EURIPIDES 431, B.C.
Euripides’s Medea (431 B.C.) adds a note of horror to the myth of Jason and Medea. In the myth, after retrieving the golden fleece Jason brings his foreign wife to settle in Corinth. There Jason falls in love with the local princess, whose status in the city will bring Jason financial security. He marries her without telling Medea. Medea takes revenge by killing the new bride and her father, the King of Corinth. One variation of the myth says that Medea then accidentally kills her two sons by Jason while trying to make them immortal. Euripides takes the myth into a new direction by having Medea purposely stab her children to death in order to deprive Jason of all he loved (as well as heirs that would carry on his name). In one of literature’s most intensely emotional scenes, Medea debates with herself whether to spare her children for her own love’s sake or to kill them in order to punish her husband completely. A chorus of Corinuhian women sympathize with Medea but attempt to dissuade her from acting on her anger. However, her need for revenge overpowers her love for her children, and she ruthlessly kills diem. Euripides introduced psychological realism into ancient Greek drama through characters like Medea, whose motives are confused, complex, and ultimately driven by passion. Although the tetralogy that included this play did not earn Euripides the coveted prize at the Dionysus festival in which it debuted, Medea has withstood the test of time to become one of the great tragedies of classical Greece.
Although historians can only piece together the biography of a man who lived before detailed biographical information was reliably recorded, certain “facts” about Euripides’s life are generally accepted. Euripides was born around 480 B.C. to parents who were presumably affluent, considering that the playwright obtained a good education and owned a library of philosophical works. Euripides knew the philosopher Anaxagoras, entertained the Sophist Protagoras in his home, and could count on the philosopher Socrates attending his plays. Although no evidence exists that Euripides conversed with Socrates, the latter’s influence is apparent in the playwright’s skepticism. Euripides’s life was deeply affected by the Peloponnesian Wars, which ultimately ended the Golden Age of Athens; the scars of a life plagued by war are evident in the mood of pessimism and uncertainty that permeates his works of tragedy. Euripides’s characters have more psychological depth than those found in the works of his dramatic predecessors, Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides broke with traditional theater and chose to examine the motivations of realistic humans instead of the acts of gods, heroes, and stock characters. He championed the underdog and challenged traditions through his radical ideas regarding the gods and society. Some called him an atheist, but he did not reject religion-he merely identified and denounced its shortcomings.
In all, there are references to ninety-two plays by Euripides; of these, only nineteen are known to have survived the centuries. Most of these plays were more than likely altered as a result of the common practice of oral storytelling, in which tales were verbally passed from town to town, generation to generation. It was not until a century after their author created them that most of these works were actually written down. After his death, Euripides’s plays enjoyed more popularity than they had during his lifetime. One measure of his renown is that Aristophanes wrote three plays that lampoon Euripides. In the Frogs, Euripides is portrayed as a radical who taught the Athenians to “think, see, understand, suspect, question, everything,” according to Edith Hamilton in her book The Greek Way. In his later years Euripides withdrew from public society and spent most of his time in a cave, working on his plays. The Peloponnesian Wars, in their final throes, were destroying the city and society which he so loved; Athens was collapsing. Finally, at age seventy Euripides left Athens for
Macedonia, to help that city’s king establish a cultural center to rival Athens. He died there in 406 B.C.
Euripides’s play takes place in Corinth, where Jason had settled with his Colchian wife Medea after his adventure in pursuit of the Golden Fleece (in Greek mythology, a rare garment made from the wool of a magical flying ram). The scene opens with a prologue spoken by Medea’s nurse. She summarizes what has led to her lady’s current state of grief and rage: her husband Jason has married the daughter of the local king, Creon. The nurse recounts how Medea aided Jason in his exploits, even killing her own brother to help Jason escape. The nurse knows the many moods that Medea is capable of and fears that her rage may settle on her two children by Jason. When the attendant appears with the boys, the nurse warns him to keep them away from their angry mother.
Next is heard Medea herself chanting a savage curse at her husband, the children, and the whole family. The chorus of Corinthian women interpose
comments of sympathy for the “sad wife” with Medea’s anguished cries and the nurse’s fearful warnings. Finally, Medea herself appears to plead for empathy from the chorus in a long monologue. At its end, Creon enters with more bad news for Medea: because he fears Medea may harm his daughter, the new wife of Jason, he banishes her from the land of Corinth. Medea hypocritically assures him she would not do such a thing and in an extended duet of dialogue (or duologue), begs for just one day to find living arrangements for her sons. Won over, Creon grants her wish, but threatens to kill her if she does not depart the next day.
Now Medea considers how to obtain revenge upon Jason, for she abhors the thought of being a laughing-stock in her loss. The chorus encourages her. Next Jason encounters Medea, with words seemingly calculated to offend her. She reminds him that she saved his life, slew a dragon, left her father’s home and killed her brother Pelias, all for the love of him. Jason plays the sophist (“as for me, it seems I must be no bad speaker”), arguing petty points against her valid complaint. His suggestion that he is marrying the princess so that Medea and her children may live in comfort incenses the chorus so much that they defy discretion and accuse Jason of sinning. To appease Medea, Jason merely offers her money; he refuses to help Medea convince Creon to let her stay. Medea scornfully dismisses Jason. The chorus judiciously comments upon the need to moderate passion, thus for the first time indirectly finding fault with both parties. The chorus ends, however, on a note of sympathy for Medea.
The next scene offers another perspective on Medea and underscores the importance of children to a royal family. The ruler of a neighboring city, Aegeus, confides to Medea that he has just visited the oracle to learn how he might reverse his childless life. In a marked shift of mood, Medea calmly and professionally offers advice and promises to cast a potent spell to help him, asking only for asylum in return. Upon learning of her distress, Aegeus offers her sanctuary in his city with the caveat that she must find her own passage there as he does not want to incur the anger of his allies, Creon and Jason.
With a means of escape well in hand, Medea unveils her evil plan for revenge. Not only will she kill princess Creusa and her father Creon, but she will slay her own children, in order to destroy Jason’s life completely—because she cannot abide the thought of being mocked for her downfall, and because she knows that the Corinthians will kill the children anyway, in retaliation for her murder of Creusa and Creon. The chorus tries to dissuade her from including the children in her murderous rampage, for her own safety and for the sake of respecting the law. When Medea remains unmoved, the chorus warns her that no city would pollute itself with her presence. Thus is introduced the theme of pollution, a concern that underlies the whole play. Jason returns at Medea’s bidding. She shrewdly begs his pardon for her angry words and shares with him her “plan” to ply Creusa with gifts and then request that they be allowed to remain in Corinth. Jason blesses his two children with the wish for long life, bringing unexpected tears to Medea who masks her real reason for sadness with the explanation that she will miss them when she goes.
Thoroughly appeased, Jason departs with the sons and their attendant to deliver Medea’s gifts, a robe of gold and a diadem (crown) of gold. The chorus laments the forthcoming death of the young bride and realizes that the two children are doomed as well.
The attendant returns with the simple news that the gifts have been delivered. He is surprised by Medea’s tears at this announcement. The appearance Page 183 | Top of Articleof the children causes Medea to dispute her resolve, but she is overcome by her desire for revenge and bids the children leave her. The chorus acclaims that it would be better never to have children at all than suffer the grief of losing them. A messenger rushes in, warning Medea to flee. He recounts in gruesome detail how the princess, at first irritated by the presence of Medea’s children, gleefully dons the robe and crown which almost instantly begin to eat her flesh. Embracing her, Creon becomes entangled in the trap and they die together. The chorus, still in league with Medea against Jason, laments that Medea has “gone away to the house of Hades” as the price of her marriage to Jason.
The children’s screams are now heard, as they fruitlessly seek to escape their murderous mother. The chorus now accuses Medea of having a heart of stone. Jason rushes in to save his children from Medea, but the chorus informs him that he is too late. In the final scene Jason and Medea hurl stinging reproaches at each other. Jason reminds her that she too suffers from her crime, but Medea still claims that vengeance was worth the pain. In a final act of insult, she carries the children’s dead bodies away on her chariot drawn by dragons, refusing Jason even one last touch of their skin. The chorus quickly closes the play with the warning that one never knows how things will turn out.
Aegeus, King of Athens
Aegeus, with his dilemma of childlessness, reinforces the importance of children (heirs) to royal leaders, making doubly hurtful Jason’s loss. Aegeus follows the conventional means of solving his problem—consulting an oracle for advice. Aegeus is obviously a kind man. He recognizes that Medea is downcast and asks tactful questions; then gives her his complete sympathy. His accepting attitude toward Medea and his offer to give her shelter in his city elevate her in the eyes of the audience. His refusal to help her travel to Athens because it would offend his allies shows that he is a careful leader—it also reinforces the danger of Medea’s situation.
