In defence of Medea: a feminist reading of the so-called villain

In the annals of literary history, of all the great villains – Iago, Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Fagin, White Witch, Moriarty — perhaps none is more infamous than Medea: a woman who slaughters her own children to spite her husband for taking another lover.

Yet, what if there is there more to Medea’s character than either the ‘crazy’ or the ‘monster villain’ ruled only by sexual jealousy, and what if the death of her children is one that is not easily dismissed as revenge? It is my feminist thesis that the Euripides’ version might diminish a skilled politician who is rightfully angry because by virtue of being a woman who has been thoroughly thwarted in all her ambitions. If we prise open the character who is all at once politician, woman, foreigner, wife and mother equipped with superior strategic powers and some ‘inexplicable’ skills (originally ‘magic’, but in my interpretation an innate intuition and a knowledge of earthly herbs) we see that this multifaceted, complex woman — Medea — is entirely intimidating to the patriarchy. So by demonising and reducing Medea, Euripides’ in 431 BC allows her to be dismissed and maintained for all time as ‘outsider’, ‘other’, and indeed an issued warning to men of the ‘passionate woman’.

Is this not what still echoes within the halls of contemporary politics — so particularly revealed through Julia Gillard’s powerful parliamentary speech on misogyny? All these centuries later female politicians and decision-makers are constantly reduced to gender stereotypes in an attempt by the patriarchy to wrestle back power believed to be solely the domain of men. If it is men who write the narrative of history then no powerful woman is remembered for her clever strategies or higher intelligence, rather they are all cast as witches or anti-women as a means of making them irrelevant.

Popular culture gives us Game of Thrones and House of Cards, in an attempt to illustrate how women have often had to work doubly hard to assert their power. If they needed a foothold they often have had to strategically gain that through marriage or an alliance with men. When we examine Robyn Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards, we find a woman who is at least if not more capable than her husband of climbing the political ladder and yet she must rely on him to get a foothold before possibly taking over. Is this Hilary Clinton?

Indeed, was Jason Medea’s Bill? When Jason leaves Medea to build an empire with another, Medea is the one who astutely perceives the threat she and her children are to that new empire and the future royal line, but in voicing that very real threat, she brings about the wrath of both the ‘civilised’ Jason and indeed perhaps Euripides himself.

In this day and age we still demonise a woman of intelligence and power because she is not subscribing to maternal and spousal stereotypes. She is tainted by labels and crudely reduced in order to make men feel safe.

My own adaptation of Medea is an attempt to examine Euripides’ version through a feminist lens. We have two women in the original version – Medea who becomes the crazy monster, and Glauce who is the virginal innocent, and who in the Euripides’ play has no voice whatsoever; not a single line. I wanted to find the character of each of these women, and have them confront and manipulate each other. In the time of the Greeks a woman had to take power from others, and to do so required skills, strategies and hard, strong decision-making.

The character of Medea is so much more than that of a spurned wife, and my exploration hopes to highlight her passion and drive, her anger at being betrayed not only as a woman but more importantly as Jason’s partner and co-conspirator in their joint empire building. What would Claire Underwood do if Frank Underwood betrayed her stake in the empire they too are building?

The eternal stumbling block though is always the fact that Medea kills her children. She kills her kids! Even if an audience member can sympathise with the passionate power building woman, they always balk at this act, and so too they should. Euripides has her do this terrible deed for revenge and revenge only, but in doing such a dreadful act as a means of merely punishing Jason, Euripides undermines everything about Medea. Dare I say, Euripides might have gotten it wrong?

What if she was the greater thinker, the one with greater foresight who saw what would happen to her boys? For these children by virtue of being Jason’s first sons will surely be a threat Jason and Glauce’s future sons’ inheritance of the throne. In my version it is only Medea who sees this, and Glauce herself confirms it to be so. The boys are doomed from the moment Jason made his new alliance. Ironically it is Medea’s very love for those boys that increases her fury at Jason, her anger at him for letting them all down so very much, and her fury that he refuses to see he has doomed his own children.

However things are never quite so clear-cut, and, for this character-obsessed playwright, there is no denying the competing elements within a person’s nature, and Medea, despite her great political skills, is a passionate woman driven to punish Jason as well as to protect her boys. When that passion overrides her cool sense of judgement and Medea makes the slightest miscalculation, then by inadvertently underestimating the smallest of elements, everything comes tumbling down.

While her boys were always doomed — it now becomes this very day that their lives are most at risk. What does a loving mother do? Watch them tortured and dismembered? Or take actions into her own hands? In this context I would argue that her last terrible deed in the killing of her children is explicable as an act of love — and the action of a strong, brave woman and mother.

It was Euripides who memorialised the myth of Medea as a child killer, for there were many versions of the story that did not include this element. In grappling with this most famous version, I looked back to the legal world where in certain situations infanticide is justified, and the elements of this defence are linked to the mother’s very real fear that something much worse would happen to them.

Euripides created the most beautifully structured piece which was a joy to unpick and reconfigure; he was speaking to an audience who loved to be terrorised, and handing them a woman who killed her children with the only apparent reason being revenge gave them something to fear in their very own homes. However, in taking over her narrative Euripides did Medea a huge injustice and I wanted my Medea to own her own narrative, tell her own story.

If it is only the dominant culture that writes history, then I craved an opportunity for Medea, the woman, the foreigner, the dark-eyed, passionate and brilliant soul struggling against her fall from power, to tell her own story — to be fully rounded and hot blooded but not mad — and more importantly for Medea to own this narrative. In a large candlelit theatre in Brisbane, playing in the round where there is no place to hide, under the expert direction of Todd MacDonald and with an astonishing cast, my dream of this version of Medea is realised.

Suzie Miller’s adaptation of Medea is playing now at La Boite Theatre in Brisbane until 20 June 2015, directed to La Boite Artistic Director Todd MacDonald and starring Christen O’Leary as Medea. Featured image by Dylan Evans.

Read Alison Cotes’ review of Medea here 

3 responses to “In defence of Medea: a feminist reading of the so-called villain

  1. correct, Medea was a shamaness and baffled the modern mind of the greeks. and the earlier versions do not have her kill her boys, the citizens of corinthpaid euripides 5 talents to add that twist.
    agreed, only men go to theater back then, and the bitch is laid out plain for their kvetch.
    but not the great story of the great Medea. the shaman act, dismembering her brother, is an initiation ritual Osiris went through too. boiling king to regenerate him was not a ‘trick’ the greeks simplistically saw it as, but an ancient practice with ritual aspects misinterpreted by these adventuring tourist greeks.
    look to a matriarchal culture Medea came from.

  2. I just saw Pasolini’s film version of Medea with opera diva, Maria Callas, in the title role. Amazing film. As a man, I’m interested to know what women think of this film. Although Pasolini was a man, he was an outsider, a homosexual and Marxist in conservative, catholic Italy. I think he identified with Medea as a marginalised, misunderstood genius.

    I don’t buy the argument that the murder of her children was an act of love. No, she was willing to commit any outrage to get the perfect revenge against Jason. By killing Jason’s new bride and her own children, Medea ensured that he would have no suitable heirs. This was an act of revenge against the whole male sex. If she had daughters instead of sons, perhaps they would have been spared?

  3. I am in love with this concept and would do anything to read this script. Will it be published in the near future? I don’t think I will look at the original the same way!

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