"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

04 May 2014

Medea, by Euripides



Nurse: How ruthless if
            The temper of royalty: often commanding,
            Seldom commanded. Terribly slow
            To forgive and forget. . .How much better
            To live among equals! I want no part
            Of greatness and glory. Let me decline
            In a safe old age. The very name
            Of the “middle way” has health in it,
            Is best for human beings. Good never comes
            From overreaching, never to mortals
            And when it provokes the gods it destroys
The house to its portals (341).

Chorus: Never let Cypris the fierce
Queen of desire propel
My heart to a dissolute lust
From old to a new and another
Bed with a dissonant longing,
But test with a sweet eye for peace
The love-bonds of reverent women (360).

Medea: The evil that I do, I understand full well.
            But a passion drives me greater than my will.
            Passion is the curse of man: it wreaks the greatest ill (377).

It’s a bit surprising that this is the first time I’ve read Medea, considering how many feminist instructors I’ve had and how much drama I’ve read. But this was my first time. I’m not entirely sure what to say about Medea other than the usual stuff that probably gets said about her all the time. She’s an incredibly complex character, and I suspect scholars and teachers probably spend a good deal of their time trying to come to terms with her (and/or help their students come to terms with her).

Euripides was an odd bird as classical authors go, in that he seemed particularly interested in and sympathetic to the concerns and troubles of women (see Alcestis, the two Iphigenia plays—at Aulis and Among the Taurians—and The Trojan Women, for example). Rarely do women figure so prominently as actual fully developed characters in Aeschylus or Sophocles, but Euripides uses complex, interesting, and challenging female characters extensively. But Medea may be his most challenging and complex female character, and I would say she is one of the most complex and interesting characters in all of Athenian drama. While we sometimes think of Shakespeare—particularly Hamlet—as the origin point for modern psychological drama, Medea should definitely be a contender for that title. She spends the entire second half of the play debating and reasoning with herself, dragged between multiple desires and impulses—a psychological debate certainly equal to any the Danish prince could come up with. Medea is divided against herself, torn between the impulse to revenge the wrong Jason has done to her, on the one hand, and her love of her children, on the other. Medea is certainly a great Aristotelian hero, one who knows her tragic mistake and recognizes it but is none the less unable to escape the spiral of fate. But unlike many tragic heroes, Medea performs her psychological struggle, her two instincts warring against one another. She is not simply the brutal murderess that Jason (and the patriarchy) would have her, nor is she simply the wronged woman taking justifiable vengeance (as an uncritical feminist reading might have her), nor is she simply the exoticized and dangerous barbarian Other (as an uncritical postcolonial reading might have her). Instead she is all of these things. And perhaps none of them as well. Medea’s complexity in the end is a human complexity, a human struggle between revenge and love, displacement and betrayal—but that is not to say it is not a struggle conditioned by the ideological, socio-cultural, and patriarchal conditions of her time and place.

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