< Chris Hawkes, English Advocate

Arctic Tern

  Chris Hawkes

  Euripides

   Medea

Euripides Medea All Medea quotations are from Ian Johnston’s translation. Euripides (Vatican Museum)

  Conventions of Ancient Greek Theatre         The place of the gods in Medea         Dispossession        The Chorus          A feminist reading of Medea         Can we empathise with Medea?        

A possible determiner for a work to be called “literature” is that it can be dislocated from its context and still have relevance for the audience: and this would hold true for Euripides's Medea. First performed in ancient Athens almost two and a half millennia ago, in 431 B.C., the play is still frequently performed ( in 2009 by Northern Broadsides) and translated (Tom Paulin's 2009 version for the Northern Broadsides company; John Harrison in 2000).

There are good historical reasons for looking at Greek drama. Athens in the fifth century B.C. Was the cradle of both comedy and tragedy, and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides formed the foundations for Western tragedy – their influence helped to define Shakespearean tragedy and reaches to modern tragedies such as those by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Caryl Churchill.

However, if this were the only justification for the survival of these plays, then they should be placed in the ambit of the historians. Literary study cannot divorce itself from attention to the context of production – indeed, this is often important for looking at the way dramatic tension on the modern stage is created. For example, the possible preconceptions of the “real” Shakespeare and his contemporaries about Jews produces a real tension for the modern day post-Holocaust audience; in the same way that when Arthur Miller took his play Death of a Salesman to China in 1983, the dramatic power of the tragedy was enhanced by the clash of cultural imperatives between the play's capitalist context and China's Communism. (Miller, A. 1984 Salesman in Beijing. London: Methuen.) Arguably the most important context to consider when examining literature is the context of reception: that is, the context of the audience itself. If a play cannot speak to a contemporary audience, then, as is suggested above, it has lost its claim to the title “literature.

Vase painting 410 BC(Naples) There are additional issues that might make it difficult for a modern day audience to relate to Greek drama. Perhaps due to the popularity of plays in this period – as with Shakespeare's age, drama was something that spanned a wide social spectrum, but unlike the Elizabethan age, plays were performed in large amphitheatres – characters are often stylised, and would have been masked during performance to exaggerate facial features and highlight emotion. Action often took place off stage: it has often been claimed that the Greek words “ob skene” give us the word “obscene”: something so dreadful that it must happen off stage. Shakespeare can have Gloucester's eyes plucked out on stage: Sophocles has Oedipus blinding himself off stage; Lady Macduff's son is murdered before the audience, but Medea kills her children unseen. The horrific deaths of Glauce and Creon are described in graphic detail by the Messenger in the fifth Episode, but remain unseen by the audience.

Furthermore, action in Greek drama is often verbal – recounted by observers, or in the form of debate. The structure of Greek tragedy is not the familiar 5 Acts of Shakespearean drama: instead, between the Parados (the entry, usually of the Chorus to start – although in Medea it is the Nurse who enters first) and the Exodos, the final confrontation, the play progresses in a series of stasima (singular stasimon), choral songs and dance by the Chorus interspersed by epidosia (singular epidsode): verbal confrontation scenes between characters. It is the episodia that advance the plot and give the play dramatic tension. So in Medea, Medea’s first episode is with Creon, her second with Jason, then with Aegeus, Jason again and finally (5th episode) with the Tutor, before the Exodos between Medea, Jason and the Chorus.

Part of the interest of this structure in Medea is the dignity it confers on the protagonist. In the second episode, Euripides forms the confrontation between Medea and Jason in terms of debate – with Medea accorded equal share of the argument, each stating their case almost formally, with argument and counter-argument. The status this confers on Medea is one of the reasons some critics see this as a feminist text. (See below.) Whilst this may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, it still provides for powerful dramatic plot development.

And, as with Shakespearean drama, the plots were not original. All Greek tragedy uses stories from mythology, so the audience would already know the outcome. This is, of course, less of an obstacle than it might seem: very few people would have been surprised when watching Titanic to see the liner sink!

