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Legal myth-making: Medea and the legal representation of the feminine ‘other'

Legal myth-making: Medea and the legal representation of the feminine ‘other'

Phillips, Edward (2006) Legal myth-making: Medea and the legal representation of the feminine ‘other'. In: Modern Humanities Research Association Conference: Medea: Mutations and Permutations of a Myth, 17-19 July 2006, University of Bristol.

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The Law operates by, and through, the creation of ideal benchmarks of conduct that are deemed to be representative of the behavioural norm. It is in this sense that it could be contended that the Law utilises, and relies on, myths in the same way as do other disciplines, notably psycho-analysis. It is possible to go even further and argue that the use of a created narrative mythology is essential to the establishment of a defined legal benchmark of behaviour by which the female defendant is assessed, judged and punished. While mythology expresses and symbolizes cultural and political behaviour, it is the Law that embodies and prescribes punitive sanctions. This element represents a powerful literary strand in classical mythology. This may be seen, for instance, in Antigone’s appeal to the Law as justification for her conduct, as much as in Medea’s challenge to the Law though her desire for vengeance. Despite its image of neutral, objective rationality, the Law, in creating and sustaining the ideals of legally-sanctioned conduct, engages in the same literary processes of imagination, reason and emotion that are central to the creation and re-creation of myth.

The (re-)presentation of the Medea myth in literature (especially in theatre) and in art, finds its echo in the theatre of the courtroom where wronged women who have refused to passively accept their place, have instead responded with violence. Consequently, the Medea myth, in its depiction of the (un)feminine, serves as a template for the Law’s judgment of ‘conventional’ feminine conduct in the roles of wife and mother. Medea is an image of deviant femininity, as is Lady Macbeth and the countless other un-feminine literary and mythological women who challenge the power of the dominant culture and its ally, the Law. These women stand opposed to the other dominant theme of both literature and Law: the conformist woman, the passive dupe, who are victims of male oppression – women such as Ariadne of Naxos and Tess of the D’Ubervilles – and who are subsequently consumed by the Law, much as Semele is consumed by the fire of Jupiter’s gaze upon her. All of these women, the former as well as the latter, have their real-life counterparts in the pages of the Law Reports. As Fox puts it, “these women have come to bear the weight of the cultural stereotypes and preconceptions about women who kill.”

Item Type: Conference or Conference Paper (Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Medea myth, law, criminal law, representation, women,women murders literature,
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
K Law > K Law (General)
Pre-2014 Departments: School of Humanities & Social Sciences
School of Humanities & Social Sciences > Department of Law & Criminology
Related URLs:
Last Modified: 14 Oct 2016 09:05

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