Masterpieces of Western Literature
|.Unit 11 Reading||Course Reading||Entry Page|
Reading: W&H: 785-869, Antigone & Medea.
Each of the previous 3 texts we studied required 2 or more lessons. In this unit we will read one play by Sophocles (Antigone) & one play by Euripides (Medea). You may have read Antigone in high school. If so, you might tell us in the Chat session how your teacher interpreted Antigone. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for teachers to see Antigone as a Christ figure or a martyr. She is not. Following the formula for Greek tragedy, Antigone is guilty of hubris & pays for her outrageous immorality with her life. Antigone's death may literally come from Creon, but it is caused by her hubris; by both the act of breaking the law & still more by Antigone's self-righteous attitude.
The play is starkly simple. The theme repeats the clash we saw
illustrated by Aeschylus. Which is more fundamental, blood relationships
or those freely chosen & defined by oaths. Family or citizenship
-- which is more fundamental? Sophocles creates 2 reductionists or
fundamentalists. As we might expect of a king, Creon is committed
to the virtues of citizenship:
203 whoever places a friend [kindred, a relative]
above the good of his own country, he is nothing:
I have no use for him.
209 nor could I ever make that man a friend of mine
who menaces our country. Remember this:
our country is our safety.
Creon is talking about Oedipus' 2 sons
who had agreed to share power by ruling Thebes in alternate years.
When Polynices' turn came, Eteocles refused to turn over power. A
civil war ensued in which the two brothers killed each other. Creon declared
Eteocles a hero who defended the life of the city. He branded Polynices
a usurper who sought to destroy the city or at least enslave it.
Under the rule:
585 Never the same [honor] for the patriot [Eteocles] & the traitor [Polynices]
Eteocles is buried "with full military honors" (29), while Polynices' body is left for the dogs & vultures. Politically this is unproblematic. When it is my brother whose body is desecrated, it is an outrage to me & family. Antigone tells her sister Ismene:
59 he [Creon, the law] has no right to keep me from my own
Creon & Antigone each have significant
moral truth. The problem is that they insist that life has only a
single dimension. Creon thinks that dimension is political; Antigone
thinks it is the family. Each is right in claiming that the dimension
is important; each is wrong in claiming that nothing else matters.
Ismene & Haemon echo each other trying to get their proud & self-righteous
relatives to see other dimensions in life. Ismene suggests that as
citizens, she & Antigone have an obligation to obey the law:
77 we must submit in this
80 Why rush to extremes?
It's madness, madness.
Perhaps Antigone could have avoided a tragedy, if in burying her brother
she committed civil disobedience that requires the law breaker to explain
the moral intent of the act. Mahatma Gandhi, Thoreau, & Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. all broke the law & then explained why it was necessary;
how the law actually perverted justice. Antigone could have made
such a case, but she feels that it is unnecessary. She feels that
she should not have to explain herself to her fellow citizens. What
happens in the home, in the family, is no business of the state.
Civic obligations are public. Private life is nobody's business.
This sounds good, if we don't examine it too closely. When we do,
we ask about battered women, incest with helpless children, violence against
children, & the like. Antigone lives in Thebes & consequently
must feel the obligations of citizenship, even in regard to her brother.
We may understand the dilemma when your brother or child, having committed
some capitol crime, asks you to harbor them; & we may forgive you for
doing so -- understanding that you are motivated by family love.
But we are swayed by your claim that we have no right to apprehend him
& bring him to justice. Notice how opaque or uncomprehending
Antigone is about citizenship at her trial when she tells Creon that she
thought his motive for decreeing Polynices a criminal was:
510 some man's wounded pride
Isn't this what a wife or mother might say? The point is that the judgment is made in the context of the family or of personal relationships. Antigone has no notion that her brother can also have a political identity; that he can be a traitor or hero & that these roles have consequences that escape the grasp or relevance of the family.
Compare Antigone's immaturity or self-righteousness
with the awe expressed by the chorus for civil innovation:
396 the mood & mind for law that rules the city
411 he [the innovator] & his city rise high--
but the city casts out
that man who weds himself to inhumanity
thanks to reckless daring.
Creon is right about Antigone; that she
glories in her act:
540 mocking us [the law, the city] to our face
The interesting question in this regard is: why does Antigone bury Polynices
twice? The sentry returns to announce:
426 we caught her burying the body.
