Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Play and Source
is a tragedy that was first performed in Athens in 431 BC. The source for
the story was the myth about Jason's retrieval of the Golden Fleece with
the help of Medea's sorcery. (The myth is recounted in the introduction,
of the action takes place outside the house of Jason and Medea in Corinth,
Greece. Corinth is in southern Greece in the extreme northeastern part
of a large peninsula known as the Peloponnesus, Peloponnese.
Jason, Medea's Powerful Emotions
Sorceress with wondrous powers who falls desperately in love
with Jason after he arrives in Colchis, on the Black Sea, in quest of the
fabled Golden Fleece, a coat of golden wool sheared from a ram. She is
the daughter of the King of Aea in Colchis and granddaughter of the sun
Heroic but selfish and ambitious son of Aeson, King of Iolchos
in Thessaly, Greece. Renowned for his bravery in retrieving the Golden
Fleece, he seeks to capitalize on his fame by pledging to marry Glauce,
the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth, even though he has already been
married for several years to Medea and fathered
King of Corinth. He banishes Medea out
of fear that she will harm his daughter.
Daughter of Creon. She has no lines in the play but serves an
important purpose as the object of Medea's jealousy and wrath.
Nanny to the two sons of Medea and Jason. She is loyal to Medea
and bemoans her ill treatment by Jason.
Two Sons of Medea and
these little boys are merely a presence in the play, their welfare is a
central issue in the play. Their only lines are shouts near the end of
the play when their mother is about to kill them.
He watches over the children when they are at play.
King of Athens..He promises to
shelter Medea after she leaves Corinth..
Chorus of Women:.They
sympathize and commiserate with Medea while commenting on Jason's conduct
and Medea's plan to gain revenge against him.
informs Medea of the death of Creon and Glauce, describing in gruesome
detail—at Medea's request—the
agonies they experienced in their final moments.
Contribution to Drama
with Sophocles and Aeschylus, Euripides (484-406 B.C.) was one of the three
greatest writers of tragedy in ancient Greece. He wrote more than ninety
plays, but only nineteen survive.
was something of a pariah, in part because he depicted gods unfavorably
and even questioned the existence of the traditional gods of Homeric myths.
His key contribution to literature—a major
one that endeared him to writers of later generations—was
that he developed characters whose downfall results from their own flaws
rather than from outside forces, such as fate. Euripides was a close friend
Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers
in history. Socrates rejected the overarching role of the Olympian deities
in Greek society—and perhaps the deities themselves.
He often spoke of a single god as the creator of the universe and, in this
respect, may have influenced Euripides.
Euripides staged Medea in 431 B.C., his audience was already familiar
with events that preceded the action of the play. Although these events—involving
Jason's quest and retrieval of the fabled Golden Fleece—are
not part of the play, they affect its action. These events are as follows:
a young man of heroic qualities, inherits the throne of Iolchos in Thessaly,
Greece, from his father. However, Jason’s scheming uncle, Pelias, seizes
the throne and refuses to yield it unless Jason retrieves for him the Golden
Fleece, a coat of golden wool sheared from a ram called Chrysomallus. The
fleece hangs on a tree in a grove in Aea, in the far-off land of Colchis,
on the Black Sea. Anyone could easily seize and run off with it save for
one thing: It is guarded by a dragon that never sleeps. With a crew of
hearty adventurers, Jason sails to Colchis, overcoming many perils on the
he arrives in Colchis, he meets Medea, the beautiful daughter of Aeëtes,
King of Aea. She falls desperately in love with Jason. Her father regards
the fleece as a boon that must forever remain in Colchis. However, he says
he will give it up if Jason can successfully complete seemingly impossible
tasks—first, yoking fire-breathing bulls and
plowing a field and, second, defeating an army that springs to life from
dragon’s teath sown in the field. Medea, a powerful sorceress, says she
will enable Jason to perform the tasks if he takes her with him back to
Greece and marries her. He agrees. Then, with the help of Medea and her
magic, he yokes the bulls and vanquishes the army. Later, at the grove
where the fleece hangs, Medea again comes to Jason’s aid by causing the
dragon to fall asleep, and Jason makes off with the great prize.
takes her brother, Apsyrtus, with her when she and Jason sail back to Greece.
