What does Aeschylus convey about the role of women in society through his characters in his plays? What lessons can we apply today?

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Women in ancient Greek society had few rights. A woman’s place was in the home, attending to the household and raising children. In Athens, women couldn't vote or own or inherit land. They weren't given an education, and they couldn't be citizens.

Not all city-states had the same restrictions as Athens. In Sparta, for example, due to the militaristic nature of Spartan society, women were given physical training, allowed to own property, become citizens, and be educated.

A woman had no voice in marriage. To whom a woman was married was decided by their father or other male relative, and a woman without a dowry was unlikely to be married at all. Marriage was a societal contract, not the culmination or expression of a romantic relationship.

As far as Greek drama was concerned, women were permitted to attend performances of plays, but they were seated in a section of the theatre separate from the men. Women took no part in the performance of ancient Greek plays. All of the roles in the plays, whether men or women, were acted by men, generally using masks to differentiate one character from another.

It's important to remember that the ancient Greek plays were not written as entertainment. The plays were performed as part of a religious festival, such as the Festival of Dionysus, and the plays were written to teach a moral lesson to the audience. Accordingly, the women depicted in the ancient Greek tragedies were not normal, everyday Greek women. The female characters in ancient Greek plays were based on the larger-than-life characters in Greek myths and legends, including female gods, who often behaved in ways that were outside the normally restrictions of Greek society.

This gave the female characters in the plays a heightened dramatic importance, particularly for those characters who challenged societal norms, and also demonstrated the considerable gap between the lives and abilities of mere humans and the oversize personalities and superhuman abilities of the gods.

The behavior of the characters in the plays was based on the moral lesson that the playwright wished to convey to the audience, not necessarily on the playwright's personal feelings about that behavior, or as an attempt to advocate a rejection of society's norms.

Aeschylus (c. 525–c. 456 BC), considered the father of tragedy, was the oldest of the three most famous ancient Greek playwrights, along with Sophocles (c. 497–c. 406 BC), and Euripides (c. 480–c. 406 BC). Of the three playwrights, Aeschylus was the most conservative in his depiction of women, such as the characters of Iphigenia, Electra, and Cassandra. Aeschylus adhered most closely to Greek society's perceptions and norms, and its treatment of women—except in his depiction of Clytemnestra.

In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra is portrayed as a very strong character, and this strength is interpreted as that of a woman who defies and rejects the woman's role in Greek society.

Clytemnestra is described by the Watchman in the very first lines of the play as having the heart of a woman but the strength and passions of a man. Other characters remark on her "manly" qualities. The Chorus remarks on the way that she presents herself and speaks like a man.

Clytemnestra often behaves like a man and expresses herself as a man would be expected to express himself. After Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon in revenge for his killing of her daughter, Iphigenia, and kills Cassandra for being her husband's lover, Clytemnestra readily acknowledges that she killed them—something that the Chorus declares is outside a woman's role. When she's confronted by the Elders, Clytemnestra defies her questioners: "Are you trying got frighten me as if I were a witless woman?"

It might be argued that although Aeschylus seems to be advocating and justifying Clytemnestra's seemingly villainous behavior, the lesson that he actually wishes to convey to the audience is the conventional attitude that women should stay in their place and adhere to imposed gender roles and societal norms, otherwise "manly" passions will get the better of them, and they'll behave contrary to their womanly nature.

Nevertheless, at the end of the play, Clytemnestra says to her lover, Aegisthus, that they should ignore the condemnation of her behavior because what she did was fully justified, and they're going to make a better world together.

Thou and I shall dwell
As Kings in this great House. We two at last will order all things well.

Clytemnestra and Aegisthus enter the palace while the Chorus of Elders—the would-be enforcers of gender roles and societal norms—and Agamemnon's disgruntled followers quietly drift away. It's a surprisingly subversive lesson from an otherwise conservative playwright.

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What an interesting question!

The ancient Greek tragedies seem to distill human emotion and amplify it. In these female characters, we can see the complexity of women in the world, though each one seems to represent a different aspect.

Poor Iphigenia is deceived and sacrificed by her father. She seems powerless, and without agency at all. Electra, in this play, is someone more purposeful, but no where near as capable of directing action as she is in Euripides.

Cassandra, due to her broken promise to Apollo, loses the value of the gift of prophecy he had bestowed. While still able to see into the future in all its horror, she is cursed in such a way so that no one believes her prophecy. As Agamemnon's new concubine, she falls victim to Clytemnestra's anger as well.

Clytemnestra is full of agency but it is fueled by fury over the sacrifice of her daughter. She is a figure of blind passion and seething anger, irrational in her decade-long pain, but calculating in plotting revenge.

Athena and the Furies seem less subject to human challenges, but they represent the demands of human intellect and a moral universe. The Furies are not wrong to torment Orestes, but the play ends with the decision to allow a human jury to try Orestes for his matricide, deciding that he owed greater allegiance to his father.

The House of Atreus has been used for centuries to explore the impossible demands of personal and public duty. The curse on this family is the curse on all humans as we move through a world in which fate, the gods, and chance thwart our aspirations and intents.

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