Modern Audience Versus Fifth-Century Greek Audience

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975

Euripides's psychologically realistic portrayal of Medea, who indulges in an excessive form of revenge-the murder of her own children. This is a fascinating study of motivation, yet it is a topic safely distant to modern audiences. The people and society in Medea are part of ancient history. Today's audiences can consider and understand Medea's motivation while simultaneously dismissing it as both a work of fiction and as part of a past culture. However, to Euripides's fifth-century Athenian audience, Medea's act would, under the circumstances, make perfect sense. These Athenians, congregated in the temple of Dionysus to celebrate an annual ritual of dramatic performances, would give no more than a moment's thought to Medea's motivations. Instead, the significance of Medea's act would lie in the consequences to her society and in the larger philosophical question "is revenge effective?'' The fifth-century Greeks would not see Medea as an isolated fictional character but as part of a grander scheme that was part of their everyday lives. According to historian Edith Hamilton in The Greek Way, "Greeks always saw things as parts of a whole." Medea's story was not an isolated act of uncontrolled passion but a reminder that things are not always what they seem and that contact with someone tainted with evil represents danger to the whole society.

A fifth-century Greek citizen was only important insofar as his or her connection to society. The ancient Greeks thought of the individual not as a unique entity but as a component in the larger organism of society. The Greek view of the individual differed from the modern view, as Hamilton wrote: "To the Greeks [character] was a man's share in qualities all men partake of; it united each one to the rest. We are interested in people's special characteristics, the things in this or that person which are different from the general. The Greeks, on the contrary, thought what was important in a man were precisely the qualities he shared with all mankind.'' Thus the Athenian audience would consider Medea's resemblance to themselves, her place in society, and her effect upon it. Furthermore, the citizen wholly belonged to the city, sharing in the city's well-being, beliefs, and laws. Religion especially was, according to E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational, a "collective responsibility." If one person committed an act of sacrilege, the gods might punish the whole city. Therefore, each citizen had a moral obligation and civic duty to obey the religious customs and honor its gods. To do otherwise was dangerous: during the final thirty years of the fifth century B.C., intellectuals whose ideas threatened tradition were successfully prosecuted on the grounds of disbelieving in the gods. At the same time, there was no separation between religion, law, and customs—rites, prayers, recipes, and legislature peacefully coexisted. All were civic obligations to which the citizens submitted willingly. "The citizen was subordinate in everything, and without any reserve, to the city; he belonged to it body and soul," wrote Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges in The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome.

Rather than feeling bound by confines of a restrictive society, the ancient Greeks valued their membership in a society, it was critical to them. That is why Jason's comment, that Medea had found favor among her new neighbors, was not as trivial as it sounds to the modern ear, and why Medea shows so much dismay at having nowhere to go after Creon banishes her. The fact that Medea left her own city to run off with Jason was, to...

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ancient Greek audiences, evidence of a flaw in Medea's ability to remain connected to her society. The chorus' reminder, "there is no sorrow above the loss of a native land," would only confirm what the audience already knew.

Beyond the perimeter of the city or community, humans were connected in other ways. The emotions and drives that lie behind actions and feelings were not simply common sensations but palpable forces that flowed through all humankind. Fate both surrounded the individual and society and also ran through them, moving individuals to act in a prescribed manner. The impulses which tempted humans to misdeeds were considered outside of human control, and "endowed with a life and energy of their own," according to Dodds. Epidemics and famines were "demons'' just as were urges toward sinful acts. Fate was fused with the will of the gods; Dodds quoted Pindar, who put it this way: "the great purpose of Zeus directs the daemon [demon] of the men he loves." Medea realizes, "The gods and I, I in a kind of madness, have contrived all this." Against these forces, humans were helpless to defend themselves; they would be foolish to defy the gods. The ancient Greeks had no concept of "will" in the sense of "freedom of choice" but rather felt at the mercy of sensations moving through them. Passions could overwhelm them and obscure then- ability to make rational decisions. These passions might come from the gods, from inherited guilt, or from hubris—excessive arrogance. When Medea argues with herself, she confronts her demon, the irrational force demanding the deaths of her two sons. She acknowledges the wickedness of this act but finds no power to escape the emotions that will force her to act: "Stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, fury that brings upon mortals the greatest of evils." The chorus acknowledges Medea's powerlessness to free herself from the grip of such a force: "Medea, a god has thrown suffering upon you in waves of despair." Fate possesses Medea, and it becomes Medea's fate to murder her own children. The concept of Medea having a "motive" or "choosing" to kill her sons would not have made sense to Euripides' s audience.

