Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059
Summary of the Play - Medea After having successfully stolen the Golden Fleece, Jason has been living in exile in Corinth with Medea and their children. On the day of the play’s action, Jason abandons Medea, who is a native of Colchis and is considered to be a barbarian, to...
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Summary of the Play - Medea
After having successfully stolen the Golden Fleece, Jason has been living in exile in Corinth with Medea and their children. On the day of the play’s action, Jason abandons Medea, who is a native of Colchis and is considered to be a barbarian, to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth. Jason argues that by so doing he will be able to establish a legitimate line of heirs.
Because Medea’s reputation as a sorceress has preceded her, she is viewed as a threat to Corinth if she remains there. Creon, the Corinthian king and Jason’s new father–in–law, decides to protect himself and his family by banishing Medea from the kingdom. Gaining the sympathy of the Corinthian women, Medea begs for, and receives, one more day to get her affairs in order. She uses this time to plot her revenge against Jason and Creon.
First, she secures the promise of safe harbor from Aegeus, the king of Athens, in return for curing him of his impotence. Then she sends her children to the princess, bearing a wedding gift of a robe and crown she has poisoned, so that the wearer and anyone who touches its wearer will die a horrible death. The gift is accepted and the princess is killed. In trying to save her, her father Creon is also destroyed. Finally, Medea wreaks her most terrible act of vengeance. After much soul searching, she murders her own children by the sword, thus effectively cutting off Jason’s present and future bloodlines.
When Jason returns from the palace, after having lost his bride, the Chorus informs him of Medea’s other deed. He vows to kill her, but she is already out of reach in a chariot bound for Athens. In despair, he begs her to let him bury the children’s bodies, a request she denies him. Instead, she bears them off with her, to bury them in a place where none of her enemies can desecrate their graves—leaving Jason and the Chorus to mourn before the gods, who may or may not hear their call.
Estimated Reading Time
Reading time will vary slightly according to the translation being used. Some modern translations are written in a very accessible style, while older verse translations are written in a more lofty style that takes more time to read. In general, allow two to three hours for a close reading of the entire work.
For full effect, Medea reads best in a single sitting. You may wish to break it up into two sessions, however. If so, the best division is through the end of the Choral section following Aegeus’ exit. At this point, Medea’s plans have been laid, and the second half will describe how she carries them out.
Summary of the Play - Electra
The play opens outside the humble farmhouse where Electra lives a chaste life with her peasant husband. Born a princess to the kingdom of Argos (or Mycenae), Electra chafes at the injustice of her arranged low–status marriage, which denies her all the rights and comforts of her royal blood. But what rankles worse is her unfulfilled wish for revenge against her mother and stepfather, who had conspired to murder her father Agamemnon. It has been seven years since she and her brother Orestes were separated from each other, in order to avert the threat they represent to the new royal household. Electra longs to be reunited with Orestes so that they may avenge their father’s death.
A stranger appears at the farmhouse, and after misreading several unmistakeable signs that it is indeed Orestes, Electra finally, joyfully, recognizes him, and the two make their plans. Orestes is to waylay and murder his stepfather Aigisthos as he prepares for a ritual feast. Electra is to lure her estranged mother, Clytemnestra, to her cottage on the ruse that she has just given birth and needs her mother’s help.
While awaiting Clytemnestra’s arrival, news comes from Orestes that he has succeeded in his bloody mission. Soon he and his companion, Pylades, return with Aigisthos’ corpse, and Electra reminds him that there is one more murder to be done. Orestes balks. After all, Clytemnestra is still their mother, and he is tempted to ignore the Apollonian prophecy that she will die at his hands. Electra, however, is firm in her belief that their father must be avenged, and finally wins the argument by appealing to Orestes’ manhood.
Clytemnestra arrives, full of motherly concern and hopeful of a reconciliation with her daughter. Electra picks an argument with her, which allows us to hear Clytemnestra’s side of the story. She describes her grief over the death of her beloved daughter, Iphigenia, who was sacrificed by her husband Agamemnon, and her humiliation when Agamemnon flaunted his new mistress. Electra is unmoved, and brings her mother into the cottage, where she and Orestes slit her throat.
After the deed is committed, they carry their mother’s body out, cover it gently with Orestes’ cloak, and pray that the sorrows of their house will be ended. But they still have to face the consequences of their crime. The Dioskouroi, demi–gods representing their father Zeus, appear, having witnessed the murder from on high. In typically Euripidean fashion, they proclaim Clytemnestra’s death to have been just, but the deed which caused it unjust.
As a result, Orestes is to be prevented from ever ascending the throne of Argos, and must travel to Athens, where trial and eventual acquittal await him. As for Electra, she is to marry Orestes’ friend Pylades, the farmer receiving suitable reward for his loss. Thus the play ends as it began, with Electra and her beloved brother separated again, this time forever.
Estimated Reading Time
Reading time will depend on the translation used. Generally allow two to three hours for a close reading. Like Medea, and most Greek tragedies, the tightly paced action reads best in one sitting. If you wish to break it up, you may do so by reading through the end of the scene in which Electra and Orestes make their plans and Orestes leaves to execute his part of them. In the Lembke and Reckford translation, this corresponds to line 724, and occurs almost exactly midway through the play.