First it is important to place both ‘heroines’ in the setting where their tale unfolds. Bernarda Alba was created to be the allegorical form of Spanish dictator General Franco. Her control over her daughters is therefore very much like the right-wing military dictatorship that Franco had created in Spain. Medea was written centuries earlier, and set in the world of Greek mythology; the protagonist has just been abandoned by her husband Jason for Glauce, the Princess of Corinth. It is known that “most of Euripides’ thinkers are women”1, an apt description for Medea, who is very strong mentally and determined.
It would seem that these women are very different when its comes to the question of power. Bernarda Alba is immediately powerful in all aspects of the world that she lives in, and especially in her own household, “Tyrant over everyone around her”2. Medea, on the other hand, seems to be utterly powerless from the start: “But what of me? Abandoned, homeless, I am a cruel husband’s plaything”3, she is a foreigner in Corinth, she has burned all her bridges in her native land, her husband has left her, and she now has no protection in a land that is not her own. However, thanks to her single minded character she overcomes this ‘handicap’ and takes matters into her own hands: “The day on which I will make corpses of three of my enemies, father, daughter and husband-my husband.”4 This makes her unlike any other tragic hero in Greek mythology; another would have let this weakness take over their fate. Even though her actions are drastic and cruel, she proves to be a force to be reckoned with and unwilling to have her destiny written for her.
It seems that Bernarda Alba wields a blind force, she is in power and no one can challenge her statement: “Silence”5, which introduces her part in the play, and also ends it; Medea, however, is more cunning and manipulative, power is not given to her, she has to take it. An aspect of their power which is more similar is the objects that symbolize it : for Bernarda Alba it is her cane “BERNARDA, beating with her cane on the floor”6, for Medea it is the garments that she sends to Glauce “I will send them, you see, with presents in their hands: a finely woven dress and a coronet of beaten gold”7. Although they are not used for the same purpose, both demonstrate the weak positions of the other characters. Bernarda uses her cane to enforce discipline, even being violent with it, “beating her with her cane”8, when her need for control escalates. Medea uses the garments to show that she will not be hurt without revenge. Her garments cause death, which makes them more impressive, “if she takes this finery and puts it on her, she shall perish horribly, as shall anyone else who touches the girl”9. These objects could also be seen as potential obstacles for the women; the moment Adela breaks the cane “Adela snatches away her mother’s cane and breaks it in two/This is what I do with the tyrant’s cane”10, Bernarda is stripped of a great part of her strength and authority. The garments should do the same for Medea, yet they do not because she manages to provide herself a “safe haven” in Athens “not to expel me ever from your land”11 and she uses her dark magic to escape any form of punishment: “MEDEA, suddenly appears above the stage in a chariot drawn by dragons.”12
Both character’s forceful personalities and the power they invoke are built up by the fact that they are mentioned several times before they first appear on stage. This creates suspense and tension as we wait to meet these characters. By the time they appear, we see them as the playwrights desire, through the other character’s eyes. In Lorca’s case, he shows us that Bernarda Alba is not a woman to be crossed: “If Bernarda doesn’t find things shining, she’ll pull out the few hairs I have left”13. He creates the impression of an evil person who cares for no one but herself, which is of course an exaggeration; she is authoritarian, but thinks she is doing what is best for her daughters. Euripides creates a different feeling, as from the words of the nurse, Medea appears to be a desolate, weak and overcome woman: “Medea, poor lady, dishonored in this way”14. Although this feeling is seemingly confirmed by Medea’s first line, a ‘suicidal’ lament: “If only a flaming bolt from heaven would pierce my head”15, we quickly see that it is all a facade, and that she is not who she is made out to be. Both playwrights exaggerate a certain aspect of the characters’ personality, making us believe they are a certain way, but we quickly realize once they are on stage, that they are only partially revealed through the other characters’ statements.
Both female protagonists have certain ‘masculine’ aspects to their personalities. Bernarda Alba’s appear from the fact that her husband is dead, and with five grown daughters, she needs to take on both parental roles. This may be the reason she is so hard on her daughters, and is unable to explain to them that she is only doing what is best. Medea, as a woman in Ancient Greece shows many ‘unfeminine ‘ qualities. The culmination of this ‘masculinity’ comes when she persuades herself to kill her children to make Jason suffer. She achieves something that is quite impossible: stripping herself of her natural motherly love. It is somewhat ironic that these two women should take on these ‘masculine’ traits: they have both been betrayed by men. Bernarda’s spouse was sleeping with servants and Medea’s has left her for another woman.
Another thing that these two women have in common is the fact that both of them have another character who acts as a sort of ‘conscience.’ Bernarda Alba has La Poncia, the head servant in her house, who never hesitates to tell her mistress how she feels, “Of course, any place else, they’d be the poor ones.”16 There are several scenes where only the two women are present and La Poncia tries to warn Bernarda that if she does not alter her ways she will be powerless: “And now see what’s happening to you with these airs!”17. Unfortunately, Bernarda refuses to listen to La Poncia, simply because she is a servant. In Medea’s case it is the Chorus who acts as her ‘conscience’, (principally the antistrophe, the strophe usually agrees with Medea). We could say that the Chorus is more like a ‘conscience’ than La Poncia; Medea hears what they say, rather than ignores it, as Bernarda does, although she ignores their advice. This only makes Medea’s will appear stronger, although she knows in her own mind that what she is doing is wrong, she does it simply to show that she can. Notwithstanding her murderous and devious acts, she still proves her strength throughout the play.
The final similarity, is that both women play an important part in the deaths of one or more of their children. Bernarda Alba ultimately causes her daughter Adela’s death, by refusing to change her ways. Medea decides to kill her sons to punish Jason, although just before she acts, she has a sudden moment of indecision, “ My heart dissolves, ladies, when I see the shining faces of my children! I could not do it! Goodbye to those plans I made”18, she overcomes her hesitations. The main difference between the two here, is that whilst one plays a passive role in the death of her child, the other plays a distressingly active part. This difference becomes very apparent through comparison: Bernarda Alba effects change by being authoritarian and expecting things to go her way, whereas Medea, seeing that things are not going as planned, takes matters into her own hands and effects change through her own actions.
In conclusion, though there are small differences in the way the playwright’s display certain aspects of both protagonist’s personalities, they remain similar. Both have power but individual ways of wielding it, both have very strong willed obstinate natures which manifest themselves differently. Both remain correlative examples of female strength and intelligence, though they were created by two playwrights who wrote for worlds completely alien to each other. Yet these women, powerful as they are, have neither those qualities that make them attractive to an audience, nor bring them happiness to their own lives.
1. Medea and Other Plays, Euripides
2. The House of Bernarda Alba, Federico Garcia Lorca