Thursday, March 31, 2005

esosa se esosa hos isasi hosoi

I came across the following in Moses Hadas's introduction to Euripides: Ten Plays (Bantam: New York [1966]). Under discussion is Euripides' curious preference for endings that are deus ex machina, which is generally considered (and has been since at least Aristotle's day) to be a sign of incompetence, the sign of a botched plot. And yet Euripides has many, despite his clear skill as a writer. Hadas says:

But the botching was surely intentional, and meant to be disbelieved by at least the intelligent part of the audience. In almost every case where some deity imposes a happy ending, the normal consequences would be disaster. In Iphigenia Among the Taurians we are told that Thoas' troops control the narrow passage through which Orestes' boat must pass, and that a strong wind is blowing the wrong way. In Medea an angry mob bent on lynching Medea is at her door. In Ion Creusa can never escape the Delphian mob, and even if she should get safe back to Athens Ion would always ahte and fear her. And in all these cases we are given grounds for doubting the miraculous solution. In Ion the freshness of the tokens allegedly exposed in Ion's infancy, particularly the verdant olive branch, is remarked upon. Medea's earlier appeal to King Aegeus of Athens for protection would make reasonable men doubt that she could command a chariot drawn by dragons. In Iphigenia it is doubtful whether Thoas would heed the Greek goddess, and as in the other plays the whole story has cast doubt on the benevolence of the gods. (p. xvi)

This seems to be the common view, and there is something to be said for it. Some of the endings are a little farfetched, and even ambiguous; and Euripides can be a very subtle writer (the Andromache comes to mind: by building contradictions into the different claims made within the story, Euripides shows that Neoptolemus has to be dead already during the main action of the play; Orestes, who claims that he will go to kill Neoptolemus, probably already knows this; and Menelaus is probably in league with Orestes - all without explicitly saying so). But I wonder if it isn't something of a cop-out. Take the Medea, for instance (the title of this post is from a famous line in this play, which shows Euripides' ability to express emotion - in this case, furious, sibilant rage - with poetic effects). Yes, it is true that any reasonable man might doubt that Medea could command a chariot drawn by dragons; but I wonder if that isn't Euripides' whole point: reasonable men are sometimes tragically wrong. At the beginning of the Medea we find a Medea who seems to be like any other Greek housewife. She has, effectively, put herself in the box of Greek convention, and was perfectly willing to stay within that box for the rest of her life, due to her love of Jason. But Jason's actions - which, he claims, are chiefly for the reasonable purpose of protecting their children - have set in motion a series of events by which Medea begins to unfold out of that box, steadily building up to her majestic and terrible manifestation at the end of the play. Jason, however, remains constant throughout the entire play: Medea is a woman, just a woman, and (as he says when he justifies his actions - and every reasonable Greek man at the time would have agreed) women are to submit to men. Jason always takes the reasonable tone, always puts himself on the side of the reasonable, always insists that if Medea weren't being so irrational, she would agree with Jason's marrying another woman. And through all this he shows that he has no clue who he's dealing with; he has fallen victim to the great stupidity of reasonable men, namely, not knowing when they have come to something that exceeds the limits of what their reasonableness can set in order. In my view, the greatest moment of the play is when Jason shows up at Medea's door with the lynch mob, and says, in an instant of flawless irony, "To escape from us, she'd have to sprout wings and fly away." And just a few lines later, of course, Medea rises above them all in the dragon-drawn chariot of the sun. To the very end, Jason just does not understand Medea; and that failure of understanding leads to the death of his new bride, her father, and Jason's children. For, it seems to me, it is precisely Euripides' point that Medea is exactly the sort of woman who can fly away; she is the granddaughter of the Sun, and all her fire, her passion, her immoderate rage, is like the fire of the Sun itself. The reasonable man who does not recognize his own limits cannot recognize the majesty, the fire, the power of Medea; he thinks the little box of convention she took up for his sake is Medea, and he is painfully, obviously wrong. In this way, Medea is something like The Bacchae: the reasonable man brings destruction on himself and others when he refuses to see that there's something exceeding the categories to which he appeals.

So I think, actually, if Euripides intended the ending of Medea not to be believed, he did a bad job of it; it is the greatest deus ex machina in Euripides, and a perfect example of how you can have such an ending without botching. Everything in the play leads up to Medea's theophany; even the appeal to King Aegeus, which Hadas thinks implies that she has no great power, is not nullified. Medea, in fact, reaffirms it. The appeal to Aegeus is just part of her unfolding; and when Medea flies away, we know that she has somewhere to go. Further, the god out of the machine is not merely tacked on here: Medea herself is the god (a very significant fact, that), expressing (as the Sun's granddaughter) the powers of the Sun itself. And, again, there is that perfect moment of irony just prior to the manifestation, when Jason refers to flying away as a figurative way of saying Medea cannot escape - and then Medea escapes by flying away. It's just too flawless; the play would be harmed by disbelieving the ending.

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