The attendant discourses with the nurse in the opening scene to further reveal the nature of Jason’s break with his wife. The attendant also displays the cynical attitude for which Euripides was known—rebuking the nurse that every man cares for himself first and for others when it profits himself, only rarely from honest motives.
Chorus of Corinthian Women
The chorus of Corinthian women at first shows a great deal of sympathy for Medea, who is rejected by her heroic husband for the young princess of Corinth. But at the same time, the chorus honors the laws of its city and therefore tries to persuade Medea to control her anger. Occasionally the leader of the chorus interacts with the players, as when the leader criticizes Jason, telling him that he has in fact sinned against his wife. When Medea seems at last determined to kill her children, the chorus pleads with her, suggesting that she will not be able to look upon their faces and do the deed. Thus the chorus represents a more moderate kind of woman than Medea—these women of Corinth show anger at Jason’s betrayal but advise control in the retaliation; they even express pity for Jason’s downfall. The chorus insists that all women are capable of wisdom. They serve as an antidote to the devastating events of the play, reminding the audience of the broader concepts being enacted. The final lines of the chorus fall short of the intensity of its other songs, however, saying something to the effect of, “what will be, will be.” Their explanations ultimately leave the audience unable to transcend the horror of the final scene.
Creon is King of Corinth and father to Creusa, whose marriage to Jason so infuriates Medea. Creon is well aware of Medea’s bloody reputation; fearing that Medea might, in her rage, harm Creusa, he bans the rejected woman. A soft heart causes the King to allow Medea into the city for one day. His love for his daughter brings about his own death. Creon is portrayed as a weak, indecisive man whom Medea easily persuades to allow her another day in Corinth—a day that proves fatal to Creon. He is also ambivalent at his daughter’s corpse, first saying he wants to die with her, yet when her poisoned garment ensnares him, he struggles to escape.
Jason, the Argonaut who retrieved the golden fleece, was a well-known character to Athenian audiences and a significant hero in Greek mythology. However, Euripides’s portrayal casts him in a
rather negative light. Medea catches him lying when he tells her he is marrying Creusa simply to increase their fortune, and he never accepts responsibility for his new love alliance. Medea has a valid complaint, yet Jason attributes her anger to a “stubborn temper” and blames her banishment on her inability to submit to Creon’s will. Jason is made even less sympathetic when he minimizes Medea’s role in helping him obtain the golden fleece (a feat that involved killing her own brother so that Jason could escape) and suggesting that Medea is merely jealous and not legitimately hurt. Jason almost deserves the punishment Medea serves him.
Courageous, powerful, and reckless, Medea left her father’s home without his blessing to accompany Jason to the land of Corinth, after using her magic powers to slay the dragon that guarded the golden fleece. She also killed her own brother to slow Jason’s pursuers. A foreigner to Corinth, Medea nevertheless found favor with the Corinthians and all of Hellas because of her cleverness. For a while she and Jason were in harmony and her life with him and their two sons was blissful. However, when Jason takes as wife the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, Medea is both grief-stricken at her Page 185 | Top of Articleloss and rage-filled at Jason’s betrayal. As her nurse explains during the prologue, “she’ll not stop raging until she has struck at someone” and the fact that Medea now says she hates the sight of her own children by Jason leads the nurse to fear for them.
Alone in a foreign land, rejected by her beloved husband, and unable to return to her homeland, Medea goes mad, going to great extremes in exacting her revenge for Jason’s infidelity. When faced with their presence, Medea spends a few moments debating the wisdom of murdering those she loves, yet her desire for revenge fully outweighs her mother’s heart. Even after she has accomplished the deed her rage outstrips her better nature, for she will not allow Jason to bury or even kiss the children farewell. She claims that the price she has paid is worth the harm she has caused Jason.
In his book The Poetry of Greek Tragedy, Richard Lattimore speculated on Medea’s motives for murdering her own children:“We are given, not one compelling motive but a whole assortment of motives. She kills them because she hates them, because she loves them, to spite and hurt Jason, to leave him without posterity, to vindicate the rights and prestige of herself and her country, to save them from the Corintihians who, she supposes, would kill them if she did not. In the end she does not know why she kills them and neither do we.”
The messenger has only one scene to act—he delivers to Medea the news that her gifts smeared with poison have had their desired effect on Creusa and Creon. His is a storytelling role and he is given gruesome details to spin out to Medea’s delight.
The Nurse opens the play with her prologue, reciting Medea’s reasons for rage and grief and generally providing a sympathetic first appraisal of her mistress. She also warns of Medea’s “wildness and bitter nature,” saying that she fears some harm will come to the children Medea now claims to hate. The nurse herself demonstrates more resolve; she catches herself cursing Jason and stops herself because he is still her master. The implication is that Medea cannot so successfully contain her anger, both because the harm is hers and because of her savage nature.
Sons of Medea and Jason
Medea and Jason’s two sons participate in only four scenes, but the entire action of the play revolves around their victimhood. They appear initially with their attendant, immediately drawing audience sympathy, and are sent inside by the nurse to protect them from their raging mother. When they innocently bear Medea’s gifts to Creusa, they garner even more audience sympathy because she at first becomes irritated at the sight of them. Later their sweet smiles cause Medea to pause in her resolve to kill them. Their pitiful screams as she pursues and then slays them are finally heard offstage.
In Euripides’s Medea, revenge—its necessity, its causes, and its price—is the central to the drama. Euripides makes Medea’s desire for revenge plausible. Not only has her husband Jason wronged her by marrying the king of Corinth’s beautiful young daughter, but the king of Corinth has banished her from the city to prevent her from avenging herself on his daughter. Medea can no longer return to her father’s home because she left without his blessing upon her marriage to Jason. Thus she is unlawfully abandoned, emotionally wounded, and legitimately outraged. She bridles at the idea that she might be the laughing-stock of Corinth. Even when Aegeus offers her a secure future in Athens, Medea remains unsolaced—she now only seeks revenge.
The chorus of Corinthian women legitimize her outrage, sympathizing with her grief as well as her desire for revenge. But Medea takes revenge that goes far beyond the conventionally accepted forms of retribution. Euripides altered the traditional myth to include Medea murdering her own children to avenge her errant husband. Her act represents a form of revenge that is shocking to today’s audiences. The excess of her revenge can be measured by the reaction of the Chorus: the women of Corinth exhibit no surprise that Medea might want to kill Jason’s new bride, nor do they try to dissuade Medea from murdering the king of their city simply because it was his daughter whom Jason loved; but the idea of killing her own children alarms these women. They ask Medea how she will be able to look upon her own children and murder them simply to hurt Jason. When Medea commits her horrendous crime the chorus withdraws its alliance. The
women of Corinth also recognize that this act will hurt not just her erring husband Jason but, in a much deeper way, hurt Medea herself. Jason too recognizes her self-inflicted pain and demands that she acknowledge her error. In a final, shocking outburst of hatred, Medea retorts that her pain is worth the price of avenging herself upon him. Medea’s revenge is excessive, perverse, and nihilistically potent.
In a way, the theme of passion that overcomes one’s better sense lies behind the theme of revenge in Euripides’s provocative play. The ancient Greeks considered passion dangerous, and the chorus expresses this in the song mat follows Medea scornful rejection of Jason’s offer of money. The chorus sings that love in excess brings neither glory nor repute, though love in moderation is blissful. Medea’s problem is that she loved Jason so much that she left behind her homeland and family—and even killed her brother to slow their pursuers. Medea loved not in moderation but in excess.
Then, when Jason removed himself from her love, her passion turned to anger and since hate is the nearest thing to passionate love, she also hated in excess. It is as though Medea goes mad with the urgent need to punish her husband for his betrayal. The nurse suggests that Medea enrages herself, goading herself to greater heights of fury. In a state of self-aggravated wrath, Medea is immune to the warnings of the chorus of Corinthian women who, almough sympathizing with her, warn her not to break the law. But the law is meaningless to Medea; she tells the chorus that its words are wasted. For it is Medea’s tragic flaw to succumb to her own fury, a passion that imprisons her better self, and to goad herself into a heedless frenzy of anger that brings her to the point of murdering her own children.
