Filmmaker and essayist, Didi Cheeka, gives Euripides’ Medea a contemporary sheen
Euripides’ Medea is the grim story of a woman’s revenge. Forced to leave Iolkos, Medea and her husband seek refuge in Corinth, where they are regarded as outsiders. However, since ancient Greek customs does not legally recognize Jason’s union with Medea, Jason stands a chance to not only win a position of honour, but also fully integrate himself within this new community–by marrying Glauce, the daughter of Corinth’s King Creon, abandoning and betraying Medea.
Jason, in Greek legend, hero of the Argonauts is sent by his uncle Pelias, usurper of the throne to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. Medea, sorceress daughter of King Aeëtes falls hopelessly in love with Jason, and in return for Jason’s pledge of everlasting fidelity, uses her magic gifts to enable him deceive her father and obtain the fleece. Medea then sails away from Colchis with Jason, taking along Apsyrtus, her young brother. To escape her father, Medea kill Apsyrtus and scatter his remains on the sea. Her father stops to gather them up, and the delay enable the seekers escape.
Back in Greece, Jason once again asks Medea to aid him in avenging his parents’ murder with her magic. Medea obliges, bringing about the death of Pelias by a cruel trick. Telling Pelias daughters she knows how they can make their aging parent young again, Medea dismembers an old sheep and boils the pieces. After she utters a charm, a frisky young lamb jumps from the boiling cauldron. Convinced, the daughters dismember their father, after Medea puts him to sleep with a powerful portion. But Medea then disappears without saying the magic words. It is this cruel magic that causes Jason and Medea to flee to Corinth, living together as man and wife with their two sons. Until Glauce, Corinthian princess.
Born in 484 BC, Euripides was the last of three great tragedians of ancient Greece that included Aeschylus and Sophocles–quoted as saying that he portrayed people as they ought to be, whereas Euripides portrayed them as they are. Of the three dramatists, Euripides’ tragedies present the most subtle analysis of human psychology. Unlike other Greek playwrights of the time, who constantly attacked him and his plays for their unconventionality, for their natural dialogue, and for their independence from traditional religious and moral values–Euripides addressed the plight of the common people, rather than that of mythic heroes, and his heroes spoke the language of everyday life.
In contrast to Aeschylus and Sophocles–whose tragedies confronted humanity with the absolute power of the gods, of blind fate and destiny–Euripides represented the new moral, social, and political movements that were taking place in Athens toward the end of the 5th century BC, a period of enormous intellectual, artistic, scientific, and political advancement. New truths were being sought and advanced in all branches of knowledge, and Euripides, reacting to them, brought a new kind of truth to the writing of tragedy, challenging with his plays long-accepted religious and moral dogmas. Euripides’ interest lay, not in the legendary exploits of titans and gods, but in the thought and experience of the ordinary individual. Euripides took his plots from the same general source as the other Greek dramatists, but interpreted and modified the traditional legends so that the heroic figures lose their heroic quality and are driven by often base emotions. For this, new forms were needed: the unconventional use of the tragic chorus as independent of the chief action of the drama; use of the prologue and epilogue, ridiculed by Aristophanes as mechanical, clumsy and undramatic.
Euripides’ plays began to be performed in 454 BC in the Athenian drama festivals, which initially developed from the early festivals of Dionysis–then god of fertility and wine–into a six-day festival every year wherein the ancient myths were reworked for moral, religious, even political truths. However, it was not until 442 BC that Euripides’ play won the prize for best tragedy, a feat he would achieve only five times. First performed in 431 BC Euripides’ Medea shocked and angered the audience and received the 3rd prize out of three. And yet of all other ancient Greek tragedian his works resonates the most powerfully with modern audiences, with Medea ranked as one of the most powerful tragedies. How does an audience respond to a barbarian protagonist–a woman [and hence a person of low status in ancient Greece where only the male has the right and ability to lucid and rational argument]–who is at once able to rise above the ordinary in courage, sympathetic, and morally repugnant?
The play opens with Medea grieving over the life she threw away for Jason, with her elderly nurse fearing she might do harm to herself or her children. Creon, also fearing what such a woman might do arrives to exile Medea. Medea pleads for one day’s delay. Jason justifies his need to marry a royal princess and throws Medea’s barbarian origin in her face. Medea is outraged by Jason’s desertion and betrayal, and moves between despair and thoughts of revenge: “It was everything to me to think well of one man,/ And he, my own husband, has turned out wholly vile/ […] I am deserted, a refugee, thought nothing of/ By my husband–something he won in a foreign land.”
Medea’s revenge is savage and bloody, and devastatingly complete. She contrives to poison the prospective bride with the gift of some golden robes [a family heirloom and gift from her grandfather, the Sun God]. “Alas!” a Messenger reports, “The bride had died in horrible agony; for no sooner had she put on Medea’s gifts than a devouring poison consumed her limbs as with fire, and in his endeavour to save his daughter the father died too.” Please with her revenge thus far, Medea carries it further by murdering her own children, in order to utterly destroy Jason–for now, love has become hate, and she hates him more than she loves them. Medea departs Corinth on a chariot of the sun, taking the bodies of her dead children with her so that Jason is denied both the satisfaction of making her pay for her crimes and burial rites of his children. His impotent curses are refuted by Medea: “What heavenly power lends an ear/ To a breaker of oaths, a deceiver?”
To come upon Medea confronting the choices before her is like coming upon a wild sight of nature–a wind-lashed tree, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, on a stormy night. There she is, in this compelling opening moments: to be or not to be? To accept and accommodate herself to the status quo, to Jason’s betrayal and abandonment of her, or to risk terrible evil, confronting her own destruction rather than accept her world the way it now is? Euripides was the poet of bitter, realistic observation of human weaknesses and corruption, and yet his work also reflected respect for human heroism and dignity; at once bitter and poetic, violent and tender. Further challenging the prevailing assumptions, Euripides gives to Medea the ability to lucid, rational argument, the traditional prerogative of males, and compromises Jason, who is portrayed in less than heroic lights.
Medea challenges ancient Greek society’s notion that a woman’s crowning glory was to bear children and fulfill the conjugal demands of her husband: “Still more, a foreign woman, coming among new laws,/ New customs, needs the skill of magic, to find out/ What her home could not teach her, how to treat the man/ Whose bed she shares. And if in this exacting toil/We are successful, and our husband does not struggle/Under the marriage yoke, our life is enviable./ Otherwise, death is better. If a man grows tired/ Of the company at home, he can go out, and find/ A cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look/ To one man only. And they tell us, we at home/ Live free from danger, that they go out to battle–fools!/ I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear/One child.”
It is the last few lines that connect [for me] Medea with Amina, Queen of Zaria. It is why I explore, with In Silence …& In Tears [currently in financing at the Durban FilmMart this July, with principal photography scheduled for August] the psychology of betrayal and revenge. How does an audience respond to such a character? Who can possibly love such a woman–so intense and frightening, so unashamed and sacrificial in her love? Terrifying [paraphrasing Warsan Shire in For Women Who Are Difficult To Love] and strange and beautiful–something not everyone knows how to love. And Jason, unable to live up to the man who lives in her head. This is my reading of Medea, Amina, and–the woman at the heart of my own revenge story–Salome.
• Didi Cheeka is a Marxist critic, writer and filmmaker.