"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." ~ William Congreve
In many ways, this play is a counterpart to Agamemnon, the earlier play by Aeschylus, which I read last year. In that play, a woman wreaked her revenge on her husband for sacrificing their daughter to appease the gods, then went on to marry her lover. In this play, the husband takes a second wife, and the first wife murders her and her father, then turns on her own children to spite her faithless husband. But a little background will help.
Euripides was the last of the three great Greek tragedians (Aeschylus was the first, with Sophocles in the middle), and the one who left the most fully preserved plays. Medea is one of his early plays, and it reflects the pessimism of that period. It does, however, show signs of the development of the form since the heyday of Aeschylus. While the chorus in Agamemnon had the majority of the lines in the play, it has a reduced role in Medea, commenting at the end of scenes, rather than functioning as the main narrator of the action. Instead, there is an increased role given to dialogue between the characters, and various messengers are permitted to tell of the offscreen action. However, as before, the chorus serves as a commentary on the action, interpreting it for the audience, and bringing it into historical and moral context. Likewise, the murders are described rather than shown. The focus is on the interaction and emotions of the characters, rather than on the plot.
As with all Greek tragedies, the stories in this one is drawn from mythology, and would have been well known to the audience. As I have noted before, I have been aided greatly by Thomas Bulfinch’s Mythology in acquiring the necessary background knowledge.
Medea, the title character, was a sorceress of formidable power, and also a princess. She later became the wife, in succession, of two of the great Greek heroes. The first of these was Jason. Yes, that Jason, he of the golden fleece and the voyage to attain that treasure in his ship, the Argo, filled with an all-star cast of famous heroes.
Jason would never have managed to successfully navigate the dangers of the quest without the assistance of Medea, who falls in love with him. Not only does she give him advice and magically items that save him from the fire-breathing bulls, the dragon’s teeth turned to an army, and the fierce dragon; she even goes so far as to betray her own brother to his death in order to allow Jason to escape with the fleece. She thus has burned all bridges in her homeland. Such are things done for love - and Jason did promise marriage to her in advance. He fulfills his promise, and the couple has two sons.
All is not well, however, by the time the play opens, Medea’s love for Jason has turned to hatred, and with reasonable cause. Jason, like many a hero, isn’t exactly satisfied with the woman who has sacrificed everything for him. He takes a shine to Cruesa, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. (This Creon is not to be confused with the Creon of the Oedipus trilogy, who is a different person altogether.) Whether Jason is primarily infatuated with Cruesa’s beauty or with the advantageous alliance that the new marriage would cement is left rather ambiguous in the play. Jason makes a thoroughly unconvincing attempt to convince Medea that the match is merely mercenary, but he hardly seems to harbor any affection for Medea.
As the attendant puts it to the nurse (of the children), “Old ties give way to new; he bears no longer any love to this family.”
Cruesa, like many stepmothers before and since, both of the real and fairy-tale variety, is not a fan of either her rival or the children, and pressures Jason to disown Medea. Being rather used to being a powerful and independent woman in her own land, Medea makes the fateful miscue of publicly criticising Creon and Cruesa, which leads Creon to banish Medea and her children. In the economy of the ancient world, this would likely have meant starvation and certainly disgrace to Medea - particularly since she cannot flee to the protection of her father.
Euripides took some heat in his time for some rather feminist statements in this play, including this one by the nurse.
Strange are the tempers of princes, and maybe because they seldom have to obey, and mostly lord it over others, change their moods with difficulty. ‘Tis better then to have been trained to live on equal terms.
Although the sentiment is clearly directed at the nobility, it was also understood at the time to have been a commentary on male-female relationships, which, according to the pattern set forth by Aristotle, was to resemble the that of master and slave.
I have previously noted that throughout the history of drama, many of the most cheeky and revolutionary sentiments were given to the servants, who were allowed to express them in ways that the nobility could not - even in fictional drama.
In this case, however, Medea herself is allowed to vent in a striking soliloquy.
Of all things that have life and sense, we women are the most hapless creatures; fist must we buy a husband at great price, and o’er ourselves a tyrant set which is an evil worse than the first; and herein lies the most important issue, whether our choice be good or bad. For divorce is not honorable to women, nor can we disown our lords. Next must the wife, coming as she does to ways and customs new, since she hath not learnt the lesson in her home, have a diviner’s eye to see how best to treat the partner of her life. If haply we perform these tasks with thoroughness and tact, and the husband live with us, without resenting the yoke, our life is a happy one; if not, ‘twere best to die. But when a man is vexed with what he finds indoors, he goeth forth and rids his soul of its disgust, betaking him to some friend or comrade of like age; whilst we must needs regard his single self.
And yet they say we live secure at home, while they are at the wars, with their sorry reasoning, for I would gladly take my stand in battle array three times o’er, than once give birth.