When Aeetes and his men follow, Medea kills and cuts up her brother and
strews his remains in the sea. Aeetes loses time retrieving the body parts,
and Jason and Medea escape but undergo many perilous adventures during
the voyage. While stopping in the land of the Phaeacians, they marry and
receive the protection of the Phaeacian king, Alcinous, from Aeetes, who
is still pursing them. Eventually, Aeetes gives up the chase, and Jason
and Medea return safely to Iolchos. There, they discover that Pelias has
murdered Jason’s parents, and Medea concocts a scheme that enables Jason
to gain revenge; it results in the death of Pelias. Because it is no longer
safe for them to remain in Iolchos, Jason and Medea take up residence in
Corinth, Greece. There, during several years of apparently marital bliss,
Medea bears him two sons. Then the day comes when Medea learns that Jason
pledges to marry Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth, Creon. It
is at this point that Euripides begins his tale.
By Michael J. Cummings ©
front of the house of Jason and Medea in Corinth, the nurse of the couple’s
two children expresses deep regret that her mistress ever met Jason, for
Jason has renounced his marriage to Medea and has wed Princess Glauce,
the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. Jason believes the marriage will
elevate him to the zenith of Corinthian society, making him a man to be
admired and envied.
who is inside the house, is brokenhearted. She eats no food; she cries
and frets; she ignores her children. She had abandoned her father and her
native country to be with Jason. Now Jason has abandoned her. She has no
one to talk to but the sea and the rocks along its shore. Though a sorceress
with wondrous powers, she has no magic spell to heal the wound opened by
Jason’s disloyalty. But her heart beats on, bringing fire to her cheeks,
for she is plotting revenge.
the guardian of her two boys returns from an outing with them, he tells
the nurse he overhead a conversation disclosing that Creon means to banish
Medea and her children. However, the guardian says, he cannot vouch for
the truth of what he heard. The nurse bids the children go inside, advising
them to keep away from their mother, for she is in a foul and dangerous
the front door closes behind the boys and their guardian, a chorus of women,
hearing the wailing of Medea, comes by and asks the nurse what is wrong.
She informs them of Jason’s marriage to Glauce and of Medea’s reaction.
They hear Medea inside begging Zeus to strike her dead and thereby lift
her burden of pain and sorrow. The chorus profoundly sympathizes with her
plight and observes that Zeus will right the injustice against her. The
women ask the nurse to tell Medea that they are her friends and will stand
the nurse goes inside with the message, Medea emerges a moment later to
speak with the women. She tells them she is the most woeful creature on
earth and bemoans the role of women in a society that makes men their masters.
Women must do the will of men without complaint. If a suitor calls on a
woman but she dislikes him, she may not even turn him away. Yet men dare
to say that women have an easy life. While wives are in the safety of the
home, the men say, the husbands must fight wars and risk their lives. Medea,
calling them fools, says she would rather take shield in hand and fight
three wars than bear the pain of childbirth even once. But, she says, she
has a scheme in mind to avenge herself against Jason, his bride, and her
father, Creon, who at that moment comes on the scene.
ado, he banishes Medea and her sons because, he says, he believes that
she means to use her magical powers to wreak harm upon his daughter. Medea
pleads innocence and begs him to allow her to remain in Corinth, but Creon
is adamant; she must go. However, when she asks to tarry but a single day
to find a safe haven for her children, he grants her wish. After he leaves,
Medea admits to the chorus that Creon is right: She plans murder. Poison
will be the instrument.
