Medea by Euripides

 “Oh what an evil power love has in people’s lives” (Medea)
The power of love in Medea by Dr Jennifer Minter
Some background material

Various source stories of Medea

  •  On one account Medea killed her children unintentionally
  • The children were killed by the Corinthians in a revolt against Medea whom they had appointed queen of Corinth
  • Medea killed Creon, left her children in the temple of Hera and fled to Athens; Creon’s kinsmen  killed the children and spread the rumour that Medea had done the crime  (Bernard Knox)

The Greek Theatre

The Greek theatre was built in the open air and was quite large. The Theatre of Dionysus at Athens had more than 17,000 seats.  The actors (all male) performed in formal costumes and wore masks that emphasised the dominant traits of their respective characters.

The Chorus

Mostly, the chorus acted as the “ideal spectator” or a group of interested bystanders. It varied depending upon the method of the playwright and the needs of the play being performed. In some plays such as King Oedipus it clarifies the experiences and feelings of the characters in everyday terms and expresses the conventional attitude; in other plays the chorus was itself a central figure in the tragedy  (The Suppliants of Aeshylus)

The poet uses the chorus to create a psychological and emotional background to the action; it introduces and questions the characters, points out the significance of events as they occur

Aristotle on Tragedy

In the Poetics (384-322 B.C.) Aristotle states that the aim of tragedy is to bring about a “catharsis” of the spectators – to arouse in them sensations of pity and fear and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave the theatre feeling uplifted and cleansed with a heightened sense of understanding. This catharsis is achieved by witnessing some disastrous and moving changes in the fortunes of the drama’s protagonist.

Tragedy has six main elements – plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song (music).

Aristotle states: “tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery. And life consists of action, and its end is a mode of activity, not a quality.”

The hero should not offend the moral sensibilities of the spectators; and as a character he must be true to type, true to life and consistent.  Is this true of Euripides’ depiction of Medea?

See the Golden Fleece and Intertextual Greek mythical references

Euripides and Medea

After the murder, Jason refers to Medea as an “abomination”, as the most detested of all woman.  Likewise, Medea says that Jason is “the most evil man alive”. There is no doubt that Medea is a revenge tragedy that evokes strong reactions in the protagonists and ambivalent reactions in viewers. Some viewers feel the cruel injustice of Jason’s behaviour in abandoning his family for a better marriage; many will be horrified by the monstrosity of Medea’s murders. For many viewers, even the grief-stricken husband and father, the Jason of the last scene, does not seem to arouse pity. Or does he?

Taking sides?

Medea is introduced to the audience by the Nurse in terms that clearly foreshadow disaster. “If only they had never gone!” The tripling effect of the hypothetical “if” sets the dramatic parameters of the action and encourages viewers to see Medea from a sentimental position of regret and misadventure.  “If only they had never gone!” Also “If the Argo’s hull” and “if that pine on Pelion’s slopes” suggests that another trajectory might have been possible and that fate has conspired against Medea: “Then neither would Medea/My mistress, ever have set sail for the walled town/Of Iolcus”.

Throughout, the audience is encouraged by the chorus to sympathise with Medea: “And my own heart suffers too /When Jason’s house is suffering; For that is where my loyalty lies”. But the audience is taken, nonetheless, on a horrific journey into the depths of depravity that challenges the very limits of such identification.

The sacrifice

At the heart of the tragedy lies a string of violent sacrifices arising from a passionate love affair.

The Nurse depicts the first murder-sacrifice that reverberates throughout the play: “When Pelias’ daughters, at her instance, killed their father”. The enormity of this first crime is reiterated in Medea’s terms, “O my father, my city, you I deserted; My brother I shamefully murdered”. Medea’s capacity for extreme emotions – both love and violence – are evident in this first crime. Having sacrificed the lives of her loved ones at home, Medea now loses Jason, who had become “my whole life”.  In the absence of home, and in the face of such misery, Medea can only contemplate death. The exasperation and wretchedness in her voice are clear from the start: “If only I were dead!”.  As she broods within the house, she contemplates the significance of Jason’s betrayal, cursing father and children alike. “Death take you, with your father, and perish his whole house”.  And “still from indoors” her voice fills the stage with her absence. She asks, “What do I gain from living any longer?”  “I want To end my life, leave it behind, and die”.  This deep, estranged and wailing voice sets up an encounter with death from which there appears to be no escape.

Medea: a woman in a patriarchal society

In the opening scene, the Nurse introduces Medea as the “happily married” wife of Jason in Corinth. As a foreigner in Greece (an “Asiatic wife”), she has earned “the citizens’ welcome”.  To Jason she is all “Obedience – and in marriage that’s the saving thing”. That is, when a wife obediently accepts her husband’s will.

During 431 B.C. when the play was first produced, women in Athens had little power in a marriage that governed their lives. The dowry system, their lack of freedom in the choice of a husband, the inequality of divorce provisions and sexual inequality all contributed to their unequal marital status.  In such a society, the good wife “obeys” the husband and in turn benefits from his position and wins social respect.  Defiantly, Medea dares to challenge the patriarchal social order when she challenges King Creon and Jason owing to their decisions about her future.