Of course this accelerates the plot, but that does not explain Antigone's motive. If her motive was entirely to help her brother in the next world, so that he wouldn't be a hungry ghost & could rest in peace, the first burial would have accomplish that. Why does she risk her life to bury him a second time? I will resist answering this & look for your answer in the Chat session (:
Ismene does not defend her sister's politics -- or lack of political
understanding. She invites Creon to think about his treatment of
Antigone in the context of the family or personal relationships:
641 You'd kill your own son's bride?
Creon ought to know that branding Antigone a criminal does nothing to
change her relationship with Haemon. Creon's lectures to his son
invite our smiles as much as Apollo's shyster legal arguments to prove
that mother's are relatively unimportant in producing children!
723 Oh Haemon,
never lose your sense of judgment over a woman
Haemon might ask, "like you are doing, dad?" Instead Haemon
suggests that a dictator may control a police state, but not a city:
824 It's no city at all, [that is] owned by one man alone.
Creon sounds like no one so much as Richard Nixon:
825 the city is the king's--that's the law!
President Nixon's comparable statement was: "when the President does it that means that it is right [the law]."
Creon's order to "wall her up in the tomb" may seem to be as feeble
as Orestes' argument to his mother about how her murder of AG was simultaneously
an act of suicide destroying the family or any subsequent relationships.
The second line makes the intent clear:
973 Wall her up in the tomb . . .
Abandon her there, alone
If she abandons all sense of responsibility to the polis, then it is just for the city to abandon her. There is also the implication that if she is too good to live with the rest of us politically corrupt types, then let her go to live in the next world where, presumably, justice is uncontaminated by money, power, & other factors of real life.
Tiresias converts or saves Creon. His message is "moderation in
all things," because multiple views are possible. One has an identity
in the family but it does not annul or abrogate one's civic identity.
Conversely, one's civic identity cannot replace one's identity as a son,
1132 All men make mistakes, it is only human.
But once the wrong is done, a man
can turn his back on folly, misfortune too,
if he tries to make amends . . .
& stops his bullnecked ways. Stubbornness
brands you for stupidity--pride is a crime.
Tiresias successfully convinces Creon that he is fostering anarchy:
1185 you have thrust
to the world below a child sprung for the world above,
ruthlessly lodged a living soul within in the grave--
then you've robbed the gods below the earth,
keeping a dead body here in the bright air,
unburied, unsung, unhallowed by the [funeral] rights.
Suddenly, Creon recognizes his hubris & repents asking the chorus
1224 What should I do? Tell me . . . I'll obey.
This is why Creon lives & Antigone doesn't. Creon admits his
fault insisting that every thing in life must be reduced to its political
meaning. Antigone goes to her grave self-righteous. She would
literally prefer to die than to admit she was wrong. Her pride is
lethal. Creon admits:
1229 Oh it's hard,
giving up the heart's desire . . but I will do it
The cost of Creon's wisdom is high. His son & wife commit
suicide to destroy the family that Creon is now ready to acknowledge.
The chorus sees nothing but ruin:
1457 No more prayers now. For mortal men
there is no escape from the doom we must endure.
It is true that the family is annihilated. Blind Oedipus had more
relatives than Creon, who has sacrificed everything for duty or his profession.
Two families are wrecked, but the state continues. The play does
not end in anarchy. Creon remains king. The next to the last
stage direction say "attendants lead Creon into the palace. The last
3 lines echo Aeschylus:
1468 The might words of the proud are paid in full.
with mighty blows of fate, & at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom.
Such wisdom is only pain for Creon. It cannot help him. But we leave the mysterious rites dedicated to Dionysus in a somber & reflective mood. We have just been given the gift of wisdom at the price of vicariously suffering the downfall of Antigone & Creon.
Now we turn our attention to Euripides. Our text says:
p. 835 In Aeschylus' Oresteia, humanity suffers into truth. In Sophocles much the same thing is true . . . . Euripides is more pessimistic. . . . Whatever force governs the world . . . is amoral & entirely indifferent to humanity.
In the balance between reason & emotion, Euripides illustrates the AK cannot be civilized. When emotions are deep & powerful enough, they act like a tornado or hurricane to destroy meek reason. I told you that Aeschylus is my first choice among the Greek dramatists, because of his majesty & philosophical depth. Many students prefer Sophocles for the clarity or linear tension illustrated by the moral dilemmas he imagines. Over the years, I have found that a few students will rise to defend or try to exonerate Medea, when I cannot get them to say anything about any of the other works we study! This suggests to me that Euripides is very much a contender for the title or prize.
Of course Medea cannot be exonerated. She leaves multiple corpses
in the wake of her emotional storm. Your Dictionary tells you that
she is the niece of Kirke, the divine one whose witchery turns men into
pigs in Homer. Who is Medea dedicated to?
358 by Queen Hecate, whom above all divinities
I venerate, my chosen accomplice, to whose presence
My central hearth is dedicated
& who is Hecate? Your Dictionary tells you that she was sometimes said to be the mother of Kirke, the inventor & patron of magic, sorcery, & the so-called dark arts. Magic is a dark art because it is opaque to reason. It is a kind of dreaming & emotional wishing for things to happen. It is immature in the sense that it rejects fate & sophrosyne (the wisdom to accept fate before one is forced to accept it through suffering. Magic is also primitive in its willful rejection of logic, law, & reason. Medea is all these things: immature, primitive, barbaric ally quick to turn to violence as a magic solution to her problems or fate.
Medea blames Jason for all her problems. She says she has given
up everything for love, including a murdered brother & a betrayed father.
Most readers are inclined to at least suspend judgment & perhaps willing
to acknowledge a measure of justice in her claim. Let us first read
our Dictionary entry about Medea before we corroborate how disturbed &
evil Medea is by explicating Euripides' text. Our Dictionary says:
Annoyed by her mute opposition, Aeetes [her father] imprisoned her [Medea] . . . on the day that the Argonauts landed in Colchis [her land]. She threw in her lot with theirs, persuading Jason to . . . marry her [presumable in order to escape her father].
Medea says she gave up everything for love of Jason, but how much can she love a guy she literally just met? She cannot love a person she literally does not even know. Her motive is clearly to rebel against her father. In order to delay his pursuit, Medea murders her brother & dribbles out chopped up bits of his body for the pursuing father to stop & collect. Other myths suggest that Medea had better cause to claim that she loved Jason. In any case, she is a primitive whose notion of love is confined to her own emotions, as Euripides will illustrate.
Medea has a second set of victims that she acknowledges:
439 I put
King Pelias to the most horrible of deaths
By his own daughters' hands, & ruined his whole house [kingdom]
You can look up Pelias' story to find why Medea conspired to kill Pelias through magic & trickery. Our footnote 11 says that Medea convinced Pelias' daughters that they could magically reinvigorate their father (make him young again) by boiling him. It doesn't work.
In the play Medea treacherously kills Creon & his daughter Glauce, who marries Jason. She then murders her two sons. Her list of victims includes a brother, 2 sons, 2 kings & a girl who lovingly seeks to nurture Medea's children! 6 corpses cannot so easily be blamed on a sexually wayward husband. This violence is Medea's doing & no one else's. She says she was motivated by love, but you see the result. Moreover, her notion of love is typically narcissist. What kind of love does she have for her brother, her father, her children, much less the citizens of two countries whose kings she destroyed? Medea is a creature of passion that cannot be civilized by reason or law. As much as with AK, such unrestrained passion, beginning in love, ends in violence & destruction for everyone.
The chorus counsels Medea to accept her fate, suggesting that she experience
145 If your husband is won to a new love--
The thing is common; why let it anger [enrage & destroy] you?
The answer is found in the nature of how Medea married Jason. The act was simultaneously: rebellion & rejection of her father (a king who personifies law, reason); a kind of incest with her brother (murder); & indulging her sexual hunger regardless of the social consequences. With the third meaning erased, Medea is left to acknowledge some responsibility for what she did to gratify her desire.
157 O my father, my city, you I deserted;
My brother I shamefully murdered!
Be careful not to allow the depth of emotions to serve as moral excuses.
Is it enough that Medea finally acknowledges that she "shamefully murdered"
her brother? Of course not. She did it. The motive was
her lust for Jason. Instead of acknowledging that, she denies it
by shifting the blame to Jason. Somehow he compelled her to do it,
as though by magic, because the emotions were so overwhelming that he caused.
Of course he did not cause those emotions. Everyone has such emotions.
The rest of us restrain our acts prompted by love & hate. Medea
is unrestrained by such civilized discipline, saying only:
301 Oh, what an evil power love has in people's lives!
We might add, if one is too immature to in any way control those emotions.
340 Today 3 of my enemies I shall strike dead:
Father & daughter; & my husband.
When she understands that she will have to pay for these murders, not only with her own life, but with the lives of her children, she consents. She will indulge her lust (whether it is love or hate) at any price.
