The Use and Abuse of Power by the Female Protagonists in Strindberg's Miss Julie and Euripides' Medea

Miss Julie by Strindberg and Medea by Euripides explore the theme of power struggle. Julie, the Count’s daughter, was raised by a mother who hated men; Strindberg hence presents a confused character who struggles with her sexual desire for men juxtaposing with her need to dominate them. She feels compelled to use her social status when dealing with Jean. Medea, on the other hand, is presented as a brave, unpredictable, almost barbaric woman of extremes; she has committed several crimes on her husband’s behalf.

Medea is constantly associated with images of extreme passion be it love, hatred or rage, and it is through the expression of these extremes that the audience becomes familiar with her persona. When she learns of her husband’s betrayal, she abandons any semblance of nobility and maternity left in her and is so consumed with rage that she plans to commit even more atrocious acts to satisfy her thirst for revenge and urge to be controlling. It is important to note that in both plays, servants introduce the female protagonists; both are labeled as ‘wild’ by subordinates.

Julie and Medea appear on stage seeking power and/or defying social norms. The playwrights immediately therefore highlight the importance of power for both women; their desire to dominate their male counterparts is apparent in the first scenes. The use of the servants to pinpoint this theme is an indication of the playwrights’ concerns about the social hierarchy and power in the respective societies. Even before the characters’ first appearance on stage, the audience learns of both females’ need to dominate.

In Medea this is done through the chorus’ comparison between Medea and “a wild bull”[1], in addition to the Nurse’s speech, in which she describes Medea as “wild and hateful”1 and later tells her “beware a royal temper”[2]. In Miss Julie the conversation between Jean and Christine recounts how Julie made her ex-fiance “jump over her hiding whip like a dog”[3] thus showing her need to dictate and dominate men. The whip is symbolic of Julie’s desire to enslave men, whom her mother raised her to despise. As aforementioned, both female protagonists begin the play seeking power rather than actually possessing any real form of power.

This is evident in their unconventional behaviour. Both Julie and Medea begin the play as outcasts in their respective societies. Julie opts to stay home with servants during a midsummer festival rather than attend a social function with her father. Similarly, Medea is an outcast following Jason’s betrayal. Both characters have suffered from rejection by male partners, which results in loss of social status, embarrassment and desperate desire to regain this power. Although Julie and Medea display this in different ways in the opening scenes, it is apparent from their behaviour that they both believe they are entitled to power.

In an attempt to regain power, Julie and Medea attempt to exert power over their male counterparts; at times, through words and actions, they abuse the power they believe they possess, to dominate men. Julie constantly playfully manipulates Jean yet simultaneously reminds him of her superiority. Julie invites Jean to drink with her, “A gentleman should keep his lady company”[4]. By referring to herself as “his”, she is leading Jean on for her own entertainment. Jean’s reaction is cautious as he “hesitates”5 before he finally “drink to (my) health”5.

Her assumption of power, and sexual games continue and she finally commands him to, “kiss my shoe! ”5 She is ultimately reminding Jean of her authority to enslave him, purely because of her social position. Julie’s coy behaviour gives Jean the confidence to attempt to kiss her. Her reaction – slapping him, rejecting such familiarity and making her position clear – is the ultimate proof of her belief in her superiority. This indicates that Julie feels the authority to reject him at will while simultaneously satisfying her need to subject Jean to her whims and thus feeding her appetite to dominate.

Later in the scene, Julie again uses her position when Jean warns her that the servants may be gossiping about them; Julie is appalled and says, “I am in love with the footman? ”[5] Referring to Jean by his title shows Julie’s sadistic delight in demeaning him and emphasizing her social superiority. This fluctuation of her need for and rejection of Jean may be indicative of insecurity and loss resulting from her traumatic upbringing and again, having been rejected by one of her social class; this could account for her need to regain power.

Medea’s irrational behaviour is also due to her loss of power and control caused by her husband, Jason, who abandoned her and married Glauce, princess of Corinth. The Nurse explains this in her opening speech; “Medea rages at her loss of honour”[6]. Medea declares that Jason’s betrayal comes at the expense of her social status, home, dignity, and security; she claims to be “alone…stateless, dishonored by (my) husband” [7]Medea’s fury knows no limit as evidenced when she mentions, “Cursed boys, I wish you dead, your father too”3 in line 103; she is determined to seek revenge whatever the cost, and revenge is the murder her and Jason’s sons.