In her first soliloquy, Medea, echoing the views of the Nurse, rails against the unjust and unequal plight of women in Greek society. Addressing the chorus (“Women of Corinth”, Medea seeks to generalise her plight (“I would not have you censure me”) and seeks to speak on behalf of all women of Corinth who suffer the harsh and uncompromising actions of men: “we women/Are the most wretched”. She rails against the fact that women are expected to be obedient, suppliant and submissive. In marriage, the wife becomes the man’s chattel even despite an exorbitant dowry.

Medea notes that when, for an extravagant sum, “We have bought a husband, we must then accept him as possessor of our body”. It is not “respectable” for women to seek a divorce.  Dealing with men is an “exacting toil” and if unsuccessful, “if a man grows tired / Of the company at home”, then he has options, but for the woman, “death is better”.  Medea must endure the dissatisfaction of her home life, as “we wives are forced to look to one man only.” (24)

In this case, Creon, the king, is complicit. He encourages the marriage and coerces Medea into submitting to their wishes, as presented as law. He also then decides to banish her and her children.

At the end of the ‘prologue’ in the first choral ode, the Corinthian women point to the historical way men have controlled representations of women. The poets were all men (413-31) Euripides predicts that the poets will have to rewrite the books. “Male poets of past ages, with their ballads/Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion”.   He foresees that, armed with greater foresight and understanding, the poets will need to amend their representation of women: “For Phoebus, Prince of Music, Never bestowed the lyric inspiration Through female understanding”.

In some ways, we can see Euripides as a “fashionable” poet, who seeks to understand women and Medea in particular.  Moving from the general to the particular in her first soliloquy, Medea personalises her plight to reinforce her individual misery.  For a Greek woman, their social status is intolerable; for a foreign woman it is unbearable.  Medea concedes, “I am alone; I have no city.” “I have no mother, brother, or any Of my own blood to turn to in this extremity”.  Alone, she struggles with “new laws, new customs” and her attempt to re-establish a sense of home has been cruelly undermined.

Medea: the scorned lover

“But touch her right in marriage, and there’s no bloodier spirit.”

Medea’s actions prove the timeless adage, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”.  Betrayed and incensed, Medea knows that Jason owes his success to her. She killed the snake, which enabled Jason to return home a hero. She “lit the torch of your success” and thereby betrayed her own father and homeland, thus precipitating her father’s death.  She blames the first-murder sacrifice upon Jason’s quest for fame and honour.

Aggrieved by the affair, she resolves to wound Jason and is intent on causing him maximum personal damage (to make him “wince”), even if such action also wounds her just as deeply.

As she plans the triple murder, her main motive is that she spares herself humiliation at the hands of the enemy.  Three times she emphasises the need to make them “repent”: “repent this marriage, repent their houses joined, repent by banishment”.

Slipping into the third person as she often does to convey her wretched internal struggle, Medea steels herself to action and encourages herself to show the necessary courage to deal with her humiliation. Watching from the outside, and addressing herself as “you”, she calls for action. “Lay your plan, Medea: scheme with all your skill. On to the deadly moment that shall test your nerve!”.  “You see now where you stand”.

Medea’s plans are to:

  • set fire to the house
  • burn the bridal chamber
  • poison the “bride” which is “safe and sure” in order to prevent her from bearing children with Jason
  • stab the children while they are sleeping, ostensibly because either they will be banished and exiled, or their deaths will be exacted as punishment by the Greek rulers.

Apparent stereotypical contrasts

On the one hand, Euripides sets up a contrast between Jason and Medea: the civilised individual of “sophrosyne” versus the irrational outsider. Medea is the typically passionate and jealous woman who has been spurned by her ex-husband. Jason depicts himself as one who is capable of “good seamanship” during such violent storms, and whose actions are “wise”, “not swayed by passion”. As the child of a noble family, he claims that his every effort is directed towards improving the family’s social status.  Medea champions personal relationships and harbours a burning sense of justice.

As befitting the rational, logical and sensible example of Hellas, Jason is the “clever speaker” (32). Contrastingly, Medea peddles angry words and talks “like a fool”. (30) According to Jason, she has talked shamelessly to the King and princess and must bear the consequences. He seeks to dismiss her “ridiculous tirades” (31) and castigates her irrational and accusatory taunts. He claims that she speaks a “hurricane of recrimination and abuse” (32) that is unbefitting of a respected man in Greek society.  He says that she just wants to make “scurrilous taunts” against his marriage.

Our first encounter with Medea supports the view of an irrational, passionate and desperate outsider

The Nurse recounts in detail the extent of Medea’s pain as she wails insider her house, betrayed and stunned as Jason prepares to marry Glauce, Creon’s daughter.  Emotionally distraught, “she lies collapsed in agony, dissolving the long hours in tears.” She warns: “Her mood is cruel, her nature dangerous, her will fierce and intractable.”

From the opening address by the Nurse, the audience is familiar with the extent of Medea’s treachery. She already has blood on her hands and is capable of violent actions: “When Pelias’ daughters, at her instance, killed their father”.

