Medea: More Than Myth

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Answers from Anya Tretyakova – contributor to Answers From.

Euripides’ Medea

Artist: Frederick Sandys (1829–1904)

Medea has been a prominent figurehead in the world of performance, visual arts and literature for over two millennia.  Far from fading into obscurity over time, the myth of the woman has evolved into the representation of something far greater.  Medea has become an archetype – the embodiment of the victimised, turning triumphantly on their victimiser – a female David, of the Biblical David and Goliath; a precursor to both.

Almost all Ancient Greek tragedy was influenced by well-known heroic myths at the time, disseminated through the public via oral storytelling and poetry; Medea was no different (Mastronarde 44), however, Euripides wrote the version which is arguably, the most-recognised today.  Although it is unknown if he was the first, Euripides attribution of Medea’s children’s deaths to her own violent hand, as well as her subsequent divine escape from retribution, has added complexity and ambiguity to her character as well as making her one of the most problematic and controversial heroines throughout the ages (Morse 188).  That day in mid-March 431 BC (Collier and Machemer 4), in the work of Euripides, thousands of Athenians witnessed the birth of more than a character, more than a myth; they saw the inception of a prototype, a complex symbol – Medea the archetype began to materialise.  Despite only taking out the 3rd prize at the City Dionysia (Allan 101), Euripides Medea would inspire countless adaptations, translations, transformations and reappropriations.  It is the proposition of this author that the idea of Medea as an assimilative symbol has superseded the character and her surrounding mythology.  In gestalt terms, Medea has become more than a sum of her parts and is now a concept, able to represent various cultures, socio-historic tensions, individuals and ideas through one suppliant and adaptable archetype.

Boedeker asserts that it was through Euripides’ tragic account of vengeful infanticide that Medea rose to prominence and it was his play, which cemented her canonical status (127).  Prior to Euripides, the Medea myth does not appear to include her now iconic murder of her own children and many vases from the period appear to depict alternative narratives (Giuliani and Most 212).  According to Boedeker, Euripides’s Medea is intriguingly complex because she assimilates her own surrounding narrative, oftentimes being likened to the elements (130), beasts (131) and inanimate objects (129), comparisons that serve to dehumanise her.  However, Medea is also often described as or behaves similarly to other characters, notably Jason and Creon’s daughter (Boedeker 143-144).  Boedeker’s observation of Medea’s emergence from Euripides’ tale of woe, as a narrative chimera, paves the way toward understanding how a simple, fictional character can become such a powerful archetype.  This author suggests that it is because Euripides wrote such a complex and ambiguous protagonist, who (as Boedeker adroitly recognises) functions as an amalgamation of so many different narrative elements, that Medea easily lends herself to reinterpretation, reappropriation and reimagining throughout the ages.  Medea as archetype is evidenced by her malleability and transformation in plays such as Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats (1998), Robert Duncan’s Medea at Kolchis: The Maiden Head (1956) as well as the late Charles Ludlam’s irreverent stage play Medea (1987).  Although there are a great many differences between these three plays and Euripides’ ‘original’, the subsequent plays’ origins are easily recognisable; such is the pervasiveness of Euripides’ Medea as an archetype.

Medea’s status as ‘foreigner’, ‘other’ and/or ‘outsider’ in Euripides’ version has led to her widespread utilisation to symbolise the fight against political and religious oppression.

In 1635, Corneille’s adaptation of Medea for the Théâtre du Marais featured Creon’s daughter (Créuse in this version) being immolated onstage, recalling the real-life events of Urbain Grandier, prosecuted and burned for his corruption of the Ursuline Sisters of Loudon the previous year; Corneille’s version uses the archetype of Medea as commentary on the obsession regarding religious persecution and witchcraft, particular to that period in history (Macintosh 9).  Grillparzer’s Medea, in his trilogy Das Goldene Vließ (The Golden Fleece), was written during a period of vicious anti-Semitism in early 19th Century Austria and was subsequently reworked and adapted many times in the period leading up to the accession of the Nazi Party; thus Medea as archetype, came to represent the Jewish struggle against political victimisation (Macintosh 20-21).  Even more recently, following a tradition in Irish theatre where Medea has featured prominently as paradigm for the exploration of English-Irish imperialist tensions, Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, portrays a Medea-figure named Hester, who is ostracised for her ‘traveller’ background and extreme poverty (Griffiths 113-114).  Carr uses the Medea archetype to focus inward on Ireland’s social and class inequality, although, the implication that Anglo-Irish political conflict and the subsequent partition of Ireland are at the root of Ireland’s contemporary problems, is also apparent.  Carr’s Hester is an outsider in her own community, despite living there her whole life ‘by the bog of cats’, her mother’s gypsy-like background and her own incessant wanderings and uncanny premonitions leave her and her daughter (Josie) ostracized, especially by her ex-lover’s new family.  Unlike Euripides, Carr’s inclusion of just one child, whom she names and features prominently in the narrative, creates a great sense of bonding and connection between mother and child onstage.  Hester’s eventual murder of Josie and immediate suicide thereafter, seems (in comparison with Euripides) somehow all the more tragic and poignant, as Hester seems to do so out of love for her daughter, rather than spite of her ex-lover.  Carr’s Medea retelling has the effect of purveying a message of the dangers of a community divided – not unlike the division between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – Hester’s murder of Josie and her own suicide signify a breaking point in the isolation felt as a result of the loss of social identity.  The progression of the Medea-character as a signifier of resistance to political and religious intolerance seems only natural when considering Euripides’ Medea, who fought in violent opposition to any form of oppression, no matter how seemingly insurmountable; it is Medea’s malleability and applicability to radically different socio-historic contexts which firmly establishes her archetypal status.

