|Introduction: Mythology background.......................................................
When Euripides staged Medea in 431 B.C., his audience was already familiar with events that preceded the action of the play. Although these events–involving Jason's quest and retrieval of the fabled Golden Fleece–are not part of the play, they affect its action. These events are as follows:
Jason, a young man of heroic qualities, inherits the throne of Iolchos in Thessaly, Greece, from his father. However, Jason’s scheming uncle, Pelias, seizes the throne and refuses to yield it unless Jason retrieves for him the Golden Fleece, a coat of golden wool sheared from a ram called Chrysomallus. The fleece hangs on a tree in a grove in Aea, in the far-off land of Colchis, on the Black Sea. Anyone could easily seize and run off with it save for one thing: It is guarded by a dragon that never sleeps. With a crew of hearty adventurers, Jason sails to Colchis, overcoming many perils on the way.
After he arrives in Colchis, he meets Medea, the beautiful daughter of Aeetes, King of Aea. She falls desperately in love with Jason. Her father regards the fleece as a boon that must forever remain in Colchis. However, he says he will give it up if Jason can successfully complete seemingly impossible tasks–first, yoking fire-breathing bulls and plowing a field and, second, defeating an army that springs to life from dragon’s teath sown in the field. Medea, a powerful sorceress, says she will enable Jason to perform the tasks if he takes her with him back to Greece and marries her. He agrees. Then, with the help of Medea and her magic, he yokes the bulls and vanquishes the army. Later, at the grove where the fleece hangs, Medea again comes to Jason’s aid by causing the dragon to fall asleep, and Jason makes off with the great prize.
Medea takes her brother, Apsyrtus, with her when she and Jason sail back to Greece. When Aeetes and his men follow, Medea kills and cuts up her brother and strews his remains in the sea. Aeetes loses time retrieving the body parts, and Jason and Medea escape but undergo many perilous adventures during the voyage. While stopping in the land of the Phaeacians, they marry and receive the protection of the Phaeacian king, Alcinous, from Aeetes, who is still pursing them. Eventually, Aeetes gives up the chase, and Jason and Medea return safely to Iolchos. There, they discover that Pelias has murdered Jason’s parents, and Medea concocts a scheme that enables Jason to gain revenge; it results in the death of Pelias. Because it is no longer safe for them to remain in Iolchos, Jason and Medea take up residence in Corinth, Greece. There, during several years of apparently marital bliss, Medea bears him two sons. Then the day comes when Medea learns that Jason pledges to marry Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth, Creon. It is at this point that Euripides begins his tale.
In front of the house of Jason and Medea in Corinth, the nurse of the couple’s two children expresses deep regret that her mistress ever met Jason, for Jason has renounced his marriage to Medea to wed Princess Glauce, the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. He believes the marriage will elevate him to the zenith of Corinthian society, making him a man to be admired and envied by all.
Medea, who is inside the house, is brokenhearted. She eats no food; she cries and frets; she ignores her children. She had abandoned her father and her native country to be with Jason. Now Jason has abandoned her. She has no one to talk to but the sea and the rocks along its shore. Though a sorceress with wondrous powers, she has no magic spell to heal the wound opened by Jason’s disloyalty. But her heart beats on, bringing fire to her cheeks, for she is plotting revenge.
When the guardian of her two boys returns from an outing with them, he tells the nurse he overhead a conversation disclosing that Creon means to banish Medea and her children. However, the guardian says, he cannot vouch for the truth of what he heard. The nurse bids the children go inside, advising them to keep away from their mother, for she is in a foul and dangerous mood.
After the front door closes behind the boys and their guardian, a chorus of women, hearing the wailing of Medea, comes by and asks the nurse what is wrong. She informs them of Jason’s marriage to Glauce and of Medea’s reaction. They hear Medea inside begging Zeus to strike her dead and thereby lift her burden of pain and sorrow. The chorus profoundly sympathizes with her plight and observes that Zeus will right the injustice against her. The women ask the nurse to tell Medea that they are her friends and will stand by her.
After the nurse goes inside with the message, Medea emerges a moment later to speak with the women. She tells them she is the most woeful creature on earth and bemoans the role of women in a society which makes men their masters. Women must do the will of men without complaint. If a suitor calls on a woman but she dislikes him, she may not even turn him away. Yet men dare to say that women have an easy life. While wives are in the safety of the home, the men say, the husbands must fight wars and risk their lives. Medea, calling them fools, says she would rather take shield in hand and fight three wars than bear the pain of childbirth even once. But, she says, she has a scheme in mind to avenge herself against Jason, his bride, and her father, Creon, who at that moment comes on the scene.
Without ado, he banishes Medea and her sons because, he says, he believes that she means to use her magical powers to wreak harm upon his daughter. Medea pleads innocence and begs him to allow her to remain in Corinth, but Creon is adamant; she must go. However, when she asks to tarry but a single day to find a safe haven for her children, he grants her wish. After he leaves, Medea admits to the chorus that Creon is right: She plans murder. Poison will be the instrument.
