THE DYNAMICS OF BEAUTY IN CLASSICAL GREECE

How beauty worked within the general context of classical Greek life. Then
beauty was deemed a gift of the gods and was often prized
accordingly in religious ritual. Perhaps the most striking example
of this is the phenomenon of the beauty competition (kallisteion),
which figures in many myths and is often adopted and adapted in
literature. The most popular role for the myth of the beauty contest
is aetiological.

While, most famously, Paris’ choice of Aphrodite
over Athena or Hera caused the Trojan War, beauty contests are
more commonly used to explain origins in religious matters. For example, Athenaeus (xiii 554c) records the foundation myth for
the temple of Aphrodite Kallipugos (‘of the beautiful buttocks’)
which also includes a beauty contest. Here two farmer’s daughters
compete in beauty with one another, making their decision upon
the site of the future temple. Again, Athenodorus of Eretria (FHG
iv 345), drawing on an earlier collection of myths by Antiochus,
records that a beauty contest took place in Thessaly between Medea
and Thetis. The judge, Idomeneus, chose Thetis over Medea. She
then cursed Idomeneus as a liar, thus initiating the Cretans’ later
proverbial reputation as liars. The result of the contest accords
well with the near universal idealisation of Thetis as perfect wife,
as against the dangerous Medea. The victory is thus symbolic:
virtue over vice, a motif to which I shall return below. A final
example might be a fragment of the historian Nicias, preserved in
Athenaeus (xiii 609e=FHG iv 463), which tells us that the famous
tyrant Cypselus held a beauty contest as part of a festival for
Demeter at Eleusis. Suspiciously, perhaps, the first winner was his
wife, Herodice. The story of the competition performs an
aetiological function, for the custom persisted ‘to the present day’,
with the entrants called chrusophoroi. Cypselus’ choice of his wife
may not simply be nepotism, however. It may also underline one
feature of the beauty contest to which I shall return below, that of
beauty as a criterion for leadership. It may be significant in this
connection that the famous chest of Cypselus featured a scene
depicting the Judgement of Paris (Pausanias v 19.5).
Athenaeus’ sensationalist miscellany preserves references which
vouchsafe the popularity of the beauty contest in classical times.5
He records two fragments of Theophrastus (563 and 564
Fortenbaugh), which relate to a similar religious beauty contest in
Elis. Here the winner of the first prize carried the sacred vessels to
the goddess (perhaps Hera), the second prize winner led the sacred
ox, with the winner of the third prize making the preliminary offerings
on the fire. Theophrastus’ typically peripatetic concern for
antiquarian detail is not entirely free of moral colouring, however.
For he adds that beauty was not the only area in which contests
were held: there were also contests for sexual morality (sôphrosunê)
and household management (oikonomia F564). We also know of
beauty contests held on a similar basis on Tenedos and Lesbos.
But Theophrastus also reminds us of another difference between
ancient and modern stereotypical connotations of beauty, for he
mentions beauty contests for men, again in Elis (Athen. xiii 565–66a, 609ff.).

