Commonly regarded as Euripides’ greatest work, Medea is a powerful study of impassioned love turned into furious hatred. As a tragedy, this play is completely unlike the Aristotelian concept of tragedy, but it has a nerve-jarring impact. It also reveals the extent to which Euripides diverges from his fellow tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, in his depiction of human pain. With Medea there is no comforting philosophy to put the tragic agony at a safe psychological distance. Instead, Euripides tries to make Medea as close to an actual woman as possible, and to show her fiery lust for vengeance in naked action with nothing to mitigate its effect. The audience is witness to a hideous passion and cannot be certain whether Euripides approves of it or condemns it. He simply presents it objectively so that we understand Medea, but he leaves it to his audience to determine his meaning.
Euripides was probably in his fifties when this play was first produced in 431 b.c.e., an age when a sensitive person is fully aware of the agony that life can inflict on a person. What struck him most was the universality of suffering. Confronted with pain, every other human reality seemed to dissolve. In the face of Medea’s consuming hatred, kingship, laws, culture, self-esteem, and even motherly love have become meaningless. In Medea, Euripides portrays a very important aspect of terrible suffering, namely, the desire of the sufferer to create the identical agony in the person who caused it. The dramatist recognized the crucial link between anguish and hate. Reports of Euripides say that he was a bookish recluse, but it is understandable that a man as vulnerable to human misery as he was should shut himself off from people.
Euripides turned to the old legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece to illustrate his preoccupation. He takes up the story after all of Jason’s successes have been accomplished with Medea’s help. Jason has deserted Medea to marry the Greek princess, Glauce, leaving Medea with two small sons. As the nurse remarks in her opening monologue, Medea is not one to take such a betrayal lightly. Although Medea is prostrate with bitter grief and hoping to die as the play begins, the nurse knows how murderous her mistress really is, and she fears for the safety of Medea’s sons. A common technique of Euripides is to use the opening speech or section to explain the background of the action and to suggest the climactic development.
Medea is a barbarian princess and sorcerer who is accustomed to having her own way in everything. Furthermore, as a barbarian she has none of the restraints that civilization imposes. Jason is a Greek, subject to law, rationality, and practical calculation. As a result, he seems cold and indifferent beside Medea, who is a creature of passion. However, this is merely a surface appearance. Euripides exposes the inner layers of their psyches with unflinching honesty in the course of the play.
As a woman of passion, Medea is wholly committed to Jason as the object of her emotional life, whether in love or hate. When she loved Jason she did not hesitate to kill her brother, betray her father and country, or instigate Pelias’s murder for Jason’s sake. She is equally amoral in her hatred. The drama consists of the unfolding of her plans for revenge and their ultimate execution. When Medea first appears on stage before a chorus of sympathetic women, she is the image of the wronged woman, and one feels pity for her. At the end of the play, however, after a bloodbath of four persons that includes her sons and that leaves Jason’s life a total desolation, one feels only horror.
These murders are as coldly calculated as any in classical tragedy, and Medea feels no penitence at all. It is precisely the icy manner in which she goes about the killings that inspires dread. She caters to Creon to gain time to kill him and his daughter, Glauce. Medea plans to kill Jason, too, but when she sees Aegeus heartsick at being childless, she determines to render Jason childless, wifeless, and friendless. Medea pretends a reconciliation with Jason to slay Creon and Glauce in a loathsome fashion. Then, after hesitating to kill her sons because of temporary softness, she butchers them without mercy. Medea is a practitioner of black magic, a cold-blooded murderer, and a total monster; but under Euripides’ spell the audience understands her.
The passion by which Medea lives makes her both subhuman and superhuman. When Euripides finally has her escape in a dragon-drawn chariot through the air, one comes to realize that Medea is a piece of raw nature—barbaric, violent, destructive, inhumanly powerful, and beyond all moral standards. Jason becomes entangled with a force that crushes his dignity and detachment, that tears his successes to tatters. At the end, he is in exactly the same position as Medea. Both are bereaved of mate, children, and friends. Both are free to grow old without comfort. Both are utterly empty inside, except that Jason is now filled with the same burning hatred that possessed Medea.
This play operates on several levels. The antagonism between Jason and Medea can be read as the enmity between man and woman, between intelligence and passion, between civilization and barbarism, or between humanity and nature. In each instance, the woman, the passions, the barbarian, the forces of nature—all embodied in Medea—have the power to turn and reduce the masculine elements to nothing. Medea is a strong, depressing, fearsome drama in which Euripides presents his stark vision of life.