Jason arrives just then, promising to give her gold to sustain her and the children during their banishment. He says he bears her no ill will. Medea bitterly curses him and reminds him of how she helped him retrieve the Golden Fleece and eliminate his enemy, Pelias. And now Jason rewards her by forsaking her after she gave birth to his children. But Jason claims that Medea also received boons: He brought her from a barbaric land to Greece, where she has benefited from its laws and its justice and has become famous for her wisdom. The reason he married Princess Glauce, he says, was to gain wealth and station in order to give Medea and their sons all the advantages necessary for them to rise in society and serve Greece. Both the chorus and Medea rebuke him, Medea saying that he should at least have asked for her consent to marry Creon’s daughter. Now she is under a sentence of banishment–alone, forlorn, with no place to go. When Jason offers her the gold, she refuses it, saying it would be wrong to benefit from the bounty of a villain. Jason leaves.
Aegeus, King of Athens, enters Corinth after visiting the Oracle at Delphi and comes upon Medea, greeting her warmly. When she inquires about the purpose of his visit to the oracle, he tells her that he wanted to learn from the great Delphic seer how to have children. He and his wife have tried to have children–lo, for many years–without success. The oracle gave him a message, he says, but it was couched in perplexing language. However, a certain man–Pittheus, King of Troezen–has the skill to interpret the words. Thus, Aegeus says, he is on his way to see Pittheus.
Aegeus then inquires why Medea seems so sad. She tells him her pitiful story. He sympathizes with her, condemning both Jason and Creon. Medea asks him to shelter her in her banishment and promises to make the seeds of the sons he longs for grow in him. He grants her wish, but says she must make her way to his land by herself lest he be accused of untoward behavior. At her request, he swears an oath to the gods to protect her from all harm once she reaches his domain.
After Aegeus resumes his journey, Medea reveals her plan to the chorus: She will pretend to accept Jason’s will, saying his marriage Princess Glauce is for the best. Then she will ask Jason to allow their children to remain in Corinth. Next, she will send the children to the princess with gifts of a fine robe and golden tiara. But deadly poison will taint the gifts, bringing the princess and all who come in contact with her a painful death. Finally, she will kill her children to spite Jason. The chorus importunes her to relent, but Medea will not.
Medea sets her scheme in motion by ordering the nurse to fetch Jason. When he arrives, Medea asks him to forgive her for the harsh words she spoke to him, tells him he was wise to woo the princess, and requests that he accept and bring up the children, seeing to it that Creon does not reject them. Jason pledges to cooperate and leaves with the children bearing the gifts.
Later, the children’s guardian returns with the boys and announces that the gifts have been delivered and that the children were well received at the king’s court. Medea now becomes deeply distressed about her plan, wondering whether she can abide the horror of it. But she overcomes her hesitancy, for her passion for vengeance overcomes her motherly love. The she embraces her children one last time, and sends them into her house.
A messenger arrives with news that the princess and her father have died, victims of the poisonous gifts. Medea rejoices, to the surprise of the messenger, and asks him to describe how they died. He says the princess balked at the sight of the boys, but Jason persuaded her to accept them and their gifts and to prevail upon her father not to banish them. She bowed to his wishes, then put on the robe and the crown. Pleased with the gifts, she pranced about a while but soon became ill, trembling, losing her color, falling onto a couch, and foaming at the mouth. Attendants ran out to inform Creon and Jason of her distress. Meanwhile, the crown set the princess’s hair on fire and the robe began eating at her flesh. She rose from the couch, flames leaping from her head, and ran about frantically. Finally, she fell to the floor, disfigured beyond recognition. When the king arrived, he fell on her body, wailing. The robe then worked its evil magic on him: It clinged to him while the writhing body of his daughter beneath tore at his flesh. A moment later, daughter and father were dead.
After hearing this news, Medea–still ruled by the passion of vengeance–takes sword in hand and goes inside her house to complete her evil scheme. The chorus of women hear the children crying out, then see blood flowing from the crack beneath the door. Jason arrives with servants and asks where Medea is. Reporting news that they already know–that Medea’s witchery has killed Creon and the princess–he says he now fears for the lives of his sons. The chorus, pointing to the flowing blood, says they are already dead. Jason orders his men to go inside, breaking down the door if they must. Medea appears above the roof in a chariot, holding the reins of fearsome dragons.
Jason curses her as the most hateful and detestable of evildoers. But Medea says it was not she who murdered the children but their father’s lust. Jason demands the bodies of the children so he can provide them a proper burial, but Medea refuses to yield them, saying she will bury them in the mountainous regions guarded by Hera so that they may lie in peace, undisturbed. Further, she says, she will do penance to atone for her great sin, then go to live with Aegeus. After they exchange further insults, Medea refuses Jason’s request to see his children one more time. He must live out his life in agony, with the deaths of his sons on his conscience. Medea’s vengeance is complete.