The Greek rationalists Aristotle and Plato argued that humans did not have to fall prey to the demons of passion but could, with training and resolution, endeavor to maintain their rationality in the face of these demons. Euripides pits the rationalists against the fatalists in Medea in the form of the chorus who consistently represent the voice of quiet rationalism. The Corinthian women sympathize with Medea's grief and outrage, but they counsel moderation in seeking revenge: "I both wish to help you and support the normal ways of mankind, and tell you not to do this thing." However, their counsel proves impotent in the face of the forces driving Medea. She tells them that no compromise is possible and turns her attention to calling Jason back. Euripides's audience would have pondered the question whether Medea had the capacity for rational behavior under the circumstances of Jason's betrayal and Creon's decree of banishment. Yet, the question would not have been cast in terms of the conflict between Medea and Jason, two individuals, but of the conflict within Medea, between her rational mind and the fates driving her.

To complicate matters, the Greeks considered guilt a kind of contamination that spread through contact or through inheritance. The Corinthians might indeed have killed Medea's children to eliminate the danger they represented. Although innocent in their youth, Medea's offspring would surely manifest her evilness when they grew up because they were polluted through inheritance. All of Medea's descendants would carry her curse. In a way, her murdering the children and ending her lineage saves Corinth the trouble of either killing them or suffering the consequences of harboring them, for any contact with them was potentially dangerous. The city that hosted them would bring down upon itself the wrath of the gods. Medea's killing the children while they are still innocent, then, serves as a kind of sacrificial act that purifies the city of Corinth.

The chorus recognizes that Medea, already banished from Corinth, will make herself an outcast by committing her horrendous crime. The women tell Medea that she "is not pure with the rest" and ask her what city could accept a woman who murdered of her own children. The pollution of guilt can result from contact as well as inheritance. Corinth may unwittingly have brought disaster upon itself for welcoming Medea into their society in the first place, falling prey to her charm in spite of knowing that she had abandoned her family and city and had killed her own brother to facilitate Jason's escape. Or perhaps Jason brought on the disaster by his ambition to marry the King's daughter and secure a place in Corinthian society; his hubris put his adopted city into danger. Either or both of these contaminating factors led to the disaster of Medea murdering the King and Princess of Corinth. Jason and Medea sinned against each other, but they also sinned against the city of Corinth—their sin was that of profane contact. Jason and Medea are foreigners who entered the city and covertly brought pollution in their wake.

The year that Euripides presented his play, the devastating Peloponnesian War was being waged. This was the first major war the Greeks had fought against people of their own ethnic background, introducing a new difficulty in identifying the enemy. Medea contains a sub-theme concerning the danger of mistaken appearances. When Medea's sons deliver her gifts to Creon's daughter, she at first is irritated by their presence—she mistakenly takes them for enemies. Ironically, her first reaction was the more accurate one, But seeing the bright gifts, she welcomes them and completely accepts the pretext of their visit, as Medea hoped she would. The young princess is tricked by appearances, just as were the Trojans when the Greeks presented a "gift" horse that secretly harbored Odysseus and his best warriors. That night the Greek warriors burst out of the horse's belly and slaughtered the sleeping Trojans. Likewise, the poison in Medea's gifts takes effect the moment Jason's new wife innocently dons the robe and crown. Euripides plays on the anxieties of his audience over their ability to recognize enemies and to know when and when not to trust others. Effectively, the King's daughter was polluted through unknown and dangerous contact with Medea via poisoned gifts. Nor does the cycle end with the young princess. Creon becomes enmeshed in his daughter's poisoned embrace and dies with her, despite his efforts to disentangle himself. This gruesome detail, related by the messenger in almost lyrical prose, demonstrates how even the desire for contact with a known loved one can bring about disaster.