And then: “Since first she heard Of Jason’s wickedness; she has not raised her eyes. Or moved her cheek from the hard ground.”

The audience does not see Medea, but we hear her screech. Through interjections and questions, Medea wails and bemoans her misery. “Oh! What misery, what wretchedness.” And the burning questions, “What shall I do?.. Should I not weep”?

Intermittently, the Chorus also reinforces the emotional and passionate representation of women, highlighting Medea’s despair and pointing to her “fierce resentful spirit, this passionate indignation.” “This passion of hers is an irresistible flood.” This builds to “O bed of women, full of passion and pain, what wickedness, what sorrow you have caused on the earth!”.  Earlier, weeping and desperate, the nurse compares her with a “mad bull/Or a lioness guarding her cubs.”  Medea admits, “It has crushed my heart … I want to die”. “It galls my heart”.

Contrastingly, Jason appears cool and calculating. He believes he has benefited Medea by bringing her to Hellas and introducing her to “justice” and the law. (He saved her from the barbarous land.) Here, she enjoys fame and her gifts are “widely recognised.”

In justifying his new choice of bride, he claims that he was trying to protect their status, and standard of living. They are free to enjoy their new found wealth (33)  I “wanted to ensure that we live well and not be poor”. (35)   Jason tries to convince Medea that she is lucky to be banished after all her abuse.  He says that he will provide well for her in exile.  For him, “life in bed” is immaterial; marriage and children, and human ties are a means to an end.  Imperious and self-centred, he is typical of those whom, as the nurse suggests, “loves himself more than his neighbour” and who realises his “Asiatic wife” is an impediment; she is “no longer respectable”. (34)

Sententiously, adopting the high moral ground (or what Medea recognises as “glib high-mindedness”), he professes, “you no doubt hate me; but I could never bear ill-will to you” and rationalises his treatment of Medea on the grounds that “in return for saving me you got far more Than you gave” (33).

To protect his dignity, he also downplays Medea’s assistance in securing the Golden Fleece. “I hold That credit for my successful voyage was solely due To Aphrodite, no one else divine or human.”

However, let’s examine these stereotypes in order to uncover Euripides’ intentions and message.

Although Euripides sets up a contrast between the two protagonists he also undermines their differences. The numerous contradictions evident in the characters’ thoughts and behaviour lead to complex questions.

  • Jason glibly speaks about Greece and their superior justice system, and yet Euripides makes us acutely aware of the injustice of the women’s situation
  • Medea is presented as an irrational, volatile and passionate woman/barbarian, and yet, owing to her magical skills, she is clever and cunning and outwits the “clever” ones
  • Jason appears as “wise” and rational and yet underestimates Medea’s capabilities to his detriment. Like Creon, he fails to grasp her burning sense of injustice, offensively downplays his dependence upon her for his previous victory (the Golden Fleece) and typecasts her as a sexually-jealous woman.
  • Sensibly, Medea outlines the injustice of her plight and yearns for justice for women, and yet her course of action undermines her struggle. She also comes to Corinth with a history of violent actions.
  • Note important quotes from the Nurse: “sorrow is the real cause/Of deaths and disasters and families destroyed.” (Euripides suggests that sorrow (grievances, hurt, betrayal) leads to untold grief and suffering.)  It is also the Nurse who suggests: “the middle way, neither great nor mean, Is best by far, in name and practice.” The trouble with Jason and Medea is that they both appear to represent extremes.
  • Although she wins our sympathy owing to her understandable position of despair and misery, she dubiously justifies her murderous deeds: to spare herself the scorn of her enemies; to ensure they do not have the last laugh.
  • Medea appears as the courageous Sophoclean heroine, who often presents her case as a necessary (divine) struggle (and eventually escapes triumphantly through divine intervention), and yet the murder of her children clearly undermines the heroic nature of her cause.
  • Euripides breaches theatrical conventions of the time, to include a theatrical device such as the Sun God’s chariot to resolve the action. She triumphs over Jason and gloats in his agony. “Say what you wish, Touch us you cannot, in this chariot which the Sun Has sent to save us from the hanbds of enemies”. (58). As Aristotle notes in Poetics, “the resolutions of plots should also come about from the plot itself, and not by means of a theatrical device, as in the Medea”. Does Euripides suggest that her triumph and gloating are warranted, or is he critiquing a mindset that excuses heinous crimes according to the murderous standards of the god?

The Greek concept of “sophe”: Medea as the “clever” outsider

Although the Nurse prepares us for Medea’s passionate stance, when she emerges she is calm and composed, and presents her monologue in a cool manner.  In the stage directions the dramatist notes, “she is not shaken with weeping, but cool and self-possessed”. In this regard, Euripides deliberately builds a contrast between the vulnerable, passionate, scorned spouse and the phlegmatic protagonist who first emerges to address the Chorus: “Women of Corinth, I would not have you censure me/So I have come.”

Immediately, Euripides urges the audience to dispel any bias they may have towards an outsider.

