In this provocative work, Alicia E. Ellis provides readings of Franz Grillparzer’s dramas as proto-feminist formulations of female figures who refuse the gendered constraints of the ancient world. The revisionist perspectives of the tragedies recover a latent feminist impulse in the stories of Sappho, Medea, and Hero as identities marked by linguistic refusals. Activating new ideas of narrative experience, Ellis transports the figure of the female to the seat of language, testimony, and presence. Inflected by a taut impasse with a culture not produced to include female speech, Ellis shows how Grillparzer’s adaptations of classical materials offer a working theory about the ways in which new forms of language highlight female energy around autonomy and agency providing a corrective to previous cultural practices. A failure to comply with social and political norms demonstrates how the three assessed and then resolved exclusionary acts through rebellious discursive performances that frame how contested identities can be thought and reformulated. Readings in this study draw from the work of Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler on cultural framing and cultural translation in contemporary feminist critique. Ahmed and Butler direct attention to the language of the texts, what they mean, and how they produce that meaning.
Alicia E. Ellis is associate professor of German at Colby College.
Chapter 1: Sappho: The Gender of Belonging
Chapter 2: Medea: The Construction of the Other
Chapter 3: Hero: The Challenge of Virtue
In her beautifully crafted book Figuring the Female: Gender and Identity in Franz Grillparzer’s Classical Dramas, Alicia E. Ellis, enacts a compelling and stunning feminist textual analysis of the classical female figures, Sappho, Medea, and Hero. Rather than leave them stranded as it were as projections of particular historical moments, she reads them as fluid figures of speech that provide models of transgressive and multivalent forms of resistance significant for exposing gender injustice and oppression. Thus, Ellis invites us to open up new pathways for rereading classic female figures as subversive even as the surface text relegates them to objects of tragedy, male longing, and deceit.
In a series of nuanced close readings, Alicia E. Ellis fruitfully applies concepts from recent gender theory and feminist studies to an analysis of key dramas by Austria’s leading 19th-century playwright, Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872). Her sophisticated study focuses on Grillparzer’s portrayals of three tragic female figures from classical antiquity – Sappho, the celebrated poetess; Medea, the filicidal sorceress; and Hero, the virginal priestess. In the process, Ellis deftly uncovers an abundance of intriguing perspectives on how this male author’s modern reworkings of ancient tragedies that center on “willful” women may contribute to an increased understanding of the intractable complexities and gendered contradictions that condition the formation of female subjecthood in a male-dominated (patriarchal and androcentric) world.