Translating Medea into the Sixteenth Century
[ . . . ] I quite my Fathers love with mortall spite, I playde the whore, the murdresse and the théefe. (Robinson, The Reward of Wickedness)
1> Writing The Reward of Wickedness, published in 1574, Richard Robinson puts these regretful, self-abasing words into the mouth of Medea, languishing in Hell. Such a portrayal of Medea obviously contrasts markedly with the Greek and Latin renderings of Euripides, Ovid and Seneca, which were known by the sixteenth century, and which all portray Medea exulting in her capacity for violence. This divergence from classical tradition was possible since, unlike many of their medieval predecessors, Renaissance authors did not see Medea’s story as historical fact, but rather as literature. This distinction meant that, while they felt free to play up the violent and supernatural excesses of her story, at the same time they felt able to manipulate it to didactic effect.
2> However, this very compulsion to alter suggests the difficulties she posed to the period. Medea’s murderous and magical agency is intensely problematic to male authors, and many follow Robinson’s example, undermining her power in a variety of ways. Indeed, despite the truth of Robin Sowerby’s observation that “It has always been an attraction of pagan myth that it facilitates a freedom of imaginative play uninhibited by the Christian moral censor” (290), this concern with representing Medea’s crimes but also suggesting their consequences is a hallmark of Renaissance renderings of her story. At the same time, the lengths these authors go to paradoxically draw attention to the troubling extent of Medea’s influence, the ways her threat is rooted in her femininity and her refusal to conform to (male) societal pressures.
3> Indeed, although direct translation of classical texts was also popular in the Renaissance, even here, Medea poses difficulties. Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a highly influential example of the importance the Renaissance period attached to translation. As Jonathan Bate puts it, “If Shakespeare and his contemporaries owed their intimacy with Ovidian rhetoric to the grammar schools, their easy familiarity with Ovidian narrative was as much due to Golding” (29). George Turberville’s Heroides, also published in 1567, were similarly popular—as Frederick Boas notes, they “went through five editions between 1567 and 1600” (xv-xvi). For the most part, Golding and Turberville translate Ovid faithfully, making few noticeable changes to their Latin sources, besides some effort to explain references for their readers. Some alterations, however, are more interesting. Thus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the reader is told that Medea was impressed by Jason when he came to plead with her, since et casu solito formosior Aesone natus / illa luce fuit: posses ignoscere amanti (7.84-5) (“It chanced that the son of Aeson was more beautiful than usual that day: you could pardon her for loving him”). In Golding’s rendering, this assessment is far more obviously Medea’s, and thus subjective: “farre more faire and beautifull of face / She thought him then than ever erst: but sure it doth behove / Hir judgement should be borne withal because she was in love” (7.120-2). Here, of course, the suggestion that Medea may have been wrong, and may have been swayed by the strength of her feelings, compromises her judgement and correspondingly her power. Turberville also chooses to emphasise the possibility of Medea’s personal suffering. In her letter to Jason, his Hypsipyle hopes of Medea
"When sea and land she hath
Consumde, up to the skye,
Let her goe range like a Rogue
and by selfe slaughter die." (6.80)
4> Ovid’s Heroides has no reference to suicide, and instead Hypsipyle wishes cum mare, cum terras consumpserit, aera temptet; / erret inops, exspes, caede cruenta sua! (6.161-2) (“When she shall have no hope more of refuge by the sea or by the land, let her make trial of the air; let her wander, destitute, bereft of hope, stained red with the blood of her murders!”) Here, Turberville may make the addition in an effort to pass a firmer judgement on Medea, to portray her as subject to some kind of higher power, even if it is only that of her own conscience. This insistence on Medea’s punishment may be explicitly linked to her gender. Deborah Greenhut finds that “Turberville’s translation of the Heroides affirms a longstanding, misogynist tradition” (190), and indeed, to the male literary establishment engaged in translating classical figures, the gender of characters such as Medea and Procne may be the most threatening thing about them, representative as it is of difference on such a fundamental scale. However, Turberville’s own views on women notwithstanding, such a flagrant deviation from his source text (particularly in the context of what Kathleen Tillotson and Bernard H. Newdigate have termed a “pedestrian translation” of Ovid), becomes highly significant, indicative of the threat Renaissance authors saw in Medea, and their desire to contain this threat by somehow suggesting punishment for her behaviour.