These contests, he tells us, took place ‘with great enthusiasm’ (meta spoudês), the winners being given arms as prizes, which, according to Dionysius of Leuctra, were later dedicated to Athena. The winner was given ceremonial ribbons to wear and led the procession to Athena’s temple. The military nature of the prizes gives us a clue to the slightly different ethos of the male beauty contest. Here beauty seems connected with heroism or martial
prowess. Not surprisingly, therefore, we find that male beauty
contests formed a part of Spartan culture. Heracleides Lembos
(FHG iii 168) tells us that in Sparta the most beautiful men and
women (ho kallistos and bê kallistê) are admired above all things,
giving rise to the epic description of Sparta as home ‘of beautiful
women’ (kalligunaika: e.g. Homer Od. xiii 412). At Athens, too,
the contest of manliness (euandrias agôn), open only to Athenians,
was not simply for beauty, but also for ‘bodily stature and strength’
(sômatôn megethos kai rhômê: Xen. Mem iii 3.12). This choice of
the most beautiful seems primarily a means to select people to
perform special religious rites. But we also learn that it can
elsewhere be a way to choose a leader. In his Ethiopian History,
Bion relates that among the Ethiopians, a race about whom many
stories circulated, the handsomest men were chosen to be the kings
(FHG iv 351 F4), ‘for it seems that beauty is a criterion of kingship’.
Other sources attest the same tradition, including an almost
proverbial remark made in Euripides’ Aegeus (Nauck 1889,
fragment 15).
Once lodged in the mythic imagination, the beauty contest motif
could also be developed in more literary texts as a way of symbolising
a decision between different life styles (Athen. xiii 510c). Prodicus,
most famously, presented Heracles with a choice between two
women, Virtue and Vice (Xen. Mem. ii 1.21ff.=84 B2 Diels-Kranz).
Here, as suited a conservative moralist’s view, the beautiful woman
was the destructive Vice (cf. Helen’s fatal beauty in the Judgement
of Paris). Prodicus’ fable was enormously popular with later writers,
being parodied for example by Lucian in several of his works (e.g.
the Gallus). Prodicus, however, was not alone in his allegorical use
of the beauty contest motif. Sophocles’ lost satyr play about the
Judgement of Paris, The Judgement,10 seems to have presented the
choice between Aphrodite and Athena as one between Hêdonê
(Pleasure) and Phronêsis (Intellect). This allegorical extension of the
beauty contest may also contribute to the myth cited earlier where
the virtuous Thetis triumphs over the vicious Medea.

ARCHAIC LITERATURE AND COMEDY

So far we have seen beauty being used to single out excellence, or at
least difference. Shortly I shall look in detail at tragedy’s use of beauty.
But before that, and as tragedy derives so much from earlier archaic
literature and was contemporary with comedy, it is useful to remind
ourselves of how these genres used the motif of beauty. In these texts,
beauty was not simply a divine gift: it could also be a source of
danger.

This potential could also be developed, especially with regard
to women, where it appeared a threat to stable male-ordered society.
Priam in the Iliad neatly encapsulates the ambivalent attitude
towards beauty. He admires Helen’s beauty, even though it has led to
the loss of countless lives, but does not hold Helen responsible for the
Trojan War (Il. iii 156). However, later writers were quick to vilify
her for her fatal good looks: a classic example is the savage tirade
against her in the first choral ode of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (60ff.).
But Aeschylus’ suspicious attitude towards beauty also finds a root in
Homeric epic, although not connected with the figure of Helen. In
one famous episode in the Iliad (xiv 153ff.), feminine beauty is explicitly
focused upon at length and in detail as a means to deceive the male:
this is when Hera takes exquisite care over the details of her appearance
in her (later successful) attempt to seduce her husband, Zeus, and so
to divert his attention from the battle on earth.
The myth of the first woman, Pandora, as related in Hesiod’s
Works and Days and Theogony, firmly cites Pandora’s beauty as
one of the worst snares for Epimetheus. Here beauty is again an
aetiological device. Pandora’s beauty epitomises the dangers of mortal
women to men. Another early attempt to explain women’s nature is
Simonides’ infamously misogynistic Satire on Women. Among his
nine types of bad woman, he includes the mare woman, who is
excessively concerned with her appearance (57–70):
She pushes servile work and trouble onto others; she would
never set her hand to a mill, nor pick up a sieve nor throw the
dung out of the house, nor sit over the oven dodging the soot;
she makes her husband acquainted with Necessity. She washes
the dirt off herself twice, sometimes three times, every day; she
rubs herself with scents, and always has her thick hair combed
and garlanded with flowers. A woman like her is a fine sight
for others, but for the man she belongs to she proves a plague.
This hostile treatment of women’s beauty is inherited and exploited by Attic comedy. In Old Comedy, man’s lust for women and their
carefully contrived and deceptive beauty may be his downfall, as in
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. In New Comedy, the dangerous snares of
women’s beauty are concentrated more within the dramatic figure
of the prostitute. She uses her beauty to capture young men, only
to drain their finances dry and discard them when they become poor.
Moreover, this beauty may not even be skin deep, for the comic
writers delight in exposing the elaborate techniques and technology
then available for making oneself look prettier by emphasising good
points, by underplaying weaknesses, and by sheer lies. The most
famous example is a fragment of Alexis.Here the speaker expands
upon how prostitutes swindle money from their clients. He catalogues
the ways in which a woman can be made more attractive: platform
shoes if short, flat soles if tall, a bustle to increase the size of her
hips, false breasts, eyebrow highlighter, white lead to lighten the
complexion, endless smiling to show off good teeth. This reminds us
of the importance of the beauty economy in classical Athens, an
economy designed to serve the desires of women. Such goods were
probably on sale in the so-called woman’s Agora. The lists of unusual
and rare words in later grammarians include a large proportion of
words for female apparel, accessories and cosmetics.
Comedy’s treatment of beauty is therefore relatively limited. It is
restricted mainly to sexual crudity or the dangers of socially
undesirable women. Respectable young girls are the objects of young
men’s desires, but seldom is the woman’s beauty developed in detail.
In Menander’s Dyscolus, for example, Sostratus falls in love with
the unnamed daughter of the old grouch Cnemon, when he catches
a glimpse of her creeping outdoors for some water. His subsequent
description of her stresses her evident good breeding (384–89) and
can be compared to Pan’s description of her at the opening of the
play (34–9), which stresses her good character and piety. He does
not say much about beauty. Archaic literature and classical comedy
therefore offer two possible ways of approaching beauty: as a source
of male admiration (or pity), or as a threat. In classical Attic comedy,
the latter seems to be more prevalent. Is this bias towards the negative
treatment of female beauty paralleled in contemporary tragedy?

