Violence and the consequences of violence are recurring themes in Greek classical drama, particularly in the works of the three great tragic dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. All three were citizens of an Athenian state that waged imperial wars of conquest as well as defensive wars against foreign aggression. Aeschylus fought in the battles of Salamis and Marathon against the Persians, and Sophocles also fought in the Athenian army against Samos.
None of these writers could be considered anti-war as such. But they wrote about the destructive potential of violence with extraordinary power and insight, and created plays that have continued to resonate for more than two thousand years, and which can still speak to contemporary theatrical audiences.
I was reminded of this last week when I watched a National Theatre Live showing of their recent production of Euripedes’s Medea.
This is perhaps one of the most shocking and emotionally devastating of all Greek tragedies. It tells the story of Medea, the wife of the Greek hero Jason, who takes revenge on her husband when he marries the daughter of the Corinthean ruler Creon. Rejected, betrayed and ordered into exile by Creon, Medea murders Jason’s wife with a poisoned cloak and then murders her two children. Her sole purpose in carrying out these crimes is to take revenge on her estranged husband, for whom she has already killed at his behest before coming to Corinth.
So far so straightforward, but the power and complexity of the drama stems from Euripedes’s ambivalent and open-ended exploration of the central protagonist’s motives. That he regards Medea’s crimes as an abomination is without any doubt. Everyone in the play condemns the murders of the two children – the chorus, Medea’s servant and Jason of course. Even Medea herself knows that what she has decided to do is monstrous and that the world will regard it as monstrous, but her rage and sense of betrayal are so powerful and overwhelming that she just can’t help herself.
On one level therefore, this is a story of a psychologically vulnerable and powerless woman, an outsider who has been rejected by her husband and by Corinthian society which accepts him, but not her. With no possibility of redress, she destroys her own children, because she knows that Jason loves them more than he loves her, and that this is the only way to hurt him.
Despite her horrific crimes therefore, Euripedes seems to invite his audience to understand her motivation and even sympathize with her, especially since Jason is a bit of a jerk. Just as Euripedes presents the great hero Odysseus as a ruthless and vindictive victor in The Trojan Women, so he presents Jason of the Argonauts as mealy-mouthed, selfish and utterly insensitive to the wife who has already sacrificed so much for him, and dumps her because it suits him.
But then things aren’t so simple either. Because Medea is also a dangerous woman with a history of violence. At the end of the original play (not the one I saw this time), Medea becomes a sorceress and flies away from the scene of her crimes in a chariot. So maybe she isn’t such a victim after all. And Jason tells her that he has only married again in order to provide for her and her children, and perhaps he even believes it.
All these complexities were brought to life by the NT’s brilliant and emotionally draining production, and particularly by Helen McCrory’s breathtaking performance as Medea. I will have to live a long time before I see acting of such visceral power, commitment and intensity. McCrory completely inhabited her character, and captured her predicament with such passionate conviction that I think that few members of the Sheffield Showroom audience were unmoved by the final scene, when Medea staggers off into exile and misery, carrying the bodies of her murdered children..
The Athenians apparently gave Euripedes only third prize for this contribution to the annual Dionysia festival in 431, perhaps because it was too shocking and disturbing even for them. I have a particular, if somewhat esoteric and obviously anachronistic interest in this play.
In my history of terrorism The Infernal Machine I quoted from Medea in the concluding section, when I suggested that ‘the history of modern terrorism is filled with groups and invididuals who believed themselves to be acting in response to intolerable wrongs, real or imagined, committed against them or others.’ I asked why so many people who have been involved in this kind of violence have been prepared to do things that were normally regarded as criminal and completely immoral, whose criminality and amorality they themselves often recognized.
In my book I suggested that part of the answer could be found in the soliloquy that Medea delivers before killing her children, when she says: The evil that I do, I understand full well/But a passion drives me greater than my will.
Of course I’m aware that terrorism is not simply an irrational explosion of rage, but a technique of political violence that is designed to achieve certain tactical or strategic effects. Nevertheless I believed then, and I believe now, that injustice, oppression and marginalization are recurring themes in episodes of non-state terrorist violence.
I also believe that these factors are crucial to the concept of ‘radicalization’, through which individuals come to believe that they have a ‘right’ to do horrific and immoral things to their enemies that they would otherwise regard as completely immoral. Governments and terrorism pundits have variously insisted that terrorism is due to cultural, religious or ideological factors, or is simply a product of mysterious evil by human beings who are not like us and may only partially be human.
But these convenient explanations entirely ignore the overwhelming sense of victimisation and injustice through which protagonists of terrorist violence justify their actions to themselves and to their various audiences. Sometimes they themselves have been victims. In other cases they respond to perceived injustices carried out against other groups of people who they identify with.
I’m not trying to argue that this is the only reason why such things happen, or that every terrorist bomb or atrocity is some kind of cry for help that requires sympathetic counselling, let alone that the killing of civilians and even children is a morally acceptable or proportionate response to injustice or oppression. The vengeance that Medea inflicts on Jason is hardly ‘proportionate’ – and is in fact, far worse than what he does to her.
You don’t have to be a moral philosopher or even an adult to understand the very simple proposition that two wrongs don’t make a right. But the history of terrorist violence is filled with episodes in which groups and individuals have ignored this very simple equation, in their desire to inflict serious pain and injury on their enemies. And like Medea, they don’t actually care if their actions are morally acceptable as long as they desolate their chosen targets.
Sometimes, like Medea, they do this out of a desire for revenge, in order to make the people they believe have wronged them feel the same pain and desolation that they – or the people they identify with – feel. At other times they carry out such acts because they believe that there is no other way to get what they want or make themselves heard, or because they feel that the world is unresponsive and indifferent and not listening to them, or is even actively complicit in the injustices that outrage them.
Governments routinely ignore these dimensions of terrorism. But we do so at our peril. Because if our governments are complicit in injustice and oppression, and we allow such things to happen, then there will always be people who will hold us, and not our governments responsible, just as Osama bin Laden once did after 9/11, and will set out to shake us from our indifference, and they will not care whether their actions are right or wrong or whether or not they are ‘proportionate’.
Of course this sense of injustice can be manipulated by individuals and organizations with their own agenda, like bin Laden himself. But even the worst terrorist acts are invariably seen by their protagonists as some kind of tit-for-tat response. In 431 Euripedes told the story of a marginalized and desperate woman – a foreigner and a stranger to boot – who is ignored, betrayed and abandoned, and who carries out an inhuman act of revenge in which she loses her own humanity as a consequence.
That dynamic is also part of the history of terrorism. But Medea does get her revenge and that is all she wants. And today there are too many places in the world, in which brutality, indifference and injustice have created men and women who don’t care if what they do is right or wrong as long as they can make their enemies suffer too.