Friday, September 17, 2010

Spirited: Euripides and the Gods

The first time I saw Euripides' Orestes I though the actor playing Apollo, jarringly dressed in gold with a red and golden sun headdress,  had forgotten his lines. When I got home after words, I Googled the play and found out that it was not the acting, but rather the writing of play that had caused me such surprise and confusion. As I found out through further reading, the Orestes is only one of many of Eurpides' di ex machina that for an audience member may feel like something that came out of nowhere. [1]

For the most part [2], Euripides seems to use these incredible entrances of the Gods to force the play back into the mold of the traditional mythology, e.g. Orestes, Electra, and Bacchae [3]. However, I think the most notable and fascinating of these is the deus ex machina in the Medea.

There is a extremely vast array of incredible scholarship on the Medea, with which I shall not try to compete. If you have not read the Medea, read it right now. You can read in HTML or download a free version from Project Gutenberg. Although I don't know anything about this translation, you will be happy you read the Medea [4]. I will only reference the end, which is probably my favorite part of the Medea [5].

The mythology of Medea (pre-Euripides) so far as we know involved Medea leaving Jason and going to Athens to marry the king where she would try to dispose of his son Theseus while Jason dies by being hit from a falling timber from the Argo. There is, according to my wonderful Greek Tragedy professor, little or no evidence for the trope of Medea killing her children before Euripides' version. So, Euripides had a difficult task in front of him: how could he create an incredibly tragic story (the slaughter of her own children) and still provide for Medea's escape. At the end of the play, Medea arrives in the chariot of Helios (her grandfather) and explains that she is on her way to Athens. The audience might ask, "how can the gods condone such an action?" There are two instructive passages:
Medea: "Long would be the answer which I might have made to / these words of yours, if Zeus the father did not know / how I have treated you and what you did to me." (Medea lines 1351-1353)
Chorus: "Zeus in Olympus is the overseer / of many doings. Many things the gods / achieve beyond our judgement. What we through / is not confirmed and what we thought not god / contrives. And so happens in this story." (Medea lines 1415-1419)
So in these two passages it is clear that Zeus condones Medea's action and is happy to let her punish Jason for his misdeeds. However, the chorus is at a loss that the gods would condone such an action. Medea, now acting as a being partially between humans and gods demonstrates certain godly characteristics: a desire for revenge above all else, arrogance, and vanity. The gods here do not seem moral, but rather amoral human like beings with power far beyond the reach of humans that provides a system frightening because of the lack of standards in the system.

At times, Euripides' gods can be human seeming, almost comic (e.g. the Herecles of the Alcestis or the Apollo of the Orestes). They appear to be governed neither by the strict but uncomfortable hierarchical system of Aeschylus' gods nor by the extreme and frightening moral code displayed by Sophocles' gods (see my previous blogpost for elaboration). In Euripides, they almost seem human, but vein and powerful humans, living for revenge, who are interfering and conniving and have no sense of accountability. This makes them dangerous, unpredictable, and sometimes cruel, which seems to be a fair assessment of nature and the living conditions under which Hellenes of this period found themselves (and certainly a decent picture of the conditions of the Greek past).

  1. This image comes from
  2. Bear in mind, I have only read six (plus excerpts) of the seventeen surviving Euripides plays:  Bacchae, Electra, Medea, Orestes, Suppliant Women, and Trojan Women (as well as excerpts from Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen) plus Eurpidies' pro-satyr play, Alcestis, which was performed in place of a satyr play.. I also have read the Cyclops, the only surviving satyr play by Euripides (and the only complete extant satyr play).
  3. In the Bacchae, I speak specifically of the weird story about what is going to happen to Cadmus, which Dionysus relates (Bacchae lines 1329-1339).
  4. There was an amusing anecdote related in my Greek tragedy class one day. We read the Medea a few weeks before the end of the term and a number of the students in the class-- shockingly-- had never read it before. Our lovely professor asked us each for a reaction to the play or a favorite part at the beginning of the class. The reaction to the text was extremely positive, although people differed in their support of different characters and their personal favorite portions. By far the best reaction came from one of my favorite students in the class who had a particularly colloquial and perhaps somewhat frat-boy like vernacular which clashed magnificently against his thorough classics education and his insights that seemed divine in their origin given that they were unexpected because of this contrast and because they were usually shockingly accurate. He said something along these lines: "I am so glad that I finally read the Medea. Whenever my dad did something that would piss of my mother-- like leaving the top of the peanut butter jar-- and she found it he would say to us 'run kids, it's Medea.' I never knew what that meant." I believe that the professor responded something along the lines of "that's a fascinating insight into your parents."
  5. The greatest version of the Medea was a production put on in New York in the 1980s in the original Greek. It seems that primarily academic institutions (among them Williams College, UCLA, and Reed College) own versions of this rare and fabulous film. If you get a chance, watch it. It is breathtaking and it demonstrates the power and persuasion of Medea with a force and clarity that could never be rivaled in English. There are English subtitles if your Greek is lacking, but they only gloss the most important points, so it's easy to follow along it the Greek with a little help if you're interested in practicing your auditory understanding.

No comments:

Post a Comment