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Ancient Mediterranean Studies


“The oath is what holds democracy together,” claimed the Athenian orator Lycurgus, whose democracy was composed exclusively of men.1 Athens was the definitive phallogocentric community where public discursive practices such as the oath were the prerogative of male citizens who competed for power in the agora, the assembly, and the lawcourts. Euripides, however, represents the disquieting occurrence of women tendering oaths for men, a phenomenon that challenges the gendered hierarchy of his society.2 In this article I explore how three Euripidean dramas, Medea, Hippolytus, and Ipigenia in Tauris, allow women to use these potent speech acts to control men’s language and action.3 By tendering promissory oath Euripides’ female characters cite a conventional social practice that is intrinsically performative; oath taking scenes are reflective boath of the world external to the drama and of the dramatic performance itself. Furthermore when men swear to do something for a woman—grant sanctuary, keep a secret, carry a letter—they also enter into a contract with the gods who function as the guarantors of the oath. This triangulated relationship—man, woman, god—contributes to the increased agency of female protagonists, whose authority is fortified by invoking the gods as witnesses to the oaths. Oaths “were divinely ordained and magically protected,” as Anne Burnett puts it, and they “stood like the primeval pillar that supports the sky.” Consonant with the ancient world’s respect for their cultural authority, Euripidean oaths become a powerful dramaturgical device by which the divine world aids women’s machinations, now an inexorable force that propels the tragedy to its reversal.


Copyright © 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Theatre Journal 55.1 (2003), 29-44. Reprinted with permission by The Johns Hopkins University Press.