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Recasting Medea Close

Oliver Taplin | Oct. 15, 2012
An ancient Greek vase showing Medea in the act of murdering one of her children.

A vase by Ixion Painter showing Medea killing one of her sons, approx. 330 BC (Louvre, Paris).


The tragedies that survive from ancient Greece prove to be inexhaustibly renewable sources of creative energy.  And Euripides’ Medea is quite possibly the most high-voltage, the most influential of all.  From Seneca toPasolini and Lars von Trier, Corneille to Heiner Mueller and Christa Wolf, Cherubini (and Callas) to Yukio Ninagawa, Grillparzer to Martha Graham…. Mike Bartlett’s new comi-tragic setting on a small-town housing estate crackles with the tension and blood-chilling shocks that jump across two-and-a-half millennia from Euripides’ still-live wires.

How sexual infidelity can turn intense love into hate; how children can become playing-pieces in the struggle; how women may kick against being continuously undervalued; how an intelligent mind can become murderous and merciless…. It is not so difficult to see the ways that a play which interweaves these themes might be constantly yet changeably adapted and remolded across centuries.

Yet Medea got off to an at best flickering start.  In the tragedy competition in 431 BC Euripides was up against Euphorion and Sophocles – three tragedies each – and we know for certain that the judges placed him third (Euphorion – who he? – won the gold!).  But the wider world did not take long to override the initial Athenian verdict.  From within 30 years of that dubious first performance we have two superb vase-paintings from Greek settlements in the south of Italy (present-day Basilicata), which are clearly inspired by the final scene of Euripides’ play.  In both Medea sails triumphantly through the air in her supernatural chariot drawn by giant serpents, while Jason, her love-rat partner, the former golden boy of the good ship Argo, waves his sword below in impotent fury.

The play had probably already turned into a hit within Euripides’ lifetime; certainly in the next couple of generations it became well-known, widely quoted, and repeatedly travestied in comedies.  What is more, at leastseven other tragic playwrights produced their own versions of Medea, most if not all paying homage to Euripides, while at the same time trying to make their mark as rivals.  It has recently emerged from the combined evidence of a vase-painting in Princeton, published in 1984, and an ancient papyrus in the Louvre, published in 2006, that a certain Carcinus in about 350, far from having Medea kill her sons, had her rescue them from the vengeful royal family at Corinth, and take them away to asylum at Eleusis (long story!).  And what is especially striking is that this was an out-and-out challenge to Euripides himself, since he was the one who in 431 invented Medea’s hallmark act.  It is a common myth about Greek tragedy that “the audience all knew the story already”: far from that, Euripides was the first to create a Medea who kills her own sons with her own hand.  Ever since then, despite Carcinus, it has been this blood-curdling deed that has made Medea into Medea.

Before Euripides, she already had a whole bunch of romantic and murderous stories to her credit.  They told how she fell in love with the dashing Argonaut when he travelled to her home city (Colchis in present-day Georgia) in search of the Golden Fleece; how she chopped up her little brother to delay pursuit (that was off Constanta in present-day Romania); how she persuaded the daughters of King Pelias in Thessaly to boil their father in a cauldron with a false claim that this would rejuvenate him….  And stories had already brought her to Corinth, the setting of Euripides’ play, where she killed the local Princess when Jason was just about to marry her – so his opportunistic infidelity was already part of the story.  In revenge, the earlier tellings went on, the royal family, or the Corinthians en masse, killed some or all of her children.  The great innovation in 431 was to have her mangle the deepest of natural bonds: that between mother and child.  There are an awful lot of dangerous women in Greek tragedy, and some of them do not hesitate to kill, but hardly ever their own children, at least not deliberately.

We live in a world where the splitting of nuclear families and bitter conflicts of loyalty and custody are everywhere.  And, horribly, it is not unknown for mothers to murder their own children – nor for fathers either.  Stories of this kind are headlined in the press only to often.  But in most cases – nearly all – the parent also kills her or himself, or attempts to do so.  Usually the suicidal parent loves the children so much that they want to take them with them, wherever they think they are going, even if only oblivion; they cannot bear to leave them behind in this intolerable world.  Euripides himself alludes to the story of Ino who jumped into the sea clutching her little boy to drown him with her.  But that is not at all how it is in his Medea-retelling – far from it.  She slaughters her two innocent sons, not because she loves them so much, but because she loved and now hates Jason so much. And far from killing herself as well, she escapes triumphantly to a new chapter in her life, leaving the golden hero behind as a ranting husk of a man (and even predicting that he will come to a rotten end, killed by a chunk of wood falling from his celebrated Argo).

