Book and article reviews: Heavey

Katherine Heavey. The Early Modern Medea: Medea in English Literature, 1558–1688. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. ISBN 9781137466341. vi+272pp. £35.00.

 Janice Valls-Russell


Daughter, sister, lover, mother, murderess of her own brother and children, princess, witch, foreigner: Medea moves in and out of her various roles. Reception reflects ongoing difficulties in dealing with her, an unease that blends horror, compassion and even admiration, hence the “need somehow to contain or to undermine” her (111) by pinning her down in a collection of convenient stereotypes. Yet even then she continues to resist categorization—in itself an unstable process, notably in such a labile area as classical mythology, insofar as reception is submitted to and reflects cultural change, processes of transmission and politics of reappropriation.

From Euripides’ Medea to Guy Butler’s Demea (1990), a political allegory of racial issues in South Africa, Medea has inspired dramatists directly (as well as poets, authors of prose fiction, essayists and moralists) and coloured other female figures associated with extreme forms of agency, such as Lady Macbeth. Down the centuries, she has aggregated layers of significance. Her structural role in the story of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece has tended to fade and her multiple facets have been atomized or reorganised in new patterns out of which a variety of Medeas emerge.

After Ruth Morse’s pioneering work on medieval Medea, Katherine Heavey’s richly researched and documented study of the early modern Medea covers the 16th and 17th centuries. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides, Seneca’s translation of Euripides’ Medea and, to a lesser extent, Euripides’ play itself, in Greek and early modern Latin translations, were the main classical sources to which the early modern world turned, in Latin or vernacular translations alongside continuing medieval influences. While looking back to the medieval reception of Jason and Medea, Caxton’s History of Jason (1477), an “Englished” version of Raoul Lefèvre’s text, “makes a concerted effort to confront Medea’s magic and violence, in ways that foreshadowed more usual sixteenth and seventeenth-century approaches to her power” (30).

Heavey also shows how the medieval Medea resurfaces in texts that are directly inspired by Studley’s translation of Seneca. The length of Studley’s version in comparison with Seneca’s text has been noted, and Heavey prefers to draw attention to the impact on Medea’s representation, in comparison with Seneca: while playing up the horror, Studley also shows sympathy for her infatuation with Jason, which incorporates the medieval vernacular tradition of Medea as a weak figure led astray by love and anticipates later Elizabethan uses of Medea that “caution female readers against the wiles of men” (53).

After considering issues of transmission and translation in the first two chapters (“Medieval Medea” and “Translating Medea”), Heavey explores the generic flexibility of the myth. In “Tragic Medea”, she notes that her crimes were considered to be too horrific to be staged; dramatists rewrote her myth to excuse rather than condemn her, as Charles Gildon did in Phaeton, or the Fateful Divorce (1698), which transposes the Euripidean version onto the stories of Phaeton and Althea. In contrast, narrative and prose versions intended for print did not shrink from providing readers with grisly details of the infanticides, as in Geoffrey Fenton’s story of Pandora in Certaine Tragicall Discourses (1567), that sought simultaneously to entertain an increasingly female readership and caution against such unnatural models, while expressing “male fears of the hidden crimes of women (particularly infanticide)” (91). Similarly, William Alabaster’s Latin tragedy Roxana, staged in the 1590s, refrained from staging the infanticide at the heart of the tragedy, but imposed a gruesomely detailed account of the children’s slaughter on their father and the audience.

Comedy, considered to be as instructive as it was entertaining, is one way round the unease Medea inspires. Comedy encourages distanciation, playing on the inappropriateness, for instance, of a heroine to recall Medea when wishing for a happy resolution of her own love affair, as in Greene’s Mamilia.

The final chapter (“Political Medea”) moves Medea from the page and stage into the political arena. Lefèvre’s playing up of Medea’s crimes, in the text which Caxton translated, was calculated to upgrade Jason’s reputation since he was writing for the Duke of Burgundy, who had created the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece. A century and a half later, Medea is put to political and economic service in mayoral London pageants by Anthony Munday and Thomas Heywood, which were written and performed in praise of the wool and drapers’ industries. Earlier, Protestant authors had likened “Catholic enemies of England, such as Mary Queen of Scots, to Medea” (164)—to the extent of twisting out of context Mary’s own letters to her lover the Earl of Bothwell in which she compared her love to Medea’s for Jason.

Heavey’s confident handling of the wealth of material she draws on enables her to range to and fro, reminding us once again how areas of thought and writing were not as compartmentalised then as they would later become. While providing discussions, based on close readings of a wide range of texts, of the multiple, frequently conflicting reasons why Medea has fascinated authors and readers, Heavey offers equally fascinating instances of reworkings and experimentations. Through her impressive appraisal of a single figure, Medea, in a range of texts that include Shakespeare’s works and countless other texts, she engages with wider discussions of and considerations on the nature and workings of myths.

NOTE: The Medea and Absyrtus entries in this online dictionary of Shakespeare’s classical mythology offer access to a number of primary sources so ably discussed in the volume. This website also provides access to Heywood’s retelling of the Medea story in canto VII of Troia Britanica, available here for the first time in a modernised, annotated edition.

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