Cup painting - Dionysus by Exekias c. 540 BC This links into another issue, however. All three of the extant Athenian tragedians wrote plays rooted in a religious context very different from today's agnosticism – or Shakespeare's monotheism. So in many Greek plays the gods feature ( Hippolytus ; Orestes) as characters, or dictate the events that are to come ( Antigone; Electra). So let us look first of all at the role of the gods in Medea. Throughout the play, gods are invoked – and the protagonst Medea claims Helios, the Sun-God, as her grandfather. At the end of the play, Helios sends his chariot down to rescue Medea and to take her to sanctuary in Athens.

On the other hand, the gods are perhaps conspicuously absent from this play. Indeed, a parallel here might be drawn with King Lear:: here to the gods are called upon by Lear, Gloucester, and even by the villain Edmund - “Now gods, stand up for bastards!” And yet the gods do not intervene, In the universe Shakespeare has created, it is the actions of people that determine destiny: either, as with Regan and Goneril driving their father into madness and eventual death, or as Edgar, saving the life of his father at Beachy Head, and, ironically, giving the responsibility to angelic forces.

Much the same could be claimed for Medea. Appeals to the gods begin in the Chorus's first Parados: “Oh Zeus and Earth and Sun / do you hear how this young wife / sings out her misery?” as does faith in the restoration of divine justice – “Zeus will plead for you in this. / Don't waste your life away, / with too much wailing for your husband” - faith that will prove ironic at the end. However, no god appears in the play to right Medea's wrongs – nor to punish her for her filicide. Is Euripides here (despite the appearance of Helios’s chariot) suggesting that the gods do not exist? Or that if they do, they either condone human evil – or ignore human suffering? That could certainly be inferred from Euripides's Hippolytus: faced with the crushed and dying body of her favourite mortal, Hippolytus, Artemis shows nothing we humans would regard as sympathy, her speech finishing “And now farewell! 'tis not for me to gaze upon the dead, or pollute my sight with death-scenes.” And the same message is found in King Lear Gloucester exclaims, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, / They kill us for their sport.”

Such argument leaves us with an interesting critical argument. Are these universes bleak and pessimistic, either godless and ruled by destiny, or populated by gods who are at best oblivious of human suffering, or, worse, revel in it? Or, conversely, does the fact that people are, it seems, free to commit evil actions itself a celebration of human free-will? The characters in Medea - Jason, Creon and Medea herself - make choices, and their destiny is determined by these choices.

This launches another area of discussion. Whilst in King Lear it could be argued that all characters are enabled to act, this is not the case in Medea. Indeed, it could be argued that part of the tragedy of Medea is the tragedy of the dispossessed: those unable to act.

The Tutor and the Nurse are servants, dispossessed by their status in the context of Athenian democracy: they can observe and react, but are unable to act. In the Prologue, Euripides uses the Nurse proleptically to show her awareness: “Her mind thinks in extremes. I know her well. she'll not put up with being treated badly.” Indeed, she warns of coming danger to the children, danger she can foresee but not circumvent: “I've seen her look at them with savage eyes, / as if she means to injure them somehow.” The prolepsis of course serves to heighten the tragedy by giving the audience a sense of inevitability – the audience too know the outcome but are powerless to prevent it.

Nina Kristofferson as Medea The children too are disempowered: their only lines come as they are being murdered. Innocence is no escape in tragedy. In production, they are often represented rather than played by actors, showing their essential powerlessness: in the 2010 Northern Broadsides production, after their murder Medea holds their shoes rather than the bodies, again suggesting they have lost their humanity because of their loss of the power to choose.

Likewise, Creon's daughter's innocence cannot protect her from harm. She too is powerless to choose, used as a trading commodity between Jason and Creon, the one to gain fame for his house, the other to ensure that his children are seen as Greeks rather than barbarian. Euripides underlines her disempowerement by refusing to name her in the text, even though the audience would have been aware from mythology that her name was Glauce.