Medea’s clear-sighted rational insight into her predicament belies the Nurse’s depiction of a woman who is immobilised by grief. She appears strong, intelligent and clear-headed about her situation and her choices.  Notice, too, how Medea at first universalises her plight and speaks sensibly on behalf of all women. Only towards, the end of this first soliloquy does she personalise her situation and draw attention to her state of physical and emotional exile.

So just how clever is Medea?

According to Bernard Knox, the Greek word “sophe” cannot be exactly translated as “clever”. “It is a word used in the 5th century to describe not only the skill of the artisan and the poet, not only the wisdom won by experience and reflection, but also the new intellectual, enlightened outlook of the great sophistic teachers and the generation they had taught”. (“The Medea of Euripides”, p. 313.)

”You’re a clever woman,” Creon tells her, and admits that he fears one who is “quiet and clever” over a “woman of hot temper”.

Medea protests that from experience, and “believe I am clever” she realises cleverness is often of little benefit.  In fact, she admits “I am not so clever as all that” and proceeds to outwit the King.

This is why Creon fears Medea; she must reassure him and she does, temporarily and despite his wishes. (“You can hardly in one day accomplish What I am afraid of”. )  She admits that she is “sophe” – an intellectual,  a persona of great capacity, but points out that it has not done her any good. Men distrust superior intelligence in general; they fear and hate it in a woman.

There is not doubt that Medea skilfully targets both Creon’s and Jason’s vulnerabilities. Disarmingly, Medea assures Creon that it is not “your happiness” to which she objects.  In a bid to deflect Creon’s concerns, she professes her allegiance to his family and his plans. “I bear no grudge against your happiness”. She also dissembles in her discussion with Jason; she flatters him and uses self-deprecating terms to acquiesce to his authority. Transforming herself into the stereotypical submissive and compliant housewife, she anticipates that Jason will be appeased.

The “barbaric” outsider: Medea’s “magical” skills

As an “Asiatic wife” and a “stateless refugee”, Euripides draws attention to Medea’s difference and xenophobic traits within Grecian society. Medea refers to herself as a “foreign woman, coming among new laws, new customs” who is very much “alone”.   She is feared by many.  Creon fears that she will respond in unpredictable ways and Jason also confesses that he is uneasy about the fact that they are “shunned/By all his friends” or given a “wide berth” which is one reason for his new marriage.

To some extent, Medea’s magical skills appear to be intrinsic to her difference. As a foreigner, this skill enables her to navigate the “new laws and “new customs”. (Medea concedes that a foreign woman, “needs the skill of magic to find out What her home could not teach her, how to treat a man”. (24) Creon also concedes that she is a “clever woman, skilled in many evil acts”.

The Chorus points out that “in fact women too have intelligence … not all of us, I admit; but a certain few you might perhaps find, in a large number of women – a few not capable of reflection”. Later, Aegeus greets Medea as an “old friend”, and tells her “a brain like yours is what is needed”. However, the chorus also concedes that Medea’s magical skills belong to her role as a woman, (“We were born women … in all kinds of evil skilled practitioners,”).

So, whilst magic belongs to the realm of the other, it also consists of a certain skill and deftness that one attributes to the Grecian world of law and order. This dual role enables her to straddle the “civilised” and “uncivilised” worlds. Whilst a general trait, such access to magic is also presented as rare, ingenious and uncontrollable. It is something to be feared, perhaps because is able to subvert the social order from within, rather than as a foreigner from a barbarous land.

And indeed Medea capably reassures Creon by appealing to the love of family. Despite his best intentions, he grants her an extra day.

According to Vellacott, Euripides asks us to question to what extent “the principle of barbarous excess is predominant in most individuals”. The threat as Euripides shows is not merely external. Medea personifies the threat from within. “The constant concern of government is to deal with barbarism inside the walls and in the council-chamber, as well as in foreign lands.”

Medea blurs the boundaries between justice and revenge (heroine or tyrant?)

On the one hand, Medea presents a powerful case in defence of women and suggests that her grievances are fuelled by the injustices done to her, as a woman and as a foreigner. However, the means by which she seeks to redress these injustices undermines the righteousness of her cause.

If Vellacott asks us to question the cold and ruthless streak of the “civilised” man, we must also note that Medea can be just as ruthless and manipulative as Jason.

  • The sharp-sighted Medea deceives both Jason and Creon’s family with a purpose: “Do you think I would ever have fawned so on this man, except to gain my purpose, carry out my schemes?”.
  • Indeed, her success depends on her power of articulating more vividly and convincingly than Jason himself, the concept of the ‘happy’ family and the social order.  It also depends upon the recognition of her enemies’ flaws. She deceives Creon by recognising his soft heart. King Creon yields to her wish for “one more day” even though he knows he is making a mistake.  (Later, she will extract a promise from Aegon because of his desire for children.)
  • Medea appeals to Creon’s paternal feelings realising that homeland and children are critical to a man’s sense of self, his status and his vanity. Jason also protests that the children were of prime consideration in his own advancement plans. (And it seems, that it is during these discussions with her two enemies, that Medea forges the scheme to kill the children.)
    • As spectators, we follow the ironies which are concealed from both Jason and Creon. If Medea deceives Creon with her self-deprecating pretensions, Medea deceives Jason by acknowledging his desire for an obedient and repentant wife. Her false declaration of submission to Jason, her confession that she was a foolish emotional woman, lures him to his doom. “I talked things over with myself, she tells him, “and reproached myself bitterly”. “Why do I act like a mad woman? … What you did was best for me… I confess I was full of bad thoughts”.  Medea knows that her best way to conceal her motives and implement her plan is to pretend to be submissive. It works. Jason is hoodwinked: he thinks that she has changed and become “sensible”, that is adopts Jason’s views and values.

