Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.26

William Allan, Euripides: Medea.   London:  Duckworth, 2002.  Pp. 143.  ISBN 0-7156-3187-X.  £10.99.  

Reviewed by Markus Dubischar, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (
Word count: 1919 words

The harvest of 2002 was a good one for Euripides' Medea. In September D.J. Mastronarde's Cambridge edition and commentary appeared, followed, toward the end of the year, by a 'Duckworth Companion' to the Medea by William Allan. An up-to-date, easily accessible, and fairly comprehensive treatment of this famous Euripidean tragedy has long been missing -- now we are fortunate to have two.

Under review here is Allan's (A.'s) book, one of the first to appear in the new series The Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy.1 The series aims at presenting and discussing the plays' historical contexts, their main themes, the central developments in modern criticism, and the history of the performances and adaptations. The targeted audience, as can be inferred, are primarily students at all levels and non-specialist teachers, but specialists, too, cannot afford to ignore these substantial treatments (with clear emphasis on interpretation) of ancient tragedies. As for this volume's author, A. has in the recent past stepped forward with important contributions to some of the 'neglected' Euripidean plays (Andromache and Heracleidae).2 This time, however, he has turned to one of the most widely known and at the same time most controversial Greek tragedies, Euripides' Medea.

The book's main body consists of five chapters: 1. "Festival, Myth, and Play", 2. "Husbands and Wives", 3. "Greeks and Others", 4. "Medea's Revenge", 5. "Multi-Medea". The chapters are complemented by a brief preface (9), a fairly extensive section of endnotes (109-134), a select bibliography (135-137), a glossary of Greek terms (138), a list of dates concerning the history of Attic tragedy (139f), and an index (141-143).

The first chapter, "Festival, Myth, and Play" (11-44), provides the historical and literary background that is helpful for a deeper understanding of the play. The chapter falls into four easily discernible sections. First, A. describes the social and cultural context for fifth-century Athenian tragedy (11-15), covering the procedure and character of the Great Dionysia, the audience, the Theatre of Dionysus, the chorus, and the actors. The second section (15-17) is devoted to Medea's place within Euripides' dramatic career. After giving some biographical data, A. identifies the "mark of intellectual enquiry" (16) and "the multiplicity of theme, form, and tone" (ibid.) as typically Euripidean features; he then rejects the rash notion of the Medea's 'failure' at the Dionysia of 431, and finally briefly remarks on the tense political relations between Athens and Corinth at the time. The third section (17-23) is a concise but remarkably comprehensive synopsis of "Medea's role in the mythological tradition before Euripides" (17). A. mentions no fewer than fifteen earlier mythological versions and nicely relates the Euripidean Medea to them. The fourth section (23-44) is the longest, offering a close look at "the shape and movement of the play" (23). Here A. not only gives a detailed account of the tragedy's plot and its organization but, as is very appropriate for any Greek tragedy, he also remarks frequently on the stagecraft involved.

Chapters two, three, and four are of an interpretative nature. They focus on important thematic aspects of the play. Here A. takes his readers on three scene-by-scene interpretations through the Medea. The chapters are each framed by useful general remarks about the relevance of the thematic issue at stake, both within the Medea and within a larger social and literary context,3 and by summaries that highlight the essentials of A.'s analyses.

Chapter two, "Husbands and Wives" (45-65), as is not too difficult to guess, deals with gender relations and gender conflict in the Medea. A. points out that, even though for generic and social reasons this issue is frequently explored in Greek tragedy in general, Euripides seems to have been particularly concerned with it. In the Medea it has perhaps received its most powerful and most disturbing treatment (45-47). A. credits feminist literary theory for having raised important questions, but he shows himself to be rather critical of the kind of results and answers produced by this approach, which are -- and I agree -- not always, but often, too simple and fail to do justice to the richness and complexity of a play like Medea or to what we know of the historical reality of classical Athens. A. also focuses on the issue of 'gender', which surfaces in some way or another (questions, problems, stereotypes) in almost every scene or choral ode of the play, and he is well at home with the relevant scholarly discourse. However, he always stays clear of theory-driven simplifications or distortions. Instead he frequently stresses the complexities inherent in Medea as a female character and in the way she interacts with her predominantly male environment.

