At issue is Böttiger’s essay “Waren die Frauen in Athen Zuschauerinnen bey den dramatischen Vorstellungen?”, Der Neue Teutsche Merkur (1796) 1 (January 1796), 23–46, in which Böttiger denied that Athenian women were allowed to attend theater performances. Friedrich Schlegel polemicized against this view in his essay “Über die Diotima,” Berlinische Monatsschrift 26 (1795) July, no. 3, 30–64; August, no. 4, 154–86 (Jugendschriften, here 69 with footnote):
The peculiarities attaching to the situation and customs of Attic women that deviate most strongly [from those of other Greek city-states] are the following:
(1) Their education, apart from as much dance and music as was necessary, for example, for public festivals, was limited to the feminine handicrafts, in which their diligence and art are, of course, well known. And yet they were also spectators in the theater, this sublime school of Attic citizens.
(2) Except for a few exceptions, they were excluded from the public life, societies, and even from the social contacts of men.
(3) The assessments of the opposite sex by Attic writers is unusually harsh, and the concurrence among their remarks betrays that such was also the assessment and voice of the people.
[Footnote: The reasons supporting the opposite opinion are enumerated in Der Teutsche Merkur 96, no. 1, III. — Because, however, the positive reasons are not irrefutable on the basis of historical analogy, the passage from Alexis has not been refuted, and absolutely no attention was given to the important passage in Plato (de. legg. libr. II, p. 69, 70, ed. Bip.), I have for now left my own text unaltered.]
Böttiger responded in his essay “Waren die Athenerinnen wirklich vom Theater ausgeschlossen?”, Der Neue Teutsche Merkur (1797) 2 (February), 224–35. With regard to his previous conclusion that “in Athens no woman ever entered the theater as a spectator of dramatic performances,” Böttiger begins his rejoinder by maintaining that “since undertaking my original study, I have still found not a single passage in the ancients that truly contradicts my assertion.” He continues (225–29):
In the meantime, it cannot fail that the defenders of the opposite opinion happen upon a passage here and there that at first glance seems favorable for leaving open among the most intelligent people of antiquity at least a back door through which women might yet sneak into forbidden theater performances. The astute author of a historical essay on classical antiquity recently tried to adduce such a passage against me. . . .
Herr Schlegel cannot decide whether Athenian women, whom he would quite like to elevate to the status of cultivated women of the sort, e.g., we encounter in Plato’s Diotima, are to be excluded from that sublime school of attic citizens, namely, the theater. For, as he mentions in a footnote, the advocate of the opposite opinion [i.e., Böttiger himself] takes no notice of an important passage in Plato from which precisely the opposite conclusion is to be drawn.
That passage is found in the second book of the Laws, book 2, 653ff. The Athenian introduced here with in conversation with Cleinias and Megillus intends to prove that the entertainment the citizens of an ideal state would enjoy from among the varied dramatic offerings still cannot be taken as the standard of its true purposiveness and aesthetic perfection, since — and this is the reason he adduces in proving the insufficiency of any such standard — each individual person from among the crowd of spectators would ascribe the prize to that genre alone that best accords with his own inclinations and wishes, though without allowing his own judgment to be limited and shaped by higher aesthetic demands. The wise unnamed Athenian now explains himself essentially as follows [translation from The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, vol. 4 (New York 1871), 187–88; trans. altered to accord with Böttiger’s paraphrasing]:
Imagine a festival at which there are entertainments of all sorts, including gymnastic, musical, or equestrian contests: the citizens are assembled, and proclamation is made that any one who likes may enter the lists, and that he is to bear the palm who gives the most pleasure to the spectators — there is no regulation about the manner how; but he who is most successful in giving pleasure is to be crowned victor, and is deemed to be the pleasantest of the candidates: What is likely to be the result of such a proclamation?
There would be various exhibitions: the Homeric bard would exhibit a rhapsody, another a performance on the lute; one would have a tragedy, and another a comedy. Nor would there be anything astonishing in some one imagining that he could gain the prize by exhibiting a puppet-show: Suppose these competitors to meet, and not these only, but innumerable others as well, can you tell me who ought to be the victor? Of course, there can hardly be a reasonable answer to such an indeterminate question.
But this much can be said: If very small children are to determine the question, they will decide for the puppet-show. The older children will be advocates of comedy; educated women, and young men, and people in general, will favor tragedy. And I believe that we old men would have the greatest pleasure in hearing a rhapsodist recite well the Iliad and Odyssey, or one of the Hesiodic poems. Now, who would really be the conqueror? that is the question.
So far Plato. And now I myself ask: is Plato speaking in this passage about Athens at all, or rather about his idealized state? And even were he speaking about Athens, is he referring to a concretely existing custom, or merely hypothetically? Who would dare take such a passage as the basis for demonstrating the existence of a custom that otherwise essentially contradicts everything else in Greek antiquity?
A passage that proves too much, proves nothing; and such is genuinely the case here. For if through it women acquire permission to attend theatrical performances, one cannot well exclude small children and young boys, through whom Plato awards first prize for the most pleasant entertainment to the jugglers and puppeteers. And yet it is an established fact that before the age of eighteen no Athenian was permitted to enter the theater. Only then was he ceremoniously accepted among the Ephebes, and thenceforth he could attend theaters at national assemblies and thus also regular theatrical performances; thenceforth he had his own place in the theater, which Pollux explicitly calls the seat of Ephebes.
Translation © 2014 Doug Stott