Creon's fate most aptly fulfills the closing lines of the chorus: "What we thought is not confirmed and what we thought not god contrives." This is the Euripidean version of "expect the unexpected," a stock phrase with which a number of his plays abruptly end. Euripides suggests that ironically, passion—the same force that drives humans to desire contact with others—has the capacity to destroy. Jason is guilty of misdirected passion on several counts. He initially brought his fate upon himself by marrying a foreign wife, a known sorceress, and then betraying her. He also allowed his ambitious desire for connection with Conndiian society to turn him away from a faithful, loving wife and their two sons. Medea's culpability is thus compromised by Jason's. Medea herself has a passionate, reckless nature, which makes her a perfect medium for the expression of the forces of passion orchestrated by the gods. Whether Medea or the gods are to blame for the infanticide she commits, her act, as far as Euripides's Athenian audience would have been concerned, would generate a civic disaster. She became a danger for Corinth, and banishing her made her all the more dangerous. Euripides's deeply pessimistic and fatalistic play would have been disturbing to his Adienian audience; perhaps that is why his tetralogy-which include Medea—failed to win the festival prize.

Source: Carole L. Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Eunpidean Drama, Myth, Theme, and Structure

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4636

The intense centripetal focus of this tragedy begins in the prologue. Its three parts, monologue, dialogue and a frightened anapaestic series punctuated by Medea's off-stage cries, produce their complementary effects in an ascending scale of excitement. The first speaker is the Nurse, and so our earliest impression of Medea comes through an intimate and sympathetic witness. Her news, that Jason has deserted Medea for the daughter of King Creon, is enclosed by accounts of the past services of Medea to Jason and to the city which has sheltered him, and, hideous as these services have been, they are presented in the light of Medea's passionate devotion to her husband. The description of Medea's mood suggests a savage, wounded animal and in the Nurse's apprehension of some monstrous deed (perhaps against the children, whose sight Medea now abhors) we get our first warning, from the one who knows her best, of what Medea can become, when wronged.

Enter the Tutor, leading the children of Medea. As the bearer of fresh news—that Creon is about to exile Medea—and more particularly as the guardian of the children, he increases the sense of apprehension and makes it more specific. The Nurse redoubles her worried chatter:

O keep the children from her.. for even now I saw her glaring at them like an angry bull. She'll not leave this fit, too well I know it, till she has charged at someone. May it be enemies, not friends, she chooses!

Two savage cries, off-stage, provide the final impact of this prologue: Medea screams her wrongs and curses husband, children, "all the house." The brief intensity of these cries, contrasted with the Nurse's long-winded moralizing, brings the prologue to a chilling climax. The series of emotions traversed—sympathy, apprehension, horror—anticipates in a few rapid strokes the responses which, in the same sequence, the coming action will evoke.

This sinister blend of effects is repeated, in choral terms, in the parodos, where the brief songs expressing sympathy and fear are harshly punctuated by Medea's off-stage cries. The direction of this tragedy requires that the Chorus should begin by feeling sympathy for Medea. Thus, singing as women rather than as Corinthians, they remind us that it was Jason's vows, by which Medea now curses him, which first induced her to take her ill-starred voyage to Greece.

The contrast between the fury of Medea's initial cries and the controlled and calculated rhetoric of her opening address to the Corinthian women has already been compared with the presentation of Phaedra in the Hippolytus. The same dramatic purpose is served in both cases: that of showing in striking contrast the most elemental and the most civilized or even sophisticated aspects of the same personality. What difference there is between the two contrasts is due to the difference between the two women. Even in hysteria, Phaedra seeks to cloak her naked passion (this impulse is, indeed, the cause of her hysteria); later, in her discourse on human frailty (her own included) one feels that she expresses her own character more truthfully than does Medea in her official bid for sympathy. Freudians, no doubt, could express these same distinctions more accurately in terms of the ego, the super ego and the id.

Medea's purpose in her opening speech is, purely and simply, to win the Chorus of female citizens to her side. As apiece of rhetoric (this time needing no apology for dramatic relevance) the speech is one of the poet's finest passages. It begins on a note of specious but ingratiating familiarity, moves on to the briefest possible indication ("I'm finished, good women, my husband has betrayed me!") of the speaker's plight, and then concentrates with a wealth of poignantly familiar detail on' 'woman's lot," a trouble which the Chorus shares. "We women are a timid lot... but wronged in marriage, there's none more murderous!" All Medea has asked is silent co-operation. By the end of her speech, the Chorus, to a woman regards her vengeance as its own.

The poet's purpose in this passage is, perhaps, more complex than Medea's, though it has much in common with it: we, too, like the Chorus, are destined to begin in pity then to move through fear to horrified revulsion. But to see the larger dramatic purpose of the speech we must consider it in relation to the whole presentation of Jason's barbarian wife.

