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  • Mother Medea and Her Children:Maternal Ambivalence in the Medean Plays of Marina Carr, Cherríe Moraga, and Rachel Cusk
  • Verna A. Foster (bio)

Euripidean Medea as a Model for Maternal Ambivalence

When Euripides's Medea killed her children, she gave birth to a seemingly unending number of literary progeny over twenty-five centuries. Euripides's play is one of the most frequently performed Greek tragedies in Europe and America and has generated numerous translations and adaptations throughout the world, because in both translated and adapted forms this play in particular lends itself to some of the most pressing issues that have engaged the cultures that have reworked it. Over the last five centuries, as Fiona Macintosh explains, versions of Euripides's play have successively emphasized Medea as witch, infanticide, abandoned wife, protofeminist, outsider, and latterly as an amalgam of these earlier manifestations.1 Euripides's Medea killed her children to deprive her husband, Jason, of posterity because he abandoned her for a younger royal bride. The vengeance of a foreign woman scorned still shadows contemporary Medeas, who continue to appear as feminists, as ethnic and cultural others, and as exemplars of the dispossessed fighting back.2 However, in the popular imagination, Medea is first and foremost the mother who kills her own children. Three recent versions of Euripides's play, while still evoking the multiple ways in which Medea resonates with contemporary concerns, address in particular the maternal ambiguity that finds its most extreme symbolic expression in infanticide. Marina [End Page 83] Carr's By the Bog of Cats … (1998), Cherríe Moraga's The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea (2000), and Rachel Cusk's Medea (2015) critique the coercive norms of patriarchal motherhood as it exists, respectively, in late twentieth-century Catholic Ireland, Chicanx America, and contemporary England. These critiques are advanced from the viewpoints of the Medean mothers, each of whom is motivated by her own particular circumstances and her own understanding of motherhood. By focusing on their protagonists' individual experiences as mothers; complicating their motives for committing infanticide; and developing the roles their children play, Carr, Moraga, and Cusk illuminate, from different perspectives, why Medea offers audiences an important resource for coming to terms with the conflicts of contemporary motherhood.

In Euripides's dramatization of the elemental conflict between maternal love and vengeful infanticide, Medea is motivated to kill her children chiefly by wounded pride—"I will not let my enemies laugh at me"—but also by a sense of divine justice—"The gods and I / devised this strategy" to punish Jason for his oath-breaking, as she says of her revenge.3 The complexity of her feelings and her self-awareness (she is the only character in extant Greek tragedies to talk to herself) give Euripides's rendering of the Medea myth its peculiar power to generate new versions of Medean motherhood in a variety of social, historical, geographical, and cultural contexts. There is no question that, viscerally, Medea loves her children: "Oh, how I love these hands, how I love these mouths, / the way the children stand, their noble faces!" (1094-95). She has to steel herself to kill them, and she knows that she will suffer the pain of their loss. However, from the beginning of the play, Medea's feelings about her children and about motherhood are ambivalent. Describing her mistress's suffering, the Nurse says, "She hates her children, feels no joy in seeing them" (42). Medea wishes for the children's death even before she thinks of killing them herself: "O children, accursed, / may you die—with your father!" (118–19). And, famously, Medea tells the Women of Corinth, "I'd rather take my stand behind / a shield three times than go through childbirth once" (253–54). She asserts that it is safer as well as more desirable to be an arms-bearing man than a childbearing woman. Medea's murder of her children cannot be excused as madness. She consciously "work[s] up [her] nerve / for overwhelming evil," asserting, "my spirit/ [End Page 84] is stronger than my mind's deliberations" (1101–03).

Medea's intellectual honesty, complex reasoning, and emotional turmoil make her a particularly compelling paradigm for...


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