Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 35.

William Allan, Euripides: Medea. London: Duckworth, 2002. Pp. 143. ISBN 0-7156-3187-X. UK£9.99.

Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape

Medea, made unforgettable by Euripides as the killer of her own children, has been one of the most popular figures from the world of Greek drama in the last twenty years.[[1]] New Medeas have made, and continue to make, their appearance on stage and screen, and in print, in remarkable numbers.[[2]] Scholars have also devoted considerable attention to Medea in recent years.[[3]] Thus one may be tempted to ask whether another book on Medea is really necessary. The short answer to this is that the book under discussion is timely and welcome.

One of the aspects of the proliferation of works with Medea as central figure is that few of the thousands of students who study these new dramas, or audiences who watch the plays, are able to read Euripides' original version in Greek. They rely on translations, of which there are many available in English,[[4]] or simply read a condensed version of the plot of the play. In either case they are excluded from appreciating the full richness and complexity of the Greek tragedy. Allan's book about the Medea of Euripides is admirably suited as guide to the nuances of the play in its social and historical context.

The work is a lucid introduction to the world of Greek tragedy and its conventions, but the focus throughout is on the Medea. Allan rightly maintains that one's understanding of the play is enhanced by knowledge of the context in which it was created. His overview of the various customary events of the Dionysia and their importance in Athenian civic life is brief. For instance, he does mention the controversy on certain points such as whether women were among the audience, but does not argue the case. Instead, he refers readers to material where the problem is covered more extensively.

The physical performance space and theatrical conventions are described and their elements related to the action of the Medea. Euripides' career is succinctly surveyed, with special attention to the place of the Medea. Allan outlines the elements of the Medea myth as it appears before Euripides. Hence the fundamental originality of Euripides' conception is brought into focus.[[5]] Then he explores the themes and dramatic technique of this seminal work. Allan rightly argues that it was not only the innovation in Euripides' tragedy that assured its power, but the way in which the plot is structured so that Medea's revenge and the murder of the children have an overwhelming impact.

He thus analyses the stagecraft of each scene and choral song and relates them to the play as a whole. This analysis is detailed and acute and results in a highly effective mediation between the text and the reader who does not know Greek. Explanation of terminology, e.g. strophê, agôn, is easily incorporated into the analysis. Endnotes further indicate where information may be obtained on technical points and where other interpretations may be found. Allan shows how metrical changes often match the changes in the emotional state of the personae.[[6]] In some instances he notes the ambiguity of the Greek original, which is often lost in translation, e.g. Jason's verb apôlesa (1350) allows the surface meaning, 'I have lost them', but also, 'I have destroyed them'. This implies that Jason realizes that he bears part of the guilt.[[7]]

Allan's analysis of the Medea is thorough and balanced. He concludes that beneath Medea's 'various personae lies a coherent, credible and effective character, a woman with a strong sense of justice whose suffering and humiliation drive her to revenge.' (p. 44) He notes that Medea's plans and actions are affected by her 'status as a woman, a foreigner, and a not quite mortal avenger' (p. 44). These facets are more closely investigated in the following chapters, each of which reads almost like a self-contained essay.

'Husbands and wives', the second chapter (pp. 45-65), discusses the conflicts of gender raised in the play and relates these to ancient Athenian society. The background includes the role of women in Euripides' other dramas and reactions to Euripides by his contemporaries. Allan reviews important questions raised by the application of feminist literary theory to Attic tragedy. He challenges the interpretations of Hall, Zeitlin and Foley and argues for a less polarized response to tragedy and more nuanced individual reactions. For him tragedy presents various modes of masculinity and femininity and exposes their problems and the tensions between them. In this chapter too, his subtly delineated description of the character of Medea follows the action of the plot. Allan's final view here is that the 'play presents one of the most radical and powerful challenges to the dominant conceptions of gender in fifth-century Athens (and beyond)' (p. 65).

Chapter 3, 'Greeks and Others' (pp. 67-79), explores how Euripides represented Medea 'as both a quintessentially dangerous barbarian and as a recognizably "Greek" wife and mother' (p. 67). Once again Allan uses the text to validate his reading of the complexity of the central character. There is no room here to follow his argument in detail, but it is persuasive and gives the reader new insights into Euripides' subtle challenge to the prevailing ethnic ideology of his time.

Chapter 4, 'Medea's Revenge' (pp. 81-99), probes the elements that make this tragedy uniquely shocking, the loving mother's slaughter of her own children. Allan examines in detail the impact on the direction of the play of Medea's declaration of her planned infanticide. He demonstrates why the audience's sympathy is first won by Medea, then challenged and finally shocked. His discussion of Euripides' depiction of human and divine approaches to justice is thought-provoking and he, in my view rightly, maintains that, far from being shown as an amoral being in the final scene, Medea is tragic because in spite of her god-like impunity she continues to suffer human pain.

