Love, friendship, desire, longing, the four points of the compass defining the closest, the most exposed relationships between human beings. Complete happiness and bitter pain. An emotion that transports, that raises a storm in hearts, that sweeps away predetermined frameworks, conquering reason, destabilising behaviour and transforming the individual's attitude to the world. The motive force behind a continuous revolution, cause and effect of the overturning and restoration of things, love nurtures hope, but also gives rise to fear. As uninvited and as all-consuming as death, with whom it shares the sword of destiny, love attacks unstoppably, shaking the foundations of social order and balance.
If restrained love is harmony, passionate love, disproportionate love is destruction, and is manifested as imprudence, foolishness, as the vengeance of the gods.
Aeschylus, Choephoroi 594-601 (Loeb edition)
Other poetry, however, especially lyric poetry, is coloured by a sensual eroticism which is not satisfied simpiy with the erotic subjection of the woman, but leaves the field open to women to contest the leading role. One spark of erotic passion is enough to awaken the woman from her social lethargy, to induce her to dispute her preordained position, to set in action her combative, competitive nature. Most often, it is the pangs of tender love (agape) that are exalted in verse, but there are complete tragedies that revolve about the axis of passionate love (eros), their only substantial content being female passion.
As mythical characters become humanised, so drama gives prominence to wild, emotional scenes, with gripping descriptions of storm-tossed passions and violent desire. The women depicted in love in the theatre are in one sense anti-heroines, for they are praised for their greatness of spirit and heroism, which stems from a series of negatively charged feelings and deeds, such as envy, or unbridled passion, even adultery.
In most cases, the vehicle of the dramatic erotic passion is a married woman who suffers betrayal by her husband. Humiliated by her abandonment, wounded in love, she watches terrified as her personality is destroyed, since even the role assigned to her is rejected. The change of attitude on the part of her spouse brings with it a gradual change in her very being. Deprived of anything to defend, the woman is transformed into a monster. Her love turns into hate. The revolution is a violent one because, having lost her position in the home, she has nothing more to lose. Love that conquers all, now transformed into Eros the avenger, arms her hand.
From Medea to Sappho - Radical Women in Ancient Greece
Athens, National Archaeological Museum - 20 March - 30 June 1995