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A "Who's Who" of Female Characters in Ancient Greek Tragedy: Medea

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by Calder Classics Intern and high school senior Jill Shah

Who are the most important female characters in ancient Greek tragedy?

This post, written by Calder Classics intern Jill Shah, a graduated senior from Riverdale Country School in New York and matriculating freshman at Columbia University, is the third in our series highlighting the the most significant female roles in ancient Greek tragedy and their influence through the ages. 

Medea: The Scorned Lover

The story of Medea is that of a mother who was driven to kill her children. One of the earliest in Greek myth, Medea's story was well known by the ancients and written down in several forms, including Euripides’Medea in the fifth century BCE. The play features Medea and Jason (of the Golden Fleece), lovers living in Corinth with two sons. They have quite a history: Medea, a foreign (“barbarian”) sorceress from Colchis in the Black Sea, has used her skills in magic to save Jason several times. However, Jason now wishes to marry Glauce, daughter of Creon, King of Corinth (different from Creon of Thebes above), but offers to support Medea as his mistress after his marriage (gee, thanks…?). Medea is heartbroken and furious. After Creon attempts to banish Medea from Corinth, Medea begins to plot her revenge. She kills Glauce by offering her a wedding present of poisoned robes. Creon dies from them as well. Medea then decides to kill her sons as a way to hurt Jason. As the play ends, she absconds in a chariot of Apollo with the bodies of her two children, whom Jason will never be able to see again.

The story of Medea sounded ancient and foreign until I heard the true story of Margaret Garner. Margaret Garner was an African American woman who killed her own daughter to prevent her from becoming enslaved. She escaped from slavery with her family in 1856. Immediately apprehended by federal marshals under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, she slit her daughters throat in a frenzy to ensure that her daughter would never experience slavery. Following Margaret’s actions was one of the longest and most spectacular fugitive-slave trials in history. Margaret’s actions are both so heroic and yet so horrifying that they have inspired a multitude of works of art.

In 1867, Thomas Noble painted The Modern Medea, attempting to depict Margaret’s murder of her child. Notice the accusatory glance towards the federal marshals? It seems that Margaret blames the federal marshals and not herself for the murder of her children.

In 1998, Steven Weisenburger published his in-depth historical account of Margaret’s story, appropriately called Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South.

Inspired by Weisenburger, Toni Morrison wrote the novel Beloved based on Margaret Garner’s shocking story. Set in the slave-owning south in the 19th century, Morrison’s story features the relationship between a former slave and mother, Sethe, and her daughter, Beloved. Sethe acts as if she owns Beloved because Beloved is her daughter and she loves Beloved so much. Consequently, she takes Beloved's life to spare her from the horrors of slavery. Using the stories of Medea and Margaret Garner, Morrison explores the themes of possession, love, and family.

Margaret’s actions have stirred such controversy in many people’s hearts. Was Margaret justified in her actions? Was Medea justified in her actions? I found it difficult to empathize with Medea because she seemed to act out of selfishness. Margaret, on the other hand, seems to be thinking about the future well-being of her daughter when she kills her. Does Margaret have the authority to kill her own daughter? Is she any different from the slave masters who want to take control of her daughter’s life? Is murder ever justified? These are the types of questions that have traveled through the generations by means of the story of Medea, Margaret Garner's life, Steven Weisenburger's historical account, and Toni Morrison's novel.


Thomas Noble's The Modern Medea:

Steven Weisenburger's Modern Medea:

Toni Morrison's Beloved:


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