Medea (play)

Medea is a tragedy written by Euripides, based on the myth of Jason and Medea and first produced in 431 BC. Along with the plays Philoctetes, Dictys and Theristai, which were all entered as a group, it won the third prize at the Dionysia festival. The plot largely centres on the protagonist in a struggle with the world, rendering it the most Sophoclean of Euripides' extant plays.

Plot

    King Creon of Corinth and Creusa, drawing of a Relief.

The play tells the story of the jealousy and revenge of a woman betrayed by her husband. The concentrated action of the play is at Corinth, where Jason has brought Medea after the adventures of the Golden Fleece but has now left her to marry the daughter of King Creon (elsewhere known as Glauce, and also known in Latin works as Creusa - see Seneca the Younger's Medea and Propertius 2.16.30). The play opens with Medea grieving her loss and her elderly nurse fearing what she might do to herself or her children.

Creon, also fearing what Medea might do, arrives to send Medea into exile. Medea asks for one day's delay, and begins to plan the deaths of Jason, Glauce, and Creon, while Jason arrives to confront her and explain himself. He believes he could not pass up the opportunity to marry a royal princess, as Medea is only a barbarian woman, but hopes to someday join the two families, with Medea as his mistress. Medea, and the chorus of Corinthian women, do not buy his story. She reminds him that she left her own barbarian people for him ("I am the mother of your children. Whither can I fly, since all Greece hates the barbarian?"), and that she had caused Pelias, whom he feared, to be killed by his own daughters.

"It is not you," answers Jason, "who once saved me, but love, and you have had from me more than you gave. I have brought you from a barbarous land to Greece, and in Greece you are esteemed for your wisdom. And without fame of what avail is treasure or even the gifts of the Muses? Moreover, it is not for love that I have promised to marry the princess, but to win wealth and power for myself and for my sons. Neither do I wish to send you away in need; take as ample a provision as you like, and I will recommend you to the care of my friends."

She refuses with scorn his base gifts, "Marry the maid if thou wilt; perchance full soon thou mayst rue thy nuptials."

Next Medea is visited by Aegeus, King of Athens, who shares the prophecy that will lead to the birth of Theseus; Medea begs him to protect her, in return for her help in conceiving a child. Aegeus does not know what Medea is going to do in Corinth but promises to give her refuge in any case, if she can escape to Athens.

Medea returns to her scheming, weaving a wedding dress for Glauce which she has poisoned. She resolves to kill her own children as well, not because the children have done anything wrong themselves, but because she feels it is the best way to hurt Jason. She calls for Jason once more, falsely apologizes to him, and sends the poisoned dress with her children as a gift.

"Forgive what I said in anger! I will yield to the decree, and only beg one favor, that my children may stay. They shall take to the princess a costly robe and a golden crown, and pray for her protection."

The request is granted and the gifts are accepted. Offstage, while Medea ponders her actions, Glauce is killed by the poisoned dress, and Creon is also killed by the poison while attempting to save her. These events are related by a messenger.

"Alas! The bride had died in horrible agony; for no sooner had she put on Medea's gifts than a devouring poison consumed her limbs as with fire, and in his endeavor to save his daughter the old father died too."

Medea is pleased, and gives a soliloquy pondering her next action:

In vain, my children, have I brought you up,
Borne all the cares and pangs of motherhood,
And the sharp pains of childbirth undergone.
In you, alas, was treasured many a hope
Of loving sustentation in my age,
Of tender laying out when I was dead,
Such as all men might envy.
Those sweet thoughts are mine no more, for now bereft of you
I must wear out a drear and joyless life,
And you will nevermore your mother see,
Nor live as ye have done beneath her eye.
Alas, my sons, why do you gaze on me,
Why smile upon your mother that last smile?
Ah me! What shall I do? My purpose melts
Beneath the bright looks of my little ones.
I cannot do it. Farewell, my resolve,
I will bear off my children from this land.
Why should I seek to wring their father's heart,
When that same act will doubly wring my own?
I will not do it. Farewell, my resolve.
What has come o'er me? Shall I let my foes
Triumph, that I may let my friends go free?
I'll brace me to the deed. Base that I was
To let a thought of wickedness cross my soul.
Children, go home. Whoso accounts it wrong
To be attendant at my sacrifice,
Let him stand off; my purpose is unchanged.
Forego my resolutions, O my soul,
Force not the parent's hand to slay the child.
Their presence where we will go will gladden thee.
By the avengers that in Hades reign,
It never shall be said that I have left
My children for my foes to trample on.
It is decreed.

She rushes offstage with a knife to kill her children. As the chorus laments her decision, the children are heard screaming. Jason rushes to the scene to punish her for the murder of Glauce and learns that his children too have been killed. Medea then appears above the stage in the chariot of the sun god Helios; this was probably accomplished using the mechane device usually reserved for the appearance of a god or goddess. She confronts Jason, revelling in his pain:

"I do not leave my children's bodies with thee; I take them with me that I may bury them in Hera's precinct. And for thee, who didst me all that evil, I prophesy an evil doom."

She escapes to Athens with the bodies. The chorus is left contemplating the will of Zeus in Medea's actions:

Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!
Many a hopeless matter gods arrange.
What we expected never came to pass,
What we did not expect the gods brought to bear;
So have things gone, this whole experience through!"

Themes

Unlike the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles, Euripides shows the inner emotions of passion, love, and vengeance. Medea, uncharacteristically for a female character, is strong and powerful; the play is often seen as one of the first works of feminism, and Medea is seen as a feminist heroine. However, Euripides, rather than celebrating the strength and independence of Medea, may have been showing Athenian women how not to act. Medea is, after all, a barbarian from Colchis (οὐκ ἔστιν ἥτις του̂τ' ἂν ̔Ελληνὶς γυνὴ ἔτλη ποθ' , "there is no Greek woman who would have dared such deeds"), and the play is more likely an admonition than a celebration.

Reaction

Although the play is considered one of the great plays of the Western canon, the Athenian audience did not react so favourably, and awarded it only the third place prize at the Dionysia festival in 431. This was largely because of Euripides' extensive changes to the conventions of Greek theatre. To have included an indescisive chorus, his criticism of Athenian society and his eventual disrespect for the gods - inhibit in Artemis, the acclaimed goddess of light and justice, acting for the now apparently evil Medea in carrying her to King Aegeus, was to repeal the purpose of the Dionysian plays: to appreciate Grecian society and uphold the power of the gods. However, it has also been argued that Medea was awarded third place because the competition at that particular Dionysia was so fierce, not because the Athenians were in any way opposed to the play's content.

With the rediscovery of the text in 1st century Rome, 16th century Europe and in the light of 20th century modern literary criticism, Medea has provoked differing reactions from differing critics and writers who have sought to interpret the reactions of their societies in the light of past generic assumptions; bringing a fresh interpretation to its universal themes of revenge and justice in an injust society.

Dramatis Personae

  • Medea
  • Creon
  • Jason
  • Aegeus, king of Athens
  • Medea's two children
  • Nurse
  • Tutor
  • Messenger
  • Chorus of Corinthian women

Medea Text

Links

Plays by Euripides

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