Euripides’ Revenger’s Tragedy, #
Medea, first performed in 431 BCE, is every Family Court’s Judges’ worst nightmare.
Natalie Haynes BBC podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0bf56gp
Medea, falls in love with Jason of the Argonauts, betrays her father, the King Aeetes of Colchis and kills her own brother, to help Jason claim the Golden Fleece. Knowlegible in magic, Medea, soceress, makes magic potions to protect Jason from fire-breathing bulls, giants and serpent guarding the Fleece.
After ten years of marriage and three children, Medea is then abandoned in Corinth by Jason when, a King Crean offers Jason the throne if he marries his daughter Glauce. Jason treats Medea like a harlot; theirs was a barbarian mating, not a civilised Greek marriage to a noble woman.
Medea suddenly realises she has been duped:
“My love for you was greater than my wisdom.”
“Old loves are dropped when new ones come”
“we women are the worst treated things alive”
“To me, a wicked man who is also eloquent seems the most guilty of them all. He’ll cut your throat as bold as brass, because he can dress up murder in handsome words.”
On the day of the wedding Medea, sends them beautiful wedding clothes, how in vengeful spite she manages to kill both Glauce and King Crean by dipping them in lethal poison.
Much of the play is taken up with her need for revenge as she contemplates resorting to filicide, killing their sons, in retribution, before her flight to Athens.
Natural Law, the idea of a moral code integral to and inseparable from whatever it is that makes us human—is tested in the events of Medea when characters make decisions contrary to their nature, when Jason, a husband, abandons his wife or when Medea, a mother, murders her children. Medea’s decision to kill her children, even as a form of retribution, was as shocking to the ancient Athenians as it is to us today. It was then, as it is now, considered a violation of Natural Law.
Modern colloquialisms are thrust abruptly into the loftier or more lyrical poetics, so that the domestic juts directly against the tragic. Thus, for example, we go in one breath from “talk to kings and cry with Gods” to “you were nothing without me”. Once you get used to the halting rhythms, this synthesis gives rise to a sense of injured nobility, of dignity sustained beneath and despite the horror and madness.
Love’s progress is seldom smooth.
Plato in The Republic:“
The obedience of the impulsive parts of the soul to the rational parts is taken as a model for justice in the political arena”.
Legislation may not change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.
As Helen Garner puts it:
But everyone knows that love is brutal. A thousand songs tell the story. Love tears right through to the centre of us, into our secret self, and lays it wide open. Surely Sigmund Freud was right when he said, “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”
Medea, on contemplating her course of revenge:
“Stronger than lover’s love is lover’s hate. Incurable, in each, the wounds they make.” “It’s human; we all put self interest first.” “I know indeed what evil I intend to do, but stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.”
“Hate is a bottomless cup; I will pour and pour” “Of all creatures that can feel and think,
“I know indeed what evil I intend to do, but stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.”
“For in other ways a woman is full of fear, defenseless, dreads the sight of cold steel; but, when once she is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.”
“I’d three times sooner go to war than suffer childbirth once.”
*“Mortal fate is hard. You’d best get used to it.” “I understand too well the dreadful act I’m going to commit, but my judgement can’t check my anger, and that incites the greatest evils human beings do.” *
“Do not grieve so much for a husband lost that it wastes away your life.”
“death is the only water to wash away this dirt”
“Since I am wise, some people envy me,
some think I’m idle, some the opposite,
and some feel threatened. Yet I’m not all that wise.”
“Gods often contradict our fondest expectations. What we anticipate does not come to pass. What we don’t expect some god finds a way to make it happen. So with this story”
“Who can stop grief’s avalanche once it starts to roll.”
“In childbirth grief begins.”
“Better a humble heart, a lowly life. Untouched by greatness let me live - and live. Not too little, not too much: there safety lies.”
“Not yet do you feel it. Wait for the future.”
“O what will she do, a soul bitten into with wrong?”
Euripides explores the idea of trauma caused by extreme pain causing trauma. Medea reacts with fury at being dumped by Jason for a younger woman and takes it badly. Greek Theatre is characterised by pathos leading to Catharsis or purging of the emotions. Pyscchologists today recognise many means of resolving issues for closure.
Nurse and Servant on Medea:
Medea lies in a house broken with pain and rage, doesn’t eat or drink except her own tears.
When I try to speak to her, she turns her eyes as stones. She hates even her own children. She is learning what it is like to be a foreigner cast out in a new land. Dreadful evils stalks through the forest of her dark mind. The evil of deep despair is not declining; it is just at dawn. She should not be alone.
Do you think it is wise to leave the lady alone in there, building that terrible Acropolis of deadly thoughts? She’s dangerous – look at her eyes! We Greeks think solitude is dangerous; turning great passions into dark monsters of the mind. If you share them with loving friends, they remain human, they can be cured.
“We must not think too much: people go mad if they think too much.”
We could compare this with Gerard Manly Hopkins “No worst, there is none”.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
Or John Donne’s “Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day,” another ode to grief and depression
High born vs commoner: #
It is a bad thing to be born of a high race in a great house unruled but ruling. It is unendurable.
Poor people are happier, humble and poor in spirit, commoners who can lie low under the wind.
Great people like the tall oak and cloud raking pines writhe, groan and crash under the high winds. Fate brings on great persons, great disasters.
This is the wild and terrible justice of the Gods.
“Amongst mortals no man is happy; wealth may pour in and make one luckier than another, but none can happy be.”
“Why long for death’s marriage bed
which human beings all shun?
Death comes soon enough
and brings an end to everything.”
“I will storm the Gods and shake the Universe”
“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.”
“You have the skill. What is more, you were born a woman, And women, though most helpless in doing good deeds, Are of every evil the cleverest of contrivers.”
“Oh, say, how call ye this,
To face, and smile, the comrade whom his kiss Betrayed? Scorn? Insult? Courage? None of these:
‘Tis but of all man’s inward sicknesses
The vilest, that he knoweth not of shame
Nor pity! Yet I praise him that he came . . .
To me it shall bring comfort, once to clear
My heart on thee, and thou shalt wince to hear.”
“Hast thou ice that thou shalt bind it
To thy breast, and make thee dead
To thy children, to thine own spirit’s pain?
When the hand knows what it dares,
When thine eyes look into theirs,
Shalt thou keep by tears unblinded
Thy dividing of the slain?
These be deeds Not for thee:
These be things that cannot be!”
Love’s madness #
What happens when a woman falls in love with her stalker?
In Herakles, the play’s titular hero, driven insane at the direction of the goddess Hera, slaughters his own family. In a crucial central scene, in which the personified figure of Madness (Lyssa in Greek) infects Herakles’s mind, Euripides’s language suggests that the sound of the aulos—heard no doubt in one of its more frenetic modes—conveyed her malign power.“I will pipe over you with terror,” Lyssa says to Herakles, using a verb coined from the word aulos.
Quotes from Herakles:
Zeus either thou art a god of little sense, or naturally unjust.
The bravest man relies on hope; the coward on despair.
Some have, what others want, but all of the human race love their offspring.