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  • “An infant of the house of York”: Medea and Absyrtus in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy
  • Katherine Heavey (bio)

This essay explores Shakespeare’s use of the classical legend of Medea in 2 Henry VI and shows how the remainder of the first tetralogy is haunted by her first crime, the killing of her young brother Absyrtus.1 The mutilated body of Absyrtus held a particular interest for classically-minded English writers of the early modern period; in 2 Henry VI it is invoked by the Lancastrian Young Clifford as he swears revenge on the house of York for the death of his father.2 I will show how Shakespeare augments and sensationalizes chronicle history by absorbing this notorious and popular story into his history plays, and will argue that the Lancastrian nobleman’s brief classical reference signifies more than might first appear. By invoking this myth, Shakespeare registers anxiety about the irreversible damage done by civil war. Moreover, the story demonstrates Clifford’s bloody intentions toward Yorkist bodies, but also forecasts his own fate, because of his misunderstanding of what it means to use Medea as an example.

Inga-Stina Ewbank posits that, although Shakespeare does not explicitly return to the Absyrtus story after 2 Henry VI, the bloody classical legend “continues, as it were, underground to enrich the texture of the episodes of 2 and 3 Henry VI which are consequent on this scene.”3 In my discussion of 3 Henry VI and Richard III, I will show how the latter two plays in the tetralogy are haunted by Clifford’s reference to Medea and Absyrtus. Having explicitly compared himself to the child-killer in 2 Henry VI, Clifford realizes his own Medea-like potential in 3 Henry VI, when he slaughters the Earl of Rutland, young son of the Duke of [End Page 233] York. The cruel death of this child and the memory of the classical myth of fratricide that underpins it are a means for Shakespeare to complexify not only Clifford’s character, but also those of other historical figures who find themselves pulled into Clifford’s reimagining of the Absyrtus story: Margaret, York, and even the future Richard III, who is unexpectedly affected by his brother’s fate.

As 2 Henry VI moves to its conclusion, Clifford discovers the body of his father, Lord Clifford, who has been slain in battle by the Duke of York. Declaring “York not our old men spares; / No more will I their babes” (5.3.51–52), a raging Clifford compares himself to Medea and Aeneas, both familiar figures from Roman mythology:

Henceforth I will not have to do with pity. Meet I an infant of the house of York, Into as many gobbets will I cut it As wild Medea young Absyrtus did. In cruelty will I seek out my fame. Come, thou new ruin of old Clifford’s house, He takes his father’s body up on his back As did Aeneas old Anchises bear, So bear I thee upon my manly shoulders. But then Aeneas bare a living load, Nothing so heavy as these woes of mine.


For Clifford’s hyperbolic swearing, Shakespeare turned to Medea as she was reconceived by the first Elizabethan translators of Ovid and Seneca. He refers to the part of the myth that sees her kill and dismember her young brother to distract her father, King Aeëtes, who is pursuing her as she elopes from Colchis with Jason.5 The fullest classical description of the fratricide is given in Ovid’s Tristia (translated by Thomas Churchyard in 1572). Churchyard’s translation of book 3, elegy 9 recounts the Argonauts’ escape, and Medea’s desperate act:

When ha[s]ting ships with spee[d]y pace to draw more neare she spide, By craft we must my father flee, (we are betrayd) she cride. Whyle she for counsell paused then, and looked round about, In sight at last her brother sawe, amids her deepest doubt. Whom when she spide, forthwith she sayd: I dare us well assure. My br[o]thers death the cause shalbe, our safety to procure. [End Page 234] Hee all unwares and...


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