Medea.Sorceress with wondrous powers who falls desperately in love with Jason after he arrives in Colchis, on the Black Sea, in quest of the fabled Golden Fleece, a coat of golden wool sheared from a ram. She is the daughter of the King of Aea in Colchis and granddaughter of the sun god, Helios.
Jason.Heroic but selfish and ambitious son of Aeson, King of Iolchos in Thessaly, Greece. Renowned for his bravery in retrieving the Golden Fleece, he seeks to capitalize on his fame by pledging to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth, even though he has already been married for several years to Medea and fathered two sons.
Creon, King of Corinth.He banishes Medea out of fear that she will harm his daughter.
Princess Glauce.Daughter of Creon. She has no lines in the play but serves an important purpose as the object of Medea's jealousy and wrath.
Nurse.Nanny to the two sons of Medea and Jason. She is loyal to Medea and bemoans her ill treatment by Jason.
Two Sons of Medea and Jason.Although these little boys are merely a presence in the play, their welfare is a central issue in the play. Their only lines are shouts near the end of the play when their mother is about to kill them.
Guardian.He watches over the children when they are at play.
Aegeus, King of Athens.He promises to shelter Medea after she leaves Corinth..
Chorus of Women.They sympathize and commiserate with Medea while commenting on Jason's conduct and Medea's plan to gain revenge against him.
Messenger.He informs Medea of the death of Creon and Glauce, describing in gruesome detail–at Medea's request–the agonies they experienced in their final moments.
All of the action takes place outside the house of Jason and Medea in Corinth, Greece. Corinth is in southern Greece in the extreme northeastern part of a large peninsula known as the Peloponnesus (also Peloponnese).
The climax of the play occurs when Medea kills her children and Jason arrives to discover the blood from their corpses oozing out of the crack beneath the front door.
Theme 1.Unbridled desire for revenge can have tragic consequences. Medea's thirst for venegeance rules her, overcoming all of her other emotions, even her love for her children.
Theme 2.Women are second-class citizens in Greek society. Men treat women as mere objects in the Greece of the mythological Jason and Medea–and of the real-life Euripides–expecting women to do their will without complaint.
Theme 3.Human beings–not fate, not the gods, not bad luck–are the authors of their own misfortunes. More so than other playwright or poet in ancient Athens, Euripides realized that men and women created than own destinies. This was a controversial idea in his time, and his critics excoriated him for it because they believed it was a sign that he rejected the gods of Olympus. However, Euripides was merely presenting life as it was. In this respect, he was an innovator far ahead of his time.
Theme 4.Children suffer for the sins of their parents. Jason commits an inexcusable offense against Medea when he rejects her to marry Princess Glauce and thereby further his career. In retaliation, Medea commits an even greater wrong by murdering her own children, along with the princess and the king. Medea’s sin is like that of a woman who aborts a child simply because she has control over it and can dispose of it without impunity.
Theme 5.Civilized Greece can be just as barbaric as uncivilized Colchis. The Corinthians regard Medea as crude and uncivilized, but Jason proves that he and his fellow Greeks–though claiming that justice and virtue are hallmarks of their society–can be just as barbaric as uncultured outsiders for distant lands.
Theme 6.Blind passion can subdue all other emotions. Medea's love for Jason is all consuming. So is her hatred for him after he abandons her. In each case, she is willing to feed her powerful passion whatever the cost.
The Problem of the Chorus
The chorus of Corinthian women sympathizes with Medea throughout the play, in large part because they well know that Medea is right when she says that Greek males treat Greek females unjustly. However, these women time and again express horror at Medea's plan to kill her children. They well realize that Medea is going too far. Nevertheless, they remain silent–in compliance with Medea's expressed wish–when she announces her plan to kill the children and later executes it. It is hard to believe that this chorus of women would look the other way under these circumstances.
Year of Performance, Source, Type of Play
Medea was first performed in Athens in 431 B.C. The source for the story was the myth about Jason's retrieval of the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea's sorcery and their lives thereafter. The play is a tragedy.
Along with Sophocles and Aeschylus, Euripides (484-406 B.C.) was one of the three greatest Greek writers of tragedy. Of more than 90 plays he wrote, 19 survive, although some scholars question whether one of them is really his own. He was something of an outsider in his own time, in part because he depicted gods unfavorably and even questioned the existence of the traditional gods of Homeric myths. His key contribution to literature–a major one that endeared him to writers of later generations–was that he developed characters whose downfall results from their own flaws rather than from outside forces, such as fate. Euripides was a close friend of Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers in history. Socrates rejected the overarching role of the Olympian deities in Greek society–and perhaps the deities themselves. He often spoke of a single god as the creator of the universe and, in this respect, may have influenced Euripides.