Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Corinth. Rich and powerful city in ancient Greece, located on the northeastern portion of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, that is the setting for Euripides’ play.
House of Medea
House of Medea. Corinth home in which Jason and Medea live in exile with their young sons. All the play’s action takes place in front of this house. Jason and Medea’s precarious position in Corinth is underscored by this building, which lacks the power and status of a king’s palace. Concerned about his status in Corinth as a noncitizen, Jason abandons Medea and his children in this house, where Medea kills the children to punish Jason for his unfaithfulness.
Creon’s palace. Home of Corinth’s King Creon. Located offstage in the play, the palace is the focus of Jason’s ambition and of Medea’s vengeance. Jason seeks the power of the palace in his plans to marry the daughter of Creon. Medea sends her sons to this palace with a gift of a poisonous cloak, which kills both Creon and his daughter.
*Athens. City to which Medea flees with the bodies of her dead sons in a fiery chariot after obtaining a promise of protection from Aegeus, the king of Athens. Euripides’ Athenian audiences would have understood these events in the context of Athens’s role as a place of sanctuary and as the enlightened protector of the oppressed.
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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...
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Taking his cue from Sophocles who demoted the chorus from primary character status to that of a speaking 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...
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Compare and Contrast
5th century B.C.: In Greece, humans are considered part of the vast web of life, what was important about any individual is the way in which he or she is like all others and connected to them through society. Thus art, philosophy, and religion sought to explain and represent the whole order of things and not the individual within that order, with fate ultimately in control of human events.
Today: Humans are seen as unique individuals and contemporary art, philosophy, and religion conform to a world view in which the individual is central—and responsible.
5th century B.C.: Women in Ancient Greece essentially lived in a separate society from their husbands and fathers, and they held few rights. Women kept quarters and ate apart from men; they seldom went out and never walked in public without a male escort. They did not own property or money, did not choose their own husbands, did not receive an education, and could only terminate a marriage under extreme conditions.
Today: Women have equal rights to men and, in most fields, equal opportunities in the workplace.
5th century B.C.: Thousands of Greek city-states (polis in Greek) practiced a wide range of different governing systems during this period of fertile political experimentation. In Athens, a form of radical democracy...
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Topics for Further Study
What kind of revenge would the Chorus of Corinthian woman have approved? Why do they object to Medea's revenge?
It has been said that the first song of the chorus could well be a feminist's theme song. How so?
What effect might the Peloponnesian War have had on Euripides's writing, and why?
How does Medea's reaction to being rejected by her husband for another woman compare with similar contemporary situations? What are some of the ways spouses exact revenge upon each other for marital indiscretions? What is the impact of these actions and how do they compare to the impact of Medea's revenge?
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Medea's anguished story has been transformed into film, music, opera, art, poetry, prose, and drama. In the early years of the first century A.D., the Spanish Roman, Seneca, wrote a melodramatic version of Medea that portrays Medea as a witch and Jason as being relatively innocent of causing her anger. Ianni Xenakis, a Greek born in Rumania, wrote music for Seneca's version of Medea in 1967.
In 1946, French playwright Jean Anouilh adapted the play to serve as an analogy for modern life. American poet Robinson Jeffers produced a singular Broadway stage production of Medea, a work that Jeffers loosely adapted from Euripi-des's play and that bears Jeffers's trademark stamp of nihilism and destructive passion. A sound recording is available on Decca Records. Maxwell Anderson, an American contemporary of Jeffers, placed the story in the contemporary United States and named his piece The Wingless Victory.
A1959 film version was directed by Jose Quintero and starred Colleen Dewhurst and Zoe Caldwell.
A 1971 Italian film version of the play stars opera diva Maria Callas in her only screen appearance. The adaptation by late eighteenth-century composer Luigi Cherubini follows the basic structure of the Euripidean plot line.
A one-act musical interpretation called Medea in Corinth was written by Benjamin Lees in 1985 and is available...
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What Do I Read Next?
Euripides's Phaedra and Jean Racine's seventeenth-century version of it, Phedre, portray a woman who immorally falls in love with her step-son and in retaliation against his rebuff claims that he tried to dishonor her. The works examine similar moral ground to that examined in Medea.
Toni Morrison's moving novel Beloved (1987) revolves around a historical incident of infanticide performed by a slave mother who is moved to this tragic act by the horrors of slavery—she murders her child to remove it from the life of toil, shame, and pain that she has led. Her act haunts characters through several generations of her family.
In Shakespeare's Macbeth (c. 1605) Lady Macbeth pushes her husband to commit murder and then goes mad from the guilty thoughts that plague her. Indirectly, her ambition is responsible for a series of murders, including some innocent children, that Macbeth commissions in his vain efforts to obscure their crime.
George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859) centers on the relationship between Adam Bede and Hetty Sorrel, who becomes pregnant by a local nobleman and abandons her baby to die.
The Lion in Winter, a 1968 film directed by Anthony Harvey and starring...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barlow, S A The Imagery of Euripides, Methuen, 1971.
A scholarly examination of the images and devices m Bunpidean drama, finding Euripides thin in meta-phonc 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 Eunpides'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 Eunpides's Medea," in Yale Classical Studies, Vol. 25,1977.
A scholarly examination of Eunpides'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 Eunpides's plays designed for use with the Penguin translation of the works by Philip Vellacott.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
McDermott, Emily A. Euripides’ “Medea”: The Incarnation of Disorder. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. McDermott presents Medea as heroic, sympathetic, and morally repugnant. Medea is the incarnation of disorder because of her repeated assaults on family stability and her lack of adherence to the expectations of the parent-child relationship.
Ohlander, Stephen. Dramatic Suspense in Euripides’ and Seneca’s “Medea.” New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Scene by scene, Ohlander explores Euripides’ sense of dramatic suspense, examining how motifs from mythic tradition are handled and how Euripides manufactures new ones.
Papageorgiou, Vasilis. Euripides’ “Medea” and Cosmetics. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1986. Papageorgiou discusses Euripides’ language, which inspires the audience to think beyond polarities, leading them from Jason’s world of light and logic into Medea’s, where light cannot reach.
Pucci, Pietro. The Violence of Pity in Euripides’ “Medea.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. Pucci examines the painful experience audience members suffer when exposed to the play’s violence and the ways Euripides’ language moves them from dread to contemplation of the peacefulness of their own existence.
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