In the context of ancient culture, this statement is disturbingly accurate as to the fate of women. Actually, with arranged marriages being common, it was even worse than she says - and this fact of life remained so for centuries thereafter. Sadly, this state of affairs, and the double standard remain in many places and cultures today. I am further disturbed to note that Aristotle’s view of gender relations as a hierarchy seems to be making a comeback within the Christian Patriarchy movement.
I would also note that this is the earliest use I have found of the female trump card: “you think that is hard, try giving birth!” And let’s face it, 2500 years later, we men still have no good retort.
Creon comes and tells Medea to leave the realm, post haste. Medea manages to beg for a day to make arrangements, but she really is plotting her revenge.
Jason, as expected for a powerful Greek man, decides to take matters in hand and tell Medea off. His address to her is shockingly arrogant and dismissive. Medea responds by recounting all that she did for him: she was the real reason his quest succeeded, and indeed why he is alive today. He proceeds to minimize her contributions, instead claiming that it was ordained by the gods, and claiming that her sacrifice was actually for her own benefit as he raised her from her barbarian homeland to the goodness and civilization of Greece. After this breathtakingly tone-deaf and self absorbed rambling, he compounds it by claiming that he is doing all of this for Medea’s children. This pretty much cement’s Medea’s purpose to destroy all that is dear to Jason.
At this point, Aegeus, the king of Athens, pays a visit. He offers Medea (and the children, if need be) an asylum. Medea consents, knowing that she will need it. Euripides takes time to portray Athens as the pinnacle of goodness - he himself was an Athenian after all.
Medea’s plot is to poison Cruesa, and then kill her own children, before fleeing to safety. She pretends to make up with Jason, and sends a gift to Cruesa, saying to Jason, “‘tis said that gifts tempt even gods; and oer men’s minds gold holds more potent sway than countless words.”
The gifts are laced with poison, which kills Cruesa in a painful manner. Creon embraces her as she dies, and is killed by the same poison.
Medea has one final act to perform: the murder of her own sons. Her motive is clear:
LEADER OF THE CHORUS: O Lady, wilt thou steel thyself to slay thy children twain?
MEDEA: I will, for that will stab my husband to the heart.
Alas, one of the curses of being an attorney who assists in divorces is to see this sentiment in action. It is by no means limited to women: men are fully capable of it, as are grandparents on both sides. The desire is to cause pain to the other side, rather than gain any real benefit, and the children are used as pawns.
The chorus opines on the futility of parenthood, while getting a dig in at women in general, claiming that “small is the class amongst women - (one maybe shalt thou find ‘mid many) - that is not incapable of wisdom.”
Finally, after Medea does the dirty deed, Jason arrives, full of himself and fury at the murder of his new bride. After accusing her of being the worst mother ever (which may be true), he is shocked to find that Medea blames his new marriage.
JASON: Didst think that marriage cause enough to murder them?
MEDEA: Dost think a woman counts this a trifling injury?
JASON: So she be self-restrained.
At the very end, then, he is dismissive of her pain. She, as a woman, should simply take what he himself would never dream of bearing.
But Medea clearly has the last laugh. Jason has lost everything that is dear to him: his children, both wives, and, to a degree, his own self respect. Medea further portends that he will never have children, and his role in mythology comes to an end. Medea will escape to Athens, and marry Aegeas.
I had a few thoughts on the modern parallels with this play. All truly great literature sheds light on the truth of the human existence, and indeed on human nature itself. The family drama which plays out with deadly consequence here is familiar to me, albeit on a smaller scale. Empires are not at stake, and thankfully, I have yet to have a corpse involved. However, the jealousy between the old and new love, and the disdain for the children of a rival are commonplace. Euripides brings to light both the predicament of an abandoned woman and the foul fruit of revenge. In the end, all that could have been good has been destroyed, and the amazing success of Jason, as aided by his devoted love, is tainted by his dismal failure once the immediate peril of adventure has been conquered.
I also note the human tendency to make romantic decisions in the theater of war that are often regretted later. Whether one looks to Puccini's Madama Butterfly or the story of Joe Cable and Liat in Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific or the many children of mixed ancestry left on the fields of battle after the fact, the story is the same. A man experiences love, enhanced by the danger and drama, but later regrets the match. Medea herself feels keenly that Jason regrets bringing a foreign bride home with him. Jason appears to regret his choice as well, although he has gained everything by Medea’s love. Perhaps that very debt is a factor in the breakup. Jason wants to be admired and worshiped as a true hero, but Medea reminds him that he didn’t do it alone. She alone can claim to be his equal, or even his better, and he resents it. So he finds a pretty young thing that strokes his ego, and makes up stories about how the gods are responsible instead of his wife.
Perhaps, in the end, the nurse is right. It would have been better had Jason been trained to live on equal terms. Instead, equal terms are imposed by the fates. Jason and Medea are both left to face the future having burned their bridges, without their children, and without each other.
Medea escaping, with the bodies of her children at the bottom right. Art from a Greek vase.