From the very beginning, the nurse warns that Medea is not to be trifled with, that “she’ll not stop raging until she has struck at someone.” It had been Medea’s reckless heart that drove her to leave her father’s home to take up with Jason. And yet, in the exchange with Aegeus Medea behaves perfectly rationally. Smoldering with rage wimin, she is capable of convincing Creon to allow her to stay another day and of charming Jason into taking her gifts to Creusa. These moments complicate the question whether Medea could have controlled her passion enough to spare her children. Typically of Euripides, he leaves the question unanswered.
Euripides fabricated the murder of the two children—in variations of the myth they are either killed by accident or not involved at all. Euripides’s invention pushes Medea’s need for vengeance beyond the bounds of normalcy, thus underscoring that destructive passion reigns in her heart.
Taking his cue from Sophocles, who demoted the chorus from primary character status to that of a Page 187 | Top of Articlespeaking spectator, Euripides reduced this dramatic device even further. In Medea the chorus appears less often than it would have in Sophocles or Aeschylus’s plays; its time on stage is limited to mere moments between scenes. At the same time, the acting characters now have chanting parts (a move that eventually led to the development of opera)—further eroding the unique contribution of the chorus. Euripides also reduced the interaction between chorus and characters. Euripides’s reduced use of the chorus ultimately led it is eventual disappearance from ancient Greek theater.
In its modified role, Euripides’s chorus of Corinthian women is a kind of precursor to the modern theater’s narrator (such as the one employed in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town). The chours in Medea goads the consciences of the audience while it sympathizes with, pleads to, and chides Medea. The chorus follows a clear progression of observations that influence and validate the reactions of the audience. At first the women completely sympathize with Medea as an honest woman wounded by an errant husband, and they concur with her desire for revenge (“You are right, Medea, in paying your husband back.”). In fact, D. J. Conacher, in his Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme, and Structure, has called the first choral stanza (lines 410-445) a virtual theme “song for feminists.” The chorus even goes so far as to accuse Jason of sinning in his betrayal of Medea. The women shift their attitude, however, as soon as they learn that Medea intends to murder her own children. As the play progresses, the chorus moves from sympathy to horror, interacting less with the characters and turning to address the gods of nature and, late in the play, the audience. The chorus does not simply condemn Medea, however. It complicates a too-easy judgement of Medea by showing pity for her throughout the play. When Medea puts her plan into action, the chorus expresses pity for the children, Creusa, Jason, and Medea in turn—in order, apparently, from innocence to guilt. In this crime, all parties deserve pity, even the perpetrator, because the perpetrator had a reasonable cause for anger. The chorus’ list blurs Medea’s liability by including her as one deserving compassion.
The Euripidean chorus also reminds the audience of the larger issues involved in the action of the play. It evokes the concept of pollution, warning Medea that no city will want to be polluted by her presence if she should commit the deed she threatens. Here the purpose of the chours is to place Medea’s deed into the larger context of society, to suggest the greater implications of her personal crime. The Euripidean chorus frequently reminds the audience of ideal values, such as in the second choral stanza when it expounds on the virtues of moderate love and fidelity and proclaims the misery of the loss of fatherland to elicit sympathy for Medea. In Medea, as in most of Euripides’s work, the chorus chants poetic asides on the themes raised by the action. This was the typical role of the chorus—to express the ultimate emotion or beauty of even the most painful event, “to translate the particular act into something universal,” as Gilbert Murray noted in Euripides and His Age. The action of the play consists of the here and now, while the choral odes consists of the eternal. However, some Euripidiean choral odes, including those in Medea, seem only slightly connected with the events of the play, and it was this innovation that led to the elimination of the chorus altogether. The final lines of the chorus, something on the order of “whatever happens, happens,” are so far removed from the actions that have just unfolded that they do nothing to dispel the uneasiness the final scene elicits. The same stock ending appears in three other Euripidean plays that have survived. The effect is a rather abrupt return to reality.
Deus ex Machina
In the final scene, Medea rides off with the corpses of her murdered sons in a chariot pulled by dragons. On the ancient Greek stage, this stage effect would have been accomplished by means of a large crane that would permit the contraption to “fly.” The “deus ex machina,” literally “god from a machine,” was a common closing device in ancient Greek theater. Normally, a god would descend from the heavens to bring the action to a close and ordain the ritual the play celebrates. In Medea, no god appears, although the chariot has been supplied by Medea’s grandfather, the sun god, thus weakening considerably the invocation of the gods. Perhaps this slight derives from Euripides’s skepticism about religious rituals. In any event, the scene is glaringly inconsistent with the realism of the rest of the play. But considering that Medea is now guilty of multiple murders, it seems one of a very few possible means of escape available to her.
Prologue and Duologue
The prologue precedes the action of the play. Before Euripides’s time, the prologue was spoken, Page 188 | Top of Articlechanted, or sung by a chorus, but it had evolved into a presentation by the actors by the time he began writing dramas. Euripides’s plays often begins with a single actor who addresses the audience directly, explaining the background of the story to be told (even though his Athenian audience would already be quite familiar with the myth upon which the play would, by convention, be based). Medea opens with a monologue by the nurse, who recounts the cause of Medea’s grief. The nurse is joined by the attendant, and together, in duologue (a dialogue among two actors) they discuss the implications and extent of Medea’s rage, forshadowing the murder and mayhem that will come. The duologue between Jason and Medea is called the agon, an intense argument between powerful antagonists.
The End of the Golden Age of Athens
The year Euripides produced Medea, the devastating Peloponnesian War (431-404 B. C.) began. The tensions which precipitated this conflict between Athens and its neighbors on the Peloponnesian peninsula, primarily the cities of Sparta and Corinth certainly existed before the first recorded battle and possibly led Euripides to set his play in Corinth. Thucydides (c.460-400 B.C.) claims that the true cause of the war was Athen’s rise to greatness, which made Spartans fearful. However, trade rivalry with Corinth may also have fueled the conflict. At any rate the Peloponnesian War was to last the next thirty years, with great losses suffered by both winners and losers. Ultimately, after a victory at Aegospotami, Sparta forced Athens—decimated in money and ships, emotionally enervated, and without allies—to submit to its terms. The Golden Age of Athens had come to an end. Herodotus (480-425 B.C.), writing during the early years of the war, hints that Athens had become a tyrant city, and Thucydides records its further corruption as the war progressed. Euripides’s life spanned the peaceful years before the Peloponnesian War through the imminent end, although he died before Athens’s final defeat. By the time of his death, Euripides had fled his beloved city to take refuge in calmer Macedonia. The sense of uncertainty and adversity that pervade Euripidean tragedy stem at least partially from the anguished, extended demise of the greatness that was Athens.
Women and Marriage in Ancient Greek Culture
Medea’s complaint that Jason married another might have carried less weight had Jason followed the conventional method of divorce in Athens. Although women could only under exceptional conditions obtain a divorce, any Athenian man could rid himself of a wife simply by publicly renouncing his marriage. Marriages were arranged by the parents with no input from the daughter; thus Medea’s flight with Jason was scandalous impertinence. The daughter came with a dowry, a substantial one if the family was wealthy. Once married, the woman served her husband by caring for the children and slaves, who legally belonged to her husband. Medea accurately describes the conditions of married life for women in lines 231-251. Athenian women never experienced independence during their lives. They received no education, lived in separate quarters from their husbands, and seldom went out. The ideal woman was “spoken of as little as possible among men, whether for good or for ill” according to the historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.). Athenian law forbade Athenian men to marry any but Athenian women, but it was not uncommon for Athenian men to keep foreign concubines, who often had more education than their Athenian rivals. However, the children of these unions were not official citizens of Athens, just as the children of Jason and Medea would not be official citizens of Corinth, while Creusa’s offspring by Jason would enjoy the full benefits of Corinthian citizenship.
Greek theater evolved from rituals in honor of Dionysus. Three playwrights would each present three tragedies and one satyr play that burlesqued one of the tragedies. To be invited to produce a tetralogy was a significant honor; to win the coveted prize of the festival was a cherished one. Although the dramas belonged to a religious festival, the audience was by no means solemn. In Euripides’s time, Dionysus was still carried into the theater in procession and was revered as the god of wine, who inspires music and poetry. It was his festival, conducted in March over a three-day period, that hosted the competition in which Medea was performed, the first play of the conventional tetralogy.
Euripides’s other two tragedies and satyr play have been lost. His tetralogy containing Medea placed last in the competition.