Prior to this speech, Medea is known to us only as the terrifying witch whom the dramatist has received from the tradition; even if we have no direct knowledge of that tradition, both deeds and character of that Medea have been emphatically made known to us in the opening portions of the play. Now, for the first time, we are introduced to another Medea: a woman and a foreigner who can move the Greeks of the Chorus, and perhaps of the audience, with that disciplined compound of passion and reason which the Greeks called rhetoric. Despite her outlandish background, this Medea manages to strike a common chord in people who (as Jason so tactfully reminds her later) regarded their own society as a privilege which a barbarian must enjoy on sufferance. Thus it is that the dramatist begins, at least, to endow his folk-tale witch with something of the stature which a tragic heroine requires: here and in subsequent encounters with Creon, with Jason and with Aegeus, the many aspects of Medea's powerful personality—eloquent and cunning, wise and passionate by turns— are gradually revealed.

In facing Creon, Medea must play the fawning hypocrite to win at least a day's reprieve from exile. With nice irony, the dramatist endows her with the insight and skill to twist what should most tell against her—her reputation as "a wise one" and Creon's protective love for his own daughter—to serve her purpose. The exchange with Creon has other qualities as well. Medea's appeal "for her children's sake" to Creon's paternal instincts keeps the "children theme" before our minds, while the passage in which Medea allays Creon's fears about her special powers allows Euripides a sly, contemporary aside on the slander which clever people must suffer in society.

While something of Medea's power appears even in the scene with Creon, the full force of her personality is necessarily muted by the situation. This briefly piano effect is more than redressed by her next and most dramatic encounter. Here Medea's greatest advantage is achieved at the expense of, and in contrast to, the traditionally ' 'epic'' figure of Jason, for the hero of the good ship Argo cuts a very sorry figure in her presence. Generosity, absolute loyalties, action and feeling on the grand scale, are the hallmarks of the heroic character. Jason's quibbling rationalization of his actions Medea answers with the single word... ("O utter shameless brazenness!"), as she launches into an impassioned account of all that she has done for him. Consistently, Jason plays the sophist to a heroic Medea: for past favours, he has really Cypns to thank, not her; besides, for a barbarian, life and fame among the Greeks is more than just requital of her service. Previously, horror may have been our main reaction to Medea's deeds for Jason. Now, confronted by Jason's niggling sums in settling the accounts of love, we are impressed by the wild generosity of passion which made them possible.

The effect of the Aegeus scene on the "public image" of Medea seems often to have been missed by the critics, distracted, no doubt, by arguments concerning its allegedly "episodic" nature. Surely we must be impressed by Aegeus' respect for Medea's advice and the readiness with which he confides in her. Nor does he speak in the tone which one reserves for one's witch-doctor: rather, they converse on terms of mutual regard—witness the warmth of their greetings and the exchange of confidence and sympathy with one another's plight. It should be noted, too, that Medea's utterances acquire a sort of brisk professionalism, completely different in tone from other speeches in the play, as soon as Aegeus begins his consultation; this is our only actual view in the play of Medea as a specialist, a professional "wise woman." And the readiness with which Aegeus accepts Medea's offer to put an end to his childlessness in return for future sanctuary at Athens shows a confidence in her powers at least equal to that which he feels in Apollo's oracle or in the wise and pious Pittheus of Trozen. In general, this treatment from the King of Athens does as much as anything to establish Medea in our minds as a "personage" not to be disposed of as a mere gypsy baggage from barbarian lands.

The Aegeus episode is, of course, important for other reasons as well; it heralds, as we shall see, a turning-point in Medea's career of vengeance and in the sympathy which the Chorus has hitherto afforded her.

In her encounters with Creon and Aegeus, Medea has assumed soft-spoken roles which circumstances have forced upon her. After both these encounters, the essential single-minded Medea reappears in impassioned outbursts alone with the Chorus. ("Do you think," she reassures the Chorus. .., about her attitude to Creon, "that I'd have ever fawned on that one, if I'd not been weaving wiles to serve my ends?") There is, however, a terrible difference in the content of these two speeches, and this gulf is marked by the sharp contrast in tone between the earlier and later choral lyrics of the play. In the first of these speeches, Medea shows, it is true, a sinister delight in pondering the different routes—poison or the knife—by which her enemies may be despatched, but however much her oath' 'by Hecate, the sharer of my hearth'' may chill us, it is still her enemies she speaks of killing.