TRAGEDY

The next section of this chapter will focus upon tragedy, where I
shall show that the motif of feminine beauty can be subtly deployed in a variety of ways. Here the dramatist may decide to treat traditional
motifs in traditional ways, or to experiment with more innovative
and subtle interpretations. One traditional motif traditionally
deployed is that of a woman’s beauty as dangerous, both to herself
and others. The first such use of beauty may be to amplify the pathos
of a play. Much of Euripides’ emotive description of Iphigeneia’s
noble self-sacrifice in his Iphigeneia at Aulis relies heavily upon the
youth and beauty of the victim, as is also the case with Polyxena in
his Hecuba. In Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, Deianeira comments
sadly upon the dangers which beauty may bring to a young woman.
Deianeira’s beauty had caused her suitors to fight for her, making
her fear that it would bring her only pain (24–25). Later in the play,
the silent Iole stands out among the crowd of Heracles’ prisoners
only because of her beauty and her tears (e.g. 465). This pathetic
tone is echoed by a famous fragment of Sophocles’ Tereus (Radt
1977, fragment 583) where Procne laments that young women are
luckiest before they are married off to strangers.
A second traditional use of the beauty motif is as a source of
rivalry between women, as with Andromache and Hermione in
Euripides’ Andromache. The noble Andromache, who in many ways
epitomises the Athenian ideal wife, reminds Hermione that it is not
beauty but virtue which pleases a husband (207–8). This remark
may echo a popular view of the time, as it is very similar to several
fragments by classical authors often quoted in later times: Gorgias
said that a woman should be known not for her beauty but for her
reputation (82 B22 Diels-Kranz),16 Menander that the one sure lovephiltre
is a good nature (Körte 1953, fragment 571), and Euripides
that beauty does not bring a wife a good husband but virtue (Nauck
1889, fragment 909).
This stress on virtue and reputation over beauty may therefore be
a sign of a change of emphasis in thought about women taking place
during the fifth century BCE.

It complements the crystallisation of contrived or self-obsessed beauty as a hallmark of the disreputable prostitute in contemporary comedy and prose literature. As I noted earlier, by the time of Menander’s comedy in the fourth century BCE, the young heroines are not described primarily in terms of their looks.