And we must also consider, why Medea goes so far?

As love and hatred intertwine, the nurse also reminds us that the failure to deal with sorrow can have egregious consequences.

Furiously angry, and paralysed by grief, “(she lies collapsed in agony”) after the news of the betrayal, Medea commits the “hideous crime” against the royal house and gloats in both Creon’s and his daughter’s death, telling the Messenger, “you’ll give me double pleasure if their death was horrible”.  Her “passionate indignation” at Jason’s betrayal leads to the double murder of her children, because she is determined to inflict the same amount of pain and grief upon her treacherous husband. She admits that she understands the “full horror” of what she is about to do , but concedes that “anger masters my resolve”.   Euripides uses the mythological background of the golden fleece to highlight Medea’s former passion, the violence she has incited against her family, and her incredible sacrifice as she pursues Jason to Corinth to become the “stateless refugee”. The playwright suggests that hatred festers and leads to shameful excuses on behalf of Medea, who condones the suffering she inflicts on others, and admits that she is concerned with protecting herself from scorn. As the Nurse laments, tragedy arises from sorrow,  which “is the real cause of deaths and disasters and families destroyed”.

Contradictions and problems:

Jason: a patriarchal contempt: superiority of logos and Helles

Just as Medea’s character becomes increasingly complex, we are struck by a singular cold-hearted streak in Jason, which Medea accurately recognises. “To me a wicked man who is also eloquent Seems the most guilty of them all.” In particular, he knows “he can dress up murder In handsome words”.

In fact, there appears much to detest in his line of argument; he generally fails to arouse the sympathy of viewers and we must ask why. Or as Collitsis, reminds us, “At no point does the play allow us an even-handed appraisal of the conflict between the two: it is powerfully biased towards Medea’s vision of the world”. (Terry Collits)

As Phillip Vellacott notes in the introduction, “in the character of Jason a concern for civilised values is joined with a calculating coldness and an unscrupulous want of feeling.” He believes that one lesson of the play is that “civilised men ignore at their peril the world of instinct, emotion, and irrational experience”.

Accordingly, Jason personifies the quality of ‘sophrosyne’ – self-control, which is a hallmark, according to Greek philosophy, of Greece’s political and social institutions.

Owing to Jason’s capacity for ruthless manipulation, Vellacott suggests, Euripides asks us to question to what extent “the principle of barbarous excess is predominant in most individuals”. The threat as Euripides shows is not merely external. Medea personifies the threat from within. “The constant concern of government is to deal with barbarism inside the walls and in the council-chamber, as well as in foreign lands.”

Medea abhors above all, Jason’s capacity for deception and his lack of honesty. “If you were honest, you ought first To have won me over, not got married behind my back” (34). And later, “a lying traitor’s gifts carry no luck”.

Whilst Medea has appealed to the “women of Corinth” on matters relating to the intolerable status of women, Jason seeks to narrow the debate and focus on her personal grievances and sexual jealousy. Even in his final comments, he, typically, continues to downplay the enormity of her pain: “You thought that reason enough to murder them, that I No longer slept with you” (59).  As a result, he conveniently downplays her thirst for justice and condemns her as an evil “savage”: “There is not one woman “In all Hellas” “who could have done it”. He overlooks her criticism of the social order that excludes and shamefully treats women as chattels.

Contrastingly, right from the outset, Medea has universalised her predicament to focus our attention on the social order.  By asking the chorus to reserve judgement, the audience appreciates the extent of her, or women’s, estrangement. Jason does not understand and blindly continues to justify and promote the benefits of a civilised Hellas that benefits men solely.  He goes so far as to scorn his dependency upon women: “If only children could be got some other way”.

When he says that he has brought Medea the boon of civilised “justice” the claim is further compromised by the fact that he has broken oaths made to the gods. As the chorus points out, “the grace of sworn oaths is gone/Honour remains no more/In the wide Greek world but is flown to the sky”).

The emotional/irrational Jason : his problems mount

If Medea blurs the boundaries between justice and revenge, Jason blurs the boundaries between reason and emotion, and proves himself just as narrow-minded and just as irrational. He offensively posits himself as the representative of justice and has the audacity to level at Medea the charge of traitor: “When I brought you from your palace in a land of savages into a Greek home – you, a living curse, already A traitor both to your father and your native land”,  and conveniently overlooks the fact that she sacrificed her honour for his reward.

