The Woman They Made Myth About: Medea and the Power of Retelling in Euripides and James Ijames

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Haverford College. Department of Classics
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Ancient Greek plays performed at the Dionysia were not isolated in terms of the stories they told; rather, they were part of a massive cultural context that all Athenian citizens had, telling stories that were woven into the fabric of everyone’s daily lives. People going to see a Homeric epic, or a play by one of the great tragedians or comedians, more than likely knew the stories they were about to see, having been told such stories their whole lives. What they didn’t know was what exactly the playwright planned to convey through these myths and characters that were so familiar to the public. Take Medea, for instance. The story of Medea had existed (and had even been performed) well before Euripides wrote his version of it, but Euripides added his own artistic influences, while bringing the current events of his time into the world of the play, or vice versa (bringing the myth into his reality). Euripides wrote his Medea as an Ancient Greek, for Ancient Greeks (Athenians, specifically), within the context of the larger Ancient Greek culture. When someone from the year, say, 2023, reads or watches the Euripidean play, that context is no longer there, and many of the references may no longer hold relevance to the viewer. Here, we find a dilemma; how should we, an audience separated from Classical Greece by both space and time (thousands of years even), engage with this piece, when so much of our cultural experience is different from that of the Ancient Greeks? Modern playwright James Ijames responds to this dilemma by taking the characters of Medea’s story and positioning them within a modern American context, adding his own artistic and stylistic choices, and bringing in issues modern to the current discussion of his time. In this paper, I explore the interactions between Ancient Greek mythos and its reinterpretation by playwrights across time. In short, this is a reception study of the story of Medea, as told by two very different people, living in two very different cultural environments. I will also focus on the genealogical connection between Circe and Medea, and the importance of genealogy to the Ancient Greeks. The overarching theme of this paper will focus on Medea, specifically the story of Medea, as a microcosm of the interactions between modern and ancient retellings. I will zero in on Euripides’ and Ijames’ takes on the Medea myth, and how they act in communication with one another, as well as with the broader narrative world in which Medea lives, i.e. the ancient Greek mythos.