Virtuous women should retain a simple, natural beauty. In his idealised picture of conjugal relations, Xenophon’s Ischomachus discourages his wife from using cosmetics, fancy clothes and platform boots because they make her like ‘women who are deceivers and wear make-up’, that is, prostitutes (x 13).

She should lead an active life around the home: that will make her more sexually attractive to her husband (x 12). Here we witness a careful manipulation of the beauty motif. It is based upon the formula ‘female beauty is a threat to male-ordered society’. But instead of simply prohibiting excessive use of cosmetics or pride in contrived appearance, moralising
literature offers women a more pragmatic message: you will find a
better match if you do not count on beauty.

Furthermore, the appeal is spiced with natural human snobbery: such contrived beauty is the mark of socially disreputable figures, the prostitutes. Male writers are thus able to shroud their social control of women under an
apparently sympathetic disguise.
The ideality and unreality of these injunctions should be stressed,
however. Evidence from grave-goods, vases and literature, such as
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata or Lysias i 4, shows that respectable women
did use cosmetics. Indeed these seem to have played an important
part in the preparation of the bride for her wedding, one of the few
days in a respectable woman’s life when she was on public display.
We may therefore wonder why such an unrealistic ideal was being
thrust upon women. The answer lies in historical context. These texts
are being written and promulgated at a time of upheaval and change
within Athens. They are circulating during and after a war in which
many young, marriageable men have died, probably leaving a heavy
imbalance between the sexes. There is anxiety about legitimacy,
citizenship and inheritance, in which women play an important, if
passive role. Like the contemporary stress on other aspects of women’s
respectability, such as chastity (sôphrosunê), outward appearance is
targeted as a symptom and symbol of a woman’s virtue. Men looking
for wives will want to ensure that they marry a stable, virtuous, reliable
woman. Women who desire husbands will therefore be encouraged
by their male relatives to live up to this ideal as best as they can. One
of the worst calumnies that could be levelled at a woman (and through
her at her family) was laxity of sexual behaviour. Texts that encourage
women to adopt restrained adornment therefore play upon the
warning, ‘Excessive adornment makes you look like a prostitute, and
you don’t want to be taken for one of them, do you?’

Euripides’ Medea

Euripides’ Medea provides an illustration of how the
traditional literary use of beauty for pathos can be heightened to a
level that is close to the grotesque, which is so couched as to offer a
moralising message. Particularly interesting is the description of the
death of Creon’s daughter, which I shall examine in detail.
Medea has heard the news of Jason’s new marriage and of Creon’s
edict expelling her from Corinth. She has secured her later refuge at
Athens with Aegeus. She has decided to send the princess poisoned
robes and a diadem. We have had several references already to the
wealth and luxury contained within the palace. Jason has said that
it does not lack its own supply of robes (960) and Medea has referred
to the palace as a rich house (plousious domous 969), when she sent
her children there with her deadly gifts. Euripides has thus created
within our mind’s eye a traditionally luxurious palace as the setting
for the drama to unfold off-stage. The chorus then start to imagine
(in lyric) how the princess will react (978–90):
The bride will take it, she will take the golden diadem’s ruin,
poor wretch; she will place about her golden hair the adornment
of Death with her own hands.
Its charm, and its heavenly splendour will persuade her to
wrap around herself the robe and golden-wrought crown; even
now she will be getting dressed for a marriage among the dead.
To such a bourne shall she fall, to such a mortal stroke, poor
wretch; but the disaster she shall never escape.
The picture is one of gold, of light, of deceptive allurement. We
retain that image in our mind during the interlude of Medea’s
deliberations over whether to kill her children. Then the Messenger
arrives (1121) to relate the culmination of her revenge (1136–1230).
Euripides skilfully recreates the scene off-stage and in the past, thus
distancing the audience geographically and temporally. The princess
initially scorns the children, ‘tossing back her white neck’ and veiling
herself (1147–48). Her neck is white, and so attractive both
aesthetically and socially, for pale skin was an ideal sign that the
woman came from a family who were wealthy enough to excuse
her working outdoors. It is perhaps significant that one of the first
images that Euripides had given us of Medea, Jason’s earlier love,
was of her own white (desirable) neck (30: compare 923). Jason
intercedes, but what attracts the girl’s attention are not his words
but the clothes (1156–66).

