What an amazing play is Medea by Euripides. I read an edition from 2006 translated by the poet Michael Collier and the Greek scholar Georgia Machemer. Machemer also wrote a fantastic introduction. Of all the introductions to all the Greek plays I’ve read over the last several years, this one is hands down the best. What was so good about it? It provided context for the play without trotting out all the usual tired historical droning that usually makes its way into these kinds of introductions. The context provided was specific to this play itself and what was going on in Athens during the time it was produced, what the audience would have known and expected, how they would have probably reacted when their expectations were challenged, and what they would have known and how they would have felt about Euripides himself.
For instance, even though the songs Euripides wrote for his choruses were popular and sung all over town, the playwright and plays themselves often unsettled audiences. Euripides was schooled by the Sophists who were foreigners to Athens, had unnerving theories about the nature of things and could deftly argue either side of an issue. They stirred things up. Euripides didn’t let them down.
Medea opens with Medea’s nurse coming on stage. Today we would think nothing of this, but then, this was shocking. Not only was it a woman giving the opening monologue of the play but a servant who was an old slave of a “barbarian” princess. When you expect a highborn man or a god to walk out for the opening monologue, this move is quite astonishing and right off sets you reeling.
And then the play itself. A woman carries it and not just any woman. Medea is a priestess of Hecate, she has immense knowledge of the healing arts as well as potions that kill. She is from a foreign country. And she speaks throughout with the rhetorical skill of a man, scheming, tricking, deceiving to save her own honor instead of submitting to the will of her husband like a good and proper wife should. After seeing this play the men in the audience, and the audience would have been almost all men, would have been shaking in their sandals for fear of the power that a woman might wield. I could also hope that some of them left the theatre with a bit more respect for their wives but that might be hoping too much.
This play would have resonated with Athenians on a different level too. Athens had recently passed a law that said foreign-born wives could not be citizens nor could any of their offspring. This law effectively disinherited any children born from such a marriage. As a result, many men divorced their wives and married Greek ones instead. So when Jason leaves Medea for the daughter of King Creon, the men of Athens watching this play got an extra dose of discomfort.
There is an interesting note in the text of my edition of the play that says a good many scholars believe Euripides invented Medea killing her children, that prior to this play, the story did not include their deaths. So why did she have to kill them? Medea needed to destroy Jason for his betrayal and the best way to destroy him is to destroy his whole family. Thus Medea kills Jason’s new wife with poisoned gifts and Creon in rushing to her aid is also poisoned by he deadly robes. The children could not be left alive as heirs nor after killing the king and his daughter could Medea leave the children alive to likely be killed by an angry mob. So she does the deed. She almost couldn’t. Can you blame her? The gods do not punish her for killing her children because her act was honorable vengeance against a man who betrayed both her and the gods who had given him Medea to help him escape with the Golden Fleece.
Medea gets to exit in a golden sun chariot with the corpses of her children after she curses Jason. And we all known Jason dies a sad and ruined man, killed when his famous ship, the Argo, falls on his head while he is beneath it repairing its keel.
Medea, of course, has some marvelous speeches in this play. One of my favorite passages happens when she is talking to the chorus who are all women:
But I’ve been talking as if our lives
are the same. They’re not. You are Corinthians
with ancestral homes, childhood friends,
while I, stripped of that already,
am now even more exposed by Jason’s cruelties.
Remember how I came here, a war bride,
plundered from my country, an orphan?
Now who’s obligated to shelter me? Not you,
I know. As you watch my plans for justice unfold,
keep them secret, that’s all I ask. I’ve never felt
this threatened nor fearless: men win their battles
on the field but women are ruthless when the bed
becomes the battleground. We’ve lain
in our own blood before…and have survived.
In the face of Medea, Jason comes off sounding like a greedy, petulant boy whining about how Medea isn’t being reasonable in accepting the crumbs he is reluctantly offering so he looks like a good man and doesn’t feel guilty. Why he is so surprised that this powerful woman throws it all back in his face and calls him on his betrayal is the real surprise.
The sad thing though in the end, in spite of Medea triumphing over Jason and being carried away to Athens in a chariot of the sun (he’s a relative), she has lost everything too. She will have protection in Athens, but she has no home, no friends, no children. She wins by losing and that is the biggest tragedy of all.