The more modern reading of Euripides’ Medea as a proto-feminist figure, although somewhat explored in Carr’s version, is further examined in Robert Duncan’s Medea at Kolchis: The Maiden Head.  Staged in 1965, a decade after the publication of Nabokov’s controversial Lolita, Duncan’s foray into female sexuality and the patriarchal values which serve to suppress and control it, is a poetic examination of the contradictory social values of the 1960s (Corti 183).  The bipolar female ‘ideal’ of simultaneous femme fatale and virginal young girl, hyper-sexualised by an older, more experienced man, was not a new social construct, but its rise to prominence in the ‘wholesome’ 1950s and 60s, culminated in Nabokov’s disturbingly paedophilic tale.  Perhaps most interestingly, the Medea-myth’s child victims are transposed with Medea herself, in Duncan’s play.  Duncan’s Medea is a pubescent girl, anywhere between the ages of 12 and 16, on the cusp of adulthood and burgeoning sexuality, yet still a child (Duncan 3).  Her immaturity and lack of adult support and understanding place her in an extremely vulnerable position; like Medea’s children in Euripides’ play, Duncan’s Medea is a victim of adult ambivalence.  However, Medea is still Medea and her infamous fury and passionate obsessiveness, lead her to violent patricide.  Duncan’s intense focus on Medea’s precocious sexuality, is observed by Corti as a sort of justification for the eroticisation of children – placing the responsibility back onto the child, rather than the adult (183); a phenomenon not uncommon in the mentality of adults who commit sexual crimes against children, or indeed any perpetrator of sexual assault.  The social stigma of blaming the victim who was ‘asking for it’ does not usually extend to crimes against children, however when it comes to adolescent girls at the onset of adulthood, this demarcation of social standards is often blurred.  Medea’s assimilation of her narrative goes beyond Boedeker’s observations, in Duncan’s version; the Medea archetype absorbs her victim-children, becoming an unwary victim-child herself.  Corti observes the parallels drawn by Florence Rush, between Greek practices of pederasty, where adult males took young boys as lovers and pseudo-children, as well as the Lolita-esque idea of a reciprocal relationship between adult male and female child (184).  The inherent abuse in both types of relationships is categorically justified by the adult and relies on the intervention of other adults to protect the child; this lack of constant adult vigilance in Lolita and Duncan’s Medea provides a critique on the social practice of ‘protecting’ children from the realities of potential abuse, by ignoring the possibility of a problem arising.  Later, in Charles Ludlam’s Medea, this social unwillingness to address ‘distasteful’ or ‘taboo’ issues, at the expense of vulnerable members of the community, is also exposed.

 Broadway, New York City

RIDICULOUS production of Medea by Charles Ludlam!

(View on YouTube)

Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Company’s Medea, was written by him shortly prior to his death and was not performed by his troupe until thereafter; although Ludlam often played the female lead, even he recoiled from the role of child-killer, finding the notion of murdering one’s own children too disconcerting (Corti 187).  In the Ridiculous interpretation of Euripides’ Medea, the tensions being explored are clearly those of social expectation regarding gender roles and sexuality – a reflection of the political and social upheaval of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s (Corti 188).  Although in Euripides’ time, the use of ‘cross-dressing’ as theatrical technique would have been the norm (as men played the female parts anyway), the Ridiculous Company’s production saw each female role enacted by males in drag, by design (Corti 188), purposefully subverting the social/theatrical standards of predominantly female actresses taking on female roles.  Rather than focusing on the questioning of the gender roles of woman as loyal wife, caring mother and submissive consort, as Euripides’ Medea does, the Ridiculous Medea focuses on the role of man, subverting the social idealisation of a hyper masculine, dominant, embodiment of machismo.  In the 1987 production, Black-Eyed Susan and Everett Quinton (who both played Medea and the Nurse, interchangeably) irreverently parodied the tragedy inherent in the murder of children and the scapegoating of social responsibility as evidenced in Euripides’ penultimate scene.  The Chorus noticeably does little to protect Medea’s offspring, knowing full well her intentions, and the audience is thus, also passively implicated in the failure to act.  Ludlam’s Medea exaggerates this scene and invites comparison with the failure of the American people to allow for much-needed sex education in their schools, despite the damning mortality rates related to sexually transmitted diseases of the previous year, statistics which included hundreds of children (Corti 188).  The American normalisation of gender roles even in the 1980s, was so conservative, that like the Chorus, the majority preferred to refuse to acknowledge a problem they found too abhorrent, even if it lead to the unnecessary loss of innocent lives.  Pucci remarks on the necessity Euripides’ Medea attaches to such an evil act; justifying her murderous behaviour as inevitable, especially prior to the act, relinquishing responsibility in favour of inescapable fate (151).  The psychology behind this scene is a powerful commentary on the extent to which human beings can attempt to justify even the most despicable of acts and Ludlam’s adaptation bluntly and derisively accentuates this failing.

