Euripides’ play Medea was produced in 431 BCE, the year that brought the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. [The play inspired Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.]
The action begins some time after the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, during which Medea enabled Jason to attain the Golden Fleece. She has had to kill so that they could make their escapes from enemies (including her own brother). They were married and have had two kids, but Medea is an alien in Corinth and so has no rights. Greek city-states tended to regard only marriage between members of established families legal. Jason has dumped Medea in order to marry into a royal family.
The play starts with the Nurse fretting about the state of things and expressing platitudes; e.g., “This is indeed the greatest salvation of all– / For the wife not to stand apart from the husband” (1). Such homespun “stand-by-yer-man” drivel is completely irrelevant under the circumstances. The Nurse discusses Medea’s state of mind with the children’s Tutor, ending her cluckings with this statement:
I would like to be safe and grow old in a
Humble way. What is moderate sounds best,
Also in practice is best for everyone.
Greatness brings no profit to people.
God indeed, when in anger, brings
Greater ruin to great men’s houses. (5)
This expression of the aspiration to mediocrity or avoiding the attention of greatness (à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Les Nessman in the baseball episode of WKRP saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let them hit it to me”) is seldom respected in mythology. Mythology rarely says, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls; just stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.” The Chorus adds a communal voice to the Nurse’s provincial dreck: “Suppose your man gives honor / To another woman’s bed. / It often happens. Don’t be hurt. / God will be your friend in this” (6).
Medea herself comments on the lot in life of a woman (8-9). In dialogue with Creon, Jason’s future father-in-law (and not the same guy associated with Oedipus in Thebes), Medea relates the following:
Through being considered clever I have suffered much.
A person of sense ought never to have his children
Brought up to be more clever than the average.
For, apart from cleverness bringing them no profit,
It will make them objects of envy and ill-will.
If you put new ideas before the eyes of fools
They’ll think you foolish and worthless into the bargain
And if you are thought superior to those who have
Some reputation for learning, you will become hated.
I have some knowledge myself of how this happens;
For being clever, I find that some will envy me,
Others object to me. Yet all my cleverness
Is not so much. Well, then, are you frightened, Creon…. (10-11)
- Consider Medea as a female archetype. What does Medea come to represent in western thought?
In mythology, Medea is one the original “smart women.” There is much to be said, even today, about the condition of being female and clever.
- For Women: Have you ever felt that being “brainy” has caused you problems?
- Do you as a young woman find that young men — potential boyfriends — react in unpredictable ways and even undesirable ways to your intelligence? Can you offer an example?
- For Men: Are you or have you ever been intimidated by a smart woman? Why, and what was the result?
Medea is smart, and she insists she has suffered because of it. Despite Athenian understanding of the situation (the original audience would have known that one is Athenian only if one is born of an Athenian mother, that a marriage is binding only if it is contracted by two Athenian families for the purpose of procreating more legitimate Athenian citizens — Dido and Aeneas, and Caesar and Cleopatra faced the same situation), Medea wins over the Chorus of Corinthian women whose default mode seems to agree with the Nurse: suck it up when he treats you like dirt. She also cleverly arranges her escape hatch ahead of time by chatting up Aegeus.
In a hostile exchange with Jason, Medea recounts the reasons for his indebtedness to her (16). He insists that the goddess Aphrodite is responsible for his successes and goes about “proving” that he did more for her than vice versa, spuriously listing the benefits of his jilting, including, in a show of outrageously hypocritical “family values” that “I might bring my children up worthily / Of my position, and, by producing more of them / To be brothers of yours, we would draw the families / Together and all be happy” (18)! One effect lost to readers of translations is that Medea’s hissing at Jason is lost: “esosa se esosa hos isasi hosoi” (Hadas 32).
Medea’s subsequent talk with Aegeus appears in the form of an “agon” — a rapid-fire exchange — suggesting that Medea is calculating something. She agrees to give Aegeus some ancient Greek Viagra if he will accept her into his household should she be exiled from Corinth (23).
Drugs and poisons have been Medea’s stock in trade beforehand, but she has the children carry the poison garb to the princess; what a stroke!
Jason is an ass. The characterization is delightful. When Medea suddenly plays the compliant idiot, he buys it — that’s what he expects in women (28-29).
The Chorus blabs about the misery of having children and how your life is sucked away (35-36). (My take.) Then a Messenger reports to Medea how well her plan worked: the princess tried on the gown and diadem, both of which attached themselves to her flesh and burned poison into her. When her father tried to help, he too was absorbed into the burning melting flesh blob. (Symbolically, the trappings of the whole “Daddy’s little pretty pretty princess” mode are shown to be poisonous.) Next, Medea goes after her kids. Offstage we hear their lilting panicked shrill little voices, so Medea isn’t fast enough butchering them for my taste, but she does go through with it. Fathers murder their children every day, but when a woman becomes a child-killer, it’s big news and sparks months of self-righteous clucking from the sanctimonious set. This play opens up lots of gender issues and sexism questions.
Medea is the sun’s granddaughter, so he sends a magic chariot without concern for justice. Divine will at the end of the play is enigmatic and discordant. In her final exchange with Jason, one is left with a sort of intellectual stalemate: I suppose we can’t condone Medea’s actions, but we can’t dismiss her motives either. She claims that the children “died from a disease they caught from their father” (44). The peculiar factor is that they are both boys, where normally one would expect the generic stereotypical boy and girl. Clearly the “disease” is Greek maleness! A chromosome.
Jason remains an ass to the end, and it’s a hoot that he will die in old age, as Medea foretells correctly, when a chunk of his rotting ship, the Argo, falls on his head (45), no doubt when he’s underneath it sucking down a brewsky and thinking about his glory days.
This play ought to shake its audience out of their complacent pride in the supremacy of Greek masculinity and force them to consider the fallout and nasty marginalizations resulting from their legal system. Medea’s treatment drives her to violate “society’s most sacred laws.” Hers is the violence of the oppressed, so it’s pent up and finally uncontrolled and extreme.
Euripides. Medea. NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.
Hadas, Moses and John McLean, eds. Introduction. Medea. Ten Plays by Euripides. NY: Bantam Books, 1981. 31-32.