Spoken Like a Woman:
Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama

Laura McClure

Princeton University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014 http://dannyreviews.com/
The opening two chapters of Spoken Like a Woman are thematic, the first looking at the politics of speech in fifth century Athens and the place of women in Athenian drama, the second at the genres of women's speech, at lamentations, ritual obscenity, ritual choruses, gossip, and so forth. McClure highlights the problems of studying female speech through male-authored texts.
"By representing rhetorically proficient women who use their skills to subvert male social hierarchy, the plays examined in this study deploy their female characters as a means of expressing anxiety about the transmission and consolidation of power among the political elite in the democratic polis through the control of speech."

Four chapters then look in detail at women's speech in Aeschylus' Oresteia, in Euripides' Phaedra, in his Andromache, and in Aristophanes' Thesmaphoriazusae (The Poet and the Women) and Ecclesiazusae (Women of the Assembly). Much of this is of broad interest, especially in its links to political life and social mores, but much of it consists of the kind of close-reading of texts that is not so interesting if one isn't intimately familiar with the works of the writer being analysed. Also, though not terrible, McClure's prose is fairly dry.

"The androgynous Athena, female in gender but masculine in birth and speech, presides over the civic drama enacted in the Eumenides; her benevolent, divine gift of persuasion supplants the ambiguous and deceptive speech of Clymemnestra and serves as the basis for speech in the law court ... The third play of the Oresteia trilogy celebrates the erasure of women's speech from the polis, both in the theater and in the law court, and further suggests that the only proper speech for women in public, onstage as well as in the polis, is religious."
"Although Hermione accuses Andromache of rendering her infertile by means of drugs, most of her speech actually consists of an attack on her rival's barbarian nature and the perversions, sexual and otherwise, engendered by it. In recounting the charges, she links the knowledge of pharmaka with Andromache's barbarian origins, a topos that originates in Homer and recurs throughout the literary tradition."
"The two types of aischrologia involved in male and female fertility cults may reflect a gender-based speech distinction: the scant evidence for the women's festivals suggests that the content of their obscenity was implicitly heterosexual and probably not political, a subject no doubt viewed as appropriate to prostitutes and crones, and to fertility religions in general, whereas the personal invective characteristic of Dionysian rites seems to have had predominantly political overtones, although it made use of sexual language. Still, the evolution of comic obscenity from some sort of ritual abuse associated with fertility cults does not adequately account for the prevalence of scatological and pathic humor in Aristophanes, especially given the fact that scatology in Attic Old Comedy is often linked to impotence and sterility."

McClure assumes a general familiarity with ancient Greek literature and history, but doesn't assume any knowledge of ancient Greek, with all quotations also given in translation. And there's no invocation of feminist theory and little literary or critical theory. So even if much of it is relatively specialised, a good portion of Spoken Like a Woman will appeal to anyone curious about either fifth century Athens or literary representations of women's speech.

September 2014

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%T Spoken Like a Woman
%S Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama
%A McClure, Laura
%I Princeton University Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691144412
%P 293pp