- Medea's passionate "barbarian" nature contrasts with Jason's rational Greek demeanor. Whether in love or in hate, Medea commits herself to a course of action regardless of the consequences.
- Medea is often considered a psychological study of Medea herself, exploring questions about passion, murder, and the circumstances that would inspired a woman to kill her own children.
- In the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Medea, the princess of Colchis, helps Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father. Euripides draws inspiration from this legend. However, Medea depicts Jason not as a hero but as a faithless husband who abandons his wife.
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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.
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*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 tragedy stem at least partially from the anguished, extended demise of the greatness that was Athens.
Women and Marriage in Ancient Greek Culture
Medea's complaint that Jason married another might have carried less weight had Jason followed the conventional method of divorce in Athens. Although women could only under exceptional conditions obtain a divorce, any Athenian man could rid himself of a wife simply by publicly renouncing his marriage. Marriages were arranged by the parents with no input from the daughter; thus Medea's flight with Jason was scandalous impertinence. The daughter carne with a dowry, a substantial one if the family was wealthy. Once married, the woman served her husband by caring for the children and slaves, who legally belonged to her husband. Medea accurately describes the conditions of married life for women in lines 231-251. Athenian women never experienced independence during then-lives. They received no education, lived in separate quarters from their husbands, and seldom went out. The ideal woman was "spoken of as little as possible among men, whether for good or for ill" according to the historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.). Athenian law forbade Athenian men to marry any but Athenian women, but it was not uncommon for Athenian men to keep foreign concubines, who often had more education than their Athenian rivals. However, the children of these unions were not official citizens of Athens, just as the children of Jason and Medea would not be official citizens of Corinth, while Creusa's offspring by Jason would enjoy the full benefits of Corinthian citizenship.
Greek theater evolved from rituals in honor of Dionysus. Three playwrights would each present three tragedies and one satyr play that burlesqued one of the tragedies. To be invited to produce a tetralogy was a significant honor; to win the coveted prize of the festival was a cherished one. Although the dramas belonged to a religious festival, the audience was by no means solemn. In Euripides's time, Dionysus was still carried into the theater in procession and was revered as the god of wine, who inspires music and poetry. It was his festival, conducted in March over a three-day period, that hosted the competition in which Medea was performed, the first play of the conventional tetralogy.
Euripides's other two tragedies and satyr play have been lost. His tetralogy containing Medea placed last in the competition.
The center of the theater, or orchestra (literally, "dancing-place") in which Euripides's plays were produced consisted of a circle sixty feet in diameter, with an altar to Dionysus at its center. On the South side, a stage building served as backdrop (scene or "skene") and as a place for players to make their entrances and exits. A crane provided the means for gods to drop in from the heavens for the deus ex machina (literally, "god from a machine"). In a horseshoe around the other sides ranged rows of stone seats fitted into a natural hill slope. Because of the bowl-shaped site, acoustics were excellent for the 14,000 or so spectators the theater would accommodate. Unlike modern theatre, Greek dramatic presentations were more like readings. Different characters were represented by masks that the actors would wear. Usually only a handful of actors would enact a play, with one actor often performing multiple roles (or wearing multiple masks). Another difference from modern dramatic performance is the manner in which the actors read their lines. Where contemporary actors emote or "act out" their parts, their Greek counterparts would most often impassively read their lines.
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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 back."). In fact, D. J. Conacher, in his Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme, and Structure, has called the first choral stanza (lines 410-445) a virtual theme "song for feminists," The chorus even goes so far as to accuse Jason of sinning in his betrayal of Medea. The women shift their attitude, however, as soon as they learn that Medea intends to murder her own children. As the play progresses, the chorus moves from sympathy to horror, interacting less with the characters and turning to address the gods of nature and, late in the play, the audience. The chorus does not simply condemn Medea, however. It complicates a too-easy judgement of Medea by showing pity for her throughout the play. When Medea puts her plan into action, the chorus expresses pity for the children, Creusa, Jason, and Medea in turn—in order, apparently, from innocence to guilt. In this crime, all parties deserve pity, even the perpetrator, because the perpetrator had a reasonable cause for anger. The chorus' list blurs Medea's liability by including her as one deserving compassion.
The Euripidean chorus also reminds the audience of the larger issues involved in the action of the play. It evokes the concept of pollution, warning Medea that no city will want to be polluted by her presence if she should commit the deed she threatens. Here the purpose of the chours is to place Medea's deed into the larger context of society, to suggest the greater implications of her personal crime. The Euripidean chorus frequently reminds the audience of ideal values, such as in the second choral stanza when it expounds on the virtues of moderate love and fidelity and proclaims the misery of the loss of fatherland to elicit sympathy for Medea. In Medea, as in most of Euripides's work, the chorus chants poetic asides on the themes raised by the action. This was the typical role of the chorus—to express the ultimate emotion or beauty of even the most painful event, "to translate the particular act into something universal," as Gilbert Murray noted in Euripides and His Age. The action of the play consists of the here and now, while the choral odes consists of the eternal. However, some Euripidiean choral odes, including those in Medea, seem only slightly connected with the events of the play, and it was this innovation that led to the elimination of the chorus altogether. The final lines of the chorus, something on the order of' 'whatever happens, happens," are so far removed from the actions that have just unfolded that they do nothing to dispel the uneasiness the final scene elicits. The same stock ending appears in three other Euripidean plays that have survived. The effect is a rather abrupt return to reality.
