Comparisons seen in Euripedes’ Medea and Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
Euripedes’ Medea and Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea are set in immensely different surroundings and cultures, written over 2,000 years apart. Yet they both challenged the conventions of their genre, and have striking similarities in the way they considered themes of injustices in society, questioning conventional values through the careful exploitation of the traditions and conventions of their genre. Euripedes was the least celebrated of the three great Greek Tragedians during his lifetime; he was even ridiculed on occasion due to his often unconventional and occasionally weak writing.
Euripedes strength laid in his ability to recognise the ways in that the Greek myths and fables reinforced Greek values and in Medea, he challenges these values by exhibiting his own thought provoking twists on the common values of the time through the exploitation of the structure of the Greek play. Euripedes gave a voice to the oppressed and the underdogs of society, giving voices to characters considered too distasteful to write about by other playwrights of the time. Medea as a female, and a barbarian had no status in Greek society.
Jason in Greek mythology was the archetypical male hero who put together the Argonauts and stole the Golden Fleece. Euripedes twists their positions and presents Medea as a woman scorned who enacts a cruel revenge with the strengths of traditional male characteristics; she says ‘Let no one think of me/as humble or weak or passive; / let them understand I am of a different kind:/ dangerous to my enemies, / Loyal to my friends. / to such a life glory belongs. ‘ Jason is helpless and weak, and eventually looses everything – including the right to bury his sons.
Euripedes’ unconventional representation of Medea has often been described as early feminism and was quoted by suffragettes. However, Euripedes wrote plays performed exclusively by males for a male audience, and he recreated Medea as the protagonist with strong male characteristics. However, as she is self absorbed and ruthless, these are qualities that were ultimately undesirable as Medea carries out her vengeance, and so Euripedes questioned the validity of Greek values for men as well as considering the position of women.
Euripedes had great self belief in his talent, and the criticisms that he received may have lead to his questioning of Greek values and his affinity with those in society that were not always given a voice. In pp48-51 Medea argues with herself, over her decision to murder her children, alternating from a more traditional feminine standpoint that feels unable to commit the murder, to a harsher male perspective that asks ‘What is the matter with me?… I must steel myself to do it’.
Euripedes questions the tradition Greek convention of the value of pride that leads to the horrific act of infanticide. Medea complained that ‘When, for an extravagant sum, we have bought a husband, we must then accept him as/Possessor of our body’. The contract that is usually between the husband and the wife’s father has been taken by Medea who now wants to reclaim her dowry. Medea’s position is ‘xenos’, a stranger-guest amongst the Greeks. Jason presents the Greek perception of ‘stranger’ as somebody who is not Greek, which stood for civilised and mannered, as opposed to barbarians.
Medea mourns her sacrifice of family and her regrets, not accepting the Greek view that she should be grateful for her new position. The audience is carefully manipulated through the inspired use of the chorus. The chorus in Greek plays represented groups of characters, but provide exposition and clarification of themes. In Medea Euripedes builds on the relationship with the Medea and as the women are alternatively supportive and then horrified by Medea’s actions the audience’s sympathies are influenced.
On their entrance, they set the exposition, and are initially concerned by Medea’s wild behaviour, ‘What madness is this? ‘ (Line 151) They provide a listener for Medea to explain and justify her feelings and are swayed into sympathy, ‘To punish Jason will be just’ (line 262). The chorus supports her until after the meeting with Aegeus, when Medea makes clear she was taking advantage of the soft nature of Aegeus in her plans for revenge. They then question Medea’s actions; ‘to uphold the laws/of human life – I tell you, you must not do this. Euripedes concludes with Medea making her escape by way of divine intervention, by way of the Greek tool deus ex machina. At the end of the play nobody is granted the moral high ground, and he highlights the fact that nobody knows how the Gods may intervene and life does not follow set patterns. Euripedes refuses to present his characters as opposing right and wrong, and considers the real world away from traditional mythology where the amalgamation of conflicting opposites does not work.
He also addresses the theme of whether the means do justify the ends, a theme that is highly significant in present times. The chorus were fully sympathetic of Medea’s cause, but the infanticide is unjustifiable. Jason has shown us how Greek men frequently do behave. Euripides also makes it clear that the choir could have stepped in to prevent the act, but chose to conform to the traditional chorus’ position – society’s position of doing the accepted thing and not questioning the way of life. Rhys spent seven years perfecting Wide Sargasso Sea as a critique of colonial and capitalist values.
She depicts Jamaica after the liberation of the slave population, and exposes the corrupted philosophies of the slave owning elite. Like Euripedes she writes from her own background, as a Dominican who was passionately opposed to English culture. Rhys was fascinated by Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the mad Creole locked in the attic, and expanded the character to include her perspectives of Jamaican culture, which she felt were misunderstood by English people. Antoinette says ‘out here is not at all like English people think it is’ (p. 16).
The central character of Antoinette is a white Creole, and like Medea is not like the conventional character for the setting and situation and the control of power is changeable. Unlike the other white people on the island, Antoinette and her mother recognise their dependence on their black servants, and have a respect for them, but with underlying apprehension and bitterness. They correct Mr Mason for his stereotypical comments that black people are ‘too damn lazy to be dangerous’, telling him that they can be ‘dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand’ (p16).
Rhys does not accept that the white population have a firm hold on control in the relationship, and there is the danger that they may lose power to the freed black servants. Also like Medea, Antoinette is a passionate woman whose fervour ultimately leads to her downfall. Where Medea is begged by the chorus to retain ‘proper behaviour’, Antoinette has standards of proper female deportment presented to her by the girls and convent school who emulate beauty, chastity and even temperaments.
Inevitably, Antoinette’s hot and fiery nature precipitates her depression and madness. The predominance of madness in the story and Antoinette’s fragmented memories, in a confused time sense, show there are an unlimited number of perspectives and alternative possibilities to any given situation. Rhys, like Euripedes recognized differing viewpoints. Alternating between Antoinette’s narrative and her husband’s reinforces the different perceptions of events, and highlights the turmoil Antoinette experiences in the events.
The time sense is also confused and hard to clarify, adding to the sense of madness. Antoinette was also burdened with ‘otherness’, by the people who called them ‘white cockroaches’ and like Medea her marriage was a way towards being accepted within the society, in return for a sizeable dowry. However, Antoinette does not have the strength of Medea to enact revenge when the arrangement is broken, having a childlike dependence on her husband, ultimately leading to her mental demise when her husband betrays and all but abandons her.
Rhys uses the recurring symbolism of the mirror to emphasize Antoinette’s desire to be accepted by the society. As a child she tried to kiss her reflection, in an attempt to reconcile the two sides of her split identity, when Tia cries Antoinette sees her reflection, in the shared desire of reconciliation between the divide. When she is consigned to the attic by her husband, she can no longer check her reflection, and this intensifies her feelings of detachment.
Both Euripedes and Rhys had a desire to show a more real perspective through their works, and challenge rather than conform to the conventions of their genre. They wrote about the society that they lived in, with the insider knowledge that gave them the ability to offer true representations of their society from their point of view, and make attempts at understanding the outlook of others. They both presented a nonconformist representation of characters already well known to their audiences, as an individualistic attempt to demonstrate their unique versions of a reality.
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