The Use and Abuse of Power by the Female Protagonists in Strindberg's Miss Julie and Euripides' Medea

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Miss Julie by Strindberg and Medea by Euripides explore the theme of power struggle. Julie, the Count’s daughter, was raised by a mother who hated men; Strindberg hence presents a confused character who struggles with her sexual desire for men juxtaposing with her need to dominate them. She feels compelled to use her social status when dealing with Jean. Medea, on the other hand, is presented as a brave, unpredictable, almost barbaric woman of extremes; she has committed several crimes on her husband’s behalf. Medea is constantly associated with images of extreme passion be it love, hatred or rage, and it is through the expression of these extremes that the audience becomes familiar with her persona. When she learns of her husband's betrayal, she abandons any semblance of nobility and maternity left in her and is so consumed with rage that she plans to commit even more atrocious acts to satisfy her thirst for revenge and urge to be controlling. It is important to note that in both plays, servants introduce the female protagonists; both are labeled as ‘wild’ by subordinates. Julie and Medea appear on stage seeking power and/or defying social norms. The playwrights immediately therefore highlight the importance of power for both women; their desire to dominate their male counterparts is apparent in the first scenes. The use of the servants to pinpoint this theme is an indication of the playwrights’ concerns about the social hierarchy and power in the respective societies. Even before the characters’ first appearance on stage, the audience learns of both females’ need to dominate. In Medea this is done through the chorus’ comparison between Medea and “a wild bull”[1], in addition to the Nurse’s speech, in which she describes Medea as “wild and hateful”1 and later tells her “beware a royal temper”[2]. In Miss Julie the conversation between Jean and Christine recounts how Julie made her ex-fiancé “jump over her hiding whip like a dog”[3] thus showing her need to dictate and dominate men. The whip is symbolic of Julie’s desire to enslave men, whom her mother raised her to despise.

As aforementioned, both female protagonists begin the play seeking power rather than actually possessing any real form of power. This is evident in their unconventional behaviour. Both Julie and Medea begin the play as outcasts in their respective societies. Julie opts to stay home with servants during a midsummer festival rather than attend a social function with her father. Similarly, Medea is an outcast following Jason’s betrayal. Both characters have suffered from rejection by male partners, which results in loss of social status, embarrassment and desperate desire to regain this power. Although Julie and Medea display this in different ways in the opening scenes, it is apparent from their behaviour that they both believe they are entitled to power.

In an attempt to regain power, Julie and Medea attempt to exert power over their male counterparts; at times, through words and actions, they abuse the power they believe they possess, to dominate men. Julie constantly playfully manipulates Jean yet simultaneously reminds him of her superiority. Julie invites Jean to drink with her, “A gentleman should keep his lady company”[4]. By referring to herself as “his”, she is leading Jean on for her own entertainment. Jean’s reaction is cautious as he “hesitates”5 before he finally “drink to (my) health”5. Her assumption of power, and sexual games continue and she finally commands him to, “kiss my shoe!”5 She is ultimately reminding Jean of her authority to enslave him, purely because of her social position. Julie’s coy behaviour gives Jean the confidence to attempt to kiss her. Her reaction - slapping him, rejecting such familiarity and making her position clear - is the ultimate proof of her belief in her superiority. This indicates that Julie feels the authority to reject him at will while simultaneously satisfying her need to subject Jean to her...
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