Medea and The Visit are two plays characterised by strong female main characters. In this essay I will examine how Medea and Claire Zachanassian’s portrayals relate to the conception of femininity normal in their respective worlds, and the reasons for the ways they both conform and deviate from the type. I will begin by establishing what is meant by ‘feminine’ in each context, and then will move on to examining how each character does or does not fit certain aspects of this archetype, and will exploring the reasons for each.
Firstly, we must ascertain what the previously-mentioned ‘type’ for each setting is: what characteristics would be expected of a woman in each of the scenarios. I will begin with the Ancient Greek setting of Medea. My sources will be the text itself and external knowledge about the time period. The first thing that is clear is that Greek women had far fewer rights than those today. They could not vote, or stand for office, or make a case in the law courts. It is not clear that they were even permitted into theatres – Medea would have been played by a male actor in a mask. Women were considered in an important way to be objects possessed by a man: first their father, then at marriage their husband. Women would thus be dependent on their father or husband for support and legal authority. Women were not expected to be out of the ordinary in any way; the female ideal given by Pericles (Thucydides book ii) is to be “the least talked of among the men, whether for good or bad”.
In addition to this, we can gather what women are ‘supposed’ to be like from the behaviour and comments of the other females in the play: the nurse and chorus are the main examples of this. Finally we can gain insight through the comments made by male characters, such as Jason, into how women are regarded in relation to men. From these we can build up a better picture of the Greek conception of femininity that is behind Medea. In lines 546-549, Jason argues that women are driven by sex: “if your sex life goes wrong, all that was best and beautiful you make a battlefield”. In line 899, Medea (trying to trick Jason into believing she has had a change of heart) asserts that “woman is the weaker sex, and born to tears”. The chorus sing about how women should not think too deeply about life in lines 1051-1053: “Debates more deep than women should explore”. Overall the model of femininity that arises within Medea (and Greek theatre more generally) is of women who are dependent on their husbands or fathers, and emotionally fragile. Feminine women should not involve themselves in the affairs of men, nor question anything too deeply. Trickery is regarded as feminine attribute, to contrast with the masculine tackling an issue directly.
In The Visit, Claire Zachanassian is by far the most prominent female character. Beyond her we have Ill’s wife, and a few village ladies who visit Ill’s shop. However, it is still possible to discern some aspects of what femininity means in the setting of Guellen. For instance, on page 44 Zachanassian is smoking a cigar on her balcony, which provokes disdain from some bystanders. As well as this we have the plain fact that there are very few female parts, and other than Zachanassian these are all minor. All the characters with jobs appear to be male: mayor, shopkeeper, schoolmaster, priest and so on. This suggests that women in Guellen are expected to be dependent on their husbands, as was normal in Europe in the not-so-distant past. It is interesting that Mrs Ill does not hold out much longer than any other villager before she entertains notions of Ill’s death. This suggests that, while women may be obligated to be dependent on a man, love is not a particularly strong force to counter the lure of money.
Both the characters this essay is about have both more and less feminine characteristics. I will start by looking at Medea, and in which ways she is feminine, as defined above. The first thing to note is that Medea feels alone without her husband – she feels that she has been betrayed when he wants to marry another woman. Throughout the play she consistently refers to Jason as her husband (‘posis’), which shows that although she feels betrayed and incredibly angry, she still considers herself in terms of Jason and their marriage. In addition, Medea appears to genuinely love her children, with some of her most heartfelt speeches being about how she cannot bear to end their lives, but feels that she has to in order to prevent their deaths at someone else’s hand. Both of these points show that Medea has not, as might be assumed, lost all trace of her femininity when she enacts her vengeance. There is another important way in which Medea can be said to be acting in a feminine manner, but I shall return to it after exploring how she moves away from the archetype.
The most obvious fact is that Medea acts independently, without needing Jason’s (or anyone else’s) support. She manipulates kings into saying what she wants, and arranges matters so that she will have safe refuge in Athens once her plan is complete. Although she is distraught that Jason has betrayed her, she seems capable of surviving by herself. This contrasts to the way in which Jason (and indeed all the other male characters) expects her to behave, thinking that as a woman she will be utterly at a loss without him. He therefore speaks to her patronisingly, and is vulnerable to her false change of heart. When Medea does want to give the appearance of apology in lines 837-944, she simply says that she was acting like a woman: “we women, we are – I won’t say ‘bad’, but we’re – what we are. You shouldn’t follow our bad example”, and Jason is completely oblivious to the heavy irony she is using. However, it is not the case that Medea never generalises about women genuinely, and I will return to an example of this later.
