The First Time as Tragedy, the Second Time as History

Karl Marx famously opened “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” by commenting that

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

It doesn’t always work that way, though. Sometimes events appear first in tragedy before being repeated in history. What follows is one horrific example.

In Euripides’s Medea, the title character, Jason’s foreign-born royal wife, is pushed aside so that her husband can make a new, and politically more advantageous, marriage to a Corinthian princess. To spite her husband, Medea kills Jason’s new bride and her own children, whose status would have been precarious in their father’s new household.

A similar incident occurred in Ohio in the 1850s in circumstances caused by the Fugitive Slave Law. James M. McPherson recounts it in Battle Cry of Freedom.

Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin also passed stronger personal liberty laws after fugitive slave controversies in those states. The most poignant of these cases involved Margaret Garner, who in January 1856 escaped with her husband and four children from Kentucky to Ohio. When a posse was about to capture them, Margaret seized a kitchen knife, slit the throat of one daughter, and tried to kill her other children rather than see them returned to slavery. The state of Ohio requested jurisdiction over Garner to try her for manslaughter, but a federal judge overruled state officials and ordered the Garners returned to their owner. That worthy gentleman promptly sold them down the river to New Orleans. On the way there one of Margaret’s other children achieved the emancipation she had sought for him, by drowning after a steamboat collision.

Battle Cry of Freedom, 120-21.

The unremittingly awful situation of the mothers is not the same in the two stories, nor is the motive for their subsequent wicked act of killing their own children: Medea is motivated by revenge, while Garner is motivated by wanting to spare her children from human bondage. Yet there is still a parallel between them.

That parallel reminds us of one of the great benefits of reading Greek tragedy. The purpose of the masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is undoubtedly didactic, but often not with the aim of giving the reader instructions about right and wrong, good people and bad people, but rather to force the audience to confront the problem of suffering. More briefly, tragedy is therapeutic. Not for nothing did Anne Carson call her translation of four of Euripides’s plays Grief Lessons. They give us tools for reflecting upon analogous situations that we encounter elsewhere, both in history and in our own lives in, to use Bob Dylan’s phrase, a world gone wrong.


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