Also, Euripides argues that judging women on their sometimes emotional and irrational behaviour is hypocritical. After his discovery that Medea has killed their children, Jason shows that he can be just as “emotional” as Medea. His diatribe, in which he unleashes insults and threats at Medea, is testament to this: “polluted fiend, child-murderer”; “The curse of children’s blood be on you! Avenging justice blast your being!”   He marvels at his confounded choice of bride who has become a “Tuscan Scylla” “but more savage”.  (58).  He selfishly laments his own “childlessness”; which Medea concedes was not important to him prior to the murder.

As the ironies mount, we also note that the naked and exposed Jason is stripped of status at the end and Medea is the one to systematically kill the relationships upon which she depends.

A Sophoclean heroine or tyrant?

As a mother, Medea recognises the need to endure the pain; she has powerful maternal feelings.  It is a deeply personal act, but one that has collective social, political and religious significance. Not only is female courage in childbirth pitted against male courage in fighting, (“I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear One child.” (25)) but Medea laments the fact that she is leaving her children “motherless”, and anticipates her own miserable heart.  The fact that “all was for nothing” underscores an awareness of extreme futility. In many ways, whilst summoning up extreme courage, she indulges in self-pity .   Also, by foregrounding the mother’s wretched and desperate love for her children, she mitigates the extent of the sacrificial murder. “Medea empowers herself to be true to herself as a mother, while in fact betraying her motherhood”. (Pietro Pucci, 144)

Some critics depict Medea as a Sophoclean hero, that is one whose determination and firmness of purpose do not waver. She refuses to succumb to the prevailing social order; she refuses to betray her own mission which is to wreak maximum emotional damage on her enemies.  Poignantly, Medea understands the full extent of the horror and predicts a lifetime of despair.

Just before the double-murders, her attitude to the deed remains clear and uncompromising. “I must steel myself to it. What a coward I am, Even tempting my own resolution with soft talk”. The more she grasps the enormity of the deed, the more desperate she becomes and the more courage she must summon from within.

We recall that her relationship with her sons is ambivalent, coloured as it is by her hatred towards Jason: “To see them is no pleasure to her”. But a moment of weakness does occur, when Medea exposes herself to her children’s pleas, which Euripides skilfully personalises. Poignantly, Medea acknowledges her sons’ last smile: “Dear sons, why are you staring at me so? You smile At me – your last smile: why?” As we know, the ancient dramatist could not convey his meaning through facial expressions because actors wore masks and performed at a great distance from the audience, so Euripides achieves a similar affect with these words.

Once again, she considers the deed from the perspective of the third person and views herself from a place without: “Oh my heart, don’t don’t do it! Oh, miserable heart, Let them be! Spare your children! We’ll all live together, Safely in Athens; and they will make you happy … No.” (49-50)

In the decisive soliloquy, Euripides sets up competing personas, the motherly “I” and the revengeful passion, the “you”. This rivalry creates the unresolvable tension that also lies at the heart of the question: is she heroine or tyrant?

Whilst the audience sympathises with Medea’s misery as a mother, her murderous resolve appears unnerving. In this regard, contrary to the commendable courage of the Sophoclean hero, Euripides asks us to question whether she is justified in resolutely clinging so steadfastly to her unjust plan. Are we encouraged to share Medea’s assessment of her glory? “Let no one … think me contemptible and weak, nor inactive either, but quite the opposite – dangerous to my enemies, helpful to my friends. Such are the qualities that bring a life glory”.

So, on the one hand Medea appears to have the hallmark of a heroine, but on the other, her steely resolve also sets her up for censure. As we have noted from the outset, Medea appears clear-sighted and articulate. For this reason, her actions cannot be excused or mitigated by any sense that she is confused or emotionally unstable. As Aristotle states, her deed were done “knowingly and wittingly”.

Of concern to the chorus and like-minded members of the audience, is that Medea candidly admits that her main motive is to avoid the scorn of her enemies. And perhaps it is at the moment that the struggle becomes personal rather than collective, that Medea attracts our censure and loses the support of the chorus.

The dramatisation shows Medea’s most inner self, desperately opposed to “thymos” (passion) but resolved to its necessity. Her struggle is objectified by the use of alternating pronouns, the first person to refer to the knife-wielding lover overtaken by necessity, and the third person to refer to the voice of compassion trying to quell her outraged passion: “My miserable heart. Let them be”. Eventually, Medea’s indignation overcomes her sympathy for her children with violent consequences. She admits, “anger masters my resolve”. (50)

“Arm yourself, my heart: the thing That you must do is fearful, yet inevitable. Why wait then? My accursed hand, come take the sword; Take it and forward to your frontier of despair. That you once loved them, that of your body they were born.” (55)

“Force in every way must have it they must die, and since this must be so, then I, their mother shall kill them.”  (Previously the chorus also acknowledged such necessity: “Now there is no hope left for the children’s lives. Now there is none. They are walking already to murder.”)

Medea’s greatest misery is her “own heart” as she contemplates the futility of her dreams. “All was for nothing”. Forlorn and empty, Medea knows that by harming Jason she forfeits her own joy and happiness.