In chapter three, "Greeks and Others" (67-79), a similar point is made. Euripides questions and challenges prevailing contemporary ideas of Greek superiority and foreign/barbarian inferiority. A. rejects Page's -- by now very dated -- view, according to which Medea, the barbarian, should eo ipso be perceived as a negative character (67f). On the contrary, in this play the Greek (man) Jason is not characterized favorably whereas the foreign (woman) Medea appears throughout the greater part of the play as an innocent victim who deserves our sympathy. Things are made even more complicated by the fact that Medea herself acts following Greek (heroic) standards to a certain degree. That she murders her own children, to be sure, may well confirm the stereotype of the cruel, uncivilized barbarian. But on the whole, as A. points out -- and again he wants to rule out excessively clear-cut interpretations -- the Medea "encourages a more nuanced response" (79).

Chapter four, "Medea's revenge" (81-99), treats the most difficult question that is nevertheless fundamental for any attempt to understand the play: 'What are we to make of Medea's revenge?' A. carefully traces how the revenge is planned, how it is executed, ending with Medea's escape from Corinth. Also in this chapter A. has rightly chosen to emphasize ambivalent aspects and the moral complexities of Euripides' version of the story: Medea reacts to Jason's unjustice in a typically heroic fashion but she is a woman (81); Medea's murder of her children is viewed as evil and abnormal but stays within the female domain of the family (82); Medea's 'feminine' cunning approach contrasts with her 'male' heroic ethos (84); Medea's successful revenge is at the same time an act of self-destruction (88); her punishment of Jason, who has harmed his philoi, violates the bonds of philia even more appallingly (88); the audience may enjoy Medea's manipulation of Jason (fourth epeisodion) but at the same time they know that this brings the death of the children closer (88f); the infanticide, horrible as it is, seems not to be lacking divine support, thus establishing an irritating incongruency between 'human' and 'divine' justice (89f, 93f, 97); Medea's great monologue (vv. 1021-80) reveals the 'tragic', irreconcilable split within herself as determined avenger and loving mother (90); Creon and his daughter's deaths are regarded as just by the chorus, but the gory details reported by the messenger evoke the audience's sympathy for them (93); the same is true about Jason's ignorance in the opening of the final scene and of his total defeat (95); Medea changes into a "quasi-divine avenger" (95) but the audience will remember the sad self-destructiveness of her deed (96) as well as her earlier sufferings as woman and mother (98).

The book's shortest chapter, "Multi-Medea"(101-108), gives an outlook into the field of Medea-Rezeption, concentrating primarily on the literature of the classical period (101-106). A. very concisely treats Aristophanes, western Greek vase-painting, Apollonius Rhodius, Ennius, Ovid, and Seneca. Then he jumps to modern times (106-108). Drama (Corneille and Heiner Müller, 1974/1983) is mentioned, but more space -- cf. the pun in this chapter's title -- is allowed for film (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1970) and novel (Christa Wolf, 1996). These examples, although limited in number and depth of treatment, substantiate well enough that "each society and age will approach the play with a specific set of values and concerns, and so perform it in a unique (and uniquely revealing) manner" (108).

It should be clear by now that A. has written a very solid and knowledgable companion to the Medea. The organization of the material is wonderfully clear. So is A.'s prose style, which is at its best when even intricate matters are nicely condensed into easily comprehensible sentences without oversimplification, often even preserving valuable nuances. A. is careful and considerate in calling the readers' attention to notoriously controversial issues, as well as in determining and phrasing his own opinion about them -- e.g. women in the audience (12f), shape of the orchestra (13), raised stage (14), Neophron (23), the 'incoherence' of Medea's great monologue (90-92), thumos / bouleumata in vv. 1078-80 (92f). In all this the reader is spared ostentatious jargon, but the appropriate technical terms are, as they should be, introduced without hesitation whenever necessary. A. is generally up-to-date on the secondary literature, and he has usually selected well from it, both where he agrees and where he disagrees. The end notes contain, besides the mandatory bibliographical references, much useful additional information and stimulating discussion. The prose translations of key passages are reliable. There are close to no factual errors or misprints.4