5> In the Preface to his 1566 translation of Seneca’s Medea, John Studley highlights the changes he has made, admitting he has “changed the fyrste Chorus, because in it I sawe nothing but an heape of prophane storyes, and names of prophane Idoles” (125-6). As this would suggest, the liberties he takes with the text are clear from the beginning, and are often intended to paint his Renaissance Medea as less threatening, more socially acceptable, than her classical counterpart. The Latin chorus Studley cuts out congratulates Jason for having escaped the wild Medea, and emphasises her unpredictability and dangerous otherness. Studley’s new chorus rather pities Medea for her credulous love, observing
"The shafte that flew from Cupids golden bowe,
With fethers so hath dymed her daseld eyes,
That can not see to shun the waye of woe." (361-3)
6> The accounts of Euripides and Seneca, relying as they do on Medea’s version of events, make it unclear whether Jason ever really loved her. Studley has drawn his own conclusions, and his Jason is characterised as a flattering seducer. The playwright notes
"Yet was hys speache so pleased and so milde,
thys tongue so fylde, hys promyses so fayre,
sweete was the fowlers songe that hath beguylde
The selye byrde, brought to the lymed snare." (369-72)
7> This sense of Studley negotiating Medea’s power, making her appear more helpless in an attempt to neutralise her threat, can be seen too in his treatment of Jason’s final lines in the play. Instead of the Senecan representation of Medea as above and beyond human experience, unable to receive the gods’ assistance but also not subject to their will, that is contained in his declaration testare nullos esse, qua veheris, deos (1027) (“bear witness that wherever you go there are no gods”), Studley’s Jason exclaims “Bear wytnesse grace of God is none / In place of thy repayre” (2889-90). Here, Jason appears to be exercising a moral judgement on Medea, one that still acknowledges God’s power but that concurrently excludes her from its benefits, making her seem a less powerful character, who must seek a place of “repayre” rather than going wherever she pleases. As Robert S. Miola puts it:
"Seneca’s Medea continues on as living testimony to the disorder of the world, as an embodiment of an evil so potent as to nullify divine power and presence; Studley’s Medea is simply a spectacular sinner, one who infects her surroundings and lives without God’s grace." (105)
8> It is clear that these translations all betray a desire to limit the autonomy and agency they find so alarming in Medea, either by making her more personally vulnerable, or by suggesting some higher power or future punishment that will see her held to account. This impulse, to subject Medea to the societal strictures of the sixteenth century, can be seen equally clearly in new works that take advantage of Medea’s story. Both The Rocke of Regard, by George Whetstone, and The Reward of Wickedness, by Richard Robinson, follow Studley in that they portray Medea as a suffering character. In both works she is utterly alone, enjoying none of the ability to escape society and its censures that is so famously displayed by her Senecan and Euripidean counterparts.
9> In his 1576 poem, Whetstone represents Medea as regretting the help she gave Jason and the sacrifices she made. Indeed, she highlights her power specifically to illustrate how she is, paradoxically, unable to help herself:
"What vaileth now my skil, or sight in Magiches lore, / May charmed hearbs, suffice to help, or cure my festred sore, / A salve I shapt, for others smart, / My selfe to ayde, I want the Arte."
10> She outlines her powers in utterly familiar Ovidian language: “I made the wayward Moone, against the Sunne to strive, / And gastly ghostes, from burial graves, ful oft I did revive”. However, unlike her Senecan or Ovidian counterparts, Whetstone’s Medea does not see herself as set apart from other women because of these powers—rather she sees her story as a cautionary tale, warning
"But lordly lookes full oft, and slippry seruice eke, / To harmelesse Ladies have béene vowde, to catch ye suters séeke. / And then depart, from plighted othe, / Their sugred woordes, yéelde sealdome trothe."
11> The typical image, seen in the Metamorphoses, of Medea as Jason’s second (and perhaps secondary) prize, his spolia altera (7.157), is present: “The goulden fléece, thou wert to blame, / To beare away, I wonne the same”. She portrays herself as a victim, forsaken by Jason and with no Euripidean, Senecan or Ovidian ability to transcend her unfavourable circumstances, which must instead be endured. Here, then, Whetstone portrays Medea as a hapless woman, who may acknowledge her power only to stress how it is passed, or inadequate in the face of male deception, or can only be bent to the service of others.
12> In The Reward of Wickedness, published in 1574, Medea is used in a similarly didactic fashion. Since he aims to provide a cautionary example against female wickedness, Robinson is predictably keen to represent, rather than skim over, Medea’s crimes and her transgressive behaviour. However, while in the classical tradition Medea is utterly unrepentant of her children’s murders (though she does sometimes regret the killing of her brother), here she feels keenly the weight of society’s disapproval, and her retelling of her crimes has a very different emphasis. Crucially, she portrays her magical power as less than power of the Christian God, and indeed less than that of the pagan gods she generally feels an affinity for:
"O that witches and Coniurers knew so well as I, / of Joves mightie doome that doth in heaven sitte, / Then woulde they mende, if they had grace or witte, / To serve the Lorde woulde set theyr whole delight."
13> In The bookes verdite vpon Medea, Robinson warns “You witches all take heede, you see how God rewardes: / And what appoynted is your meede, that divelish actes regardes”.
