Euripides Medea - Robin Robertson I have mentioned in reviews of modern adaptations of Medea that she is one of my favorite mythological characters. Her story in the hands of various authors is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s a tale that touches on themes of love and hate, obsession, faith and loyalty, and in its most profound reading reflects human beings in their most complex nature. Up to now, my favorite translation has been Frederic Prokosch’s, written in 1947 and which I have in a collection of Greek plays edited by Dudley Fitts. When I read it, I thought it read easily, with an energy I had found lacking in others. With Robin Robertson’s Medea, I have a new favorite, though I would still recommend Prokosch’s. Robertson’s interpretation is even crisper, more energetic and more lyrical than Prokosch’s, and made me appreciate Euripides’ subtlety more than ever before. (Note: I’ve yet to read Carl Müller’s version. I liked his versions of Prometheus Bound and Herakles. He tends to be more prosy than poetic so I have a feeling it’ll read more like Prokosch than Robertson.) Below is a brief example of the differences I’m getting at. It’s the tutor’s observation to the nurse about Jason’s actions and human nature. The first is Robertson’s take, then Prokosch’s, then the Loeb Classical Library’s version:

What mortal man is not guilty?
A new woman in the bed
leaves no room for anyone else.
He has forgotten everything,
including his boys.
Has it dawned on you
that we’re each of us human:
we put ourselves above all others.

And which of us has not done the same? Haven’t you learned long ago, my dear, how each man loves himself far more than his neighbor? Some, perhaps, from honest motives; some for private gain. So you see how Jason deserts his children for the pleasure of his new bride.

As what mortal is not? Because of his new bride, the father does not love these boys: are you only now learning that each man loves himself more than others, some justly, others for the sake of gain?

As I wrote, Robertson has made me appreciate Euripides’ complexity more, and upon reflecting in the course of writing this, I’ve come to see Medea and Jason as two sides of the human coin. On one side is Medea, who is close to the Homeric heroic ideal; on the obverse is Jason, who is a “modern” man. Neither image is particularly flattering but both carry conviction because both ring (all too) true.

What follows are simply some of my favorite passages. Lines that – for whatever reason – struck me. The more I find myself reading Euripides, the more I find myself liking him, so I definitely recommend him. Ideally, we’d read him in the original Greek but as most of us have let our Ancient Greek get a bit rusty, seek him out in your native tongue at the very least.

I’ll try, of course, but I doubt I’ll persuade her.
When any of us approach
you can see her hackles rise – like a lioness
when you get between her and her cubs.
If only we could charm her with music;
but those old composers were such fools:
they wrote melodies only for the happy times –
festivals, grand banquets, celebrations.
None of them thought to make a music for real life,
music that would salve our wounds
and soothe our bitter griefs. Didn’t they see
these wounds and griefs destroy us,
and a music that healed such sorrow
would be precious?
What is the point of music and song at a feast?
People are happy when they’re full.
We need a tune when there’s no food there to eat.

My reputation, yet again! It goes before me like a curse.
My father should never have allowed me an education,
never raised me to be intelligent.
Those who are out of the ordinary
attract jealously and bitterness.
If you try to bring new wisdom to fools,
the fools are furious;
if your mind matches the minds
of the city’s intellectuals
then they’re threatened.

There are no names for something
as foul and spineless as you.
A man who is no man at all.
How dare you come to us here,
where you are most despised.
Is this your idea of courage or heroism,
to wrong your family and then visit them?
Loathesome, shameless, evil man.

On the matter of children: many times we’ve argued,
many times we’ve lost. Men’s skill in rhetoric
is more subtle, more practiced than our own.
But women have a Muse, too, who gives us wisdom,
and this is our opinion: those men and women
who have never brought up children are, by nature, blessed.
They never suffer those extremes.

Look at the parents, worn down by love and worry.
Are their little ones sick? Are they hungry?
Will they grow up well, or badly? And worst of all,
after years of this, the fear all parents know:
that they’ll outlive their children. That Death will come,
with his casual, careless hand, and knock them off the world.

Yet we persist – in search of love, or heirs,
or some brief brilliant proof that we exist –
and the fruit of all this anxious love is grief.

Hate on! I am so sick of your pathetic voice. [This last line, taken out of context, may not make much sense. It comes at the end of a brilliant, bitter back and forth between Medea and Jason at the end of the play, and I shudder to imagine the loathing and contempt with which a good actor would deliver it.]