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In the footsteps of Medea : a thematic exploration from Euripides to Magnuson Lloyd, Ingeborg Elisabeth

Abstract

This study attempts to trace three themes of the Medea-story from Euripides to the 20th century. First of all, Euripides' "Medea" is established as a model to which Seneca's "Medea" constitutes an almost diametrically opposed point of view. Most of the later plays range between these two poles, but the treatment of the material varies from play to play. Medea's crime - the murder of her children and of Creusa - is the theme explored first. In the later plays this crime is no longer seen as a complete and indivisible act of revenge: from the 17th century onwards the motives for the child murder and the revenge on Creusa are no longer the same. The infanticide, more often than not, does not form a part of Medea's revenge on Jason but is caused by circumstances beyond her control (especially in Glover's, Klinger's, Legouvé's, Anderson's and Alvaro's plays). The murder of her children ceases to be the carefully planned and executed deed it was in Euripides' "Medea" but happens on the spur of the moment. While the early Medeas exit in triumphant exultation at the end of the play, in the most recent plays (Lenormand, Anderson, Alvaro, Braun, Csokor) Medea and Jason are both defeated, although her revenge is still successful. The second part of the study explores the development in the portrayal of Medea and Jason individually and of the relationship between them. The variety in Medea-portrayals is wide-ranging: she can be an admirable and extraordinary woman or a monstrous witch, a supernatural being beyond human understanding or a wretched victim of circumstances. There also has been a marked change in the portrayal of Jason. While Euripides exposes him as a despicable and self-righteous character and condemns him because he does not live up to the image of a Homeric hero, the most recent plays (Lenormand, Anderson, Magnuson) portray him as a mere adventurer - a new breed of hero - whose failings are inherent in his nature. The image of tile classical hero has been lost. The increased role of sex in the relationship between Medea and Jason is stressed from the 17th century onwards by the emergence of Creusa as a fully developed and important character in the play. Throughout the years more attention has also been focussed on the children and on the effects of the marriage break-down on their lives. (Dolce, Galladei, Grillparzer, Legouvé, Jahnn, Lenormand, Anderson, Alvaro) Finally, the paper traces the general change in attitude towards Medea which has occurred through the centuries. One of the most striking features emerging in the modern plays is the absence of a victor in the struggle between Medea and Jason and, especially in the post-Freudian plays, (Lenormand, Anderson, Magnuson), the shifting of the responsibility from the individual onto the society or on to other forces beyond man's control. The variety of explanations offered for Medea's action tends to reduce the importance of her crime and in some cases almost absolves her from guilt altogether. Through the years several social and socio-political issues have been incorporated into the Medea-story. One of the themes raised already by Euripides which reappears consistently is that of the stranger and barbarian in a civilized society. The 20th century, for instance, introduces racial discrimination to highlight Medea's "otherness." (Jahnn, Lenormand, Anderson, Jeffers, Alvaro, Magnuson). Although it has proven to be impossible to discern a national trend in the treatment of the Medea-story, a faint historical pattern can be seen to emerge. Seneca's "Medea" appears to have been the favourite model during the Renaissance (Galladei, de Laperuse) and the 17th century (Corneille, Longepierre), but from the 18th century onwards Euripides' "Medea" enjoyed the greater popularity amongst the writers recasting the story. (Glover, Klinger, Grilparzer, Legouvé). In the 20th century, however, the plays seem to range from one extreme (Anouilh, Braun) to the other (Anderson, Csokor, Alvaro), although the preference given to Euripides' play predominates. The general finding of this study is that the Medea-story fascinates every new generation and continues to be a fresh source of inspiration for writers.

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