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Transactions of the American Philological
138 (2008)
155–183 Medea
Revenge and
in Euripides’


Revenge and Mythopoiesis in Euripides’

marianne hopman
Northwestern University
summary: In the first stasimon of Medea, the chorus of Corinthian women exalts Medea’s revenge as a palinode that will put an end to the misogynist tradition and bring them honor. This article analyzes Euripides’ tragedy as a metapoetic reflection on Medea’s voice, its relation to the earlier poetic tradition, its power and limitations, and its generic definition. While Medea’s revenge metaphorically and symbolically unfolds as a revision of the Argo saga and thus undermines one of the most famous androcentric epics of the Greek song culture, I argue that mythical constraints ultimately prevent Medea from generating a new, gynocentric epic. Rather, the intertextuality of the final scenes increasingly departs from the Iliadic model and firmly anchors Medea’s revenge in the tragic genre. Metapoetically, Medea’s palinode thus defines tragedy, by contrast to epic, as a genre that is congenial to female voices but does not bring them kleos.

¶rxetai timå gunaike´ivi g°nei Honor is coming to the female race!

the chorus of corinthian women enthusiastically sings these words (E. Med. 417–18) as they hear Medea describe how she will avenge her honor by killing Jason, his new bride, and the bride’s father Creon (374–85). For one fleeting moment, Jason’s unsettling breech of his oaths is envisaged as having one positive consequence. It will allow for a twist in the spoken tradition (str°cousi fçmai, 414–16) that will bestow praise on women and put an end to the old misogynist discourse castigating the “female race” (gunaike´ivi g°nei, 417–18).

* I wish to thank Daniel Garrison, Jonas Grethlein, and the two anonymous TAPA readers for their helpful suggestions on earlier drafts. This article is dedicated to the memory of my grandmothers, Johanna Jansen and Marguerite Lassier.


Marianne Hopman

From an enunciative standpoint, the chorus’s utterance engages Medea’s plans (bouleÊmata, 372) at a doubly referential level, intra- and extra-diegetic. On the one hand, the plans are evaluated with reference to the fiction of the tragedy. The opening considerations about the reversal of natural order, the transgression of justice, and the treachery of males (410–13) refer directly to Jason’s broken oaths; the hope that “honor” (timã, 417) will come to the “female race” harks back to Medea’s attachment to her reputation and to her emphatically repeated concern that she has been dishonored (±timasm°nh, 20; cf. 33, 438, 696, 1354) by Jason’s new marriage. Yet the diction of the stasimon also indicates that the revenge is evaluated in meta-poetic terms. The word fÆmh (fçmai, 415–16; fãma, 419–20) can mean both “common report, rumor” and, especially in the Doric form fãma, “song” (LSJ s.v. fÆmh). The relevance of the latter meaning in the context of the strophe is confirmed in the antistrophe by the reference to the “Muses of singers born of old” (moËsai… palaigen°vn . . . éoid«n, 421–22), who—the chorus hopes—will stop blaming women for their untrustworthiness. The revenge of Medea, then, is not only evaluated as an adequate retaliation to the offense but is also envisaged as a palinode that will subvert the earlier poetic tradition.1 The chorus’s appreciation of the revenge as a palinode on a par with the songs of old is doubly justified by Medea’s special authorial status and constant engagement with the poetic tradition. From her entrance at line 214 to her spectacular departure on the chariot of Helios in the exodos, Medea continuously occupies the stage, except for a brief exit at lines 1251–316 to kill the children. Her overwhelming physical presence matches her control over the tragic plot. The revised plans (témã ... bouleÊmata, 772) that she describes to the chorus at 772–810 provide the spectators...
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