But when she saw the finery, she did not hold back, but agreed
with her man in everything. And before the father and his
children had gone far from her room, she seized the richlydecorated
robes and wrapped them round her. The gold crown
she placed upon her curls, and arranged her hair before a
shining mirror, smiling at her lifeless image. Then she arose
from her chair and walked through the halls lightly, with her
snow-white feet, revelling in her gifts, again and again glancing
down to the hem.
So far the image is bright and happy, full of light and laughter. Then
the change occurs (1157–75):
But then there was a dreadful sight to see. For she changed her
colour, and fell back, trembling in her legs, and scarcely able to
collapse into a chair before falling on the ground. And one old
servant, thinking perhaps that it was the anger of Pan or another
god, cried out, before she saw white froth coming from her lips,
and saw the girl’s eyes rolling, and her complexion bloodless.
Jason is then notified, as the description continues (1186–1203):
The golden coil which lay on her head began to shoot forth
an amazing stream of fire; the soft clothes…bit into her soft
flesh, poor girl. She runs off, jumping up from her chair in
flames, shaking her locks and her head this way and that,
wanting to throw off the crown. But fixed firmly, the golden
chain held fast, and the fire, when she tossed her hair, burned
twice as fiercely. She falls to the ground, vanquished by her
agony, her face hard to recognise except by her father. There
was no calm gaze from her eyes, no beautiful face, but blood
dripping from the top of her head, as it was engulfed in flames.
Her flesh dripped from her bones like sap from a pine, driven
by the poison’s invisible feast, a sight dreadful to see. Everyone
was afraid to touch the body, for we had learnt our lesson
from her fate.
The Messenger then proceeds to relate the death of Creon. But my
focus is upon the princess. The scenario is gruesome and gory. Perhaps
it is no accident that it may remind us of the agonies of Heracles in
Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, for it is possible that Sophocles’ play
was produced shortly before the Medea.19 Much of the force of the

scene derives from Euripides’ careful deployment of the beauty of the princess and of the garments Medea sent her.

We may recall that the chorus sang of the princess’ fair hair, and of the golden crown, using adjectives such as ‘golden’ and ‘golden-wrought’ (chruseon,
chrusteukton). Their song left a dazzling image. They did refer to
the princess’ death, but in no detail. I suggest that this absence of
detail is deliberately designed to enhance the visual effect of the
Messenger’s vivid description. Medea and Jason had both referred
to the palace’s wealth. The Messenger’s speech closes with a
moralising commonplace (1229–30):

‘When fortune flows well for you, one man might become more prosperous than another, but not happy.’

