Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.56

David Stuttard (ed.), Looking at Medea: Essays and a Translation of Euripides' Tragedy.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.  Pp. xi, 219.  ISBN 9781472530516.  $32.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by N.J. Sewell-Rutter, Oxford Tutorial College (


David Stuttard's Looking at Medea presents twelve essays on Euripides' tragedy, newly commissioned from a variety of respected scholars, together with an editor's introduction and Stuttard's own translation of the text, which is modestly printed last.

Edited volumes intended as companions frequently imply rather than expressly limit their audience. Stuttard states his intention to 'cover a wide range of issues' and allow his contributors the latitude to present a 'diversity of views' at the cost of an occasional 'small degree of overlap' (Foreword, x). The volume as a whole assumes no knowledge of Greek and little or no prior knowledge of Attic tragedy in its readership. Endnotes are kept to a minimum, and the bibliography (205–11) heavily emphasises the last thirty years of work on the play. Reflective theatre professionals with minimal classical training are a large part of the implied audience, and the essays and translation could certainly be used, among other things, as the basis for an informed and successful English language production of Medea.

The editor's introduction emphasises the play's context both within the dramatic festivals and on the cusp of the Peloponnesian War. Stuttard does not introduce interpretative issues himself or situate the individual contributions within wider scholarly debates, conformably to his editorial principle of lightness of touch. One might take issue in an otherwise informative and helpful introduction with the argument on p. 4 that the 'Athenians' shamefully misogynistic view of women, especially clever women' is a clincher for an all-male audience at the Dionysia. This begs more than one question. Is a volume of essays on Euripides' Medea best introduced with a paragraph on monolithic and reprehensible Athenian misogyny?

Stuttard's translation, first written in 1996 and scrutinised by Kenneth Dover (x–xi), published here with minor revisions, succeeds admirably in its stated aims of accuracy and friendliness to the performer. I have detected no serious mistranslations. Some indications of Greek line numbering, either bracketed within the translation or given as ranges in page headers or footers, would be useful for reference and comparison and would not detract seriously from the translation's accessibility.

The translation’s one fault is that it gives little indication that high poetry is being translated: the register is dramatic but largely prosaic. An example of Stuttard at his best is to be found at the start of the First Episode (173–4) when Medea laments the lot of women to the Chorus: the translation of her rhesis evokes impressively the reasoning of this persuasive speech and the passion underlying its gnomic rationality. Medea's qualms about murdering her children (193) are also very successfully captured. But the translator is too free with colloquial contractions, of which there are three examples in the first two paragraphs (169), including the unlovely 'Argo'd' for 'Argo had' in the first sentence. There is another jarring over-colloquialism at the end of the second episode (183, lines 625–6, translating in 626 the reading of the codices, not Dodds’s emendation), when Medea says: 'And maybe, if my words find favour with the gods, in marrying her you'll lose all chance you ever had of marriage.' Does this sentence translate poetry or prose? However, one of the strengths of this volume as a whole is that it makes the drama vivid, and Stuttard's choice of register furthers accessibility.

1. Griffin emphasises Euripides' modifications of the Medea myth, tracing the darkening of an originally 'romantic' and 'upbeat' (13) love story into one of horrific infanticide. He is the first of several contributors to note the crucial point that the children's death at the hands of their mother, not the Corinthians, may well be original to Euripides. His 'little polemical point' (17) that the play need not be a warning to the Athenians about contemporary Corinthian hostility is a salutary reminder that Medea is not necessarily a political work.

2. McCallum-Barry treats earlier and contemporary versions of the Medea myth, and ventures 'a little after' Euripides' production of 431. Like Griffin, she correctly sees the infanticide as one of Euripides' 'startling innovations', possibly 'unwelcome' and 'unsettling' to his audience (34). The play is of course unsettling, but Euripides was repeatedly granted choruses throughout his career, however subversive his oeuvre, and in the dangerous public life of Athens he never incurred a fine like Phrynichus (Hdt. 6.21.2, mentioned in Stuttard's introduction, 5).

3. Karamanou persuasively argues that all three tragedies in the tetralogy of 431, Medea, Philoctetes and Dictys, explore marginalisation and otherness: the entire production, not only Medea, evokes sympathy for the vulnerable and comparatively defenceless. She applies Aristotle's criteria for sympathy and identification, citing Poetics 1453a4-6 (44), but does not actually cite his judgement that Euripides is 'the most tragic' (1453a30) of the poets, which supports her case. She handles the fragments deftly and soundly and concludes, perhaps diffidently, that tragedy appeals both to emotion and intellect and that staging is integral to the impact of drama.

4. Wyles' consideration of the original performance's staging is one of the most useful contributions for the volume's implied audience of theatre practitioners. She emphasises striking and disquieting theatrical elements in Medea — cries off in the parodos, Medea costumed as a barbarian, serpents in the exodos that evoke, appropriate and question Athenian iconography, and theatrical allusions to extant Aeschylean and Sophoclean plays. Not only Euripides' modifications of the myth but elements of his production were bold and uncomfortable.