Even if we are suspicious of Jason, believing that he is bending the
truth to appear in the best light, he still says things that ring with
truth. Moreover, he is the parent who hopes to enhance the lives
of his sons. It is their mother who murders them. We can hardly
believe that Medea listens to Jason's lecture:
405 What fatal results follow from ungoverned rage.
You could have stayed in Corinth, still lived in this house,
If you had quietly accepted the decisions
Of those in power.
Jason offers alimony & child support:
417 in spite of everything,
[I will] see that you & the children are not sent away
with an empty purse, or unprovided.
Everything that Medea says in response has a superficial ring of truth.
On analysis you should see that only a child or an incompetent can successfully
say that they are not responsible for their acts, someone else is.
Is it true that Jason is responsible for all the corpses Medea leaves?
432 I saved your life
437 I willingly deceived my father; left my home
. . . I put
King Pelias to the most horrible of deaths . . . .
& in return for this you have the wickedness
to turn me out . . .
even after I had born you sons!
There are as many first person pronouns here as in AG's disastrous homecoming
speech. The pronouns should cause you to recognize that Medea cares
about no one (certainly not her children) but herself. Her emotions
are all that counts. She correctly says:
461 I have earned the enmity of those I had no right
But she isn't mature or civilized enough to understand that these were her decisions & no one else's. "I had no right to hurt them." But you did. Rather than accept the blame, she evades it. Someone else is responsible. Magic.
Jason delivers another dispassionate lecture that contests Medea's self-serving
version of her adolescent choices. First of all he says that he did
not romantically pursue her. She was a sexual bomb waiting to explode:
481 to recount
How helpless passion drove you then to save my life
[so that I would be indebted & grateful enough to help you escape your father's control & to marry you]
Would be invidious [i.e., I do not wish to embarrass you by describing how you threw yourself at me]
Jason implies that Medea's "love" for him was all about her emotions
& decisions. Indeed, we suspect that Medea would grab any guy
who showed up, if he could help escape her father's control. Secondly,
Jason denies Medea's notion that she gave everything for love & got
nothing in return (now that Jason has left her). Jason says:
485 in return for saving me you got far more
than you gave.
. . . you left a barbarous land to become a resident
of Hellas [where] you have lived
in a society where force yields place to law.
Unfortunately, this is lost on the woman who chooses Hecate over Athena.
Barbarism here is associated with magic & both of them (along with
Medea's overwhelming passions), suggest that Medea is immature or primitive
(i.e., not as emotionally developed as she should be). Finally, Jason
490 here your gifts are widely recognized,
you are famous; if you still lived at the ends of the earth
your name would never be spoken.
The point here is to suggest that life in Athens offers cultural opportunities
that obviously do not exist in the bush or in some primitive subsistence
oriented 3rd world village. Jason is certainly a devoted father.
He tells Medea that if she could only forget about her own ego & pride
for a moment, she would concur about the advantages for her sons:
508 we should live well
& not be poor.
. . . I could bring up my sons
in a manner worthy of my descent
517 Even you would approve
if you could govern your sex-jealousy. But you women
have reached a state where, if all's well with your sex-life,
you've everything you wish for
Perhaps we should make this more general. Jason makes the same
point that we saw illustrated in Sophocles' Antigone: that if things
are going well in the family, women tend not to be much concerned with
politics, economics, or any other public context. Of course this
criticism can easily be turned around to say that men are too concerned
with their professions, politics, or other arbitrary social groups to the
detriment of the family. In fact we can say this about Jason.
He argues exactly this point, that money & professional opportunity
outweighs family concerns. Before you decide that this is tit for
tat & Jason is as bad as Medea, remember the number of corpses that
lie behind Medea's claims. Finally, Medea does score a telling point,
534 if you were honest [about all these considerations for the children], you ought first
to have won me over, not got married behind my back
Of course Jason does not have an answer for this, because he has a teenage
bride or a trophy wife. His come-back is typically male: think of
the money or the professional opportunity:
561 You've everything to gain if you give up this rage.
Jason has good arguments for the public dimension. He & his
kids & even to some extent his ex-wife or whatever Medea's status might
be -- all of them stand to gain in terms of money, status, & opportunity.
Unfortunately, Medea does not make the counter argument that we would like
to hear: what does this cost in regard to what we now call family values?
If she had make this argument, perhaps the tragedy would have been called
"Jason," because he would have been at fault. Instead, consider what
happens next in the plot. A character named Aegeus enters (see l.
607). I wonder what you think of the next two pages, lines 607 -700?
