BMCR 2011.02.22

Unbinding Medea: Interdisciplinary Approaches to a Classical Myth from Antiquity to the 21st Century

, , Unbinding Medea: Interdisciplinary Approaches to a Classical Myth from Antiquity to the 21st Century. London: Legenda, 2010. xvi, 336. ISBN 9781906540531. $89.50.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of review.]

This handsome volume, with generous illustrations, bibliography, and index, is based on papers delivered at a 2006 University of Bristol conference entitled “Medea: Mutations and Permutations of a Myth.” Its topic is stated as the reception of the Medea myth in a variety of disciplines,” and, while the great majority of participants are from language and literature departments, this promise is fulfilled.

The first four chapters deal exclusively with ancient appropriations of the myth. If it is likely, as Torrance notes, that Euripides invented the infanticide story of Medea, these and subsequent retellings are as much commentary on his tragedy as on the myth. In the first chapter Hall’s essay considers the range of Medea figures on the ancient stage, from the coldly rational to the utterly delusional. Euripides himself “is making us all scrutinize the difficulty of distinguishing between provoked and unprovoked murder” (20). Hall’s essay deservedly appears first, not least because of her previous contributions to the study of Medea and other myths, but also because she sets the pace for a book that balances the ancient with the modern implications of its subject. Next, Buxton, in an essay enhanced by illustrations in ancient vase-painting, contrasts the two Medeas in Apollonius’s Argonautica, one constantly restless, the other calmly exercising control through magic. Cowan, in chapter 3, takes up the problems raised for Roman audiences by the figure of Medea, specifically in texts by Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius (whose main focus rests on the Argo as conveyor of civilization). Fragments of Ennius suggest that Medea received a Roman identity; those of Pacuvius, that he was writing a play wholly about identity, “familial, ethnic and literary” (47). Finally, as a scholar of Roman domestic architecture and art, Carucci discusses the presence, in several houses, dating from the first to fourth centuries A.D., of the image of Medea contemplating the murder of her sons. How, she asks, could this be received into the daily lives of families in the ruling class? One or more lost tragedies may explain the occasional use of masks for the figures represented.

Chapter 5 surveys the many Medeas in late medieval French narratives and illustrations. These show a new emphasis on the heroine derived from Ovid’s Heroides and medieval Troy romances. Next, Kepetzis finds medieval and Renaissance iconographical evidence of Medea’s marriage to Jason as symbolizing the ideal union. What we would call common sense was still not reestablished in the eighteenth century, when the paintings of Jean-François de Troy were showing the story of Jason and Medea as one of true love and marriage. The young Goethe, seeing them, was appalled. In chapter 7 Prettijohn explicates the Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Sandys’s portrait, Medea, a sensuous, raven-haired witch exuding a sense of the uncanny. The painting met with both controversy and, from Swinburne, admiration; it is compared with other painted ladies of Rossetti and his circle. Two chapters follow with analysis of film adaptations, Thorburn’s on John McNaughton’s Wild Things (mostly about echoes of Euripides’s Hippolytus), and Torrance’s on The Others of 2001, featuring an infanticidal mother in the grip of the irrational. Torrance effectively communicates the widespread presence of Medea in all corners of modern culture, including Bernard Safran’s 1964 portrait (also used on the book’s cover) of a sinister matriarch and her two young sons.

Chapter 10, Wygant’s “Revolutionary Medea,” considers Luigi Cherubini’s opera produced at the Feydeau in the fervid Paris of 1797. The story was well known: what made this version so successful then and there? Perhaps it was the wish to portray Medea as woman, not witch, by casting the ultra-feminine Julie-Angelique Scio in the title role. The two ensuing chapters turn to Germany during about the same period. Yixu Lü observes that, while earlier German musical-dramatic versions of Medea’s story were influenced by Seneca and Corneille, the later rise of middle-class sentimentality required a character caught in an intense emotional struggle, as in F.-W. Gotter’s Melodram of 1778. Friedrich Klinger’s more expressive tragedies, theatrically unsuccessful, attempted to revive the Euripidean spirit. Bartel argues that Euripidean Medea’s subversiveness (e.g., “oriental” otherness) is renewed by Grillparzer. At the critical moment in his play she tears apart her Greek cloak and opens her long-sealed trunk of magical accouterments to signify her new identity. Such clothing changes in the play signify modern humanity’s cultural alienation.

Nearly all the subsequent chapters deal with texts of the past fifty years. In chapter 13 Campbell views Jay Scheib’s 2005 The Medea as “a postdramatic subversion of dramatic narrative and acting by exchanging recognizable dramatic structure for an alternative structure based on the rhythm of intervals and interruptions.” For Arkins (chapter 14) three Irish Medea plays published in the 1990s unite the experience of contemporary Irish women with that of the mythic heroine: “womansongs in answer to the false songs of men.” Next: does the structure of tragedy reflect that of patriarchy? Cavallaro, in the context of this question, treats Medea plays by Italian women:Franca Rame, Maricla Boggio, and Emma Dante. The first two seemingly represent an earlier stage of feminist thought, while the third, who combines Euripidean with Christian elements, restores a sense of tragedy joined to an evolved feminism. In chapter 16 adherents of the myth-ritual approach will appreciate Straile-Costa’s study of Cherríe Moraga’s play The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, which reanimates the Mexican myth of La Llorana. It is interesting that “Whilst writing The Hungry Woman, Moraga herself had just given birth to a son and felt an intense need to understand what would drive a mother to infanticide.”