The center of the theater, or orchestra (literally, “dancing-place”) in which Euripides’s plays were produced consisted of a circle sixty feet in diameter, with an altar to Dionysus at its center. On the South side, a stage building served as backdrop (scene or “skene”) and as a place for players to make their entrances and exits. A crane provided the means for gods to drop in from the heavens for the deus ex machina (literally, “god from a machine”). In a horseshoe around the other sides ranged rows of stone seats fitted into a natural hill slope. Because of the bowl-shaped site, acoustics were excellent for the 14,000 or so spectators the theater would accommodate. Unlike modern theatre, Greek dramatic presentations were more like readings. Different characters were represented by masks that the actors would wear. Usually only a handful of actors would enact a play, with one actor often performing multiple roles (or wearing multiple masks). Another difference from modern dramatic performance is the manner in which the actors read their lines. Where contemporary actors emote or “act out” Page 190 | Top of Articletheir parts, their Greek counterparts would most often impassively read their lines.
When Euripides’s Medea, along with three other tragedies and a satyr play (a tetralogy), were presented at the annual March festival of Dionysus, Euripides did not win the coveted prize; in fact, his tetralogy came in last of the three tetralogies performed that day. This initial reaction, however, has not affected Medea’s reputation over the centuries. Euripides’s contemporaries did not consider him a master tragedian, and he won only four prizes during his lifetime, although his elder, Sophocles, regarded him as a master playwright and ordered that the participants in the next Dionysian festival after Euripides’s death dress in mourning out of respect for him.
A tendency to revive fifth-century plays during the fourth century led to a revised judgment of Euripides. His reputation grew significantly during this period, so much so that Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.) dedicated three plays to ridiculing his style. This is not to suggest that Aristophanes admired Euripides—far from it. But burlesque presumes an audience familiar with the original; Athenian audiences must have known enough about Euripides to make Aristophanes’s jibes recognizable. Euripides was considered a fine poet with a misguided message. As Philip Vellacott, one of his many recent translators, explained in Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides’s Method and Meaning: “As a poet he was revered; in his function as a teacher of citizens’ he was misunderstood.”
During the century following Euripides’s death, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) called Euripides “with all his faults the most tragic of the poets” and used four of his works to illustrate various concepts of tragedy in his Poetics. When Greek culture fell into decline, Euripides’s fame went to Alexandria, and then on to Rome and the Byzantine culture. Plutarch (c.46-120 A.D.) tells three historical anecdotes of escapes made good because of an ability to recite Euripidean poetry, suggesting that Euripides’s reputation, at least as a poet, persisted in Greece as well.
Euripides was the youngest of the three Greek tragedians (along with Aeschylus and Sophocles) whose plays were required reading for the classical education valued during the Renaissance and Romantic periods, among others. Scholarly writings of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance cite Euripides more often that his contemporaries: Italian poet Dante Alighieri mentions him in his masterwork the Divine Comedy and seventeenth-century English poet Ben Jonson used one of his plays as a model. Also in the seventeenth century, Jean Racine adapted many of his plays and considered Euripides his master. Poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, was also an admirer.
The eighteenth century lost interest in Euripides because his work was too innovative for the classical revival then in progress. Then German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whose work would greatly influence European literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), paid him the ultimate Romantic period compliment by calling his work “sublime.” It was of Euripides that Goethe wrote his oft-adapted expression: “Have all the nations of the world since his time produced one dramatist who was worthy to hand him his slippers?” In the nineteenth century, English poet Robert Browning make conspicuous allusions to his plays, and Euripides was once again central to a good, classical education. Gilbert Murray’s translation in the early twentieth century once again revived interest in him.
The twentieth century literary criticism holds a reserved judgment about Euripides. Modern critics appreciate his championing of the underdog—slaves, women, the elderly, and children—and his lampooning of religious and secular hypocrisy. But he remains a shadowy figure whose actual political and religious beliefs have been lost. Lacking sufficient evidence to say with certainty how his philosophy manifested itself in his life, many critics have turned to focusing on his dramatic technique and structure. In this context Euripides does not quite measure up to Sophocles or Aeschylus—the poetry of Medea does not reach the heights of beauty that Sophocles achieved in Antigone. Euripides’s forte is irony, and he finds a ready audience in the modern period, as Vellacott explains: “Our present generation responds readily to irony, revels in it; therefore we should have the better chance of understanding Euripides.” Literary criticism devoted to his play, Medea appears only occasionally nowadays. Writers and artists ranging in cultural background continue to reinterpret Euripides’s version of Medea, but they never overshadow Euripides’s.
Carole L. Hamilton
In this essay Hamilton contrasts modern audience reaction to Euripides’s play with fifth-century Greek perceptions of the drama.
Euripides’s psychologically realistic portrayal of Medea, who indulges in an excessive form of revenge-the murder of her own children. This is a fascinating study of motivation, yet it is a topic safely distant to modern audiences. The people and society in Medea are part of ancient history. Today’s audiences can consider and understand Medea’s motivation while simultaneously dismissing it as both a work of fiction and as part of a past culture. However, to Euripides’s fifth-century Athenian audience, Medea’s act would, under the circumstances, make perfect sense. These Athenians, congregated in the temple of Dionysus to celebrate an annual ritual of dramatic performances, would give no more than a moment’s thought to Medea’s motivations. Instead, the significance of Medea’s act would lie in the consequences to her society and in the larger philosophical question “is revenge effective?” The fifth-century Greeks would not see Medea as an isolated fictional character but as part of a grander scheme that was part of their everyday lives. According to historian Edith Hamilton in The Greek Way,“Greeks always saw things as parts of a whole.” Medea’s story was not an isolated act of uncontrolled passion but a reminder that things are not always what they seem and that contact with someone tainted with evil represents danger to the whole society.
A fifth-century Greek citizen was only important insofar as his or her connection to society. The ancient Greeks thought of the individual not as a unique entity but as a component in the larger organism of society. The Greek view of the individual differed from the modern view, as Hamilton wrote: “To the Greeks [character] was a man’s share in qualities all men partake of; it united each one to the rest. We are interested in people’s special characteristics, the things in this or that person which are different from the general. The Greeks, on the contrary, thought what was important in a man were precisely the qualities he shared with all mankind.” Thus the Athenian audience would consider Medea’s resemblance to themselves, her place in society, and her effect upon it. Furthermore, the citizen wholly belonged to the city, sharing in the city’s well-being, beliefs, and laws. Religion especially was, according to E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational, a “collective responsibility.” If one person committed an act of sacrilege, the gods might punish the whole city. Therefore, each citizen had a moral obligation and civic duty to obey the religious customs and honor its gods. To do otherwise was dangerous: during the final thirty years of the fifth century B.C., intellectuals whose ideas threatened tradition were successfully prosecuted on the grounds of disbelieving in the gods. At the same time, there was no separation between religion, law, and customs—rites, prayers, recipes, and legislature peacefully coexisted. All were civic obligations to which the citizens submitted willingly. “The citizen was subordinate in everything, and without any reserve, to the city; he belonged to it body and soul,” wrote Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges in The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome.
Rather than feeling bound by confines of a restrictive society, the ancient Greeks valued their membership in a society; it was critical to them. That is why Jason’s comment, that Medea had found favor among her new neighbors, was not as trivial as it sounds to the modern ear, and why Medea shows so much dismay at having nowhere to go after Creon banishes her. The fact that Medea left her own city to run off with Jason was, to ancient Greek audiences, evidence of a flaw in Medea’s ability to remain connected to her society. The chorus’ reminder, “there is no sorrow above the loss of a native land,” would only confirm what the audience already knew.
Beyond the perimeter of the city or community, humans were connected in other ways. The emotions and drives that lie behind actions and feelings were not simply common sensations but palpable forces that flowed through all humankind. Fate both surrounded the individual and society and also ran through them, moving individuals to act in a prescribed manner. The impulses which tempted humans to misdeeds were considered outside of human control, and “endowed with a life and energy of their own,” according to Dodds. Epidemics and famines were “demons” just as were urges toward sinful acts. Fate was fused with the will of the gods; Dodds quoted Pindar, who put it this way: “the great purpose of Zeus directs the daemon [demon] of the men he loves.” Medea realizes, “The gods and I, I in a kind of madness, have contrived all this.” Against these forces, humans were helpless to defend themselves; they would be foolish to defy
the gods. The ancient Greeks had no concept of “will” in the sense of “freedom of choice” but rather felt at the mercy of sensations moving through them. Passions could overwhelm mem and obscure their ability to make rational decisions. These passions might come from the gods, from inherited guilt, or from hubris—excessive arrogance. When Medea argues with herself, she confronts her demon, the irrational force demanding the deaths of her two sons. She acknowledges the wickedness of this act but finds no power to escape the emotions that will force her to act: “Stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, fury that brings upon mortals the greatest of evils.” The chorus acknowledges Medea’s powerlessness to free herself from the grip of such a force: “Medea, a god has thrown suffering upon you in waves of despair.” Fate possesses Medea, and it becomes Medea’s fate to murder her own children. The concept of Medea having a “motive” or “choosing” to kill her sons would not have made sense to Euripides’s audience.