Medea’s speeches are also controversial in that they challenge the prevailing description of women. In lines 203-254, she elucidates her own position about how women are treated, and she says that childbirth is a bigger danger than war: “I would rather fight three times in a war, than go through childbirth once”. This position would be seen as subversive to the Greeks, and suggesting that woman’s lot is worse than man’s is in itself a non-feminine thing to do; an example of a “debate too deep” for women, as described above.
The character of Claire Zachanassian in The Visit also has both feminine and less feminine attributes, and again the ways in which she is not feminine form an integral part of her character and of the plot. The most prominent way in which she is feminine is the love she feels for Ill, which she still feels even after many years. This devotion is in line with the traditional conception of femininity, although it is worth noting that it seems much stronger than Ill’s wife’s feelings for him; this, however, may be put down to the fact that the main characters (Zachanassian, Ill, the schoolmaster, etc.) have much stronger emotions and feelings in every respect: they are painted more vividly, as they are literally in the limelight.
Another way in which Zachanassian might be regarded as feminine is her emphasis on glamour: she insists on being the centre of attention, turning up dramatically using the Emergency Brake, with an entourage of attendants and increasingly bizarre luggage. The concept of being glamorous, although perhaps not one that applies to many women (least of all in Guellen) is nevertheless a clearly feminine idea.
However, there are also many ways in which Zachanassian behaves in a decidedly non-feminine manner. The most obvious is in her relationships. She makes a point of having a comically long string of caricature husbands, all of whom she patronises equally. She does not marry for love, nor even because her husbands have something she wants, saying “you only have husbands for display purposes, they shouldn’t be useful”. She also talks openly about sex, as well as her proclivities with Ill in her youth. This openness unsettles the villages, but shows how she cares very little for what others think of her: not a feminine quality. One reason for this attitude may be that after being forced out of Guellen Zachanassian is forced to become a prostitute. This could be said to force her out of conventional femininity as well, as she must exploit her body in order to survive. She eventually benefits from this financially, but cannot return to the femininity she has abandoned.
The other way in which Zachanassian deviates from femininity is in the fact that she is extremely rich. She owns a great fortune, and has enough disposable cash to give it away whenever she wants. This gives her immense power, and also respect. If it were not for the fact that she is the only one able to revitalise Guellen, no-one would pay any attention to the return of a woman sent away many years ago. Her money forces people to take her claims seriously, and even to regard her in a positive rather than negative light. Her money is also what allows her to enact her vengeance against Guellen by buying up its industry and crippling it.
The great similarity between Medea and Zachanassian’s behaviour is that they both enact vengeance after being betrayed by their lover: Jason leaves Medea for a new wife, and Ill lies that Zachanassian’s child is not his. Moreover, their vengeance does not take the form of a direct attack, but occurs through trickery: Medea tricks the princess into wearing a poisoned dress, and Zachanassian quietly buys up and holds Guellen to ransom for Ill’s life. Neither of them commit any direct murder, but both are clearly the agents of vengeance. This avoidance of direct attack is explicitly regarded as a feminine quality in Medea, who says that woman’s “cleverness lies in crafting evil”.
It could be argued that both Medea and Claire Zachanassian lose their femininity as they enact their vengeance. However, I am not sure that is entirely the case, because the underlying motivations behind what they do, and how they do it, are still in accordance with the way femininity is portrayed generally. They still both act because of betrayed love, and they still do so through indirect means; although in more minor respects they seem to have given up on behaving in a feminine manner, this can be regarded as a symptom of their all-consuming desire for vengeance. In addition, it would be wrong to say that femininity is the only issue present: for instance Medea can also be regarded as some kind of divine agent, as evidenced by the deus ex machina that carries her away at the end of the play, and a great deal of Zachanassian’s characteristics are down to the amount of money (and therefore power) that she has.
Overall, therefore, I would argue that both plays show their main characters as feminine in an underlying rather than overt way, showing as it were its ‘other side’. The characters do not become masculine, but rather powerfully feminine, and this invites the audience to analyse whether femininity is in itself a good or bad thing.