14> However, while this discomfort with witchcraft is predictable, Robinson also sees Medea’s transgression as speaking to more ordinary women, a warning to exercise greater control:
"(Alas) whoe would have thought, that in a womans breast: / Dame nature would have let been wrought, to breede so much unrest: / [ . . . ] You parents it is time, to looke your younglings to: / [ . . . ] Keepe in your daughters strayght, best counsell I can geve: / Least that perhaps shee catch a bayte, that both your harts may greve."
15> Here, the power Medea had, and the threat she once posed the male community and to her own immediate and extended family, are referenced by Robinson only to stress how she has been brought down by God, and now suffers the torments of the damned. As Götz Schmitz puts it, “His is a Protestant Hell, where religious and private misconduct are unpardonable” (61). Writing an earlier account of the poem, Willard Farnham also notes Robinson’s uncompromising attitude to the unhappy sinners he portrays, suggesting “He [ . . . ] serves in his humble way as a sign of the fervor which the conception of tragic justice was beginning to arouse” (306). Accordingly, Medea’s self-abasing grief and her grisly suffering mean that she effectively serves Robinson’s religious and didactic ends, and thus shows a male author once more bending Medea’s story, and her threat, to his own purpose.
16> Speaking of forms of Renaissance imitation (and drawing on Thomas M. Greene’s work as he does so), Bate notes “Most sophisticated is ‘dialectical’ imitation, in which the later text actively conflicts with and dissociates itself from its classical pretext” (42). Like Turberville’s and Studley’s translations, Whetstone’s and Robinson’s original treatments of Medea have been seldom admired, and yet if they are viewed in the light of Bate’s comment they become more useful. Whetstone and Robinson engage with Medea’s story, and imitate to a certain degree. However, like Studley and Turberville, they unashamedly alter what does not suit their purpose. Sixteenth century societal mores meant that all four authors plainly object to the criminal escaping punishment they would have found in Seneca, Euripides or the Metamorphoses, and attempt to impose some kind of sanction or limit on Medea. This concern remains apparent throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the work of writers such as Thomas Heywood or Charles Gildon, who use Medea directly, and others such as Shakespeare or Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. These latter authors construct female characters who very often seem influenced by the figure of the classical Medea. However, Norton and Sackville’s Videna, or Shakespeare’s Tamora or Lady Macbeth, are human characters, crucially (and comfortingly) subject, as the classical Medea is not, to the bounds of a male-dominated society.
17> The classical Medea was a compelling figure for the male literary establishment in the Renaissance—however, as a witch and as a woman, as a pagan and a character with no regard for patriarchal institutions, she remains intensely threatening. Male authors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries deal with her threat by undermining her autonomy, making her more personally vulnerable, penitent or subject to the consequences of her actions. In doing so, they highlight, intentionally or unintentionally, the frictions and conflicts that the Renaissance Medea engenders—frictions between male and female, society and the ‘other’, and between classical rendering and Renaissance rewriting.
Drayton, Michael. Works, Vol 5: Introduction, Notes, Variant Readings. Ed. Kathleen Tillotson and Bernard H. Newdigate. Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press, 1941.
Golding, Arthur. Shakespeare’s Ovid: Being Arthur Golding’s Translation of the Metamorphoses. Ed. W.H.D. Rouse. London: Centaur Press, 1961.
Ovid. Heroides and Amores. Trans. G. Showerman. London: Heinemann, 1914.
---. Metamorphoses. Vol I, Books I-VIII. Trans. Frank Justus Miller. 2 vols. London: Heinemann, 1917.
Robinson, Richard. The Reward of Wickedness, 1574. Early English Books Online. 1 June 2007. <http://eebo.chadwyck.com/>.
Seneca. Medea. Trans. H. M. Hine. Warminster: Aris and Philips, 2000.
Studley, John. Translations of Seneca’s Agamemnon and Medea. Ed. E. M. Spearing. Louvain: A. Uystpruys, 1913.
Turberville, George. The Heroicall Epistles of the Learned Poet Publius Ovidius Naso, Translated into English Verse by George Turberville. Ed. Frederick Boas. London: Cresset Press Ltd, 1928.
Whetstone, George. The Rocke of Regard diuided into foure parts. 1576. Early English Books Online. 1 June 2007. <http://eebo.chadwyck.com/>.
Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and Ovid. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.
Farnham, Willard. The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy. Berkeley: U of California P, 1936.
Greene, Thomas M. The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry. New Haven: Yale U P, 1982.
Greenhut, Deborah S. Feminine Rhetorical Culture: Tudor Adaptations of Ovid’s Heroides. New York: P. Lang, 1988.
Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.
Schmitz, Götz. The Fall of Women in Early English Narrative Verse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Sowerby, Robin. The Classical Legacy in Renaissance Poetry. London: Longman, 1994.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures