Medea’s Revenge on Ancient Patriarchy

Euripides. Medea. 431 BCE. Ancient Greek tragedy.

MedeaI find it astonishing how contemporary this 2500-year-old tragedy feels. Rex Warner’s translation is free of those annoyingly anachronistic “thithers” and “thous” that so intimidate readers. The translation enables the play to reveal its native fast pace, economy, and feminism, trumping its twentieth-century heirs.

Eliminating the long-winded choral declamations that nearly ruined Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Euripides invented dialogue: forceful and purposeful conversations that drive plot and reveal character. Even more compelling is Euripides’ feminist theme, then new to the Western canon. Euripides appears to have been that rare man who understood and valued women and wrote them convincingly. His Medea isn’t some vicious bitch with snakes in her hair; she is a smart, intrepid, passionate woman who gave up everything for her thankless lover, Jason of the Argonauts, and now, spurned for a Corinthian princess, refuses to submit with womanly meekness. And how typical of male chauvinists for Jason to rationalize his betrayal and accuse her of overreacting!

Even when Medea kills her own children to deprive Jason of them, we always know who we are rooting for: the wronged woman, the raging victim of the patriarchy, the queenly avenger who, unlike most such victims, has the power and will to strike back. As for the purists who grumble that Euripides should have made Medea a Hellene rather than a non-Greek Pelasgian, they are missing a crucial point: Euripides knew his chauvinistic Greek audiences would never tolerate a Greek lady standing up for herself. And even then, the Athenians could barely bring themselves to give this fiery masterpiece third prize. Stranger than the gods are the ways of men!

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