Monday, November 2, 2009


Having read Medea for class, I can now say I have read three of Euripides' plays (the other two being Helen and The Bacchae). I think this is really pretty good. I even, this time around, read most of the (quite long) introduction to the book, and all of the introduction to Medea.

Euripides, it turns out, is of particular interest because no one can decide if he was a feminist (or the Greek variant thereof) or the opposite. He featured women as main characters more often than either of the other two 5th century Athenian tragedians (Aristophanes and Sophocles) whose plays remain to us. These were often very powerful women, who in all kinds of ways defy ancient Greek assumptions of what a woman is supposed to be. Medea is this extremely powerful woman, yet she is also terrible woman. We have to ask whether Euripides was saying that only the bad women can have power, or whether the only acceptable way to show that women could be powerful was to make them bad.

Medea is of particular interest in this question. You know the story, right? She helps Jason steal the Golden Fleece and then runs away to Corinth with him, they have two sons, and then he leaves her to marry the daughter of King Kreon. She is (justifiably) angry, and decides (justifiably?) to kill Jason's new wife, Jason's new father-in-law, and both of her sons. Medea is in many ways very masculine, often uses masculine language for things (yes, I even read the forty billion endnotes that told me this), kills her children using a sword, a stereotypically masculine means of death. She is also very feminine, represented as loving her children enormously, and she kills Kreon and his daughter by poison, a stereotypically feminine method. In Greek terms, of course, appearing on stage at all is masculine. Women were supposed to stay inside the house, and the way the Greek theatre was set up there was a house at the back of the stage; to be on stage you had to come out of the house.

Medea is the driving force of the play. By contrast, all the men are rather ineffective. Kreon knows something bad will happen if he doesn't exile Medea immediately, but this doesn't help him. Jason, too, appears a little wishy-washy. So gender in this play is complicated.

I'm sad the experience of real Greek theatre can't be totally recreated. Greek theatre was much more like a baseball game than a modern play, and there's really no way to change the expectations of modern theatregoers enough to achieve that.

So I liked the play a lot, insofar as it raises interesting questions and musings. I'd like to see a production of it, even if it won't be much like Euripides intended.

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