Deus ex Machina
In the final scene, Medea rides off with the corpses of her murdered sons in a chariot pulled by dragons. On the ancient Greek stage, this stage effect would have been accomplished by means of a large crane that would permit the contraption to "fly." The "deus ex machina," literally "god from a machine," was a common closing device in ancient Greek theater. Normally, a god would descend from the heavens to bring the action to a close and ordain the ritual the play celebrates. In Medea, no god appears, although the chariot has been supplied by Medea's grandfather, the sun god, thus weakening considerably the invocation of the gods. Perhaps this slight derives from Euripides's skepticism about religious rituals. In any event, the scene is glaringly inconsistent with the realism of the rest of the play. But considering that Medea is now guilty of multiple murders, it seems one of a very few possible means of escape available to her.
Prologue and Duologue
The prologue precedes the action of the play. Before Euripides's time, the prologue was spoken, chanted, or sung by a chorus, but it had evolved into a presentation by the actors by the time he began writing dramas. Euripides's plays often begins with a single actor who addresses the audience directly, explaining the background of the story to be told (even though his Athenian audience would already be quite familiar with the myth upon which the play would, by convention, be based). Medea opens with a monologue by the nurse, who recounts the cause of Medea's grief. The nurse is joined by the attendant, and together, in duologue (a dialogue among two actors) they discuss the implications and extent of Medea's rage, forshadowing the murder and mayhem that will come. The duologue between Jason and Medea is called the agon, an intense argument between powerful antagonists.
Compare and Contrast
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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 promised equality among Athenian citizens (meaning adult males born of two Athenian parents); these citizens participated freely in the governing of the city and ardently defended the city's political system. The philosopher Aristotle called Athenian democracy "a common life for a noble end."
Today: the very different form of democracy that exists today in many developed nations has little in common with Athenian democracy, for the simple reason that modern democracies serve larger and more diverse populations and extend their ideals to all.
5th century B.C.: Greek tragic theater was produced in March for the ritual celebration of Dionysus, the god of wine. Everyone in the city attended the festival and the overall mood was festive—but also serious—this was a religious festival and the outcome of the competition was a matter of civic pride. It took place in the heart of the city at the altar of Dionysus and was at the center of Greek culture as well.
Today: The Modern theater no longer has ties to religion, although dramas for religious rituals are produced in some organized religions for important holidays. In the public theater, the sense of solemn ritual as experienced by the Athenians has no counterpart today. Theater is a form of entertainment and diversion that holds a rather peripheral status in today's societies.
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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 through Boosey and Hawkes.
A Kabuld Japanese version was produced in 1984 by Shoca Sato, with traditional Kabuki music and costume and called Kabuki Medea (available on Illinois Video).
An African version of Medea was created in 1968 by J. Magnuson.
Samuel Barber wrote ballet music for Medea in 1949. A different ballet version of the play was produced in the Soviet Union in 1979 and videotaped; it is available from Kultur Video Distributors.
John Gardner, whose other classical adaptation, Grendel, is better known, also adapted the story of Jason and Medea into a long (354 pages) epic poem, Jason and Medeia; his version contains a modernistic twist on Euripides's theme. Countee Cullen's translation of "The Medea" can be found in his collection, The Medea and Some Poems.
Bibliography and Further Reading
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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.
Foustel De Coulanges, Numa Dems. The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980,1956.
A nineteenth-century work of scholarship that describes the life of the ancients in glowing detail; although dated, this work is still respected for its insights and depth.
Grene, David, and Richard Lattimore, Editors The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol III: Euripides, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
An anthology of Euripides's plays, including the Rex Warner translation of The Medea.
Grube,G M A The Drama of Euripides, Methuen, 1961.
Explores the role of the gods in the works of Euripides and his contemporaries. Euripides, sometimes accused of being an atheist, did not portray the gods as infallibly rational, but rather as bound by the same passions as humankind.
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way, W. W. Norton, 1993,1930.
In her inimitable style, Edith Hamilton describes the mind and spirit of ancient Greek culture and includes a brief chapter on Euripides.
Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study, Methuen, 1961.
Kitto suggests that Euripides built his tragedies around a central theme or idea, not a plot line, and that this choice explains his loose dramatic structure.
Lattimore, Richard. The Poetry of Greek Tragedy, Johns Hopkins Press, 1958.
Lattimore remains the foremost translator of Greek classic, and his commentary on poetic structure is insightful. Includes a chapter on Euripides.
Lattimore, Richard. Story-Patterns in Greek Tragedy, University of Michigan Press, 1964.
Another useful resource from Lattimore.
Lucas,F. L. Euripides and His Influence, Marshall Jones, 1923.
Lucas describes some of the innovations of Euripi-des's plays and how his work influenced later generations of writers.
Murray, Gilbert Euripides and His Age, Oxford University Press, 1955.
A landmark work descnbing the historical context of Euripides' s Athens, including the Peloponnesian War and the rise of the Sophists Also includes critical treatments of the major plays of Euripides.
Vellacott, Philip Ironic Drama; A Study of Euripides's Method and Meaning, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
In this work, Vellacott explains how Euripides uses ironic reversals of expectations in many of his plays.
Vickers, Brian "Myths in Tragedy" in his Towards Greek Tragedy: Drama, Myth, Society, Longman, 1973, pp 268-343
An essay emphasizing the importance of the oath and its betrayal by Jason in Medea.
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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.
Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Focusing on women in Athens and in tragedy, Rabinowitz explores female desire as a threat to family and the Athenian polis, interpreting Medea as a female victim who, though initially sympathetic to the audience, forfeits that sympathy by indulging in a vengeance made to seem excessive—an act for which she pays no price.