5. Ruffell helpfully views the play and its interpretation through the eyes of the Nurse, an unnamed and therefore unheroic character whose sympathies are at the 'moral centre' of the play (81). He is right to point out that the character is never expressly called a nurse and that, never addressing Medea as 'child' (73), she is not certainly Medea's own nurse. He is also right to see the Nurse's loyalties as multiple (81): she is concerned not only for Medea but for her impact on other characters. It would be worth saying to this volume's audience, if Ruffell would have the Nurse back on stage after l. 214 (80), that the text does not explicitly cue her return, long taken as a principle of tragic staging.1

6. Morwood retracts his earlier view2 of Jason as 'the villain of the piece' (83). This is a commendable though excessively moderate palinode, taking into account hints that Jason, though of course lacking in empathy and tact and not admirable, is a more sympathetic character in places than the author had previously acknowledged. Morwood concedes (87) that though Jason has perjured his oath, we perhaps feel 'a glimmer of genuine audience sympathy' for him in the exodos in the midst of his 'shipwreck'. This does not go far enough. We feel more than 'a glimmer of sympathy' for Priam at Iliad 24.486-506, the canonical address of bereaved father to killer of sons, when he dares, more than ever any mortal on earth, to reach his hand to the lips of the man who killed his child. Jason's words (in Stuttard's translation, 'I wish that I had never fathered sons to see them so destroyed, and you their murderer', 202) have a characteristic Euripidean spareness, but that does not diminish their pathos.

7. Rutherford lucidly reminds us that Medea, who must as a matter of staging appear ex machina in the Exodos (90), is a mortal who has just taken a terrible revenge and has no divine or otherwise authoritative perspective on the action to impart. She is no Artemis in the exodos of Hippolytus giving a comforting aetiology (91–2); and may be more barbarian in costume when she last enters in conformity with her visually striking serpent-borne chariot. This leaves the end of the play 'disturbing in the extreme' (97).

8. Mills reminds the reader that Euripides was not constrained in his choice of the gender and identity of his Chorus (101–2). This is not said often enough by interpreters of tragedy in general, and is particularly useful for the volume's target audience. Corinthian women are best placed to 'follow their mistress's lead' in seeking redress for very womanhood (109), but Mills, arguing for the complicity of the chorus, relies excessively on their passivity and understates their horror at the proposed infanticide and open opposition to it, already noted in Griffin's paper (16). 'Do not do it' (line 813) is unambiguous. So is: 'You will be a most wretched woman if you do.' (line 818; see also 856–65). It is of course the exception for a tragic chorus to act in any concrete way, as the Erinyes do in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, prosecuting Orestes. No character in Medea stands in Medea's way at all effectively, not even Creon, and it is asking too much to expect a chorus of townswomen to mount any real opposition.

9. Roisman. Starting from the disproportion of Medea's vengeance, which she infelicitously calls a 'dys-fit' (111), Roisman contrasts Euripides' relatively human and identifiable Medea with Seneca's more straightforwardly villainous character. She concludes that in Euripides, Medea is not simply a 'barbaric foreigner and supernatural witch' (121) and that any outrage evoked by her actions is a response to their horrific magnitude, not her vengeful impulse. Roisman's careful insistence that Medea in Euripides is human, not a monster, is welcome.

10. Cairns. A paper on 'Feminism or Misogyny' is an essential contribution to an introductory volume on Medea. Cairns concludes that Medea 'revels in' Athenian male stereotypes rather than 'subverting them' (137). Some will take issue with Cairns when he cites 'Medea's emphasis on sex' (135), mentioned as one of several female stereotypes Euripides confirms. Throughout the play she subordinates integrity to persuasion: does she really 'endorse' (136) the male judgement that the issue is one of sexual jealousy at lines 263-66 (134) or does she conform to the perspectives of male characters she seeks to persuade? In the parodos (172, lines 160–3), she attributes her sufferings first of all to oath-breaking and injustice, not to sexual rejection: she first invokes Themis.

11. Hall on the divine in Medea notes, like Rutherford, Aristotle's disquiet at the mortal Medea appearing ex machina in the Exodos (139–40). Hall uses the play's modern reception to illuminate the anomalous status of Medea, whose quasi-divinity has been sometimes emphasised, sometimes downplayed. Above all Hall's Medea leaves perspectives on the divine open, not settled (141), in a play underpinned by an 'awesome, unknowable religious element' (154).

12. Smit considers some twentieth-century presentations of Medea as black. The Colchians were not. But a modern strategy has been to emphasise her barbarian ethnicity starkly, an obvious tactic but, as Smit shows, not necessarily a cheap simplification, given the variety of contemporary theoretical approaches to ethnicity. Several contributors mention the issue of Medea's barbarian costume in the production of 431. A contribution on the recent tendency to focus Medea's disturbing otherness through contemporary anxieties about skin colour is a fitting conclusion to a collection that never underplays the innovations and challenges of Euripides' text and production.

In conclusion, Looking at Medea presents an accurate and performable translation together with twelve useful and sometimes illuminating interpretative perspectives on the play. Euripides' Medea emerges by consensus of the contributors as a bold and innovative work of art that is and was profoundly disturbing.


1.   So, canonically, O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: the Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy (Oxford, 1977).
2.   J. Morwood, The Plays of Euripides (London, 2002).

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