In the lyric (almost "a song for feminists") which follows this speech, the Chorus is still full of sympathy for Medea. As often in Euripides, the first strophe and antistrophe generalize on the situation (here, "the injustice done to women") while the second strophic pair applies the theme directly to the tragic sufferer:

Now rivers flow upstream and the established course of justice is reversed—for now 'tis men who are unjust and laugh at oaths ...

Through the ages, man-made songs show women faithless, but if we women had the gift of song, we'd sing a different tune (paraphrase)

So with you, Medea. Love brought you across the seas to Greece. But now, abandoned (for no longer do Greeks reverence marriage oaths) you have no refuge, no paternal home, as a royal rival destroys your marriage bed. (paraphrase)

The chorus which follows the encounter with Jason is not, however, quite as single-minded in its championship of women and Medea. The first strophe, praising moderate love, decries that excessive passion which ruins judgment and virtue; the answering antistrophe, which praises self-control (sophrosyne), decries the adulterous love which causes strife. Thus, in the generalizing part of this lyric, the Chorus glances at the faults of both Medea and Jason in turn. In the second half, however, nothing distracts attention from sympathy for the deserted and homeless foreigner.

The decisive change in the dramatic action and in the attitude of the Chorus occurs after the scene with Aegeus, for it is then that Medea announces the awful means by which she plans to take vengeance on her husband. The excellence of the play's structure is well illustrated by the placing of this crisis and by the kinds of effect which precede and follow it. The gradual revelation of Medea's personality has now been completed, save for one essential feature which is to give the agon its tragic meaning. The' 'children theme," so essential to this meaning, has been kept constantly before our minds: in the frightened premonitions of the Nurse and in Medea's own off-stage curses; in Medea's exploitation of Creon's paternal instincts, and, ironically enough, in Jason's own claim that he is acting for his family's sake: "For what need have you of children?' ' he asks Medea. The Aegeus episode itself is, of course, vital both to this theme and to the mechanics of the plot. Aegeus' own royal trouble, childlessness, and the lengths to which he goes to cure it, is our most forcible reminder of a king's essential need of sons. Again, in promising the outcast sanctuary in Athens, Aegeus unwittingly removes the only barrier to Medea's plans and her last reticence in revealing them to the Chorus.

Medea's three addresses to the Chorus follow an ascending scale in keeping with the gradually increasing impetus in plot and theme. In the first and most rhetorical of these, Medea's passion is rigorously subordinated to her immediate purpose of winning the Chorus to her side. The second speech with its curse by Hecate and its pondering of the various means of murder, is both more savage and more sinister, but it tells us little of Medea's actual intentions. Only after the scene with Aegeus does she shout for all to hear the full horror of the vengeance which she plans.

One of the most shocking effects of this speech comes from the lack of horror which Medea displays herself. The plan to send her children to the princess bearing poisoned robes is told with hideous matter-of-factness, and only an occasional word or phrase suggests any hesitation at the awful plan of slaying her children for the sake of vengeance on their father. All this suggests that the hints given in the prologue told the truth, that Medea has from the start been determined on this course of action. The main emphasis of the speech is that laughter from one's enemies is not to be endured and the cry, ' 'grievous to my enemies and kindly to my friends'' serves as a grim reminder of the accuracy of the Nurse's description (at v. 38) of Medea's spirit.

It is in the ode immediately following these dreadful revelations that the Chorus begins to withdraw its allegiance from Medea. The first strophe and antistrophe deal, in highly poetic terms, with the purity and beauty of Athens. Euripides may well have enjoyed pleasing his fellow citizens and himself with such idealized pictures of his city, but here he does not do so at the expense of the dramatic situation. The point of the description appears in the second strophic pair: "How," asks the Chorus, ' 'will such a city ever welcome you, Medea, a child-murderer polluting all you meet?'' Now the respect and chivalrous treatment which Medea had won from the King of Athens has been one of the most impressive features of her earlier presentation; the immediate effect of that treatment, however, has been to confirm Medea in her secret and terrible decision. Thus to dwell as the Chorus does on the hideous uncongeniahty between Medea the child-murderer and the pure and serene haven which she has chosen in an effective way of expressing the self-destruction which her plans involve. The terms in which Athens is described are admirably suited to this purpose: it is the physical serenity of the place which is stressed, for this is the aspect which is particularly vulnerable to the pollution with which Medea threatens it. Thus, Athens is "the sacred, unplundered land—where golden Harmonia produced the Muses nine"; the land whose children ' 'ever culling illustrious wisdom, stride spendidly under skies of glorious brightness." What sharper contrast to the black deeds of Medea could we find than all this bright serenity? Even Cypris, so dread a goddess in Medea's case, "breathes moderate, pleasure-wafting breezes on this land."