The Greek rationalists Aristotle and Plato argued that humans did not have to fall prey to the demons of passion but could, with training and resolution, endeavor to maintain their rationality in the face of these demons. Euripides pits the rationalists against the fatalists in Medea in the form of the chorus who consistently represent the voice of quiet rationalism. The Corinthian women sympathize with Medea’s grief and outrage, but they counsel moderation in seeking revenge:“I both wish to help you and support the normal ways of mankind, and tell you not to do this thing.” However, their counsel proves impotent in the face of the forces driving Medea. She tells them that no compromise is possible and turns her attention to calling Jason back. Euripides’s audience would have pondered the question whether Medea had the capacity for rational behavior under the circumstances of Jason’s betrayal and Creon’s decree of banishment. Yet, the question would not have been cast in terms of the conflict between Medea and Jason, two individuals, but of the conflict within Medea, between her rational mind and the fates driving her.
To complicate matters, the Greeks considered guilt a kind of contamination that spread through Page 193 | Top of Articlecontact or through inheritance. The Corinthians might indeed have killed Medea’s children to eliminate the danger they represented. Although innocent in their youth, Medea’s offspring would surely manifest her evilness when they grew up because they were polluted through inheritance. All of Medea’s descendants would carry her curse. In a way, her murdering the children and ending her lineage saves Corinth the trouble of either killing them or suffering the consequences of harboring them, for any contact with them was potentially dangerous. The city that hosted them would bring down upon itself the wrath of the gods. Medea’s killing the children while they are still innocent, then, serves as a kind of sacrificial act that purifies the city of Corinth.
The chorus recognizes that Medea, already banished from Corinth, will make herself an outcast by committing her horrendous crime. The women tell Medea that she “is not pure with the rest” and ask her what city could accept a woman who murdered of her own children. The pollution of guilt can result from contact as well as inheritance. Corinth may unwittingly have brought disaster upon itself for welcoming Medea into their society in the first place, falling prey to her charm in spite of knowing that she had abandoned her family and city and had killed her own brother to facilitate Jason’s escape. Or perhaps Jason brought on the disaster by his ambition to marry the King’s daughter and secure a place in Corinthian society; his hubris put his adopted city into danger. Either or both of these contaminating factors led to the disaster of Medea murdering the King and Princess of Corinth. Jason and Medea sinned against each other, but they also sinned against the city of Corinth—their sin was that of profane contact. Jason and Medea are foreigners who entered the city and covertly brought pollution in their wake.
The year that Euripides presented his play, the devastating Peloponnesian War was being waged. This was the first major war the Greeks had fought against people of their own ethnic background, introducing a new difficulty in identifying the enemy. Medea contains a sub-theme concerning the danger of mistaken appearances. When Medea’s sons deliver her gifts to Creon’s daughter, she at first is irritated by their presence—she mistakenly takes them for enemies. Ironically, her first reaction was the more accurate one. But seeing the bright gifts, she welcomes them and completely accepts the pretext of their visit, as Medea hoped she would. The young princess is tricked by appearances, just as were the Trojans when the Greeks presented a “gift” horse that secretly harbored Odysseus and his best warriors. That night the Greek warriors burst out of the horse’s belly and slaughtered the sleeping Trojans. Likewise, the poison in Medea’s gifts takes effect the moment Jason’s new wife innocently dons the robe and crown. Euripides plays on the anxieties of his audience over their ability to recognize enemies and to know when and when not to trust others. Effectively, the King’s daughter was polluted through unknown and dangerous contact with Medea via poisoned gifts. Nor does the cycle end with the young princess. Creon becomes enmeshed in his daughter’s poisoned embrace and dies with her, despite his efforts to disentangle himself. This gruesome detail, related by the messenger in almost lyrical prose, demonstrates how even the desire for contact with a known loved one can bring about disaster.
Creon’s fate most aptly fulfills the closing lines of the chorus: “What we thought is not confirmed and what we thought not god contrives.” This is the Euripidean version of “expect the unexpected,” a stock phrase with which a number of his plays abruptly end. Euripides suggests that ironically, passion—the same force that drives humans to desire contact with others—has the capacity to destroy. Jason is guilty of misdirected passion on several counts. He initially brought his fate upon himself by marrying a foreign wife, a known sorceress, and then betraying her. He also allowed his ambitious desire for connection with Corinthian society to turn him away from a faithful, loving wife and their two sons. Medea’s culpability is thus compromised by Jason’s. Medea herself has a passionate, reckless nature, which makes her a perfect medium for the expression of the forces of passion orchestrated by the gods. Whether Medea or the gods are to blame for the infanticide she commits, her act, as far as Euripides’s Athenian audience would have been concerned, would generate a civic disaster. She became a danger for Corinth, and banishing her made her all the more dangerous. Euripides’s deeply pessimistic and fatalistic play would have been disturbing to his Athenian audience; perhaps that is why his tetralogy-which include Medea—failed to win the festival prize.
Source: Carole L. Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
D. J. Conacher
In the following excerpt, Conacher provides an in-depth analysis of the Medea, outlining each Page 194 | Top of Articleportion of the drama, explaining its structure, and exploring the characters and their motivations.
The intense centripetal focus of this tragedy begins in the prologue. Its three parts, monologue, dialogue and a frightened anapaestic series punctuated by Medea’s off-stage cries, produce their complementary effects in an ascending scale of excitement. The first speaker is the Nurse, and so our earliest impression of Medea comes through an intimate and sympathetic witness. Her news, that Jason has deserted Medea for the daughter of King Creon, is enclosed by accounts of the past services of Medea to Jason and to the city which has sheltered him, and, hideous as these services have been, they are presented in the light of Medea’s passionate devotion to her husband. The description of Medea’s mood suggests a savage, wounded animal and in the Nurse’s apprehension of some monstrous deed (perhaps against the children, whose sight Medea now abhors) we get our first warning, from the one who knows her best, of what Medea can become, when wronged.
Enter the Tutor, leading the children of Medea. As the bearer of fresh news—that Creon is about to exile Medea—and more particularly as the guardian of the children, he increases the sense of apprehension and makes it more specific. The Nurse redoubles her worried chatter:
O keep the children from her . . . for even now I saw her glaring at them like an angry bull. . . . She’ll not leave this fit, too well I know it, till she has charged at someone. May it be enemies, not friends, she chooses!
Two savage cries, off-stage, provide the final impact of this prologue: Medea screams her wrongs and curses husband, children, “all the house.” The brief intensity of these cries, contrasted with the Nurse’s long-winded moralizing, brings the prologue to a chilling climax. The series of emotions traversed—sympathy, apprehension, horror—anticipates in a few rapid strokes the responses which, in the same sequence, the coming action will evoke.
This sinister blend of effects is repeated, in choral terms, in the parodos, where the brief songs expressing sympathy and fear are harshly punctuated by Medea’s off-stage cries. The direction of this tragedy requires that the Chorus should begin by feeling sympathy for Medea. Thus, singing as women rather than as Corinthians, they remind us that it was Jason’s vows, by which Medea now curses him, which first induced her to take her ill-starred voyage to Greece.
The contrast between the fury of Medea’s initial cries and the controlled and calculated rhetoric of her opening address to the Corinthian women has already been compared with the presentation of Phaedra in the Hippolytus. The same dramatic purpose is served in both cases: that of showing in striking contrast the most elemental and the most civilized or even sophisticated aspects of the same personality. What difference there is between the two contrasts is due to the difference between the two women. Even in hysteria, Phaedra seeks to cloak her naked passion (this impulse is, indeed, the cause of her hysteria); later, in her discourse on human frailty (her own included) one feels that she expresses her own character more truthfully than does Medea in her official bid for sympathy. Freudians, no doubt, could express these same distinctions more accurately in terms of the ego, the super ego and the id.
Medea’s purpose in her opening speech is, purely and simply, to win the Chorus of female citizens to her side. As a piece of rhetoric (this time needing no apology for dramatic relevance) the speech is one of the poet’s finest passages. It begins on a note of specious but ingratiating familiarity, moves on to the briefest possible indication (“I’m finished, good women, my husband has betrayed me!”) of the speaker’s plight, and then concentrates with a wealth of poignantly familiar detail on “woman’s lot,” a trouble which the Chorus shares. “We women are a timid lot. . . but wronged in marriage, there’s none more murderous!” All Medea has asked is silent co-operation. By the end of her speech, the Chorus, to a woman regards her vengeance as its own.