What was so novel and so shocking in Euripides’ play was not only the plot-change to infanticide, but also the way that Medea emerges as unrepentant, unpunished and triumphant.  She never properly grieves or regrets, and she never pays a price.  On the contrary she flies off in her magic chariot to a safe haven at Athens, which she has cleverly fixed up in advance, leaving Jason and the royal family helpless and unavenged.  She hovers over Jason’s head, taunting him, and refusing him access even to the dead bodies of their sons.  It is this, I strongly suspect – the untamed and unpunished female – who so offended the male Athenian judges in 431 BC.  They were well used to murderous women in tragedy, and to women who were intelligent or deceitful or defiant (or all three); but they were accustomed to seeing them punished, dead, or at least brought low before the tragedy was over.  That was disturbing enough, but much less threatening than Medea.  Medea strikes at the very core-role where women are taken to be most dependable: love for their children.  And then she is not shamed or brought down; she is not even grief-stricken or reduced to silence.

Yet within a few years the play had become a smash-hit throughout the Greek world, including back at Athens.  The thrilling dramatic power outweighed the outrage.  Audiences were fascinated by the vivid enactment of a woman who is caught between the pull of the mother-child bond and the drive of sexual jealousy, and determines to satisfy the sexual motive.  She puts her case clearly and articulately: she may be a woman scorned, but she is not at all a raging Fury.  She does not act in hot blood; but she is not cold-blooded either – she weeps, she hesitates, she feels the horror.  The play demonstrates how terrible things may be done in a conflicted state of mind that is neither hot-blooded madness nor cold-blooded inhumanity.  And this makes gripping and terrifying theatre.

Now, it is true that in Euripides’ play it transpires that she is not straightforwardly human.  She has access to magic substances, and to a flying chariot lent by her grandfather the Sun; she even has powers of prophesy.  Yet it is not at all possible to sigh with relief and say, “oh, she’s a god; gods operate on a different level from humans; that makes everything acceptable.”  For three-quarters and more of the play she has presented herself as fully human, in her thinking, her motivation, her weaknesses and her powers.  Her intelligibility lures audiences into believing in her complete humanity.  And, above all, she has presented herself as a woman, an exemplar for her sex, and no exception to their usual exploitation and suppression by men.  “We women”, “us females”… these are her constant motif.

Too many critics of the play have not been able to face its full terror, and have tried to turn to mitigating explanations; but this is to be evasive and less head-on than Euripides was.  For example, it is pleaded that she is a foreigner – “so that explains everything”; and indeed that line is opened up by Jason in the original play.  But it will not wash: she reveals no outlandish beliefs or customs; she is thoroughly assimilated to Greek ways of talking and thinking, and she deploys them with an easy familiarity.  Others claim that Medea is simply a witch – as though that somehow makes everything all right then.   She does have magic powers at her disposal, it turns out, but she is no weird sister, mixing potions or chanting spells and incantations.  On the contrary she proudly displays a highly rational and understandable intelligence.

Most commonly in modern times, Medea is explained away as being mad, not in her right mind, mentally ill, unfit to plead.  It is true, of course, that it is very hard to contemplate the portrayal of a woman who, in a reasoned, balanced state of mind, maintains that her sex-drive is more powerful than even her maternal blood-bond.  A woman who sacrifices her children to her need to be avenged on her treacherous husband, spurred on by the thought of him cavorting in the wrong bed.  A woman who makes an articulate case for her murderous actions.  But that is precisely what Euripides does.

And so does Mike Bartlett.

Oliver Taplin is a Professor of Classics at Oxford University, with a special interest in the performance of Greek drama.  His new translation of Euripides’ Medea is due to be published by Chicago University Press early in 2013.


Article Copyright © Oliver Taplin 2012.