The actual execution of Medea's plot against the Princess needs little comment. It provides, of course, one of the most exciting and theatrical of the playwright's intrigues and suggests, perhaps, at least one reason why the Medea, of all Greek drama, has survived most successfully as a play which is still presented on the stage. The gulling of the pompous Jason, unaware as ever of his wife's true nature; the contrast between the children's innocence and the glittering fatality of the gifts they bear; the suspense, heightened by the vivid anticipations of the Chorus, as to whether the Princess will yield to the "heavenly charm" of these adornments; the gruesome account, in the messenger's speech, of the switch from delight to anguish, then all the gory details of the deaths themselves: all this provides many opportunities (and none is missed) for melodrama and irony of the more obvious sort. Such effects are legitimate enough in themselves, particularly in view of the sort of creature which Medea is to become before the last scene is ended; nevertheless, a tendency to overplay this aspect of the drama, from the second scene with Jason to the murder of the children, has sometimes obscured certain more subtly tragic effects with which it is combined. Thus far the dramatist has presented a Medea who combines the elemental passion of the folk-tale witch with certain qualities of mind, emotion and personality which let her tower above the several royal and (conventionally) heroic characters who appear beside her on the stage. Now, in her last speech to the Chorus this human and potentially tragic Medea vanishes: instead we hear an embodiment of the alastor (the avenging spirit from Hades) coldly announcing child-murder as a necessary part of her revenge. If this is the Medea which we are to watch without relief to the play's end, then both the Chorus and ourselves have been the dupes, both of the "heroine" and of the dramatist, for yielding our sympathy and interest. Fortunately, however, it is the air of cold inflexibility which is false: a cloak of desperate resolution hiding the maternal anguish as well as a device by which the dramatist may, in the end, present that anguish more effectively.

The agony of Medea begins quietly and unexpectedly in the scene with Jason. The "reconciliation speech," the apology to Jason, Medea accomplishes with all her usual aplomb. The first onset of grief suddenly occurs at the entry of the children, summoned to heal the reconciliation, when Jason thus addresses them: "Only grow up! Your father and whatever gods are kindly will assure the rest! Soon may I see you glorying in the strength of youth...." In each instance, the effect of Medea's tears is so veiled by her ambiguous explanations, so muted by her resourceful ironies, that some critics have taken the tears themselves as a calculated device for securing Jason's sympathy. But Medea's dissimulation only shows us the measure of her will in masking, with characteristic ingenuity, the anguish which, for a moment, overcomes her. So viewed, this scene anticipates, in miniature, the major struggle to come.

The alternation of the human and the fiendish Medea in the following scenes corresponds to the curious interweaving of the tragic and the macabre elements in the double catastrophe. The chorus which follows the despatch of the children with the gifts heralds both deeds of violence: the first strophe and antistrophe anticipate, with sinister vividness, the temptation of the Princess and its fatal results, while the concluding strophic pair expresses grief for the woes of Jason and Medea, respectively, in the coming murder of the children. The report of what has happened at the palace is divided, most remarkably, into two parts. The Tutor's announcement that the children and their gifts have been accepted is, to his surprise, greeted with sullen gloom by Medea; on the other hand, the Messenger's announcement in the following episode, of the deaths which the gifts have caused is received with hideous joy. In between these two reports comes the most crucial passage in the play: that agonizing self-debate in which Medea twice revokes and twice confirms her decision to slay her children. After the Messenger Speech, lengthy... with all the harrowing details, we are brought with the speed of necessity to the final catastrophe for, Medea argues desperately, if their mother does not kill the children now, some hostile hand may do so... the beginning of the speech reminds us of the truth of the matter: the original decision to slay the children was a part, perhaps the major part, of the original plan, before the fatal gifts were sent. Medea utters her final determination with the grim conviction that for her a life of misery must now begin: "Steel your heart for one brief day—then mourn thereafter!''

