Greek Tragedy


Julie Chen

December 18th

Love and Violence: Euripides’ “Medea”

By reading Knox’s paper about Euripides’ “Medea”, most students take the positive side of Medea’s characteristics as their second impression, so do I. So recently I have been searched for paper that emphasizes Medea’s negative characteristics, in order to read the play from other point of view, however, many criticsI found are confusing, especially when the critics mention too much about Western culture and literary tradition that is too abstract and unfamiliar.

However, in Artisitide Tessitore’s “Euripides’ ‘Medea’ and the Problem of Spiritedness” (The Review of Politics, Vol. 53 No.4, p.587-601), he interprets the character Medea’s from different aspects by using the word ‘spiritedness’, bringing out both heroic and brutal interpretation of Medea. Tessitore also tries referring Euripides’ will, on the aspect of ‘how’ he finishes the play. Although the critic doesn’t make out best in its ending, the author directly confronts with Knox and their critics that define Medea’s heroic character as single viewpoint while emphasizing the ‘positive’ side of Medea. Actually, I also agree with the critics that point out Medea’s brutality (including Tessitore’s), however, instead of taking the character’s brutality as a negative characteristic, I see it as the true side of the play. After all, the ambivalence of Medea does not make any part of the drama minus, as a whole, it even makes the drama more outstanding. Life itself, I think, is full of ambivalence indeed.

Before jumping into conclusion, I would like to briefly introduce Tessitore’s idea about “Medea”. In “Euripides’ ‘Medea’ and the Problem of Spiritedness”, Tessitore mentions a lot about Euripides’ way and writing, he also speculates much on the Euripides’ intention though out the play. Tessitore’s statement is thrilling and adventurous to me because other critics often merely focus their study on text and characters, rather on conjecture the author’s method and intention. That kind of speculation usually limits reader’s imagination by giving too much answer. These experiences also tell me that I should read over that play myself and try writing something with some basic the arrangement before reading paper from those famous critics.

However, Tessitore’s paper indeed brings something new to me from the very beginning of it. The author reckons there is a vivid ambivalence in the play, but that ambivalence is not from the character Medea, but from her image in different interpretation. Most of the critics about the drama can be divided into two mainstream way of thinking, one is Medea’s heroic imagination, and another is about her brutal, witch-liked characteristic.

However, Tessitore thinks that two aspects of comments on Medea’s characteristics should be both taken. In “Euripides’ ‘Medea’ and the Problem of Spiritedness”, he especially points out the brutality which Knox neglects. That is one of the reasons for me to choose his paper. By saying “Medea is less an object of love and source of inspiration and more an object of fascination.” (p.587), Tessitore provides more dimensions about Medea, especially on both her brutality and heroine imagery.

Artisitide Tessitore also emphasizes on the author himself, Euripides’ own intention in writing. He keeps referring to Euripides’ original idea about creating a character like Medea. Tessitore believes that Euripides tries hard to arise reader’s identification and sympathy in Medea the characters by arranging a situation of a foreign woman who has a sad past, and her future does not seems well, either. At the same time, Tessitore explains first how tradition of Greek hero combines the Medea myth, the violent, glory past of Euripides’ Medea, he believes that Euripides arises readers’ sympathy with the heroic elements about Medea’s past. Therefore, the Medea’s “foreign woman’s identity” is not recognized as a savage witch, but an exotic woman with a sad, brave past. However, Tessitore reckons after Euripides made Medea killing her own children, most of the reader might be frightened, and their identification on Medea might also disappear. However, Tessitore refers the following violent part of the drama presents a true controversy and obscuration, even the motivation for killing children itself becomes a big issue.

Medea’s brutality generates unfamiliarity to that kind-hearted, conservative reader. The alienation comes up with the critics that say Medea is witch-liked with cruel judgment on her deed. If we see though out the play, it becomes not only Medea’s dilemma, but also Euripides’ dilemma for what to write and why the drama should be going in this way (especially when he reconsiders how to carry on the following plot). Finally, Euripides decision becomes Medea’s and we see ambivalence of the character on the most vivid scene when Medea is going to kill her children. Many critics have been searching for Medea’s original motivation, however, the more we find it the more we see the ambivalence inside the play.

“Not only is Medea’s reconsideration important if she is to retain any degree of sympathy from her audience, it also lays bare a battleground within her soul and in doing allows the audience to see still more clearly what it is that move her most.”(p.595) By saying that, Tessitore reckons, the unendurable pain of slaughtering her children is overcome by anther lethal pain, which is the triumph of her enemy. She is indeed a selfish mother, but also an extraordinary woman (or immortal?) with real ambivalence experiences.

Recently on the other course of this semester, “the European Literature and Culture”, we discuss over 19th Realism and have read over some short story of Russian Novelist Anton Chekhov and Flaubert’s “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller”. On the class we talk about the dilemma and ambiguity of main characters in the stories, and somehow the discussion made me thought of Euripides’ Medea. To present the central meaning, these stories have something in common. That is, the characters all try hard, whether they aware that they should break though the ambivalence. Some of them failed and some succeed, but the stories never end in one answer. We call that one of the characteristic of Realism literature. On the other hand, maybe, I mean maybe Euripides in 5th B.C. wants to say the same thing, too. While Artisitide Tessitore’s thesis of taking the both aspects of Medea’s behavior, I take it as true reflections of life— not only characters in drama, short stories and epic face dilemma and critics from different surrounding corner. It is already courage when these characters make decision, fulfill goals and act out their life. Medea’s decision is even harder, but she makes her plan fulfilled, not for anyone who is able to give criticism, but for herself only, whether to love or to kill, to give or to destroy.

 Sometimes being selfish takes courage, even the brutality takes the most cost, too. So why are we afraid of brutality in art rather than in real life? Sometimes people are even crueler than Medea, but they only dare to kill rivals in their own imagination, without doing it in real life, in other words, if we see the drama from another point of view, Medea also kills for us, in our imagination of art, with her mortal way and immortal mind, walking along though ambiguity and tumors to the path of reality.

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