In Homer’s epic, The Iliad, women such as Helen and Chryseis are depicted as objects and possessions to be taken, traded, and enjoyed by males. Other females provide emotional support to male characters, such as Achilles mother, Thetis. Additionally, several female goddesses are depicted as powerful figures lending support or influence over males. Overall, the diversity of female characters in the Iliad demonstrates the complex gender dynamics in Ancient Greece. This range in females’ roles is further than the characterizations seen in medieval Europe. In Othello, females are primarily objectified as the possessions of males, and as victims of male authority. In the Iliad, females have both powerful and powerless roles, and elicit both sympathy and contempt from male characters and the audience.
One of the central female characters in The Iliad is Helen of Troy. She is the one who is blamed for the cause of the war. She was originally prized to the Spartan king Menelaus, but she leaves Sparta with the Trojan Prince, Paris. She is regarded both as a trophy for her beauty, and a burden driving death and destruction. As the Trojan leaders sit in the tower and see Helen they describe, “It’s no reproach that Trojans and Achaeans with their fancy shinguards have suffered so long for such a woman. / …though she is beautiful, let her be gone/ in the ships. Let her not be a curse to ourselves and to our children who shall come!” (Homer 3.157-159, 161-163).
Helen praises Priam and scorns herself as she presents her case for leaving Sparta. She alleges she would have chosen to die as the alternative to following Paris and abandoning her family. She impresses him as she refers to her own promiscuity, “…slut that I am, if ever there was one!” (Homer 3.180). Female sexuality is depicted as a way to manipulate men and bring about grievances. Rather than ascribing the cause of the war to revenge or wrath, the blame is cast on the beauty of a woman who acts in self-interest, and against what is commanded of her (loyalty to Menelaus).
Helen is a complex character who is both revered in scorned, though there are other major roles of females in The Iliad as well. There are several scenes where female goddesses take on powerful roles lending guidance and support for male characters. In war, goddesses provide men strength, courage, and protection, such as when Pallas Athena supports Diomedes in battle seeking to secure his success and elevate his reputation (Homer 4.3). Goddesses also provide a lot of moral support to males. For example, the sea-goddess, Thetis, is eager to appease her son, Achilles. Achilles, despite being a highly respected warrior, seeks out emotional support from his mother.
Through his mother, Achilles depicts a sensitive side, “Swiftly she came forth like a mist from the gray sea. She sat/ down before him as he wept. She took him by the hand/ and spoke his name: ‘My son, why do you weep? What sorrow has come to your heart…’” (Homer 1.347-350). Achilles freely unleashes his concerns on his mother. One of his grievances concerns the spoils of war, Chryseis who was claimed for Agamemnon, and Briseis, who was claimed for Achilles. The captive women are regarded as possessions prized for their beauty. Part of Achilles anger is due to Briseis being taken from his tent (Homer 1.379). In this case, females are objectified as prizes, just as Helen was.
While females take on a variety of roles in the Iliad, as a trophy and a source of emotional support, encouragement, and guidance for males, the roles of women in Shakespeare’s play Othello are much more limited. Characters like Desdemona accept this secondary role, being loyal to her father and then to her husband. For example, Desdemona asks Emilia if she thinks that women cheat on husbands. Emilia replies that males are excessively jealous and controlling of females but expect females to be subservient and have no desires outside their duty to their husband (Shakespeare 4.3.100). Emilia challenges conventional norms and urges that females are also capable of lust and desiring revenge.
Though, she is confined only to speaking her opinion and is unable to act on her statements. Desdemona is more naïve and assumes the role she has been assigned, whereas Emilia is more controversial and challenges gender inequality. However, both females end up murdered by their husbands. Othello murders Desdemona because he does not trust her assertation that she did not cheat. Iago murders Emilia because she accosts him for his unethical behavior. Thus, the women in Othello are relegated to victim roles, whereas the women in The Iliad take on a variety of roles. Although Helen was scorned by men, she was also deeply admired by kings; a trophy worth competing over. In contrast, in Othello, women are taken, distrusted, scorned, and disregarded.
The females in The Iliad are a lot more complex and varied than in Othello, but in both stories, males assume greater authority over females. The Iliad features many females who exert power either through their godly sway or their promiscuity. For example, Helen is regarded as a trophy yet defies this role by running away from Sparta. In contrast, in Othello, females are entirely dependent on males and are subjected under male figures in life, whether it be a father or a husband. Females have no voice in Othello and are punished for exercising their voice. In The Iliad, mortal females are regarded as inferior objects of beauty, yet males often seek out the help of goddesses in reaching their objectives. Although some females in The Iliad take on powerful roles, females are overall regarded are as secondary to males; as complimentary aids lending beauty or support, and at times defying males’ expectations.
- Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Barry B. Powell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Shakespeare, William. Othello.