A final brief and despairing lyric precedes the off-stage murder. It is significant that now the Chorus no longer addresses its pleas to Medea but to the "nature" deities, Earth and Sun (Medea's grandsire) to restrain this unnatural murderess, this embodiment of a vengeance-driven Erinys, which Medea has become. For Medea herself they have only despairing questions and equally dismal prophecies. Why are the two deeds of violence, in many ways so different, presented in this interwoven fashion? Partly, no doubt, for the practical reason that the poet does not wish to lose dramatic impetus by having to work up two separate crises. But there are, I think, reasons more significant than this.

From her folk-tale chrysalis, Medea has emerged, in this play, as a human heroine with the power to achieve her ends in a highly civilized social context (as Jason reminds her) against all odds. So far, however, save for a few hints in the second scene with Jason, her passion for vengeance has been tempered by no redeeming emotion: though human, she is not sympathetic (the Chorus sympathizes with her situation rather than with her): we cannot achieve any degree of identification with her. Again, so far there has been no essential conflict in this play. True, Medea, abandoned and alone in a hostile state, has had to bend two kings, a Chorus of Corinthian women and an ambitious husband to her will, but this achievement is only the measure of her greatness: in this play, Medea herself is really the only one capable of resisting Medea. Regarded as a tragic figure, the Medea of the earlier scenes corresponds to a hate-ridden Philoctetes as yet undisturbed by the friendship of Neoptolemus, or to a stubbornly resentful Achilles, untried by the loss of Patroclus.

Medea's first full statement of her plans (in the last of her three addresses to the Chorus) has shocked us by its coldness. More recently, in the second scene with Jason, we have seen signs that this frozen determination does not represent the whole Medea. Now, when the child-murder suddenly becomes imminent with the success of the first phase of the plan, Medea's resolution falters for the first time. Thus the great speech at 1019 ff. is essential to the characterization of Medea and to the meaning of the play.

If Medea's sudden flood of emotion, her passionate regrets for lost maternal joys, should strike us as commonplace, let us remember that that is just its purpose. We are meant, simply, to realize that Medea loves her children as deeply as any woman does. So, too, the sudden effects of the children's smiles, and of Medea's lightning switches from "I cannot do it" to "I must," and back again, far from being bathetic melodrama, are essential to the realistic presentation of the struggle in Medea's soul. Without this scene, what Medea eventually becomes would indeed smack of melodrama. That monstrous figure attains tragic significance only when we see it as the result of a conflict—of a victory, as Medea herself expresses it—of her all-consuming passion for vengeance over her better counsels. To grasp the nature of this struggle, we must see the good in Medea before we see her at her worst. The plot requires that something of her lethal savagery should appear before the ultimate horror of the child-murder, but had we already seen her gloating over the details of her palace butchery the sympathetic presentation of her own agony would have been impossible. So it is that the first news from the palace, that the children and their gifts have been accepted, is greeted sadly by Medea, and that the horrible sequence to this news is postponed till after the emotional climax at vv. 1019-80. By the time that the second bulletin, showing the first results of Medea's cruelty, arrives from the palace, Medea's self-debate concerning her children, and with it the dramatic need for our sympathy, is over; indeed, the wholehearted gloating over the Messenger's hideous account, contrasting so sharply with her despondent reception of the Tutor and his news, may be meant to illustrate the new Medea, now totally committed to evil, who emerges only after the completion of her interior struggle.

In the concluding passages of the play, after the murder of the children, the monstrous and inhuman aspects of Medea are played up in a variety of ways. The Chorus by its reference to Ino, intimates that no human mother could bear to live after slaying her children and Jason echoes this thought when he cries, "Can you still look upon the sun and earth, after enduring such an impious deed?" And yet Medea lives and flourishes. More significant, perhaps, is Jason's bitter reference to the unnatural deeds of Medea—deeds from which he took the profit—against her own family in Colchis. During the very human action of this play, little has been made of these dark deeds, save as examples of Medea's devotion to the ingrate Jason, but now that "Medea the fiend" has triumphed over the human heroine this reminder of the barbarous, magic-working Medea of the folk tale is all too apposite. Jason complains that the Alastor which should pursue Medea for these deeds is pursuing him instead, but we who have witnessed the moral destruction of Medea in the preceding episode are all too well aware that the alastor has not missed its mark. As for the murderess herself, Medea the avenger, in the final scene with Jason, has quite defeated Medea, the tortured mother: "... Call me lioness or Scylla, as you will... as long as I have reached your vitals "My grief is solaced if you cannot mock!"