Kvisted’s essay on Pasolini’s film Medea reads Jason’s Colchis-exploits in postcolonial terms, with Medea as colonial other (harking back to, say, Maxwell Anderson’s Winged Victory). Some readers may resist the yoking of Marx with Frazer in this very full analysis, where the heroine in her infanticide assumes the conflicted role of natural mother and priestess of mother nature. Grillparzer’s Medea underwent a 1965 scholarly edition by the West German writer Marie Luise Kashnitz, whose radio play Jason’s Last Night Bushell discusses as reflecting upon the Third Reich. In the penultimate scene Jason receives a Nuremberg-like trial where he must face up to his terrible crimes. Emmett’s essay (chapter 19) uses Morrison’s Beloved as a lens through which to read Euripides: e.g., “Like Sethe, Medea sees killing her children as a way of asserting maternal possession and control.” Moreover, in dying by their mother’s hand both Beloved and Jason’s sons acquire identity, the latter in being celebrated in the cult of Hera Akraia.

Two each of the last four essays are by authors working in law and the sciences. Chapter 20, Burns’s “Fear of Female Insubordination in Euripides’s Medea and Contemporary Legislative Policy,” cites many (surprisingly) recent examples of European legal thinking that conspires to keep women subordinated. Thought-provoking is the quoted claim that the British Infanticide Act, because it implies that baby-killing mothers are ipso facto insane, embodies “myth-making by legislation.” This casts a new light on mythopoesis. In chapter 21 Phillips picks up on this theme as well as on Burns’s concern with the feminine Other, obviously a significant feature of interest in this book. A modern law-case that Phillips examines shows parallels with Medea’s story in that the “authors” of both imply that the murderess has “ungendered” herself. Both women have become unreasoning, unnatural, monstrous. Stephenson’s “Fatal Outcomes of Fabricated or Induced Illness: A Modern Medea” reports that infanticidal mothers often sacrifice their children to their fantasy-wish to be the center of attention and excitement. Finally, Hurst writes briefly on “The Medea Gene” along with a number of specific genes in plants and animals that are named for myths.

Medea has become a cutting-edge subject in the past dozen years. Besides the collection of substantial essays, Medea, edited by James Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston, there have been Lillian Corti’s The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children, Margherita Rubino’s Medea Contemporanea, and the conference-based collection edited by Oliver Taplin (et al.), Medea in Performance 1500-2000. Certain insistent concerns, however, such as those of feminism, do set this latest collection apart from the others. At the highest level, Phillips’s essay provides a wider philosophical perspective in what could be a suitable conclusion for this whole book. Its claim that Medea’s story is in part a lawyer’s story “of the taming of instinct and impulse and their ultimate subjection to the Law” calls to mind the restless inquiring after justice in The Oresteia and so many other Greek tragedies. Her story is also “part of the long, slow evolution of Western culture,” albeit still “a culture and a society that have not yet evolved beyond a desire for revenge and retribution.”

CHAPTERS: Introduction. Heike Bartel and Anne Simon, “Medea, Meetings in Borderland” 1. Edith Hall, “Medea and the Mind of the Murderer” 2. Richard Buxton, “How Medea Moves: Versions of a Myth in Apollonius and Elsewhere” 3. Robert Cowan, “A Stranger in a Strange Land: Medea in Roman Republican Tragedy” 4. Margherita Carucci, “The Representation of Medea in the Roman House” 5. Catherine Leglu, “‘A New Medea’ in Late Medieval French Narratives” 6. Ekaterini Kepetzis, “Changing Perceptions: Medea as Paradigm of the Ideal Marriage” 7. Elizabeth Prettejohn, “Medea, Frederick Sandys, and the Aesthetic Movement” 8. John Thorburn, “John McNaughton’s Wild Things : Pop Culture Echoes of Medea in the 1990s” 9. Isabelle Torrance, “Retrospectively Medea: The Infanticidal Mother in Alejandro Amenábar’s Film The Others” 10. Amy Wygant, “Revolutionary Medea” 11. Yixu Lü, “Transformations of Medea on the Eighteenth-Century German Stage” 12. Heike Bartel, “Dressing the ‘Other’, Dressing the ‘Self’: Clothing in the Medea Dramas of Euripides and Franz Grillparzer” 13. Peter A. Campbell, “Jay Scheib’s The Medea as Postdramatic Performance” 14. Brian Arkins, “Three Medeas from Modern Ireland” 15. Daniela Cavallaro, “Giving Birth to a New Woman: Italian Women Playwrights’ Revisions of Medea” 16. Paula Straile-Costa, “Myth and Ritual in The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea : Cherríe Moraga’s Xicana-Indígena Interpretation of Euripides’ Medea” 17. Ivar Kvistad, “Cultural Imperialism and Infanticide in Pasolini’s Medea” 18. Anthony Bushell, “Mediation or Refraction? Marie Luise Kaschnitz’s Edition and Reception of Grillparzer’s Medea” 19. Hilary Emmett, “The Maternal Contract in Beloved and Medea” 20. Angela J. Burns, “‘A Thoroughly Modern Medea’: The Fear of Female Insubordination in Euripides’ Medea and Contemporary Legislative Policy” 21. Edward Phillips, “Legal Myth-Making: Medea and the Legal Representation of the Feminine ‘Other'” 22. Terence Stephenson, “Fatal Outcomes of Fabricated or Induced Illness: A Modern Medea” 23. Laurence D. Hurst, “The Medea Gene”