The wealth which characterised the palace has only brought
ruin. Wealth is an illusion of happiness. In the same way, the fine
robes, described by the chorus and the Messenger with such initially
dazzling vocabulary, are illusions of material beauty. The adornment
(kosmos) they bring is that of Hades (980–81).
Similarly, the Messenger’s speech shows that the princess’ initial
beauty is illusion. She gazes at her reflection in a mirror, but the
reflection is described as ‘lifeless’ (apsuchon 1162)—a proleptic image
for the life she is to lose. Euripides develops that scene when the
princess poses in front of the mirror and performs her own minifashion
show in the palace. But this space devoted to the details of
her appearance is not merely rhetorical accumulation. It would be
unfair to judge Euripides as verbose without a reason. The facets of
the grooming scene which he records are designed to parallel facets
of the description of the girl’s death. She sits and arranges her curls
at the mirror (schematizetai 1160–61); later Euripides tells us, twice
and at emphatic line-beginnings, that she shakes those same curls
violently from side to side (seiousa 1191, eseise 1195). What were
delicate curls before (bostruchois 1160), become like a horse’s mane
(chaitên 1191). We may recall the mare woman’s mane in Simonides.
Her face, initially beautiful (euphues 1198) becomes hard to recognise
(dusmatkês 1196), and a terrible sight to behold (deinon theama
1202). The phrase deinon theama was used at the start of this
sequence at 1167 to refer to the whole scene, but by 1202 it can be
interpreted best as referring to the princess herself. It thus neatly
telescopes our attention upon the princess and subdivides this segment
of the speech. The description of her death focuses very much on her
face, head and eyes, with only a brief mention of the rest of her
body (1200–1). This again is designed to recall the image of the
princess looking at herself in the mirror.
There has been much analysis of mirrors and their use by women in feminist criticism of modern literature. Critics employ
psychoanalysis to see in such scenes signs of male oppression. Women,
they say, are forced by a society controlled by men to mould
themselves physically to accommodate male ideals of feminine beauty.
But literature written by men offers women a warning when it
presents female characters becoming absorbed with their own
reflections. It is fine for a woman to use mirrors to mould herself for
her man, but she should not let her reflection replace that man.
Women who gaze at themselves in mirrors may begin to believe that
they can exist independently from men. That image must be shattered:
so male writers show that such exclusive self-absorption, termed
narcissism by psychoanalysts, must end in disaster.
While I am not always ready to adopt all modern critical ideas
without question, it does seem to me that this scene from the Medea
would neatly fall into that type of ‘destructive narcissism’, and that
this concept is not anachronistic for analysis of classical Athens
because it is echoed elsewhere, as I shall show. The princess does not
listen to Jason’s words of persuasion, but is instead won over by the
sight of the clothes (1156), by a selfish passion, which ignores her
man. Medea by contrast would and has already moulded herself to
accommodate Jason. The two women are linked by the motif of
their beautiful white necks, but the princess’ wealth and beauty are
shown to be shallow. I believe that we are justified in seeing a message
here: that men should value more the devotion of a woman like
Medea than the material wealth and all-too-transient beauty of the
self-obsessed princess. As the Messenger says as he closes his
description of the princess’ death (1202–3): ‘everyone was afraid to
touch the body, for we had learnt our lesson from her fate’. A
woman’s fatal attraction to mirrors is a motif which Euripides uses
on several occasions in the extant plays. Whenever he uses it, it is a
symbol of sinister doom. In his Hecuba, the Trojan chorus recall
how they were fixing their hair in a golden mirror on the night that
Troy fell (923–25). In several plays, Euripides partly characterises
Helen by her fascination with outward appearances, including her
own, which is underlined by her use of mirrors. In her denunciation
of Helen in Trojan Women, Hecuba says that it was the outstanding
beauty of the splendidly-dressed Paris which drove Helen mad with
desire (987, 991–92). Hecuba is disgusted that while the other Trojan
women are dressed in rags, Helen has decked herself out carefully to
win over Menelaus (1022–24). After Helen’s departure, the chorus
contrast their pitiable lot with the glamorous Helen, who has her collection of mirrors, which bring joy to young girls (parthenoi 1107–
8). Helen’s fondness for mirrors is used again in the Orestes. Among
her Phrygian attendants are those in charge of perfumes and mirrors
(1112). Earlier in that play, Electra had exclaimed to Nature, and
thus the audience, that Helen’s grief was carefully controlled (128–
29): ‘Did you notice how she had shorn her hair along the edge, to
save her beauty?’

