Article Title

“An infant of the house of York”: Medea and Absyrtus in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

This essay explores Shakespeare’s use of the classical legend of Medea in 2 Henry VI and shows how the remainder of the first tetralogy is haunted by her first crime, the killing of her young brother Absyrtus.1 The mutilated body of Absyrtus held a particular interest for classically-minded English writers of the early modern period; in 2 Henry VI it is invoked by the Lancastrian Young Clifford as he swears revenge on the house of York for the death of his father.2 I will show how Shakespeare augments and sensationalizes chronicle history by absorbing this notorious and popular story into his history plays, and will argue that the Lancastrian nobleman’s brief classical reference signifies more than might first appear. By invoking this myth, Shakespeare registers anxiety about the irreversible damage done by civil war. Moreover, the story demonstrates Clifford’s bloody intentions toward Yorkist bodies, but also forecasts his own fate, because of his misunderstanding of what it means to use Medea as an example.


1. Medea’s brother is often referred to as Apsyrtus, but this essay adopts the Shakespearean spelling of Absyrtus.

2. For non-Shakespearean uses of the Absyrtus myth in the period, see my forthcoming essay, “Fifty Ways to Kill Your Brother: Medea and the Poetics of Fratricide in Early Modern English Literature,” in Interweaving Myths in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, ed. Charlotte Coffin, Agnès Lafont, and Janice Valls-Russell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

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