As a mother with divine links: her love for her sons

Whilst Euripides depicts Medea as a character who predicts her own terrible suffering and despair as she wields the knife, there is also a suggestion that she is carrying out the will of the gods. Is this the terrible voice of necessity that compels her forward?

From the moment the Chorus hears her sobbing, we learn that Medea “invokes Themis, daughter of Zeus/Who witnessed those promises which drew her/Across from Asia to Hellas”. “And God uphold my words – that this your marriage day/Will end with marriage lost, loathing and horror left.”

Medea is descended from the sun-god and related to both the divine and the heroic worlds. At times she appeals to both the Earth and the Sun.

Unlike other Sophoclean heroes, Medea has no doubts that the Gods support her cause. At various times, she appeals to Themis (ancestral law) and Artemis (woman’s help in childbirth). She calls on Zeus and swears to avenge herself in the name of Hecate “the mistress I revere above all others, my shown helpmate”. “Zeus the justice of Zeus and the light of the Sun”.

References to the Earth and the Sun abound throughout the play. Aegeus is made to swear an oath to the Earth and the Sun that he will protect Medea from her enemies; Jason asks her how she can look at Earth and Sun: “what Earth will do we shall not be told”. The poisoned gifts are sent to the princess; they are an inheritance from Helios (the Sun God). Helios sends Medea the chariot on which she escapes to Athens. “In the Gods’ name, let me touch the soft skin of my sons’ “for the unexpected the gods find a way”

(Before the appearance of Aegeus, Medea’s only question was what would she feel and “what would become of her.” Earlier Medea realises that without a home, her triumph is diminished. “What city will receive me then? What friend will guarantee my safety, offer land And home as sanctuary? None. I’ll wait a little.”

The scene with Aegeus has a dual purpose: it seeks to redress the power balance and reveals to Medea her proper mode of revenge. His reason for travelling from Delphi is that he is on a pilgrimage to seek a cure for his infertility. The idea for revenge surfaces: the best way to hurt Jason is through his paternity.

The fortuitous arrival of Aegeus is once again linked with the theme of fertility and children. He desires progeny, for the same reason, as Creon and Jason. It dawns upon Medea just how important children are to a man. She promises Aegeus that with her magic arts, she will help him have children. Once again, this proves that Jason’s vulnerability revolves around the children. Suddenly, Medea’s revenge plan crystalises around the idea of infanticide.

Medea finds “safe mooring” with Aegeus just when her plan was at his weakest. (We note the “seamanship” imagery also used by Jason.)
She asks him to accept her in Athens, welcome her into his house on the grounds that she can overcome his infertility.

Medea and her divine links

  • One aspect of Medea’s anger lies in the fact that Jason broke his oath. As the chorus points out, “The grace of sworn oaths is gone; Honour remains no more/In the wide Greek world, but is flown to the sky” (30) Medea calls upon Themis and Zeus, the “appointed steward of mortal oaths”.  In breaking the oath, Medea believes that Jason is mocking the gods.
  • If Medea appeals to “the justice of Zeus and the light of the Sun”, the chorus also reminds Medea that “Zeus will aid you in seeing justice done”. (55). Medea protects herself, and thereby the Sun God, from the triumphant scorn of her enemies. She is protecting the law of “old gods” who are being dethroned through the arrogance and contempt of individuals such as Jason.
  • ND: At the end, Euripides depicts Jason as a completely broken man who has lost everything. So, too, has Medea, but she is “saved” by the sun god and exotically and triumphantly exits on the chariot. Throughout the final scene, Medea is sitting above the roof, sitting in a chariot drawn by dragons. The height suggests the moral high ground as she triumphantly delivers the final blow to her demoralised and desperate husband. “The Sun has sent to save us from our enemies” (58)
  • Finally Medea is both wholly human as an individual woman who has been wronged, but she also becomes a figure that personifies human suffering. She is the “incarnation of vengeance”. She appears in the “habiliments of the goddess” suggesting a divine aspect as the social order disintegrates into chaos.

The Chorus

The chorus provides a constant reflection on the action but also appears as a confidante to the protagonist, and reinforces women’s solidarity against men. (It does not reveal Medea’s intentions to Creon.)

At the outset, Medea appeals to their common womanly interests that are thwarted in the existing social order; she therefore asks the chorus at least to help her revenge by keeping silent; she repeats time and again that it is their duty as women to stand by her.

For example, it alerts the audience to Medea’s state of mind and how distressed she is feeling. “I heard her sobbing and wailing.”

The chorus soon baulks at Medea’s plans for revenge. How could such a city give protection to a polluted child-killer? But if it does not, it would then appear to condone Jason’s actions and would leave Medea no recourse but to meekly accept her lot in life.

The closing remarks of the Chorus reflect their inability to penetrate the devastating actions. Helplessly, and dismayed, the Chorus defers to the gods: “Many are the Fates which Zeus in Olympus dispenses; Many matters the gods bring to surprising ends.” On the one hand, these Corinthian women are keen to support Medea and know that they owe her their loyalty. But they are careful to protect themselves from complicity. Although they recognize that Medea has been wronged, they diverge sharply from Medea once the child-slaying becomes part of her plan. To absolve Medea of the responsibility they shift the focus on the gods’ inscrutable plans:
“The unexpected God makes possible”.

