, as director Yossi Yizraeli claimed in an interview, sought to focus the audience’s attention on the horrific ease with which Israelis were giving up their children to the relentless war machine, fueled by blind hate and an often messianic discourse. One of the many strong points of this particular production was that the role of Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother, was portrayed by an Arab actress, Salwa Nakkara. This added an unmistakable national flavor to the power-struggle between war general and bereaved mother. Clytemnestra, this undeniably powerful but lone woman, becomes the one person unequivocally opposed to Iphigenia’s sacrifice, and the one whose pain haunts the play’s ending. She, no less than Iphigenia herself, is a victim of Agamemnon’s machinations and his thirst for military glory. Unlike Iphigenia, she does not buy into any of it, certainly not her husband’s pleas that he has no choice. The play anticipates her murderous violence against him, which takes place years later when Agamemnon returns from Troy. Euripides’ late Iphigenia in Aulis dramatizes the mythical aetion, the source, from which springs Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a much earlier work and the only full surviving trilogy of Greek tragedies. That monumental piece of theater, whose opening play ends with Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his vengeful wife, closes with the celebrated founding of the Athenian justice system. Iphigenia’s sacrifice thus begets Clytemnestra as we know her: the archetypal murderous woman of Greek tragedy, the masculinized un-woman, the bitch par excellence of Greek myth. She is the woman whose rage must be suppressed, sterilized and sublimated to allow for Athenian society to strive.

The shadow of what Clytemnestra will become in the narrative timeline and what she already is in the mythical imaginaire constantly hangs over Euripides’ Aulis. No less constant is the specter of Iphigenia’s aunt and Clytemnestra’s twin sister: Helen. Non-identical twin, of course, since there is only one most beautiful woman in the history of the world. Helen, the most perfect specimen of the female sex, at once the ultimate victim of Eastern aggression and an incorrigible slut—the Greek Woman with a capital W. The woman who made it all happen, in whose honor the War (another capital W) began. The two sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen, embody both poles of the failure of womanhood. One represents the vengeance of Woman against Man for the abuse she has endured, the other symbolizes the much more pervasive and earth-shattering violence that her “failure” (the fact that she is too womanly) causes men to perform. Helen the destroyer: from Aeschylus onward, her name is related in popular ancient Greek etymology to the word used for razing a city to the ground (helein). There is no way to talk about Helen without implicating oneself in brutality, in the misogynistic, abusive discourse of blame and contempt: Look what you made me do. I’m doing this for you! YOU DID this!!

So far, all this misogyny is just another day at the office for a Classicist dealing with Greek myth. This is not to say it goes un-commented upon in the classroom. While there is much to talk about here, there’s nothing it had ever occurred to me to introduce as a (potentially, at least; hopefully perhaps?) disturbing discussion of violent behavior against women. It’s just another theme in the study of ancient culture. Indeed, in the wave of #MeToo that is sweeping the world and the hopes it brings to some optimists for a complete overhaul of conservative strongholds of white male power, we should remember that an age of, say, equal vote, an age where the possibility can be entertained that men and women are equal, is a last minute plot twist in the long play of human evolution. For all that we may uphold the ancient Greeks as a model for our (fast-declining?) democracy, for all the humanity that we find in the literary masterpieces they created, their culture was closer to one where women were commodities to be handled by, between, and for men. What is truly astonishing is the fact that three great tragedians who lived in that age produced plays that allow us to pose these very 21-century questions: what kind of abuse did Clytemnestra suffer at the hands of Agamemnon?—or, what did Medea suffer? Or, how did the Trojan War feel from the perspective of Hecuba and her daughters? All the more astonishing when we consider the vicious and rampant loathing of women that we still experience in every corner of our lives, public or private, off- or online.

Still, what about Iphigenia? Her sacrifice raises the question whether violence of men against women is, if not actually, then at least potentially, always sexual or sexualized. It is hard not to answer this question in the affirmative, simply because sexual violence as a threat—and the co-equivalence between sex and violence—always exists in a gendered power struggle. Of course, she is slain, so the fact that violence is done to her goes without saying. It might be clearer now why her very turn towards enthusiastic compliance with the discourse of heroism is also an act of brutality against her, for by becoming the mouthpiece for war against the “Barbarians” she becomes a pawn in a wholly misogynistic enterprise, proving the necessity of violence against women by allowing (thus almost causing) it herself. More straightforwardly, the theatrical facts of the matter point to the sexualized nature of the deed: when the stage is literally set up to have a beautiful virgin enter the lion’s den of a host of soldiers just hanging around waiting for their pent-up brutality to be unleashed, we know she is not simply facing the risk of being another casualty of war. Aeschylus’ version of the slaughter of Iphigenia, alluded to in a choral ode at the beginning of his Oresteia, also drips with sexual innuendo (she is put on the altar “face down, with her robes falling around her, a bridle on her beautiful mouth”).

Caridad Svich’s 2004 play, in which Iphigenia roams a dystopian “rave culture”, the world of a vaguely central-American dictatorship, is populated by the fresa girls, “the ghosts of girls killed by the hundreds in border towns along the Americas,” as Svich puts it. This chorus is a constant reminder of systematic abuse of women, so ubiquitous that it renders them (or forces them to remain) anonymous. In this climate, Iphigenia tries to reclaim her body and experience its pleasure, but “the state, which governs and censures bodies and dismantles them, makes it hard for her to do so.” Iphigenia’s plight, her journey through acid-fueled S&M hazes, confronts us, and her, with the annihilating violence that men, her father, the media, law enforcement… all do and will afflict on women. Svich’s version points to a barely possible escape from this nightmarish reality. It voices the same “impulse” which, writes Svich, all translations and adaptions of the story arise from: “how to rescue Iphigenia?”

It is Svich’s text, to the best of my knowledge, that was the clear “trigger” for my student, and the one that prompted her personal disclosure of past trauma. Svich tapped into something that was latent in Euripides’ play, thereby changing this “original” story of Iphigenia’s death for me and my students. This also served as a visceral reminder of the nature of myth: that it is its plasticity and pervasiveness in our lives that allow its later retellings to affect the way we read its “original” version. And it made me realize what we’re talking about when we talk about Greek tragedy.