This discussion brings us to another unfamiliar convention of Greek theatre: that of the Chorus. Usually composed of citizens of the town, the Chorus had several functions, including commentary on the action and bridging the gap between play and dance.

Euripides's Chorus shares these functions: they react to Medea's abandonment perhaps as the audience would, and are shocked by the extremity of her revenge. The Chorus, like the audience, are onlookers, affected by the action but not directly involved.

The Chorus have another important function: through their stasima, choral speaking and dance, they serve to elevate the actions on stage, both suggesting underlying harmony and beauty, and stylising events that would otherwise be shattering. The Chorus in many ways turns action into art on the Greek stage.

The Chorus is another device used by Euripides to show disempowerment and dispossession. First, as Chorus, they are uniquely dispossessed by their function: convention prevents them from taking action in the play. Daringly, Euripides has them debating whether to do so when it is evident that Medea intends to murder her children: “Should I go in the house? / I'm sure I must prevent this murder..” Yet, like the audience, they cannot. Is this simply dramatic convention – or is Euripides commenting on the position of women in Athens?

Unusually (although not uniquely), Euripides Chorus are female – “a group of Corinthean women”: as women they wield no power in the Corinth of the play's setting, nor in the Athenian democracy of its production. Women had no vote, few rights; as with Shakespeare's theatre, were not permitted to act – and it is likely that they were also not permitted as members of the audience.

As shown above, the disempowered in this play (with the exception of the Tutor) are all women, and all are both literally and metaphorically disenfranchised. Euripides gives us good evidence therefore for a feminist reading of this text, and through Medea shows the situation of women explicitly:
    “Of all things with life and understanding,
     we women are the most unfortunate.
     First, we need a husband, someone we get
     for an excessive price. He then becomes
     the ruler of our bodies.”

Medea was both produced and set in a phallocentric and patriarchal society – the two terms are synonymous here. Jason abandons Medea for Glauce to ensure (he claims) a future for his sons; he intends to inherit the throne of Corinth and to pass this patriachal position to his heirs:
    “At some future date, you'll be leaders here, / in Corinth, alongside your new brothers.”

Creon also is focused on his position as head of the house of Corinth: by marrying his daughter to Jason he intends to increase the fame of his line. And even Aegeus, the King of Athens, who promises to receive and protect Medea is on his way back from the Delphic Oracle, searching for a way to ensure he has male children: indeed, it is by promising to unravel the Oracle's answer that Medea secures his protection.

And in the midst of this patriarchy stands Medea: by refusing to accept the subordinate position society expects from one of her gender, she wrests the power from these male figures. In Classical mythology, the towering figures are male: they act, fight and kill as heroes, whilst (at best) their women stay at home patiently like Odysseus’s Penelope.

Jason and Golden Fleece, 330 BC, Louvre The best known story of Jason is of the Golden Fleece, where attention is focused on him as hero, with Medea playing very much a subordinate role. The phallocentricity of the story emphasises male domination. (It is worth noting that, as on the Louvre's Apulian Krater, Jason carries a spear, a symbol of the power of the phallus.) It is as if Euripides wants us to see this irony: in the first two episodia between Jason and Medea, Jason still sees himself as the focus, the hero, and only in the final episode when Medea has taken her revenge does he realise that it is she who is in control: “How I wish I'd never been a father / and had to see you kill my children.” The revenge Medea takes is aimed arrow-straight at patriarchy (and metaphorically therefore at the phallus): she destroys Creon's daughter and heir, Creon himself, and Jason's sons and hopes for the status of a patriarch. Tellingly, Euripides has her prophesy Jason's end:
    “As for you, you'll have a miserable death,
     as is fitting for a coward. Now you've seen
     the bitter ending of your marriage to me,
     your head will be smashed in, when you're hit
     by a moldy relic of your ship the Argo. “

His life has been destroyed by the woman who helped him secure the Golden Fleece, and he is to be killed by a piece of the very ship that brought him the Golden Fleece and the status of hero.