Misunderstanding between Medea and the chorus

Medea proves the chorus wrong. In this regard, the chorus does not appear to share Medea’s understanding of the difficult nature of pity. The craftiness of her deals, the disingenuousness of her words, the ambivalence of her postures, the suspect quality of her justice – suggest a different image than that of Antigone.

It is unclear whether Medea deceives herself purposefully or unwillingly. Does she lie to make her decision easier or is she blinded by her resolve and stubborn purpose?

Resolution:

From the outset, the King demands Medea’s exile in order to preserve the social order. Outwitted, Medea chooses instead to perform the sacrifice which will destroy the order itself.   Granted the last words in the play, Jason defines Medea’s role and her actions as destructive. She has polluted and defiled Greek social and institutional order. “Zeus, do you hear how I am mocked/ Rejected, by this savage beast/ Polluted with her children’s blood?”

The messenger tells her: “Medea, run for your life, take what you can, a ship to bear you hence or chariot on land!”.  Evidently, Euripides chose to depict a mighty exit and a triumphant Medea rather than a fleeing and defeated woman. The mocking woman, who is just as scornful as Jason, leaves a lasting impression on a grieving, broken Jason. She departs, avenged and victorious in the chariot of the sun, thus reinforcing the well-known mythical nature of Medea.

When she enters again, to face Jason, she is on the chariot sent by Helios, her grandfather, high up in the air. (Some critics suggest that this is why Jason cannot reach her and must beg her to let him touch the bodies of his sons.)  In this regard, it seems that the dramatist chooses to emphasise her divine origins only towards the end of the play for a special theatrical effect.

In the Poetics Aristotle cites the resolution of Medea as an example of a faulty dramatic technique – of the deus ex machina.  He considers it improper to resolve the complications of a drama through unexpected  external interventions for which the audience has not been prepared in the course of the action.  The intervention of Helios to send his grand-daughter the chariot must have appeared especially arbitrary and artificial to him.  It also seemed incompatible with the character of Medea as she has been presented in the course of the dramatic action. (For example, “she could have killed her children immediately after the monologue and fled.”) One must ask, therefore, why Euripides choses to resolve the action and Medea’s woes in such a way.

Literary devices: mythical parallels : a life of glory: the glorious hero

Medea achieves glory not only by trumping her enemies. One of her most important feats is to triumph over her deepest maternal feelings.  The Chorus compares Medea with Ino, who, maddened by the gods, leapt into the sea with her own children. Ino murdered her children while insane, which also hints at a fundamental and strategic difference. Athamas’ provocation of Ino parallels Jason’s.  The audience is encouraged to think about whether or not Medea would be rehabilitated as Ino was. Melikertes’ deification recalls the chorus’s assertion that Medeas’ children descend from gods.

Euripides also compares Medea’s revenge with Eriunys’ in order to highlight her monstrosity

Medea predicts that Jason will die struck by a timber taken from the Argo and dedicated in a temple. The timber of his old glorious ship will strike and kill him in the temple of Hera, the temple where his children are buried.  In other words, Jason is destroyed by his own goal. He is a man of the institutionalised order, the civilizer and will be killed by the ship with which he began his long journey.

The many faces of Medea

Monstrous barbarian, scorned lover, despairing mother, righteous avenger – Medea is all of these, and more.

Ironically, although an outsider and skilled magician, when Medea is at her most ruthless and deceptive, she becomes most like Jason and shares his fear of their wretchedness, owing to the loss of social status and family.

Whilst the wider dimension of Medea’s sacrifice seems to elude Jason and he is diminished, Medea, who personifies grief and loss, escapes triumphant in victory.

Finally Medea is both wholly human as an individual woman who has been wronged, but she also becomes a figure that personifies human suffering. She is the “incarnation of vengeance”.  She appears in the “habiliments of the goddess” injecting a divine aspect as the social props disintegrates into chaos.

Some essay questions:

“At no point does the play allow us an even-handed appraisal of the conflict between the two: it is powerfully biased towards Medea’s vision of the world”. (Terry Collits)

Is Euripides a woman-hater or a pleader for the women’s cause?

“Jason’s decisions are based on reason and careful judgement. Medea’s on passion and selfishness.” Discuss.

“Medea is a harsh, discomforting play in its exposure of the position of women in ‘civilised’ societies, no less for us than for its original Athenian audience of 431 B.C.

“Medea is not about woman’s rights; it is about woman’s wrongs, those done to her and by her”. Is Medea just a witch or sorceress?

An A+ text response essay

  • clearly outlines the key concepts as they relate to the essay question
  • explores the text’s complexity including the complex motivation of the characters; the contradictions and inconsistencies in the text
  • explores Euripides’ literary devices as a guide to the author’s intentions and message.
  1. See our Study Page – Medea
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