The poet’s purpose in this passage is, perhaps, more complex than Medea’s, though it has much in common with it: we, too, like the Chorus, are destined to begin in pity then to move through fear to horrified revulsion. But to see the larger dramatic purpose of the speech we must consider it in relation to the whole presentation of Jason’s barbarian wife.
Prior to this speech, Medea is known to us only as the terrifying witch whom the dramatist has received from the tradition; even if we have no direct knowledge of that tradition, both deeds and character of that Medea have been emphatically made known to us in the opening portions of the play. Now, for the first time, we are introduced to another Medea: a woman and a foreigner who can move the Greeks of the Chorus, and perhaps of the Page 195 | Top of Articleaudience, with that disciplined compound of passion and reason which the Greeks called rhetoric. Despite her outlandish background, this Medea manages to strike a common chord in people who (as Jason so tactfully reminds her later) regarded their own society as a privilege which a barbarian must enjoy on sufferance. Thus it is that the dramatist begins, at least, to endow his folk-tale witch with something of the stature which a tragic heroine requires: here and in subsequent encounters with Creon, with Jason and with Aegeus, the many aspects of Medea’s powerful personality—eloquent and cunning, wise and passionate by turns—are gradually revealed.
In facing Creon, Medea must play the fawning hypocrite to win at least a day’s reprieve from exile. With nice irony, the dramatist endows her with the insight and skill to twist what should most tell against her—her reputation as “a wise one” and Creon’s protective love for his own daughter—to serve her purpose. The exchange with Creon has other qualities as well. Medea’s appeal “for her children’s sake” to Creon’s paternal instincts keeps the “children theme” before our minds, while the passage in which Medea allays Creon’s fears about her special powers allows Euripides a sly, contemporary aside on the slander which clever people must suffer in society.
While something of Medea’s power appears even in the scene with Creon, the full force of her personality is necessarily muted by the situation. This briefly piano effect is more than redressed by her next and most dramatic encounter. Here Medea’s greatest advantage is achieved at the expense of, and in contrast to, the traditionally “epic” figure of Jason, for the hero of the good ship Argo cuts a very sorry figure in her presence. Generosity, absolute loyalties, action and feeling on the grand scale, are the hallmarks of the heroic character. Jason’s quibbling rationalization of his actions Medea answers with the single word . . . (“O utter shameless brazenness!”), as she launches into an impassioned account of all that she has done for him. Consistently, Jason plays the sophist to a heroic Medea: for past favours, he has really Cypris to thank, not her; besides, for a barbarian, life and fame among the Greeks is more than just requital of her service. Previously, horror may have been our main reaction to Medea’s deeds for Jason. Now, confronted by Jason’s niggling sums in settling the accounts of love, we are impressed by the wild generosity of passion which made them possible.
The effect of the Aegeus scene on the “public image” of Medea seems often to have been missed by the critics, distracted, no doubt, by arguments concerning its allegedly “episodic” nature. Surely we must be impressed by Aegeus’ respect for Medea’s advice and the readiness with which he confides in her. Nor does he speak in the tone which one reserves for one’s witch-doctor: rather, they converse on terms of mutual regard—witness the warmth of their greetings and the exchange of confidence and sympathy with one another’s plight. It should be noted, too, that Medea’s utterances acquire a sort of brisk professionalism, completely different in tone from other speeches in the play, as soon as Aegeus begins his consultation; this is our only actual view in the play of Medea as a specialist, a professional “wise woman.” And the readiness with which Aegeus accepts Medea’s offer to put an end to his childlessness in return for future sanctuary at Athens shows a confidence in her powers at least equal to that which he feels in Apollo’s oracle or in the wise and pious Pittheus of Trozen. In general, this treatment from the King of Athens does as much as anything to establish Medea in our minds as a “personage” not to be disposed of as a mere gypsy baggage from barbarian lands.
The Aegeus episode is, of course, important for other reasons as well; it heralds, as we shall see, a turning-point in Medea’s career of vengeance and in the sympathy which the Chorus has hitherto afforded her.
In her encounters with Creon and Aegeus, Medea has assumed soft-spoken roles which circumstances have forced upon her. After both these encounters, the essential single-minded Medea reappears in impassioned outbursts alone with the Chorus. (“Do you think,” she reassures the Chorus. . ., about her attitude to Creon, “that I’d have ever fawned on that one, if I’d not been weaving wiles to serve my ends?”) There is, however, a terrible difference in the content of these two speeches, Page 196 | Top of Articleand this gulf is marked by the sharp contrast in tone between the earlier and later choral lyrics of the play. In the first of these speeches, Medea shows, it is true, a sinister delight in pondering the different routes—poison or the knife—by which her enemies may be despatched, but however much her oath “by Hecate, the sharer of my hearth” may chill us, it is still her enemies she speaks of killing.
In the lyric (almost “a song for feminists”) which follows this speech, the Chorus is still full of sympathy for Medea. As often in Euripides, the first strophe and antistrophe generalize on the situation (here, “the injustice done to women”) while the second strophic pair applies the theme directly to the tragic sufferer:
Now rivers flow upstream and the established course of justice is reversed—for now ‘tis men who are unjust and laugh at oaths. . . .
Through the ages, man-made songs show women faithless, but if we women had the gift of song, we’d sing a different tune. . . . (paraphrase)
So with you, Medea. Love brought you across the seas to Greece. But now, abandoned (for no longer do Greeks reverence marriage oaths) you have no refuge, no paternal home, as a royal rival destroys your marriage bed. (paraphrase)
The chorus which follows the encounter with Jason is not, however, quite as single-minded in its championship of women and Medea. The first strophe, praising moderate love, decries that excessive passion which ruins judgment and virtue; the answering antistrophe, which praises self-control (sophrosyne), decries the adulterous love which causes strife. Thus, in the generalizing part of this lyric, the Chorus glances at the faults of both Medea and Jason in turn. In the second half, however, nothing distracts attention from sympathy for the deserted and homeless foreigner.
The decisive change in the dramatic action and in the attitude of the Chorus occurs after the scene with Aegeus, for it is then that Medea announces the awful means by which she plans to take vengeance on her husband. The excellence of the play’s structure is well illustrated by the placing of this crisis and by the kinds of effect which precede and follow it. The gradual revelation of Medea’s personality has now been completed, save for one essential feature which is to give the agon its tragic meaning. The “children theme,” so essential to this meaning, has been kept constantly before our minds: in the frightened premonitions of the Nurse and in Medea’s own off-stage curses; in Medea’s exploitation of Creon’s paternal instincts, and, ironically enough, in Jason’s own claim that he is acting for his family’s sake: “For what need have you of children?” he asks Medea. The Aegeus episode itself is, of course, vital both to this theme and to the mechanics of the plot. Aegeus’ own royal trouble, childlessness, and the lengths to which he goes to cure it, is our most forcible reminder of a king’s essential need of sons. Again, in promising the outcast sanctuary in Athens, Aegeus unwittingly removes the only barrier to Medea’s plans and her last reticence in revealing them to the Chorus.
Medea’s three addresses to the Chorus follow an ascending scale in keeping with the gradually increasing impetus in plot and theme. In the first and most rhetorical of these, Medea’s passion is rigorously subordinated to her immediate purpose of winning the Chorus to her side. The second speech with its curse by Hecate and its pondering of the various means of murder, is both more savage and more sinister, but it tells us little of Medea’s actual intentions. Only after the scene with Aegeus does she shout for all to hear the full horror of the vengeance which she plans.
One of the most shocking effects of this speech comes from the lack of horror which Medea displays herself. The plan to send her children to the princess bearing poisoned robes is told with hideous matter-of-factness, and only an occasional word or phrase suggests any hesitation at the awful plan of slaying her children for the sake of vengeance on their father. All this suggests that the hints given in the prologue told the truth, that Medea has from the start been determined on this course of action. The main emphasis of the speech is that laughter from one’s enemies is not to be endured and the cry, “grievous to my enemies and kindly to my friends” serves as a grim reminder of the accuracy of the Nurse’s description (at v. 38) of Medea’s spirit.