arrives just then, promising to give her gold to sustain her and the children
during their banishment. He says he bears her no ill will. Medea bitterly
curses him and reminds him of how she helped him retrieve the Golden Fleece
and eliminate his enemy, Pelias. And now Jason rewards her by forsaking
her after she gave birth to his children. But Jason claims that Medea also
received boons: He brought her from a barbaric land to Greece, where she
has benefited from its laws and its justice and has become famous for her
wisdom. The reason he married Princess Glauce, he says, was to gain wealth
and station in order to give Medea and their sons all the advantages necessary
for them to rise in society and serve Greece. Both the chorus and Medea
rebuke him, Medea saying that he should at least have asked for her consent
to marry Creon’s daughter. Now she is under a sentence of banishment—alone,
forlorn, with no place to go. When Jason offers her the gold, she refuses
it, saying it would be wrong to benefit from the bounty of a villain. Jason
King of Athens, enters Corinth after visiting the Oracle at Delphi and
comes upon Medea, greeting her warmly. When she inquires about the purpose
of his visit to the oracle, he tells her that he wanted to learn from the
great Delphic seer how to have children. He and his wife have tried to
have children—lo, for many years—without
success. The oracle gave him a message, he says, but it was couched in
perplexing language. However, a certain man—Pittheus,
King of Troezen—has the skill to interpret
the words. Thus, Aegeus says, he is on his way to see Pittheus.
then inquires why Medea seems so sad. When she tells him her story, he
sympathizes with her, condemning both Jason and Creon. Medea asks him to
shelter her in her banishment and promises to make the seeds of the sons
he longs for grow in him. He grants her wish, but says she must make her
way to his land by herself lest he be accused of untoward behavior. At
her request, he swears an oath to the gods to protect her from all harm
once she reaches his domain.
Aegeus resumes his journey, Medea reveals her plan to the chorus: She will
pretend to accept the marriage of Jason and Princess Glauce, saying it
is for the best. Then she will ask Jason to allow their children to remain
in Corinth. Next, she will send the children to the princess with gifts
of a fine robe and golden tiara. But deadly poison will taint the gifts,
bringing the princess and all who come in contact with her a painful death.
Finally, she will kill her children to spite Jason. The chorus importunes
her to relent, but Medea will not.
sets her scheme in motion by ordering the nurse to fetch Jason. When he
arrives, Medea asks him to forgive her for the harsh words she spoke to
him, tells him he was wise to woo the princess, and requests that he accept
and bring up the children, seeing to it that Creon does not reject them.
Jason pledges to cooperate and leaves with the children, who bear the gifts.
the children’s guardian returns with the boys and announces that the gifts
have been delivered and that the children were well received at the king’s
court. Medea now becomes deeply distressed about her plan, wondering whether
she can abide the horror of it. But she overcomes her hesitancy, for her
passion for vengeance overcomes her motherly love. After embracing the
children one last time, she sends them into her house.
messenger arrives with news that the princess and her father have died,
victims of the poisonous gifts. Medea rejoices, to the surprise of the
messenger, and asks him to describe how they died. He says the princess
balked at the sight of the boys, but Jason persuaded her to accept them
their gifts and to prevail upon her father not to banish them. She bowed
to his wishes, then put on the robe and the crown. Pleased with the gifts,
she pranced about a while but soon became ill, trembling, losing her color,
falling onto a couch, and foaming at the mouth. Attendants ran out to inform
Creon and Jason of her distress. Meanwhile, the crown set the princess’s
hair on fire and the robe began eating at her flesh. She rose from the
couch, flames leaping from her head, and ran about frantically. Finally,
she fell to the floor, disfigured beyond recognition. When the king arrived,
he fell on her body, wailing. The robe then worked its evil magic on him:
It clung to him while the writhing body of his daughter beneath tore at
his flesh. A moment later, daughter and father were dead.
hearing this news, Medea—still ruled by the
passion of vengeance—takes sword in hand and
goes inside her house to complete her evil scheme. The chorus of women
hear the children crying out, then see blood flowing from the crack beneath
the door. Jason arrives with servants and asks where Medea is. Reporting
news that they already know—that Medea’s witchery
has killed Creon and the princess—he says
he now fears for the lives of his sons. The chorus, pointing to the flowing
blood, says they are already dead. Jason orders his men to go inside, breaking
down the door if they must. Medea appears above the roof in a chariot,
holding the reins of fearsome dragons.
curses her as the most hateful and detestable of evildoers. But Medea says
it was not she who murdered the children but their father’s lust. Jason
demands the bodies of the children so he can provide them a proper burial,
but Medea refuses to yield them, saying she will bury them in the mountainous
regions guarded by Hera so that they may lie in peace, undisturbed. Further,
she says, she will do penance to atone for her great sin, then go to live
with Aegeus. After they exchange further insults, Medea refuses Jason’s
request to see his children one more time. He must live out his life in
agony, with the deaths of his sons on his conscience.
vengeance is complete..
climax of the play occurs when Medea kills her children and Jason arrives
to discover the blood from their corpses oozing out of the crack beneath
the front door.