What is going on here? Nothing that obviously moves the plot forward.
Perhaps these lines should be cut? Oh . . . no. Consider the
end of this mini scene, when Medea contemplates:
703 Just where my plot was weakest, at that very point
help has appeared in this man Aegeus; he is a haven
where I shall find safe mooring . . .
Now I'll tell you all my plans:
they'll not make pleasant hearing
Aegeus! Who is he?
Another boy friend!
You have to be surprised by this married couple, who each find other romantic partners, but not in the name of love. Jason says his new wife is all about finding better opportunities for his children! Medea's new boyfriend is obviously a repetition of what she did with Jason. She wanted revenge & escape from her father. Jason was her ticket. Now when she wants revenge & escape from Jason, someone named Aegeus just happens along. What does this tell you about the sincerity of Medea's love for Jason? If you still in any doubt concerning how malicious Medea is, consider what she does next. She uses her children as instruments to murder Glauce & Creon:
715 in my plot to kill the princess they [my children] must help.
I'll send them [because they are innocent children] to the palace bearing gifts, a dress
. . . & a coronet of beaten gold.
I she [Glauce] takes & puts on this finery, both she
& all who touch her will expire in agony
Then Medea reflects:
726 I can endure guilt [in killing anyone else, even my own children], however horrible;
[what I will not endure is] the laughter of my enemies [that] I will not endure
[at any cost, even the lives of my children].
AK's vanity cost his own life, those of his comrades that he declined to help, & those 12 innocent Trojan children. Helen's list of corpses must be numbered in the thousands, but they are not as graphically horrific as Medea's victims -- her own children whom we can imagine crying out to mother for help at the very moment when mom is strangling them.
Medea's unconditional commitment is not to Jason, as she so frequently
says, nor to her children -- it is to herself. She will do anything
736 Let no one think of me
as humble or weak or passive; let them understand
I am of a different kind
Let us distort the chronology of the lines a bit to make the point clear.
The chorus asks Medea:
745 to kill your own children! Can you steel your heart [to do it]!
739 To such a life glory belongs.
Are you convinced now? Everything is about her. Jason, her
children -- they have no value except for what they mean in Medea's emotional
life. "If all is well with your" emotional life . . . then all is well.
No other standard has authority. The denouement is drenched in irony.
Medea's kids have been the unwitting instruments of death & ironically
the victim, Glauce, finds them innocent & charming:
910 These 2 boys are reprieved from banishment.
The princess took your [Medea} gifts [poisoned dress] from them with her own hand,
& was delighted. They have no enemies the palace.
Jason was right, at least in regard to the children. See how he
1042 [he] began to soothe
her sulkiness [Glauce, because the children naturally preferred their father],
her girlish temper. "You must not,"
he said, "be unfriendly to our friends [my children].
. . . take these gifts . . . & ask
your father to revoke their exile for my sake."
Of course it is tragically too late. Medea has already murdered
Glauce & her father, the king, Creon. Notice that her thought
is not to accompany her children to Hades. She considers them only
as instrument of revenge:
1120 my course is clear: as quickly as possible
to kill the children & then fly from Corinth
with her new boyfriend!
The children pathetically beg:
1157 Mother, don't kill us!
1160 Help, help, for the gods' sake! She is killing us!
But no help comes. Mom is in control. Medea ends as spectacularly as Aeschylus' Eumenides, although suggesting horror & failure instead of hope & confidence. The stage direction after line 1197 say:
Medea appears above the roof [of the house], sitting in a chariot drawn by dragons, with the bodies of the 2 children beside her.
It is probably not auspicious to be pulled away by dragons. The
obvious visual implication is that Medea is pulled away from reality &
into total madness, from which there is no recovery such as we saw with
Orestes. Her actions, unlike Orestes, have no sliver of justice
to redeem them. The mother has her children. Will they grow
up? Will they live? What kind of a mother is this? Jason
emphasizes what we already know: that Medea was tragically & violently
selfish & immature from the beginning:
1214 You had already murdered your brother at is own hearth
Remind you of anyone? Obviously KLY who murders her husband at his own hearth. In both cases, the female drive for power at any cost is at least as frightening as the male version with AK.
The final word is, predictably, offered by Euripides through the chorus:
1298 The things we though would happen
[because they were planned by reason] do not happen
As we said in the beginning of our study of Euripides, he illustrates
that reason is a feeble force that cannot restrain our most powerful passions.
At best, we are warned to be wary of inciting such passions, lest they
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