Well, fancy meeting you here!…I actually have a moderately substantive idea to post. I apologize for my sporadic silence lately…at the moment, in addition to the normal household mayhem, which is about to explode into pre-holiday mayhem, I’m teaching five courses with five different course preps, and I’m going a bit bonkers. To add insult to injury, one of them is an online class which I find to be at least half again as much work as a face to face class.
Last week the online class, an aesthetics survey of art, music, literature, philosophy, theology from ancient times to the Renaissance, in seven weeks – I know right?! – hit the classical world. My standard literature assignment for this section dovetails into the discussion aspect of the course. Students read one of my favorite tragedies, Medea by Euripides, and then are asked to discuss the characterization of Medea.
For those who are not familiar, Medea is one of the most reviled female characters in classical mythology, largely due to Euripides’ version of the her. Medea was not a Greek, but from Colchis, a kingdom on the Black Sea. She was described as a devotee of Hekate and was known as one of the great sorceresses of the ancient world. She came into the Greek sphere when she aided the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason witnessed first hand on several occasions how powerful Medea was as she helped him escape with his prize, and used her witchcraft to his advantage after he brought her back to Greece as his wife.
Euripides’ Medea picks up when Jason has decided to trade Medea in for a newer model, Princess Glauke of Corinth, who will substantially increase his wealth and prestige. The play develops as Medea argues with Jason about what he owes her and how he is abandoning her in a foreign land. Jason is unmoved, going forward with his plans to divorce Medea and marry Glauke. Medea’s rage is palpable as she converses with the chorus, but she tamps it down when she speaks to Glauke’s father Creon and Jason, lulling them into thinking that she has accepted the situation.
Unlike the modern reader, the Greek audience knew what was coming next, but Euripides masterfully plays out the story as Medea systematically kills everyone important to Jason – including his two sons. Her sons.
I’ve come to expect that my students, who have only a cursory understanding of things Greek, almost always take the easiest route and revile Medea for her actions. Evil, What kind of mother, etc. come up often in discussions. Not a surprise taken in a modern context, which is why I need to jump in and point out that they need to attempt to put this play back into its context. What was Euripides doing with Medea? Why does he have her commit this heinous act (most sources agree that this version of the myth begins with Euripides)? What does this tell us about classical Greece?
Here’s my reading…people are supposed to be horrified by Medea. She’s horrible. For the Greeks though, the reasons her actions are so awful are completely different than they are for a modern reader. The classical Greeks were pre-Christian, with very little inherent notion of the sanctity of life, or an otherworldly bond between mother and child. This play was first produced in 431 BCE by the society that coined the term misogyny.
It is a play written by a man in a male dominated society and produced for a predominantly male audience who shared the same values of patriarchy and male dominance. Medea would have scared the shit out of them. It’s no accident that Euripides used Medea, a foreigner, to send the message of this play. No Greek woman, not even Clytemnestra, acted in this horribly. Medea is an enormously powerful woman who has been let completely off the leash. In that sense, Euripides is writing a clear cautionary tale about what happens if women are left uncontrolled.
As such, in the Greek view, it is Jason who is really at fault here. Jason is the one who brought a foreigner back as a wife (big no-no). Jason is the one who is unable to control her. Jason is the one who crossed her, knowing full well what she was capable of – Medea dismembered her brother and threw his bits off the back of their chariot knowing her father would stop to pick them up allowing her to escape with Jason and the Golden Fleece.
I encourage you to take a look at Euripides’ characterization of Jason – I detest Jason as a character…of all the Greek heroes (admittedly, a narcissistic lot) I really can’t stand Jason. He’s whiny, he’s ineffective (he is one of the only of the Greek heroes to need the help of a woman, not a goddess, to complete his task) he’s mercenary, and he’s just plain stupid in some cases.
So back to my original question: For a while now, I’ve been wondering if Richard Armitage were to play Jason, in a production or an adaptation of Medea, would he be able to embody the him in such a way as to preserve my decades long enmity for the character, or would he be able to find something in Jason that might change my mind? Or am I too besotted to care?
Do you have a “Jason” for Richard Armitage to test?