The "improbable'' and inorganic ending of the play—Medea's departure in the Sun-god's fiery chariot—is a feature of the play which appears to have irritated Aristotle. {Poetics 1454b 1-2) However, such macabre touches, such departures from the real world of tragedy, if they serve some purpose, are surely permissible when the tragic meaning has already been expressed. That, in this instance, the supernatural intervention is not meant to intrude on the real action of the play has already been shown by the fact that, earlier, the human and the tragic Medea has been concerned with such practical matters as the arrangement for asylum at Athens and the impossibility of escaping with her children from the vengeful Corinthians. (See, for example, lines 1236-41). Thus the only point of interest in the deus-ex-machina ending lies in the symbolic purpose which this device fulfils. This has been variously expressed by critics in accordance with their different views of Euripides' "Medea theme.'' Kitto finds in the device the poet's answer to the Chorus's and Jason's idea that "Sun and Earth, the most elemental things in the Universe, have been outraged by these terrible crimes," while Lesky and M. P. Cunningham both regard the chariot scene as marking the fundamental, qualitative change which her awful deed has effected in Medea. In terms of the present study, it seems fair to suggest that by this final macabre touch of symbolism, the poet is once again expressing the transformation of a human heroine back to the folk-tale fiend of magic powers.

Source: D. J. Conacher, in his Eunpidean Drama Myth, Theme, and Structure, University of Toronto Press, 1967,pp. 187-98

On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

If Medea does not entirely understand every aspect of her whirling character, she would do well to consult Judith Anderson. For Miss Anderson understands the character more thoroughly than Medea Euripides or the scholars, and it would be useless now for anyone else to attempt the part. Using a new text by Robinson Jeffers, she set a landmark in the theatre at the National last evening, where she gave a burning performance in a savage part.

Mr. Jeffers' "free adaptation," as it is called, spares the supernatural bogeymen of the classical Greek drama and gets on briskly with the terrifying story of a woman obsessed with revenge. His verse is modern; his words are sharp and vivid, and his text does not worship gods that are dead.

Since Miss Anderson is a modern, the Jeffers text suits her perfectly and releases a torrent of acting incomparable for passion and scope. Miss Anderson' s Medea is mad with the fury of a woman of rare stature. She is barbaric by inheritance, but she has heroic strength and vibrant perceptions. Animal-like in her physical reactions, she plots the doom of her enemies with the intelligence of a priestess of black magic—at once obscene and inspired. Between those two poles she fills the evening with fire, horror, rage and character. Although Miss Anderson has left some memorable marks on great women in the theatre, Medea has summoned all her powers as an actress. Now everyone realizes that she has been destined for Medea from the start.

The general performance and the production are all of a piece. As the nurse, Florence Reed is giving an eminent performance that conveys the weariness and apprehensions of a devoted servant who does not quarrel with fate. John Gielgud's Jason is a lucid, solemn egotist well expressed in terms of the theatre. As Creon, Albert Hecht has the commanding voice and the imperiousness of a working monarch. The chorus of women, which has been refreshingly arranged in Mr. Gielgud's unhackneyed direction, is well acted by Grace Mills, Kathryn Grill and Leone Wilson. The parts of the two young sons are disarmingly represented in the guileless acting of Gene Lee and Peter Moss. Hugh Franklin as Aegeus and Don McHenry as the Tutor give agreeable performances, innocent of the stuffiness peculiar to most classical productions.

Ben Edwards' setting of the doorway to a Greek house is no more than pedestrian designing, although Peggy Clark has lighted it dramatically, and Castillo has dressed the characters well. Your correspondent could do very well without the conventional theatrical effects—the lightning and the surf especially, for, unlike the acting, they derive from the old-fashioned theatre of rant and ham. Out of respect for Miss Anderson's magnificent acting in this incarnadined drama, they ought to be locked up in the lumber room. For she has freed Medea from all the old traditions as if the character had just been created. Perhaps that is exactly what has happened. Perhaps Medea was never fully created until Miss Anderson breathed immortal fire into it last evening.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, in a review of Medea ( 1947) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 282-84. As drama critic for the New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America.


Critical Overview