Sunday, August 19, 2012

Euripides: Medea


The Medea by Euripides, written 431 BC, is possibly the first version of the myth that envisions Medea as the actual agent, the murderess of her two sons, as Richard Rutherford explains. Euripides was apparently very interested in Medea's psychology and her coming to her extreme decision. From very early on, Medea is shown as an utmost emotional woman but also as shrewd thinker, who is able to understand her position not only as a betrayed lover and wife but also as a female foreigner in a patriarchal society, as shows her speech to the chorus of Corinthian women:

"Of all creatures that have life and reason we women are the most miserable of specimens! In the first place, at great expense we must buy a husband, taking a master to play the tyrant with our bodies (this is an injustice that crowns the other one). [...] When a man becomes dissatisfied with married life, he goes outdoors and finds relief for his frustrations. But we are bound to love one partner and look no further. They say we live sheltered lives in the home, free from danger, while they wield their spears in battle - what fools they are! I would rather face the enemy three times over than bear a child once."

Medea pleads her case so well that the women are actually supporting her by promising her silence (here, a female virtue and duty is turned into a weapon) and are looking forward to Medea's revenge, which they see as a re-alignment of power in nature:

"Uphill flow the waters of sacred rivers; nature and all things are overturned. Men make deceitful plans and the pledges they swear in the name of the gods no longer stand firm. As for the manner of our lives, the stories will change it from a foul to a fair name; recompense is coming for the female sex. No more shall we women endure the burden of ill-repute. [...] The rolling ages have much to tell of our side, much, as well, of men's."

The women are eventually taken aback when Medea reveals to them the extent of her revenge plan but they remain truthful to their promise and do not tell on Medea's scheme. Rather, as is the case with the Greek chorus, they witness the events until the end. In the meantime, Medea plots murders and her escape, changing her tone according to her interlocutors, which makes an acutely dynamic, strong, and complex character.



"It makes me groan to think what deed I must do next. For I shall kill my own children; no one shall take them from me. I will wreak havoc on all Jason's house and then quit this land, to escape the charge of murdering my beloved children, after daring to do a deed that is abominable indeed. [...] Let no one think me a weak and feeble woman, or one to let things pass, but rather one of the other sort, a generous friend but an enemy to be feared."

Although Medea is often seen as a woman driven by revenge, it is not the sole motivation for her actions, as the following monologue shows. Medea is aware of the fate her children will likely meet as sons of the murderess of Jason's wife. She decides to kill her children not only to cause Jason pain but to maintain her right as a mother and eventually gain an alternative quality of agency since Creon and Jason wanted to submit her to their will. Nevertheless, Medea dreads her actions as much as she needs to carry them out:

"I will kill the children and then quit this land. I will not delay and so deliver them to other hands to spill their blood more eagerly. They must be killed; there is no other way. And since they must, I will take their life, I who gave them life. Come, my heart, put on your armour! We must not hesitate to do this deed, this terrible yet necessary deed! Come, wretched hand of mine, grip the sword, grip it! On to the starting line! A painful race awaits you now! No time now for cowardice or thinking of your children, how much you love them, how you brought them into this world. No, for one day, one fleeting day, forget your children; there will be the rest of your life for weeping. For though you will put them to the sword, you loved them well. Oh, I am a woman born to sorrow!"

Medea, having killed her children and confronting Jason one last time, is not remorseful but having reached god-like agency she is removed from the world of Corinth and exists now in an alternative reality.


The last two images are from a German production of the play, directed by Barbara Frey for the Deutsches Theater Berlin in 2006, starring the extraordinary Nina Hoss. This raw interpretation of the play envisions Medea as a prisoner of her circumstances, a claustrophobic housewife's cube, from which she'll eventually escape.
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