Tragic Freedoms


  • David Carter University of Reading



Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, freedom, freedom of speech, Athenian women


This paper considers the usefulness of tragedy as a historical source, specifically on the question of personal freedoms in fifth-century Athens. The underlying methodological principle is that we must consider tragedy as drama before we consider it as evidence. The paper looks first briefly at free speech and then, at greater length, at freedom of movement, with a specific focus on the movement of female characters. Through an examination of first entrances in the extant plays, I try to uncover what assumptions were shared between poet and audience about a woman’s ability to leave the house and enter the public spaces of the city. Within the limitations of the evidence, it appears that (1) tragic women almost always make their first entrance from the stage building in plays where that building represents a house or palace, and (2) there are social constraints on the freedom of unmarried women in tragedy. However, there are frequent variations from this pattern. Tragic freedoms and unfreedoms emerge as contestable and subject to perceived social status.