Category Archives: Ancient lit

Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman Scorn’d

I’ve known this phrase for so long and had never really thought about what it meant. I didn’t realise that the theme of the sexually slighted woman was so ancient. Medea’s speech predates the famous words of Congreve, saying “wronged in her marriage bed, no creature has a mind more murderous (265-266).” The speech in its entirety seems a remarkably feminist, contemporary voice.

“since we have learnt nothing of such matters at home, we need prophetic powers to tell us specifically what sort of husband we have to deal with. And if we manage this well and our husband lives with us and we bear the yoke of marriage lightly, then life is enviable. But if not, death would be welcome (239-244.)”

Poor Dolly in Tolstoy’s (much, much later) Anna Karenina echoes this speech when she says to Anna “With the education Mama gave me, I was not merely naïve , but silly! I knew nothing..You will hardly believe it, but up to now I thought I was the only woman he had ever known” (67).

Dolly’s pain is so real and almost palpable. Describing how she sacrificed her looks, life and youth for Stiva, she adds “They (Stiva and his lover, the children’s governess) probably talked about me, or worse still, avoided the subject” (69). Tolstoy seems to know so well that sickmaking feeling. I felt truly humiliated for Dolly when I read that sentence.

Which brings me to my rumination. How did Euripides and Tolstoy both know this feeling so well? It appears as a gendered theme in both texts. Again, is it a biological fact? Men exercise breeding vitality right into old age. And I know this is going to an an oh-so-obvious lowbrow observation, but I can’t help feeling sad for Demi, our favourite nouveau-Cleopatra. Her suffering is sure to be reduced to a ‘fallen cougar’ story. Even though written by men, I am glad for the sensitivity that Tolstoy and Euripides exhibit in the describing of gendered pain.

Euripides. 2008. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.


T’Grand ‘Sizes

“‘Nelly,’ he said, ‘we’s hae a Cranhr’s quest enah, at ahr folks.” (91).

Yes, I know. I’m annoyed by obscure phonetic accents in novels as well. Joseph’s religious rants, I thought, were placed throughout the pages of Wuthering Heights, simply to annoy me and to create tension between the characters of the novel. But after having watched the Merle Oberon and Sir Larry version of the film, I noted the character of Joseph to be curiously purposeless, playing the part of mere servant, unlike in the novel. Joseph’s constant lectures and hypocritically uncharitable nature appear too often in Bronte’s novel for his character to have no narrative purpose. Then it occurred to me that Joseph feels he is, and enacts the role, of God’s moral representative on earth. He represents the Old Testament style justice that drives Isabella to seek the same very personal, bespoke revenge on Heathcliff, as Heathcliff has sought on his perceived enemies. She sums up the uniqueness of this kind of revenge in her conversation with Ellen Dean:

Ellen: If God afflict your enemies, surely that out to suffice you”…

Isabella: I’d rather he suffered less, if I might cause his sufferings, and he might know that I was the cause” (159).

As in Medea, the Gods are powerless and the innocent are punished. Edgar and his family suffer throughout most of their short lives at the hands of Heathcliff, and the children suffer from his maliciousness even more, mostly unaware of the roles they are playing in hurting those who love them. I had seen the film many years ago, but my contemporary viewing, alongside the reading of the text, makes me feel that the adaptation was far too kind to most of the characters. But film is very much like that. Revenge has formed the basis of so many film plots, even whole film genres.  Heathcliff is so awful, so why do we read on? Does something in us want to understand or justify revenge? Are the characters acting out what we wish we had the love-apples to do?

Bronte, Emily. 2009. Wuthering Heights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Euripides. 2008. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

The Mither Beneath the Mools

This strange sounding line translates to “mother beneath the earth” meaning dead and buried. It’s just one of many ghostly torments in Wuthering Heights. Ellen, nurse and maid, sings it without irony to her charge, to calm him after an horrific scene, with a drunken and bereaved widower Hindley. The passage sees baby Hareton dangled over a bannister, conjuring warped Michael Jackson-esque visuals in the reader. (Don’t let me get started on the Joe Jackson connection here!) The treatment of baby Hareton compares with Medea’s treatment of her children. Hindley clearly relishes the pain he is causing those around him, and puts his child at risk of death. The baby is dropped, but is rescued dramatically by Heathcliff in mid-fall. Ellen, ever precise in her estimations of her employers, cries:

“I wonder his mother does not rise from her grave to see how you use him. You’re worse than a heathen, treating your own flesh and blood in this manner!” (66). (Italics mine).

Does Euripides similarly suggest that Medea is a heathen? After all, the Gods cast no judgement on her acts, even helping her to escape punishment. In this way, is she also Godless? Or are Gods and their progeny beyond reprove?

Bronte, Emily. 2009. Wuthering Heights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Euripides. 2008. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Medea – playing at a Family Law Court near you!

How times have..stayed pretty much the same. Each year I give my folks tickets to Belvoir and each year I lament that I had been too tight to buy myself some. Last year I was having an Australian Lit enlightenment, and missed out on seeing Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. But this year is going to be different. Belvoir are producing Medea.

Just when I was wondering what exactly makes a “Great Book”, and wondering why I hadn’t heard of pretty well any Greek drama, I noticed in this year’s program that Belvoir are producing Thyestes and Medea. I won’t be missing out on Medea. This post is not exactly a spoiler, because with tragedy things can only end badly, but the ‘agon’ of the final scene really sums up a very current issue:

Jason: So why did you kill them?

Medea: To cause you pain (1397-1398).

I am ashamed to say that I have witnessed the manipulation of children personally. I recently visited the justice precinct of Parramatta and noticed that the Children’s Court is decorated exclusively to calm children. It roused the same feeling in me as did reading Medea. The way the Belvoir program reads, I suspect the producers may be putting a twist on Greek violence being carried out offstage. I fear the children may be front and centre and the adults may be bickering out of sight. I can’t bear to look but I can’t bear to miss out.

Euripides. 2008. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford University Press: Oxford.