Despite this interpretation, can a modern audience remain empathetic – if not sympathetic – with a woman who commits such an extremity of revenge? The Chorus (who, as we have seen, are often meant to reflect the expected attitude of the audience) are appalled by her decision:
    “You hard and wretched woman,
      just like stone or iron— to kill your children
      ones you bore yourself,
      sealing their fate with your own hands.”

Krater c.400 BC Medea in Helios's Chariot - ClevelandOn the other hand, the sun-god Helios appears to condone her actions, sending his chariot to rescue her from the consequences of her filicide. Perhaps even more shockingly, we know that Aegeus, King of Athens, will protect her from punishment: would an Athenian audience feel that Euripides was suggesting Athenian complicity in the crime? (In the City Dionysia competition in 431 BC, Euripides, with Medea , two other tragedies and a satyr play, came third out of three dramatists – could this be the reason for the Athenian judges' decision?)

It has been argued that a Greek audience would be repelled by all extremity: “Nothing to Excess” was engraved above the entrance to the Delphic Oracle consulted by Aegeus: excess is something associated with the barbarian, rather than the “civilised” Greeks. This is shown by the Chorus in the second stasimon:
    “I pray that moderation,
     the gods' most beautiful gift,
     will always guide me.
     I pray that Aphrodite
     never packs my heart with jealousy
     or angry quarreling.”

A modern-day audience, however, might react differently. Whilst not condoning the murder of children, is there an attractiveness in extreme action? Medea’s refusal to exercise any restraint in her search for revenge, even killing the sons she loved (“Although you kill them, / still you loved them. As a woman, I'm so sad.”) is perhaps the ultimate expression of extremity. Arthur Miller celebrates much the same in A View from the Bridge: Alfieri, that Chorus-like character, contrasts the “normal” person’s desire for compromise with Eddie Carbone’s absolutism in his desire for his niece: “"Most of the time now we settle for half and I like it better. But the truth is holy, and even as I know how wrong he was and his death useless, I tremble, for I confess that something perversely pure calls to me from his memory--not purely good, but himself, purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him more than all my sensible clients." Does something “perversely pure” call to the audience from Medea?

Ultimately, however, I feel this play is about disempowerment – a theme allied with, but wider than, the theme of feminism discussed above. Medea is disempowered because she is a woman, because she is a foreigner to Greece, a barbarian; and, as the play begins, also disempowered because she is banished – she entered Corinth with Jason as a refugee, and this is to be her status as she leaves. In the play, there appear to be only two reactions to mistreatment by society: to accept the way one is treated, as do Glauce, the Nurse and the Chorus: or to react violently against it, as does Medea. The extremity of her revenge is a reflection of her treatment: is Euripides suggesting that if society treats people unjustly, then it is sowing the seeds of its own destruction?

To return to the context of reception, then, is this a factor that ensures the relevance of this play? From the context of our society that routinely returns refugees to the place from which they were fleeing, this would seem to be the case. Writing in 2010, it is strange that we are surprised when Afghani asylum seekers who are forcibly returned to Afghanistan feel they have no choice but to join the Taliban; when those mistreated in Abu Ghraib or subject to “extraordinary rendition” feel compelled to embrace terrorism. In 1939, Auden spoke about the lesson “all schoolchildren learn, / That those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

Lisa Tharps, Medea, Boston Court


Is this the lesson that Euripides was teaching in 431 BC – a lesson our own society is yet to learn?

  The drudge

 Writing an Essay - Tips

 Sixth Form Reading List

 Comedy: an Introduction

 Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

 William Blake

 Chaucer: The Wife of Bath

 Coleridge: Rime of the Ancient Mariner

 John Donne: Selected Poems

 Euripides: Medea

 Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Poems

 Arthur Miller: The Death of a Salesman

 Milton: Paradise Lost

 Christina Rossetti Poems

 Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

 Shakespeare: Bradley and Leavis on Othello

 A-level Essays

 Literature Texts

  Home (Back to NMH's front page)

e-mail us! E-mail me.