It is in the ode immediately following these dreadful revelations that the Chorus begins to withdraw its allegiance from Medea. The first strophe and antistrophe deal, in highly poetic terms, with the purity and beauty of Athens. Euripides may well have enjoyed pleasing his fellow citizens and himself with such idealized pictures of his city, but here he does not do so at the expense of the dramatic situation. The point of the description appears in the second strophic pair: “How,” asks the Chorus, “will such a city ever welcome you, Medea, a child-murderer polluting all you meet?” Now the respect Page 197 | Top of Articleand chivalrous treatment which Medea had won from the King of Athens has been one of the most impressive features of her earlier presentation; the immediate effect of that treatment, however, has been to confirm Medea in her secret and terrible decision. Thus to dwell as the Chorus does on the hideous uncongeniality between Medea the child-murderer and the pure and serene haven which she has chosen in an effective way of expressing the self-destruction which her plans involve. The terms in which Athens is described are admirably suited to this purpose: it is the physical serenity of the place which is stressed, for this is the aspect which is particularly vulnerable to the pollution with which Medea threatens it. Thus, Athens is “the sacred, unplundered land—where golden Harmonia produced the Muses nine”; the land whose children “ever culling illustrious wisdom, stride spendidly under skies of glorious brightness.” What sharper contrast to the black deeds of Medea could we find than all this bright serenity? Even Cypris, so dread a goddess in Medea’s case, “breathes moderate, pleasure-wafting breezes on this land.”
The actual execution of Medea’s plot against the Princess needs little comment. It provides, of course, one of the most exciting and theatrical of the playwright’s intrigues and suggests, perhaps, at least one reason why the Medea, of all Greek drama, has survived most successfully as a play which is still presented on the stage. The gulling of the pompous Jason, unaware as ever of his wife’s true nature; the contrast between the children’s innocence and the glittering fatality of the gifts they bear; the suspense, heightened by the vivid anticipations of the Chorus, as to whether the Princess will yield to the “heavenly charm” of these adornments; the gruesome account, in the messenger’s speech, of the switch from delight to anguish, then all the gory details of the deaths themselves: all this provides many opportunities (and none is missed) for melodrama and irony of the more obvious sort. Such effects are legitimate enough in themselves, particularly in view of the sort of creature which Medea is to become before the last scene is ended; nevertheless, a tendency to overplay this aspect of the drama, from the second scene with Jason to the murder of the children, has sometimes obscured certain more subtly tragic effects with which it is combined. Thus far the dramatist has presented a Medea who combines the elemental passion of the folk-tale witch with certain qualities of mind, emotion and personality which let her tower above the several royal and (conventionally) heroic characters who appear beside her on the stage. Now, in her last speech to the Chorus this human and potentially tragic Medea vanishes: instead we hear an embodiment of the alastor (the avenging spirit from Hades) coldly announcing child-murder as a necessary part of her revenge. If this is the Medea which we are to watch without relief to the play’s end, then both the Chorus and ourselves have been the dupes, both of the “heroine” and of the dramatist, for yielding our sympathy and interest. Fortunately, however, it is the air of cold inflexibility which is false: a cloak of desperate resolution hiding the maternal anguish as well as a device by which the dramatist may, in the end, present that anguish more effectively.
The agony of Medea begins quietly and unexpectedly in the scene with Jason. The “reconciliation speech,” the apology to Jason, Medea accomplishes with all her usual aplomb. The first onset of grief suddenly occurs at the entry of the children, summoned to heal the reconciliation, when Jason thus addresses them: “Only grow up! Your father and whatever gods are kindly will assure the rest! Soon may I see you glorying in the strength of youth. . . .” In each instance, the effect of Medea’s tears is so veiled by her ambiguous explanations, so muted by her resourceful ironies, that some critics have taken the tears themselves as a calculated device for securing Jason’s sympathy. But Medea’s dissimulation only shows us the measure of her will in masking, with characteristic ingenuity, the anguish which, for a moment, overcomes her. So viewed, this scene anticipates, in miniature, the major struggle to come.
The alternation of the human and the fiendish Medea in the following scenes corresponds to the curious interweaving of the tragic and the macabre elements in the double catastrophe. The chorus which follows the despatch of the children with the gifts heralds both deeds of violence: the first strophe and antistrophe anticipate, with sinister vividness, the temptation of the Princess and its fatal results, while the concluding strophic pair expresses grief for the woes of Jason and Medea, respectively, in the coming murder of the children. The report of what has happened at the palace is divided, most remarkably, into two parts. The Tutor’s announcement that the children and their gifts have been accepted is, to his surprise, greeted with sullen gloom by Medea; on the other hand, the Messenger’s announcement in the following episode, of the deaths which the gifts have caused is received with hideous joy. In between these two reports comes the Page 198 | Top of Articlemost crucial passage in the play: that agonizing self-debate in which Medea twice revokes and twice confirms her decision to slay her children. After the Messenger Speech, lengthy . . . with all the harrowing details, we are brought with the speed of necessity to the final catastrophe for, Medea argues desperately, if their mother does not kill the children now, some hostile hand may do so. . . the beginning of the speech reminds us of the truth of the matter: the original decision to slay the children was a part, perhaps the major part, of the original plan, before the fatal gifts were sent. Medea utters her final determination with the grim conviction that for her a life of misery must now begin:“Steel your heart for one brief day—then mourn thereafter!”
A final brief and despairing lyric precedes the off-stage murder. It is significant that now the Chorus no longer addresses its pleas to Medea but to the “nature” deities, Earth and Sun (Medea’s grandsire) to restrain this unnatural murderess, this embodiment of a vengeance-driven Erinys, which Medea has become. For Medea herself they have only despairing questions and equally dismal prophecies.
Why are the two deeds of violence, in many ways so different, presented in this interwoven fashion? Partly, no doubt, for the practical reason that the poet does not wish to lose dramatic impetus by having to work up two separate crises. But there are, I think, reasons more significant than this.
From her folk-tale chrysalis, Medea has emerged, in this play, as a human heroine with the power to achieve her ends in a highly civilized social context (as Jason reminds her) against all odds. So far, however, save for a few hints in the second scene with Jason, her passion for vengeance has been tempered by no redeeming emotion: though human, she is not sympathetic (the Chorus sympathizes with her situation rather than with her): we cannot achieve any degree of identification with her. Again, so far there has been no essential conflict in this play. True, Medea, abandoned and alone in a hostile state, has had to bend two kings, a Chorus of Corinthian women and an ambitious husband to her will, but this achievement is only the measure of her greatness: in this play, Medea herself is really the only one capable of resisting Medea. Regarded as a tragic figure, the Medea of the earlier scenes corresponds to a hate-ridden Philoctetes as yet undisturbed by the friendship of Neoptolemus, or to a stubbornly resentful Achilles, untried by the loss of Patroclus.
Medea’s first full statement of her plans (in the last of her three addresses to the Chorus) has shocked us by its coldness. More recently, in the second scene with Jason, we have seen signs that this frozen determination does not represent the whole Medea. Now, when the child-murder suddenly becomes imminent with the success of the first phase of the plan, Medea’s resolution falters for the first time. Thus the great speech at 1019 ff. is essential to the characterization of Medea and to the meaning of the play.
If Medea’s sudden flood of emotion, her passionate regrets for lost maternal joys, should strike us as commonplace, let us remember that that is just its purpose. We are meant, simply, to realize that Medea loves her children as deeply as any woman does. So, too, the sudden effects of the children’s smiles, and of Medea’s lightning switches from “I cannot do it” to “I must,” and back again, far from being bathetic melodrama, are essential to the realistic presentation of the struggle in Medea’s soul. Without this scene, what Medea eventually becomes would indeed smack of melodrama. That monstrous figure attains tragic significance only when we see it as the result of a conflict—of a victory, as Medea herself expresses it—of her all-consuming passion for vengeance over her better counsels. To grasp the nature of this struggle, we must see the good in Medea before we see her at her worst. The plot requires that something of her lethal savagery should appear before the ultimate horror of the child-murder, but had we already seen her gloating over the details of her palace butchery the sympathetic presentation of her own agony would have been impossible. So it is that the first news from the palace, that the children and their gifts have been accepted, is greeted sadly by Medea, and that the horrible sequence to this news is postponed till after the emotional climax at vv. 1019-80. By the time that the second bulletin, showing the first results of Medea’s cruelty, arrives from the palace, Medea’s self-debate concerning her children, and with it the dramatic need for our sympathy, is over; indeed, the wholehearted gloating over the Messenger’s hideous account, contrasting so sharply with her despondent reception of the Tutor and his news, may be meant to illustrate the new Medea, now totally committed to evil, who emerges only after the completion of her interior struggle.