The final chapter, called 'Multi-Medea' (pp. 101- 108), reads a bit like an afterthought. It deals with the reception of the drama. Of course the problem is that Euripides' Medea has been so influential that it is impossible to do justice to it in a single chapter or even volume. Yet the series of which this volume is part, Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy, claims not only to discuss the main themes of the play, but also to address the history of its performance and adaptation. Allan's solution has been to refer the reader to his bibliography and to give a brief overview of Medea in other ancient works. He mentions other Greek writers and some vases but gives a few more lines to Apollonius and to how he exploits his readers' familiarity with Euripides' drama. As far as Latin literature is concerned, Allan lists the early tragedies and then discusses Seneca's Medea. In this concise analysis he concentrates on the features which make Seneca's tragedy so different from Euripides'. From the multitude of Medeas in the modern world, Allan has chosen two to which he devotes about twenty lines each: they are Pasolini's film and Christa Wolf's 1996 novel. However, it is not this chapter that makes the book valuable. It is rather the whole of his analysis of Euripides' Medea. In an endnote (n. 49 on Chapter 4, p. 131) where he interrogates the respective readings of the final scene by Foley, Segal and McDermott, Allan concludes: 'the play's questioning of social, political and ethical norms has a profoundly stimulating and constructive effect.' The same may be said of Allan's book. He displays a good grasp of the vast literature about the Medea, but provides his own interpretation which is firmly based on his reading of the text.[[8]]


[[1]] See E. Hall, F. Macintosh and O. Taplin (edd.), Medea in Performance (Oxford 2000), especially D. Gowen, 'Medeas on the archive database', pp. 232- 74.

[[2]] In South Africa at least two new Medeas have recently been produced: Mamma Medea, Antjie Krog's Afrikaans translation (Cape Town 2002) of Tom Lanoye's Dutch play of the same name (Amsterdam 2001) was directed by Marthinus Basson and performed at the Aardklop festival in Potchefstroom in September 2002, in Stellenbosch and in Oudtshoorn in March, 2003. Another adaptation, into English, by Brett Bailey, of a Dutch Medeia by Oscar van Woensel, was performed by the Wits Theatre in Johannesburg in March, 2003 (reviewed by R. Greig in The Sunday Independent, 23 March 2003.

[[3]] J. J. Clauss and S. I. Johnston (edd.), Medea -- Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art (Princeton 1997). B. Gentili and F. Perusino (edd.), Medea nella letteratura e nell'arte (Venice 2000). A new edition of Euripides' text with commentary has been published by D. J. Mastronarde, (Cambridge 2002) and another, by J. Mossman, (Warminster) has been announced.

[[4]] The following translations I found readily available: (1) G. Murray Euripides Medea (London 1910); (2) P. Vellacott Euripides Medea and Other Plays (Harmondsworth 1963); (3) Rex Warner's translation in D. Grene and R. Lattimore (edd.) Euripides I (Chicago 1955); (4) J. Morwood, Medea and Other Plays (Oxford 1997); (5) J. Harrison, Euripides Medea (Cambridge 2000). Allan mentions a further four recent translations: R. Blondell, M.-K. Gamel, N. S. Rabinowitz, B. Zweig (edd.) Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides. Alcestis, Medea, Helen, Iphigenia at Aulis (London 1999); J. Davie, Alcestis and Other Plays (London 1996); D. Kovacs (ed.), Euripides: Cyclops, Alcestis, Medea (Cambridge, Mass. 1994); D.R. Slavitt and S.P. Bovie, Euripides: Medea, Hecuba, Andromache, Bacchae (Philadelphia 1998).

[[5]] Allan discusses the question of whether Neophron's version of the myth might have preceded and influenced Euripides (p. 23 and notes referring to the page). He refers to the literature on the issue but concludes that 'on balance the priority of Euripides' version seems . . . more compelling' (p. 23).

[[6]] For instance, 'As Medea goes into the house, the Chorus appeal for the murder to be prevented. They sing in dochmiacs, an excited metre that expresses their emotional turmoil. The pattern of aeolochoriambic metres found in the first four stasima is thus broken, marking the Chorus' shocked response to the imminent murder of the children' (p. 40)

[[7]] None of the translations I consulted (n. 4, numbers 1-5) is able to convey this ambiguity.

[[8]] The book contains a short guide to further reading in which the most important works are listed, but there are also plenty of references to other works in the notes. There is a short glossary and a chronology of Athenian life and the theatre that covers 533-405BC. This is followed by an index.