Wednesday, July 1, 2015

TFBT: Irony in Medea

Hour 25, Harvard’s classical studies club is reading “Medea by Euripides.  We are reading the translation by Ian Johnston.  He’s got a great site;  In preparation for our July 17,  discussion I’ve now read the play three times.  Here are some thoughts on "irony" in the play. 

“Besides, we have a woman's nature—
      powerless to perform fine noble deeds” 
          (Medea 407-8)  tran. Johnston 

What?  The Perseus translation says, “And furthermore we are women, unable to perform great deeds of valor,” What?  What is Euripides thinking here?  I prepared mentally to search all of Greek myth for women who performed noble and valorous deeds.  Alcestis sprang to mind; the woman who sacrificed her life to save her husband from Death.  I assumed initially that my inspiration was alphabetical in nature.  Then I looked at the book I was holding; a collection of Euripides’ plays.  Euripides wrote “Alcestis” and produced it prior to “Medea”  So why is the poet saying that women cannot perform heroic deeds, when he’d already proved otherwise to his audience?    

MedeaSarah S. and I discussed my quandry in Homeric Vocabulary class this morning.  Sarah introduced me to the concept of “irony”.  I have no sense of irony.  The closest I got is sarcasm, but that horse wretched my chariot far too many times turning the post, so I put him on the left hand side and keep a tight rein on him. 

The trouble with irony (and sarcasm) is if your audience doesn’t get it, the playwright appears stupid.  Okay enough said about Euripides and that topic. The advantage of Sarah’s irony argument is it explains other oddities in the text;  
        ·      “She glares upon her servants with the look of a lioness with cubs” (Coleridge)  Which is ironic because we expect a lioness to protect her cubs rather than slay them. 
       ·      In sharp contrast to our opening quote Medea says “Lives like mine achieve the greatest glory.” (810) The chorus adds   “This passion of hers moves to some greatness.” (183) All of which contrasts with Medea’s earlier false modesty at 124 when she says, “Anyway, I don't want a grand life for myself,” Ha!
      ·      “For there's no affliction worse than losing one's own country.“ (650-51)  As if that wasn’t her fault! 
      ·      Creon to Medea “by feeling pity I've been hurt before” (348)  Man, he should have followed his own tenets!  Sarah is clearly right here about Euripides attempts at irony.  The audience then and now knows what’s coming and can’t miss this statement. 



1 comment:

  1. Winnington-Ingram has devoted an entire article on the habit of Euripides to include jokes in his tragedies, "Euripides poietes sophos"; unfortunately, it is unaccessible.