In the concluding passages of the play, after the murder of the children, the monstrous and inhuman aspects of Medea are played up in a variety of ways. The Chorus by its reference to Ino, intimates that no Page 199 | Top of Articlehuman mother could bear to live after slaying her children and Jason echoes this thought when he cries, “Can you still look upon the sun and earth, after enduring such an impious deed?” And yet Medea lives and flourishes. More significant, perhaps, is Jason’s bitter reference to the unnatural deeds of Medea—deeds from which he took the profit—against her own family in Colchis. During the very human action of this play, little has been made of these dark deeds, save as examples of Medea’s devotion to the ingrate Jason, but now that “Medea the fiend” has triumphed over the human heroine this reminder of the barbarous, magic-working Medea of the folk tale is all too apposite. Jason complains that the Alastor which should pursue Medea for these deeds is pursuing him instead, but we who have witnessed the moral destruction of Medea in the preceding episode are all too well aware that the alastor has not missed its mark. As for the murderess herself, Medea the avenger, in the final scene with Jason, has quite defeated Medea, the tortured mother: “. . . Call me lioness or Scylla, as you will . . . as long as I have reached your vitals. . . .” “My grief is solaced if you cannot mock!”
The “improbable” and inorganic ending of the play—Medea’s departure in the Sun-god’s fiery chariot—is a feature of the play which appears to have irritated Aristotle. (Poetics 1454b 1-2) However, such macabre touches, such departures from the real world of tragedy, if they serve some purpose, are surely permissible when the tragic meaning has already been expressed. That, in this instance, the supernatural intervention is not meant to intrude on the real action of the play has already been shown by the fact that, earlier, the human and the tragic Medea has been concerned with such practical matters as the arrangement for asylum at Athens and the impossibility of escaping with her children from the vengeful Corinthians. (See, for example, lines 1236-41). Thus the only point of interest in the deus-ex-machina ending lies in the symbolic purpose which this device fulfils. This has been variously expressed by critics in accordance with their different views of Euripides’ “Medea theme.” Kitto finds in the device the poet’s answer to the Chorus’s and Jason’s idea that “Sun and Earth, the most elemental things in the Universe, have been outraged by these terrible crimes,” while Lesky and M. P. Cunningham both regard the chariot scene as marking the fundamental, qualitative change which her awful deed has effected in Medea. In terms of the present study, it seems fair to suggest that by this final macabre touch of symbolism, the poet is once again expressing the transformation of a human heroine back to the folk-tale fiend of magic powers.
Source: D. J. Conacher, in his Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme, and Structure, University of Toronto Press, 1967, pp. 187-98.
In the following review, which originally appeared in the New York Times on October 21, 1947, Atkinson offers praise for Robinson Jeffers’s adaptation of Euripedes’s Medea. His review illustrates how ancient Greek dramas can be altered slightly or extensively without changing the messages intended by the original authors. Such adaptations can make these dramas more accessible to modern audiences.
As drama critic for the New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America.
If Medea does not entirely understand every aspect of her whirling character, she would do well to consult Judith Anderson. For Miss Anderson understands the character more thoroughly than Medea, Euripides or the scholars, and it would be useless now for anyone else to attempt the part. Using a new text by Robinson Jeffers, she set a landmark in the theatre at the National last evening, where she gave a burning performance in a savage part.
Mr. Jeffers’ “free adaptation,” as it is called, spares the supernatural bogeymen of the classical Greek drama and gets on briskly with the terrifying story of a woman obsessed with revenge. His verse is modern; his words are sharp and vivid, and his text does not worship gods that are dead.
Since Miss Anderson is a modern, the Jeffers text suits her perfectly and releases a torrent of acting incomparable for passion and scope. Miss Anderson’s Medea is mad with the fury of a woman of rare stature. She is barbaric by inheritance, but she has heroic strength and vibrant perceptions. Animal-like in her physical reactions, she plots the doom of her enemies with the intelligence of a priestess of black magic—at once obscene and inspired. Between those two poles she fills the evening with fire, horror, rage and character. Although Miss Anderson has left some memorable marks on great women in the theatre, Medea has summoned all her powers as an actress. Now everyone Page 200 | Top of Articlerealizes that she has been destined for Medea from the start.
The general performance and the production are all of a piece. As the nurse, Florence Reed is giving an eminent performance that conveys the weariness and apprehensions of a devoted servant who does not quarrel with fate. John Gielgud’s Jason is a lucid, solemn egotist well expressed in terms of the theatre. As Creon, Albert Hecht has the commanding voice and the imperiousness of a working monarch. The chorus of women, which has been refreshingly arranged in Mr. Gielgud’s unhackneyed direction, is well acted by Grace Mills, Kathryn Grill and Leone Wilson. The parts of the two young sons are disarmingly represented in the guileless acting of Gene Lee and Peter Moss. Hugh Franklin as Aegeus and Don McHenry as the Tutor give agreeable performances, innocent of the stuffiness peculiar to most classical productions.
Ben Edwards’ setting of the doorway to a Greek house is no more than pedestrian designing, although Peggy Clark has lighted it dramatically, and Castillo has dressed the characters well. Your correspondent could do very well without the conventional theatrical effects—the lightning and the surf especially, for, unlike the acting, they derive from the old-fashioned theatre of rant and ham.
Out of respect for Miss Anderson’s magnificent acting in this incarnadined drama, they ought to be locked up in the lumber room. For she has freed Medea from all die old traditions as if the character had just been created. Perhaps that is exactly what has happened. Perhaps Medea was never fully created until Miss Anderson breathed immortal fire into it last evening.
Source: Brooks Atkinson, in a review of Medea (1947) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckennan and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 282-84.
Barlow, S. A. The Imagery of Euripides, Methuen, 1971.
A scholarly examination of the images and devices in Euripidean drama, finding Euripides thin in meta-phoric images but rich in visual detail.
Conacher, D. J. “The Medea,” in his Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme, and Structure, University of Toronto Press, 1967.
An analysis of the motivations and psychological forces driving Medea and the intertwining of folk motifs with the familiar myth of Jason and Medea as well as deviations Euripides’s from the prevailing mythical versions.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, 1951.
A convincing argument that irrationalism played as much of a role in ancient Greek culture as did rationalism.
Easterling, P. E. “The Infanticide in Euripides’s Medea,” in Yale Classical Studies, Vol. 25, 1977.
A scholarly examination of Euripides’s decision to have Medea murder her own children, a departure from the Greek myth as his audience would have known it.
Ferguson, John. Euripides, Medea & Electra: A Companion to the Penguin Translation, Bristol Classical Press, 1987.
A handy guide to the language and structure of two of Euripides’s plays designed for use with the Penguin translation of the works by Philip Vellacott.
Foustel De Coulanges, Numa Denis. The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 1956.
A nineteenth-century work of scholarship that describes the life of the ancients in glowing detail; although dated, this work is still respected for its insights and depth.
Grene, David, and Richard Lattimore, Editors. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol. Ill: Euripides, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
An anthology of Euripides’s plays, including the Rex Warner translation of The Medea.
Grube, G. M. A. The Drama of Euripides, Methuen, 1961.
Explores the role of the gods in the works of Euripides and his contemporaries. Euripides, sometimes accused of being an atheist, did not portray the gods as infallibly rational, but rather as bound by the same passions as humankind.
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way, W. W. Norton, 1993, 1930.
In her inimitable style, Edith Hamilton describes the mind and spirit of ancient Greek culture and includes a brief chapter on Euripides.
Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study, Methuen, 1961.
Kitto suggests that Euripides built his tragedies around a central theme or idea, not a plot line, and that this choice explains his loose dramatic structure.
Lattimore, Richard. The Poetry of Greek Tragedy, Johns Hopkins Press, 1958.
Lattimore remains the foremost translator of Greek classic, and his commentary on poetic structure is insightful. Includes a chapter on Euripides.
Lattimore, Richard. Story-Patterns in Greek Tragedy, University of Michigan Press, 1964.
Another useful resource from Lattimore.
Lucas.F.L Euripides and His Influence, Marshall Jones, 1923.
Lucas describes some of the innovations of Euripides’s plays and how his work influenced later generations of writers.
Murray, Gilbert. Euripides and His Age, Oxford University Press, 1955.
A landmark work describing the historical context of Euripides’s Athens, including the Peloponnesian War and the rise of the Sophists. Also includes critical treatments of the major plays of Euripides.
Vellacott, Philip. Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides’s Method and Meaning, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
In this work, Vellacott explains how Euripides uses ironic reversals of expectations in many of his plays.
Vickers, Brian. “Myths in Tragedy” in his Towards Greek Tragedy: Drama, Myth, Society, Longman, 1973, pp. 268-343.
An essay emphasizing the importance of the oath and its betrayal by Jason in Medea.