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Photo by Alastair Muir

Medea – Footnotes

Apr 22, 2021 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Medea include further observations on the danger a woman like Medea represented to the men of ancient Athens, and the emotional experience Greek tragedy exacts.

A dangerous woman
During our podcast Edith Hall described the society in ancient Athens as one where women lived very circumscribed lives, restricted largely to their domestic dwellings and duties. Any threat to the stability of marriage and its purpose of perpetuating the male line was especially feared. It is no wonder therefore that Medea’s unrestrained energy and courage were distrusted, even feared. Her independence of mind and her intelligence mark her out as a serious threat, as she herself opines sardonically to the  women of Corinth in the chorus:

Women of Corinth
Don’t teach your daughters to think for themselves,
They’ll encounter nothing
But suspicion and mistrust.     
 And:

No man in his right mind
Should teach children to be clever.
No point in being cleverer than the next man.
People don’t like it.

Kreon believes that Medea is a witch, with dark and magical powers. In fact as it turns out, he was not far wrong. As Edith pointed out, there was also a general view propounded by Aristotle that women were less capable of ethical thought than men, and must therefore be controlled and contained, else left ungoverned they may wreck havoc in the civil life of the city.

Medea is also feared because she is not Greek. She is from an “uncivilised place”, as Jason describes her homeland, and when he discovers what she has done to their children he rages that:
No Greek woman would have done it.
Yet instead of one of them I deigned to marry you.
An animal, not a woman,
A savage, some prehistoric monster.

The play is therefore a cautionary tale for the men of ancient Athens, to beware immigrants – xenophobia is a Greek word after all – and even more, an unfettered woman.

Helen McCrory at the National Theatre
Photo: Alastair Muir

Aristotle marble bust
Roman copy 2nd century BCE

Suffering and Catharsis
Aristotle may not have got it right about the ethical capacity of women, but his ideas on what defined dramatic tragedy are more enduring. In his Poetics he suggested that suffering was an essential ingredient of tragedy, and that as an audience we must feel both pity and fear: pity for the sufferer and fear that it could happen to us. On both counts Medea succeeds. We certainly feel Medea’s anguish, and while we may remain confident that we would not kill our own children, we do recognise the misery and rage that can overcome our reason when we have been deeply hurt. As Edith has said about the play: “It looks suffering and human misery directly in the face – it is unflinching.”

How are we able to watch such terrible agony? Aristotle would point to the act of catharsis, by which we purge our own emotions through vicarious engagement with the drama. While we are emotionally drawn in to the suffering we are witnessing, we are simultaneously still conscious of the artifice of theatre, which makes it just about bearable to watch a mother murder her own children on stage. In fact as Edith pointed out paradoxically this may also make it harder to watch. We have no power to intervene to help the characters on stage who are suffering or in peril. This is the sweet torture of great drama.

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