To what extent is a person defined by his ancestors? Is it the fate of all humans to repeat the mistakes of their parents? These ideas are explored in the plays Medea
(written in 431 BCE
) and Ghosts
(written in 1881 CE
) by Euripides
and Henrik Ibsen
through the characters of Medea
. Oswald’s vice-ridden father passes down a venereal disease
to him, and with this infection come behaviors and traits destined to be mirrored in Oswald’s personality as well. Likewise, Medea’s character is a reflection of her ancestry. Born of a mortal and a God, Medea contains within her a great internal struggle of the weak and the strong. It is this inherited, divided madness that ultimately drives her to murder
. The quest for identity and struggle to reconcile one’s own identity with one’s “inherited” identity is an age-old battle, embodied and presented to the reader in Medea
As a result of her mixed ancestry, Medea is characterized as an isolated figure throughout her play. Medea bemoans her isolation, saying “I have no mother, brother, nor any of my own blood to turn to in this extremity” (Euripides 25). Considering this statement, it is ironic that the two relatives Medea mentions are a brother and mother. Although her brother Apsyrtus once shared her ancestry and thus lessened her isolation, Medea murdered him in order to go with Jason and secure an identity as his wife. Her mother cannot be her companion for a different reason; she is a goddess, Eidyia, “the youngest-born daughter of Tethys and of Ocean” (Rhodios 119). Thus, Medea is characterized as an isolated woman in Corinth, one who sacrificed her only natural companion, Apsyrtus, in a futile quest to acquire a stronger identity as Jason’s wife, and is deprived of the natural companionship of her mother because of their differing heritage.
Similarly, because of her ancestry, Medea’s allegiance is split, caught between the Gods and mortals. In one of Medea’s first monologues, she cries out, mourning her situation. First she calls to the Gods: “Mighty Themis! Dread Artemis! Do you see how I am used... by my accursed husband?” (Euripides 22). Then, she addresses her mortal relatives: “O my father, my city, you I deserted; my brother I shamefully murdered!” (Euripides 22). Here Euripides shows the reader that Medea identifies with two distinct groups, the Gods and the mortals, between which she is the sole bridge.
As in Medea, Ibsen creates Oswald as a socially isolated character. Oswald is born to Mrs. Alving, a woman of strong moral character, and Captain Alving, one who led a “profligate life” (Ibsen 91). This conflict between conservatism and liberalism is contained within Oswald, and is outwardly reflected in his symbolic relationship to the countries of France and Norway. Oswald tells Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving of the liberal relationships and families he encountered in France, but is drawn back to Norway (Ibsen 86). Despite this pull to Norway and away from France, he complains of “how gloomy it is [in Norway]!” (Ibsen 110). This unbearable gloom is symbolic of the unwavering conservatism of the country’s people. Moreover, this perpetual gloom is a part of Oswald, passed on to him from his mother. Thus, Oswald is characterized as both a literal and figurative expatriate, caught between France and Norway, as well as his father’s liberal lifestyle and his mother’s conservative lifestyle.
It is this fated isolation that drives Medea and Oswald to their most significant actions in the course of their respective plays. In Medea, Medea murders her children as the ultimate assertion of her power: “I will kill my sons. No one shall take my children from me” (Euripides 41). By deciding and taking control of the death of her sons, Medea seeks to enhance her connection to the Gods by imitating the job of one of the Fates, Atropos, who cuts the threads of the lives of mortals. Moreover, Medea rejects her own mortality by demonstrating that she can exercise control over the mortality of others, and in turn, hopes to exercise control over her own. Finally, Euripides characterizes Medea as an extremely proud woman, one who will not endure “the laughter of [her] enemies” (Euripides 41). In a mortal, this extreme pride would be dubbed hubris, yet, when displayed by Medea, it takes on an entirely different tone of expression; Medea’s pride is not the delusion of grandeur of a mortal believing herself godly, but the desire of a woman born to a Goddess to receive what she believes to be her rightful identity.
While Medea’s attempt to gain control results in the death of her children, Oswald’s results in his own death. As Medea rejects her father’s mortality and seeks to embrace her mother’s godliness, Oswald rejects his father’s impurity and seeks to embrace his mother’s conservatism. It is this preference that manifests itself in Oswald’s actions at the twilight of his life. He physically returns to Norway and turns his back on France and the impurity that resides there, seeking to embrace the conservatism associated with Norway. However, most drastic and significant is Oswald’s plea to Mrs. Alving to euthanize him and end his suffering in the clutches of a disease of impurity, passed down to him by the impure Captain Alving. Furthermore to the goal of escaping the horror of his venereal disease is his ultimate goal, first sought by leaving France, and finally, the reader may assume, realized in his death, to free himself and his identity from the bonds of his father’s disease.
In Medea and Ghosts, Euripides and Henrik Ibsen created two of drama’s most memorably tormented characters, Medea and Oswald Alving. Both are isolated by their ancestries, and both are driven to grave and defining actions in the quest to reshape their inherited identities. The plight of Medea and Oswald is the plight of all humans to reconcile conflicting traits within themselves. While not all or even many people experience an internal conflict of the mortal and the godly, or the corrupt and the pure, these battles represent a hyperbolized version of the pursuit for identity that all humans must face throughout their lives. Medea and Oswald remain memorable and significant to the contemporary reader because reflected in them, the reader sees himself and his dilemmas, and knows that neither he, nor the rest of the human race, is alone in the search for identity.
Medea by Euripides
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
The Argonautika by Apollonios Rhodios