There is thus, in my opinion, not much occasion for substantial disagreement. I should, however, like to address critically one issue concerning chapter four ("Medea's Revenge"). A.'s rather unrestricted condemnation of Jason strikes me as too one-sidedly negative. It is true that at no point during the play the audience is encouraged to think particularly highly of Jason's blunt preference of the expedient over the virtuous, which even involves a breach of oath. A. is therefore right in rejecting unreasonably extreme attempts to rehabilitate Medea's unfaithful partner.5 But I would argue that Jason's words, in the debate scene as well as in his later appearances, strongly suggest that he believes what he is saying. He is convinced for example -- and how could he not be? -- that, considering his and his family's dismal situation, seizing the opportunity to marry a princess was a smart move. Twice earlier, in chapters two and three, A. concedes that some of Jason's arguments might reflect how contemporary Athenians could have assessed the situation (60, 75). This thread should have been picked up again in the 'revenge' chapter, because it implies that there is in fact more to be said about Jason's stance than simply labeling it as intolerably selfish, hollow, and hypocritical (30-32 and later).6 Jason's behavior entails certain elements that are impossible to justify; but other aspects are disturbingly close to what popular morality might judge as, let's call it, reasonably and hence forgivably utilitarian. To view Jason not just as a hypocritical liar adds depth to the tragedy's most important conflict. And this, after all, would be perfectly compatible with A.'s sensible general line of interpretation emphasizing the play's "moral complexity" (108 and elsewhere).

The bottom line, however, should still be absolutely clear. A. has written a straight-forward and very instructive companion to the Medea. That he has chosen to base his interpretations on (1) the Medea's historical, social, and literary context and (2) on the words and the action of the play, will undoubtedly be appreciated by many readers, both those for whom the Medea will remain a one-time digression into the field of Greek tragedy and those who wish to continue in their study of ancient drama. I wish the new 'Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy' many more introductions like Allan's.


1.   Also published so far are Sophie Mills, Euripides: Hippolytus (2002) and Roland Mayer, Seneca: Phaedra (2003).
2.   The Andromache and Euripidean Tragedy (OUP 2000); Euripides: The Children of Heracles (Aris & Phillips 2001), for the latter see BMCR 2003.02.25.
3.   See e.g. 67-69 on the antithesis 'Greek' vs 'barbarian' or 82 on Medea and other Euripidean "female victims turned avengers".
4.   (1.) Concerning the intensely debated line 1079 (θυμὸς δὲ κρείσσων ...) A. (92) follows an interpretation that was actually first proposed by H. Diller (βουλεύματα referring to Medea's revenge plans, κρείσσων meaning 'is in charge of') but he cites (n. 25) H. Lloyd-Jones, who in fact rejected Diller's proposal -- cf. H. Diller, "Θυμὸς δὲ κρείσσων τῶν ἐμῶν βουλευμάτων," Hermes 94 (1966) 267-275, see especially 273-5 (reprinted in his Kleine Schriften), and H. Lloyd-Jones, "Euripides, Medea 1056-80," WJA 6a (1980) 51-59, see especially 58; more elaborate in his criticism of Diller's suggestion is R. Kassel, "Kritische und exegetische Kleinigkeiten IV," RhM 116 (1973) 97-112, see especially 102f. (2.) 'Bosphorus' (pp. 70 and 73) should be 'Bosporus'.
5.   Allan 60 n. 38 rejects R.B. Palmer, "An Apology for Jason: A Study of Euripides' Medea," CJ 53 (1957) 49-55.
6.   The first to argue at length against interpretations like Kitto's (who judged Jason to be "a ready-made villain") was Kurt v. Fritz in "Die Entwicklung der Iason-Medea-Sage und die Medea des Euripides," AuA 8 (1959) 33-106 (reprinted in K.v.F., Antike und Moderne Tragödie, Berlin 1962; on the importance of v. Fritz see A. Lesky, Die Tragische Dichtung der Hellenen, 3rd ed., Göttingen 1972, 310 (pp. 225 and 458 n. 33 in the English translation) and, e.g., H. Lloyd-Jones, op. cit. (n. 6) 52; cf. also M. Dubischar, Die Agonszenen bei Euripides: Untersuchungen zu ausgewählten Dramen, Stuttgart 2001, 311-16. Similarly Mastronarde (in the above mentioned new Cambridge volume) emphasizes that in the Medea "the divergent views are not to be judged as completely right or completely wrong" (16), and that the play's debate is "a serious depiction of contrasting modes of life and values" (247). It is questionable if, as A. contends repeatedly, Medea's reply (585-87) really "completely undermines" (61) "demolishes" (76), or "explodes" (85) certain claims made by Jason. For Jason rebuts with an answer (588-90) that is, certainly from his perspective, not all implausible or unconvincing.

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