Cover of Medea (Dover Thrift Editions)
Rating: 5 out of 5
I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to blog much last week, but I was celebrating my upcoming graduation with my grad school girlfriends in Las Vegas! I had such an amazing time, and after staying up all night, I have a serious case of the Mondays. But at least it’s Masterpiece Monday!
So Mother’s Day is this weekend, and I’ve been finding it difficult to find really good mothers in classic literature. Most women hundreds of years ago had children out of obligation rather than choice. Just look at The Awakening and Madame Bovary, for example. However, I’d much rather discuss probably the worst literary mother: Medea.
Medea was first produced by the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides in 431 BCE. It tells the tale of Medea, a barbarian woman from Colchis known for witchcraft. She married Jason, hero with the Golden Fleece, and traveled to Corinth. There, Jason falls in love with a princess named Glauce, daughter of King Creon. Interested in joining a royal family, Jason tosses Medea aside.
In a fit of unparalleled revenge, Medea murders Glauce and Creon with poisoned robes. Not satisfied, she decides to bring complete ruin to her husband by killing her own two children. She declares that she hates Jason more than she loves her progeny.
Surprisingly, Medea is not punished by the gods for her actions. The sun god Helios carries her and her sons’ bodies to Athens as the play ends. The chorus breaks into song frequently throughout the production, contemplating the morality of Medea’s actions, but it’s up to the audience to form their own conclusions.
As for this reader, I absolutely love Medea. Compared to Sophocles and Aeschylus, Euripides is such a bad-ass. He often writes about powerful women, including Helen, Andromache, and Hecuba, placing them as the stars in his tragedies.
His plays are also the most violent of the three playwrights: My second-favorite work of his, Bacchae, narrates a young man ripped from limb to limb by his own mother in an ectastic, orgiastic episode. All of this occurs at the hands of the vindictive god Dionysus.
Obviously, Euripides is an acquired taste, and may not suit prim-and-proper readers. But he manages to contrast gritty, brutal themes with beautiful writing. It’s a shame that there are so many texts of his that remain lost or in fragments.
So why do I love Medea? She’s the quintessential figure behind the saying “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Because she has semi-supernatural powers and is a foreigner, she is not chained to Greek mores. She suffered through a tremendous betrayal and finds the perfect way to get back at her scumbag of a spouse. She realizes that killing him would be too easy; it’s much crueler to kill his loved ones and force him to live with his guilt.
Do I think she’s a good role model? Of course not. Are her actions justified? I think so, but that’s for you to decide. If you’re interested in reading Greek literature, leave your Judeo-Christian notions behind and open your mind to an entirely different way of thinking. If you can do that, you might just find yourself enjoying some of the most celebrated, intellectually rewarding pieces of literature in the entire world.
Feel free to share your thoughts about Medea or just give a shout-out to your favorite literary mothers! And don’t forget to call your real one on Sunday!
“This I say, that those who have never had children, who know nothing of it, in happiness have the advantage over those who are parents” – Chorus, lines 1090-1095
“Let no one think me a weak one, feeble-spirited, a stay-at-home, but rather just the opposite, one who can hurt my enemies and help my friends; for the lives of such persons are most remembered” – Medea, lines 805-810