One of the hallmarks of modern storytelling is toying with the conventions of a genre. Familiar stories get retold with surprising twists and the tropes that everyone can see coming are turned upside-down and inside-out. It’s not just a modern game, though. Older stories can be just as cunning with their twists. When I’m trying to think about how to do something different with a familiar tale, one of the examples I look back to is Euripides’ tragedy Medea.
Medea is one of the classics of ancient Greek theatre. There are plenty of good translations available and it’s not hard to get your hands on one. If you’re looking for an online edition, here are a few. I discussed the play before in comparison to Star Wars, so I won’t bore you with summarizing the whole plot again (check the link if you want a quick reminder). Rather, I want to talk about two interesting things Euripides does with the story.
The first is what he does with the tragic hero. The tragic hero is a figure well established in Greek drama: a good but flawed person who is trying to do the right thing but keeps making the same mistake over and over again until they destroy themselves. Tragic heroes are all over western literature, from Achilles to Anakin Skywalker, but where is Medea‘s? It’s not Medea herself. She doesn’t fit the requirements. She may do terrible things in the course of the play, but she ends it riding high (literally, in a dragon-drawn chariot riding off to life of comfort in Athens), not in ruins. All of her actions are purposeful and deliberate, not the consequences of a character flaw. Medea may be the protagonist of the play, but she’s not a tragic hero.
There is someone in the play, though, whose world falls apart because of his own failings: Jason. Jason starts the play on the top of the world: he’s about to marry into royalty and set himself in line to become king of Corinth. He’ll have a new wife—a proper Greek wife, not that Colchian sorceress he got himself stuck with—a supportive father-in-law, and a prosperous home for his children to grow up in. By the end of the play, he’s lost everything, even the chance to give his children a decent burial. Although Jason only makes two brief appearances in the play, he’s the proper tragic hero.
It’s as if Euripides took a traditional Greek drama and flipped the stage around. Jason’s tragedy is happening somewhere else while we watch the actions that bring it about. Medea is a play about what’s going on backstage of every other tragedy.
By flipping the stage, Euripides shows us something important: that there’s more to the story of any tragedy. Tragedies don’t just happen; they happen because someone takes action and sets things in motion. In the hands of less skillful authors, tragedy can tend towards vagueness, with the hero’s downfall coming at the hands of some ill-defined fate or combination of accidents. Euripides grounds us back in the specific. Jason’s downfall isn’t a cosmic balancing of the scales. It happens because his poor treatment of Medea provokes her to take revenge on him.
The second noteworthy thing that Euripides does is a little hard to appreciate from a modern perspective. Today, Medea is the best-known version of the Medea story, but it was not the only one circulating in antiquity. Classic Greek dramas drew on myths (and some history). The stories they presented were stories that the audience already knew. When Euripides’ audience came into the theatre, they already knew the story of Jason and Medea—or rather: they knew certain versions of that story. We have enough fragments of earlier sources and artistic depictions to have a pretty good idea of how the story was usually told. It mostly matches up with Euripides’ version: Jason abandons Medea so she plots revenge with poisoned gifts that kill Creon and Glauce. But there’s a critical difference: in the traditional version of the story, Medea doesn’t kill her own children. That’s all Euripides’ idea.
It’s impossible for us now to recapture how shocking Medea must have been to its original audience. They thought they knew where this story was going, then suddenly something horrible happened that nobody saw coming. Remember how shocked everyone was by the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones? Imagine if in the book the wedding was just a tense and uncomfortable affair but came off with no bloodshed, and then we saw the show’s version? That’s the level of mind-bending we’re talking about with Medea.
Euripides’ bloody version of the Medea myth is so powerful that it has taken over and become the standard. The play has lost some of its power because now we see the ending coming, but that’s the reward of a really good twist: it stops being a twist because it resets the standards for how a particular story or kind of story is told.
Image: Medea and her children, detail of photograph by Xinstalker via Wikimeda (National Archaeological Museum, Naples; 1st c. BCE; fresco)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.