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Discomfort in Performance? Aigeus Seduced in Euripides' Medea

Ronald J. J. Blankenborg

Radboud University Nijmegen

In this paper I will highlight a possibility, already fully exploited in a performance by Dutch theatre company Aluin (Utrecht), to interpret the well-known and fascinating scene between Medea and Aigeus in Euripides' Medea as a fine example of seductive pragmatics. Rather than falling in with Aristotle's famous complaint that Aigeus' appearance in Corinth is unexpected and therefore improbable, or even reprehensible given the tragedy's plot, Aluin approached the encounter as not only crucial for the play’s plot and fully effective, but also (and especially) artful, and as an excellent example of the way words are put into action before an audience that is able to judge the skill of both the poet and the actors. Some discomfort may remain though: other interpretations of the scene exist, and the company’s choice may easily disturb audiences expectations and experiences.

Seductive? Yes: when Medea happens to run into the Athenian king Aigeus passing by Korinth on his way home (Euripides' Medea 663-758), she immediately seizes the welcome opportunity to turn this chance encounter into a guarantee that the outcome of any attempt to take revenge on Jason, his new future spouse and her father will be successful for her. Addressing Aigeus as a confidant and as a potential lover, Medea forgets for a moment the judicial terminology she used on Jason and Kreon (only to resume it in her words before the chorus, immediately after Aigeus has left) and uses all her gender-specific resources (personal feelings, I-/we-speech, flattery, affective asyndeton, engendered speech) to seduce this unexpected friend in need. Her unprecedented show of feminine manipulation and power, evidenced in the wording of her request and in the suggestive deixis of actions, gestures, and postures, may well have shocked the contemporary Athenian public, as well as Aigeus' all too willing and servile reaction - especially in the light of recent scholarly literature considering Aigeus the 'model Athenian citizen'. 

Modern re-performances often struggle with the representation of the Aigeus-scene. Acknowledgement of its existence in a (modern) (re-)performance of Medea would be, in Aristotle’s view, a guarantee for a failed performance. Aluin’s interpretation of the encounter as Medea seducing the king surely, I argue, yields rewarding result.

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Problems in Performance: Failure in Classical Reception Studies

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