Because they are precious to Jason, she will deprive him of them and resultantly destroy and triumph over him. She has all the means to carry out her hideous crime “with such deadly poisons”[8]. Medea despises Jason’s ingratitude that seems to have forgotten that she murdered her brother and was involved in the murder of Pelias for Jason’s benefit. Because of this, her anger overrides her maternal instinct and triggers her all-consuming desire for the power to destroy any chance of happiness for Jason. Medea exercises her power over Jason through her passionate hatred, rage and her magical power.

The struggle for power between the genders is therefore apparent in both plays. Interestingly, although the plays are centuries apart, similar techniques are used to depict this theme. Animal imagery is one such technique used by both playwrights. Strindberg’s abundant use of animal symbolism throughout the play begins with comparison of Julie’s treatment of her ex-fiance to that of a dog/master relationship; she was “’training’”4 him. This motif is repeated when she refers to Jean as “a dog who wears my collar”. [9] It appears that Julie views her male partners as dogs; she attempts to master, train and overpower them.

Animal imagery is used therefore to depict her need for control and power. Julie’s dog, Diana, is a symbol of Julie’s awareness of and possible obsession with class distinction. Julie wants to have Diana’s pups aborted simply because they were conceived by the porter’s dog and she refuses to accept the lack of pedigree. Again this obsession is seen in the hawk image when Jean explains the lower class’ perspective of the world. He states that Julie perceives life “like hawks and falcons, whose back one rarely sees”[10]. Jean categorises Julie as seeing their backs while his social class can only see their underside.

Being predators, these birds are symbolic of the upper class feeding on the plight of the underprivileged, hence emphasising Julie’s authoritarian ways and need to control those below her social stratum. Medea is also associated with dangerous animals. On page 7, the Nurse mentions Medea watching her children “like a wild bull”1 and later, “like a lioness with her cubs…”1 The lion symbolizes savage power and violence; using such an aggressive animal to describe Medea’s maternal ways foreshadows the potential of the chaos her passion will cause.

The bull image portrays her as untamed, hence increasing her unpredictability. Medea’s animalistic side and hence, her overbearing personality are highlighted. This foreshadows the damage she is likely to cause as a result of her personal strength and temper. In conclusion, it could be argued that Julie abuses the power she has and enslaves those around her because she in fact has no real power and lacks emotional stability. This instability is further witnessed with her envy of Christine’s ability to sleep; “I wish I could sleep like that”5 which is symbolic of her troubled mind.

This may justify Julie’s continuous alternating between hating and desiring Jean. Being a misogynist, Strindberg would argue that the supreme power in the play is that of the Count to the extent that his presence onstage is not needed. His boots, the speaking tube and the bell are sufficient symbols of authority to remind the audience where the real power lies. This is different to Medea as apparent in Euripides’ use of animal motif; the need for power is part of Medea’s personality and being controlling comes naturally to her.

She has chosen to share these valuable traits with her husband; when he betrays her and marries another woman, she feels as though she has lost part of her reason for being as he was her prized possession. She therefore robs Jason of his most valuable possession, his children, consequently robbing him of his own power too.

Works Cited/Bibliography Euripedes, Medea, Cambridge University Press, 1999 August Strindberg, Miss Julie, Meuthen, 1992 ———————– [1] Euripides, Medea, Cambridge University Press, 1999, page 7 2] Euripides, Medea, Cambridge University Press, 1999, page 9 [3] August Strindberg, Miss Julie, Meuthen, 1992, page 4 [4] August Strindberg, Miss Julie, Meuthen, 1992, page 11 [5] August Strindberg, Miss Julie, Meuthen, 1992, page 12 [6] Euripides, Medea, Cambridge University Press, 1999, page 3 [7] Euripides, Medea, Cambridge University Press, 1999, page 17 [8] Euripides, Medea, Cambridge University Press, 1999, page 53 [9] August Strindberg, Miss Julie, Meuthen, 1992, page 39 [10] August Strindberg, Miss Julie, Meuthen, 1992, page 25

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