Euripides’ Electra

In his Electra, Euripides also develops the traditional theme of
feminine beauty, but once again he does so in a sophisticated manner.
He uses it to point a similarity between mother and daughter, but
modulated in such a way that mother and daughter are also subtly
contrasted. When we first meet Electra she is striking by her
appearance. She is wearing tattered robes and has short-cropped hair
(108), which was associated in fifth-century Athens with mourning
or servile status. This visual characterisation is crucial to Euripides’
new version of the famous myth. His Electra constantly refers to her
outward appearance: her dirty clothes, her tear-stained face, her short
hair. Frequently she will appear to mourn the loss of her father and
to desire revenge, but Euripides so crafts her words that we see that
it is the loss of the fine clothes and luxury which her position brought
her which she mourns, more than her father.
These references to traditional aspects of feminine beauty (hair,
face, clothes) heighten Electra’s position as exceptional. The women
of the chorus invite her to dance in honour of Hera, but she prefers
ostentatious mourning (175–80): not fineries or dances, but tears.
Here again she refers to her sordid hair and ragged clothes (184–
85). When Orestes first sees Electra, Euripides makes him and later
Electra refer again to her shocking physical state (e.g. 239, 241).
Orestes first thought Electra a servant from her hair-cut (107–8). As
Electra relates her situation to her brother, the first things (prôton
304) that she singles out are her dirty clothes and squalid living
conditions (302–8). Furthermore, she blatantly contradicts what we
know from earlier in the play: she says that she has been forced to
abstain from dances and fine clothes because of her shameful position
(310–11). But the audience know that far from being shunned by
the other women, Electra rejected just such offers from the chorus.
The motif of Electra’s sordid clothes is developed more subtly as
the play progresses. For we later see clothing and physical appearance being used by Euripides both to contrast and to link Electra and
Clytemnestra. Both women are made to refer to their appearance on
a number of important occasions. They are obssessed with how others
see them. We know from her first scene with the chorus, that Electra
positively seeks to cultivate an appearance that shocks and elicits
pity. In Electra’s narrative to her brother, Electra stresses the material
deprivation of her sordid lifestyle. This is contrasted sharply with
the material luxury in which she envisages Clytemnestra: on a throne
among Phrygian spoils,  surrounded by Asian slaves, wearing Idaean
robes and golden brooches (314–18). Indeed the squalour of Electra’s
appearance is made the framing device for the whole speech, for she
closes with references to it (333–35). When she attacks her mother
in the agôn of the play, Electra envisages her mother preening her
hair in front of a mirror, as self-sufficient and self-engrossed, while
Agamemnon wages war (1070–71,1073). Clytemnestra clearly has/
had hair to be proud of, while Electra’s is cropped short. This
imagined image of the past merely serves to confirm Clytemnestra’s
present appearance. Her entrance is deliberately designed to be
stunning. She arrives in a chariot, with attendants, and in fine robes
(967). The entrance must surely recall that of Agamemnon in
Aeschylus’ Oresteia. But in Euripides’ version, Electra will now
parallel her mother’s earlier role by luring the Aeschylean ‘victor’
indoors to her death.
Both women are given a concern for spectacle. Both women want
to arouse emotions in those who see them: for Electra pity and shock,
for Clytemnestra awe. Clytemnestra arrives as an ideal upper-class
wife: concerned to manage her attendants well, striving to wear
fine clothes and appear supremely feminine. By contrast, Electra
denies her femininity at every juncture: tearing her face, wearing
dirty rags, cropping her hair. Electra in fact succeeds in eliciting her
mother’s pity: her squalid appearance is an explicit reason for
Clytemnestra agreeing to help with the sacrifice (1107). Electra even
denies her natural telos (goal) of marriage, by not consummating
her union with the Peasant. Clytemnestra eroticises herself for
pleasure-giving spectacle, while Electra anti-eroticises herself. Both
women are made to focus this ‘eroticisation’ upon traditional
hallmarks of feminine beauty: skin, hair, clothes. All of these
Clytemnestra presents in splendour; all of these Electra
masochistically disfigures. The point at which this motif of outward
appearance reaches its climax is when Electra finally lures her mother
into the cottage. As Electra ushers Clytemnestra in, she warns her mother to ‘take care that the smokey roof does not dirty your robes’
(1139–40). After the murders, Clytemnestra’s body is shown,
shrouded in a mantle (1227–31). It is tempting to suggest that she is
here covered by the fine robes which so rankled with Electra.

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