Jason rejects Medea for Princess Glauce, Medea's thirst for venegeance
rules her, overcoming all of her other emotions—even
her love for her children. She kills them, as well as Princess Glauce and
Creon, to spite Jason.
Oppression of Women
treat women as mere objects in the Greece of the mythological Jason and
Medea—and in the Greece of the real-life Euripides—expecting
women to do their will without complaint.
Human Conduct and Destiny
beings—not fate, not the gods, not bad luck—are
the authors of their own misfortunes. More so than any other playwright
or poet in ancient Athens, Euripides realized that men and women created
than own destinies. This was a controversial idea in his time, and his
critics excoriated him for it because they believed it was a sign that
he rejected the gods of Olympus. However, Euripides was merely presenting
life as it was. In this respect, he was an innovator far ahead of his time.
Children as Innocent Victims
commits an inexcusable offense against Medea when he rejects her to marry
Princess Glauce and thereby further his career. In retaliation, Medea commits
an even greater wrong by murdering her own children, along with the princess
and the king. Medea’s sin is like that of a woman who aborts a child simply
because she has control over it and can dispose of it without impunity.
Greece can be just as barbaric as uncivilized Colchis. The Corinthians
regard Medea as crude and uncivilized, but Jason proves that he and his
fellow Greeks—though claiming that justice
and virtue are hallmarks of their society—can
be just as barbaric as uncultured outsiders for distant lands.
love for Jason is all consuming. So is her hatred for him after he abandons
her. In each case, she is willing to feed her powerful passion whatever
Medea is a powerful sorceress,
capable of working wondrous magic. Yet her magic is powerless against Jason's
infidelity and maltreatment of her. In desperation she resorts to the unspeakable
crime of murdering her own children.
Problem of the Chorus
chorus of Corinthian women sympathizes with Medea throughout the play,
in large part because they well know that Medea is right when she says
that Greek males treat Greek females unjustly. However, these women time
and again express horror at Medea's plan to kill her children, for they
realize that Medea is going too far. Nevertheless, they remain silent—in
compliance with Medea's expressed wish—when
she announces her plan to kill the children and later carries it out. It
is hard to believe that this chorus of women would look the other way under
ancient Greece, a tragedy was a verse drama written in elevated language
in which a noble protagonist falls to ruin during a struggle caused by
a flaw in his or her character or an error in his or her rulings or judgments.
Now Available at Amazon.com
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Sun, Modern LIght: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage
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Myths, by Robert Graves
Theatre Performance: An Introduction
Gods and Monsters of Greek Myths
Wall Chart of Greek Myths
of the Greek Theatre
Tales of Gods and Heroes, by Edith Hamilton
in Ancient Greek Society
A Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy
Greek Tragedy in Action
in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning
Study Questions and Essay
Why doesn't the chorus act to
prevent Medea from murdering her children?
feel any sympathy for Medea?
a psychological profile of Medea.
informative essay, explain what life was like for women in the male-dominated
society of Ancient Greece. Among the questions you might consider answering
are the following: Could a woman refuse to marry a man chosen for her?
Could she participate in commerce and politics? Could she participate in
the arts as a writer, an actor, a sculptor, or a musician? Was she entitled
to an education? Did the law protect a woman whose husband treated her
encounters Medea, he is returning from a visit to the oracle at Delphi.
Who was the oracle? What was the oracle's function in Greek society?
poet Ovid continued the story of Medea after she left Corinth. Compare
and contrast the Medea of Ovid with the Medea in Euripides' story.