To list all of the incarnations of Medea over the millennia would be impossible; so many adaptations within the theatre exist, other than the ones mentioned here and this does not even begin to include the Medea-myth in music, fine art, opera, ballet, film, television, literature, etc.  Although by no means the original, Euripides’ version of the Medea-myth certainly is one of the most influential, to this day and has inspired innumerable subsequent works.  Euripides’ Medea is so wonderfully complex, intelligent and at odds with her surroundings, whilst simultaneously being able to absorb the elements of her own narrative, that it comes as no surprise Medea has surpassed her own mythology.  Medea the archetype now reigns, able to adapt to her surroundings still, no matter the social, political or historical context.  With that same malleability and passionate contradiction, Medea the archetype provides the critical paradigm with which to view the changing world and even influence it.

Works Cited

Allan, William. Euripides: Medea. London: Duckworth, 2002. Print.

Boedeker, Deborah. “Becoming Medea: Assimilation In Euripides.” Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art. Ed. James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997. 127-48. Print.

Carr, Marina. “By the Bog of Cats.” New Plays from the Abbey Theatre. Ed. Sanford Sternlicht and Judy Friel. Vol. 2. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1996. 188-245. Print.

Christopoulos, Menelaos, Efimia D. Karakantza, and Olga Levaniouk, eds. Light and Darkness in Ancient Greek Myth and Religion. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010. Print.

Corti, Lillian. The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998. Print.

Duncan, Robert. Medea at Kolchis: The Maiden Head. Berkeley, CA: Oyez, 1965. Print.

Enoch, Wesley. “Black Medea.” Contemporary Indigenous Plays. Sydney, NSW: Currency, 2007. 56-81. Print.

Euripides. Euripides: Medea. Trans. Michael Collier and Georgia Machemer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Euripides. Medea. Ed. Donald J. Mastronarde. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.

Euripides. Medea and Other Plays. Trans. John Davie. Ed. R. B. Rutherford. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Griffiths, Emma. Medea. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Macintosh, Fiona. “Introduction: The Performer in Performance.” Medea in Performance 1500-2000. Ed. Oliver Taplin, Fiona Macintosh, and Edith Hall. Oxford: Legenda, 2000. 1-31. Print. Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler.” Four Major Plays: Henrik Ibsen. Trans. James McFarlane and Jens Arup. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981. 165-264. Print.

Junker, Klaus. Interpreting the Images of Greek Myths: An Introduction. Trans. Annemarie Künzl-Snodgrass and Anthony Snodgrass. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

Giuliani, Luca, and Glenn W. Most. “Medea in Eleusis, in Princeton.” Visualizing the Tragic: Drama, Myth, and Ritual in Greek Art and Literature : Essays In Honour of Froma Zeitlin. Ed. Chris Kraus, Simon Goldhill, Helene P. Foley, and Jaś Elsner. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 197-217. Print.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. Heroines and Hysterics. London: Duckworth, 1981. Print.

Ludlam, Charles. Medea. New York: Samuel French, 1988. Print.

Mastronarde, Donald J., ed. Euripides Medea. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Medea. Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Perf. Maria Callas, Massimo Girotti, and Giuseppi Gentile. San Marco, 1969. DVD.

Medea 1780. Adapt. Judith Chazin-Bennahum. Dir. Jean-Georges Noverre. Contemporary Arts Media, 2000. DVD.

Morse, Ruth. The Medieval Medea. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996. Print.

Pearsall, Judy, and Bill Trumble, eds. The Oxford English Reference Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Pucci, Pietro. The Violence of Pity in Euripides’ Medea. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1980. Print.

Wakoski, Diane. Medea the Sorceress. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1991. Print.

Warner, Sara. “”Do You Know What Bitch Is Backwards?”: Mythic Revision and Ritual Reversal in the Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women.” Dialectical Anthropology 26 (2001): 159-79. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.

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Written by Anya Tretyakova

Sometime thespian, wannabe film director. Lover of literature for life.