Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The gods know who began this tragedy: "The Medea" of Euripides

One of Euripides' great strengths as a playwright is his way of showing the normal humanness--the non-mythic proportions--of his mythological/historical subjects. Euripides brings the heroes down to earth and so Jason of golden fleece fame was just another self-serving schmuck, and no mistaking. Medea the sorceress, however much she loved Jason, was a scheming murderess with a temper and King Creon of Corinth was justifiably afraid of her; Medea had by now made it clear that she was not a woman to be trusted and so Creon banished her after convincing Jason to put her aside to marry Creon's daughter. Neither of those was exactly a safe move on Creon's part. Was he not familiar with the story of the Argo, Medea's magic potions, etc? Well, the Corinthians were not highly thought of by the Athenians in Euripides' audience. Maybe they could accept Creon as just another not-so-bright Corinthian. But I push too hard on the Creon subplot; Creon's mistakes in dealing with Medea are not the point of the play. Creon and his order of banishment are merely plot devices to force Medea into action. She suddenly remembers that she is a sorceress, and an angry one at that. All the magic she has used to benefit her husband will now be turned against him. Hell hath no fury, etc. Everybody step back, please.

"The Medea" also contains what may be the best stage direction in Greek theater: Medea appears above the palace in a chariot pulled by dragons, the corpses of her children in her arms.

Wait: Medea could summon a chariot pulled by dragons? This is all going to be ammunition for Aristophanes, Euripides. You have no one but yourself to blame. But "The Medea" showcases another one of Euripides' strong points, sharp and realistic dialogue:
Jason
You will suffer too and share in this tragedy.
Medea
You can be certain of that. But the pain is pleasure if you do not laugh.
Jason
Oh children, what a terrible mother you had.
Medea
Oh children, how you were destroyed by your father's disease.
Jason
My right hand did not strike them.
Medea
But your abuse and your new marriage.
Jason
You thought the marriage bed was worth your children's lives?
Medea
Do you think this a trivial wrong for a woman?
Jason
If she is a good woman. But to you nothing is good.
Medea
The children are dead. This will sting you.
Jason
They are a pollution to you.
Medea
The gods know who began this tragedy.
Jason
Then they know the vileness of your heart.
Medea
Hate me. I, too, hate your irritating voice.
Jason
And I yours. The separation is easy.
This is true-to-life breakup speech, parents arguing about whose fault the misery of their children is. One of Euripides' other strengths is to get your sympathy for characters you would not normally sympathize with. By the end of "The Medea," you feel for the title character despite her intention to murder an innocent young woman as well as the children Medea has borne Jason. The whole play is possibly a response to Pericles' public comments about the proper role of a woman in Athens, to be neither seen nor heard, to accept her fate and her man's rule, etc. "If she is a good woman," indeed. Euripides was the Kurt Vonnegut of ancient Athens, sort of.

Medea may have been mad (who am I kidding with that may have been?), but she did her best by Jason, who abandoned her when she was no longer young and convenient. Jason gets what's coming to him (and how many divorced parents have not used their children as a battlefield upon which to attack their ex-spouse?) though it will cause Medea to also suffer. Though she will not suffer as much as Creon, his daughter Glauce, or her own children. How much Jason actually suffers is hard to say; he does not strike one as the owner of much depth of feeling. The description of Glauce and Creon's death is especially vivid, by which I mean violent and gory.

6 comments:

  1. I am not sure about Medea's madness. Sometimes passion is not pathological. However, I leave that discussion to people with minds sharper than mine. I do know, though, that the role of a Medea is an actor's dream and nightmare; getting "inside the head" of Medea must terrify any actor. BTW: My personal choice for "best" Greek tragedy is _Medea_ even though _Oedipus the King_ remains a very close 2nd place.

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    1. Maybe things were different 2500 years ago, but if passion leads to murder, I call that pathological. But then, Euripides is making an argument at the metaphorical level, and the children are merely figurative language and not actual kids. But on the other hand, Medea seems to be a pretty casual murderer. It's unclear how the audience was meant to think of her actions during the play in light of her actions beforehand. "The Medea" is a great work of art, though. A really fine play.

      I prefer "Oedipus at Colonus" to "Oedipus Rex." I prefer "The Theban Women" and The Oresteia to any of the Oedipus plays. But it's all good stuff, well worth reading.

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    2. why do i get the feeling from greek drama that it's not all there? it always seems like they left out some crucial scene that would explain the whole play instead of it just ending. i guess i'm just not familiar enough with those works...

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    3. When I feel that way I try to remember two things: Euripides' ideas about unity were not the same as mine, and there is a gap of understanding caused by my not being an Athenian living during the last decades of the fourth century BC. His audience would've gotten the cultural references (the myths, the history, and the commentary on contemporary politics) right away; we have to work to fill those gaps and we might leave gaps we don't see, filling them incorrectly with our imagination or our misreading of Euripides' meaning. Aristotle's Poetics don't help, either, since none of the extant tragedies match his formula.

      I'll be interested when Shakespeare season begins again, to see how my reading of all these Greek tragedies has changed the way I think about drama.

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  2. Seneca's big innovation, in his "Medea" a couple hundred years further on, is to have Medea murder her children on stage. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

    "Euripides was the Kurt Vonnegut of ancient Athens" - that is a good line. Euripides is not too far from that guy at the end of Cat's Cradle, thumbing his nose at existence for all of eternity. Plus, he seems to have invented the political protest play.

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    1. Seneca's innovations explain a great deal of Elizabethan drama.

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