Medea (play)

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Alfons Mucha - Medea.jpg
Poster by Alfons Mucha for performance by Sarah Bernhardt at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris (1898)
Written by Euripides
ChorusCorinthian Women
Characters Medea
Medea's two children
Date premiered431 BC
Place premiered Athens
Original language Ancient Greek
Genre Tragedy
SettingBefore Medea's house in Corinth

Medea (Ancient Greek : Μήδεια, Mēdeia) is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides, based upon the myth of Jason and Medea and first produced in 431 BC. The plot centers on the actions of Medea, a former princess of the " kingdom of Colchis, and the wife of Jason; she finds her position in the Greek world threatened as Jason leaves her for a Greek princess of Corinth. Medea takes vengeance on Jason by murdering Jason's new wife as well as her own children (two sons), after which she escapes to Athens to start a new life.


Euripides' play has been explored and interpreted by playwrights across the centuries and the world in a variety of ways, offering political, psychoanalytical, feminist, among many other original readings of Medea, Jason and the core themes of the play. [1]

Medea, with three others, [lower-alpha 1] earned Euripides third prize in the City Dionysia. Some believe that this indicates a poor reception, [2] [3] but "the competition that year was extraordinarily keen"; [3] Sophocles, often winning first prize, came second. [3] The play was rediscovered with Rome's Augustan drama; again in the 16th-century; then remained part of the tragedic repertoire, becoming a classic of the Western canon, and the most frequently performed Greek tragedy in the 20th century. [4] It experienced renewed interest in the feminist movement of the late 20th century, [5] being interpreted as a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of Medea's struggle to take charge of her own life in a male-dominated world. [4] The play holds the American Theatre Wing's Tony Award record for most wins for the same female lead character, with Judith Anderson winning in 1948, Zoe Caldwell in 1982, and Diana Rigg in 1994.


Medea was first performed in 431 BC at the City Dionysia festival.[ citation needed ] Here every year, three tragedians competed against each other, each writing a tetralogy of three tragedies and a satyr play (alongside Medea were Philoctetes , Dictys and the satyr play Theristai ). In 431 the competition was among Euphorion (the son of famed playwright Aeschylus), Sophocles (Euripides' main rival) and Euripides. Euphorion won, and Euripides placed last.

While Medea is considered one of the great plays of the Western canon, Euripides' place in the competition suggests that his first audience might not have responded so favorably. A scholium to line 264 of the play suggests that Medea's children were traditionally killed by the Corinthians after her escape; [6] so Euripides' apparent invention of the filicide might have offended, as his first treatment of the Hippolytus myth did. [7] That Euripides and others took liberties with Medea's story may be inferred from the 1st century BC historian Diodorus Siculus: "Speaking generally, it is because of the desire of the tragic poets for the marvellous that so varied and inconsistent an account of Medea has been given out." [8] A common urban legend claimed that Euripides put the blame on Medea because the Corinthians had bribed him with a sum of five talents. [9]

In the 4th century BC, South-Italian vase painting offers a number of Medea-representations that are connected to Euripides' play — the most famous is a krater in Munich. However, these representations always differ considerably from the plots of the play or are too general to support any direct link to Euripides' play.[ clarification needed ] But the violent and powerful character of Medea, and her double nature — both loving and destructive — became a standard for later periods of antiquity, and seems to have inspired numerous adaptations.

With the text's rediscovery in 1st-century Rome (the play was adapted by the tragedians Ennius, Lucius Accius, Ovid, Seneca the Younger and Hosidius Geta, among others); again in 16th-century Europe; and with the development of modern literary criticism: Medea has provoked multifarious reactions.[ clarification needed ][ citation needed ]

Form and themes

The form of the play differs from many other Greek tragedies by its simplicity. Most scenes involve only Medea and someone else. The Chorus, here representing the women of Corinth, is usually involved alongside them. The simple encounters highlight Medea's skill and determination in manipulating powerful male figures. The play is also the only Greek tragedy in which a kin-killer makes it unpunished to the end of the play, and the only one about child-killing in which the deed is performed in cold blood as opposed to in a state of temporary madness. [10]

Euripides' characterization of Medea exhibits the inner emotions of passion, love, and vengeance. The character of Medea has variously been interpreted as either fulfilling her role of "mother and wife" and as acting as a "proto-feminist". [11] Feminist readings have interpreted the play as either a "sympathetic exploration" of the "disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society", [5] or as an expression of misogynist attitudes. [12] In conflict with this sympathetic undertone (or reinforcing a more negative reading) is Medea's barbarian identity, which some argue could antagonize[ need quotation to verify ] a 5th-century BC Greek audience. [13]


Medea is centered on a wife's calculated desire for revenge against her unfaithful husband. The play is set in Corinth some time after Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, where he met Medea. The play begins with Medea in a blind rage towards Jason for arranging to marry Glauce, the daughter of king Creon. The nurse, overhearing Medea's grief, fears what she might do to herself or her children.

Creon, in anticipation of Medea's wrath, arrives and reveals his plans to send her into exile. Medea pleads for one day's delay and eventually Creon acquiesces. In the next scene Jason arrives to explain his rationale for his apparent betrayal. He explains that he couldn't pass up the opportunity to marry a royal princess, as Medea is only a barbarian woman, but hopes to someday join the two families and keep Medea as his mistress. Medea, and the chorus of Corinthian women, do not believe him. She reminds him that she left her own people for him ("I rescued you [...] I betrayed both my father and my house [...] now where should I go?"), [14] and that she saved him and slew the dragon. Jason promises to support her after his new marriage ("If you wish me to give you or the children extra money for your trip into exile, tell me; I'm ready to give it with a lavish hand", [15] but Medea spurns him: "Go on, play the bridegroom! Perhaps [...] you've made a match you'll one day have cause to lament." [16]

In the following scene Medea encounters Aegeus, king of Athens. He reveals to her that despite his marriage he is still without children. He visited the oracle who merely told him that he was instructed "not to unstop the wineskin’s neck". Medea relays her current situation to him and begs for Aegeus to let her stay in Athens if she gives him drugs to end his infertility. Aegeus, unaware of Medea's plans for revenge, agrees.

Medea then returns to plotting the murders of Glauce and Creon. She decides to poison some golden robes (a family heirloom and gift from the sun god Helios) and a coronet, in hopes that the bride will not be able to resist wearing them, and consequently be poisoned. Medea resolves to kill her own children as well, not because the children have done anything wrong, but because she feels it is the best way to hurt Jason. She calls for Jason once more and, in an elaborate ruse, apologizes to him for overreacting to his decision to marry Glauce. When Jason appears fully convinced that she regrets her actions, Medea begins to cry in mourning of her exile. She convinces Jason to allow her to give the robes to Glauce in hopes that Glauce might get Creon to lift the exile. Eventually Jason agrees and allows their children to deliver the poisoned robes as the gift-bearers.

Forgive what I said in anger! I will yield to the decree, and only beg one favor, that my children may stay. They shall take to the princess a costly robe and a golden crown, and pray for her protection.

Medea kills her son, Campanian red-figure amphora, c. 330 BC, Louvre (K 300). Medeia child Louvre K300.jpg
Medea kills her son, Campanian red-figure amphora, c. 330 BC, Louvre (K 300).

In the next scene a messenger recounts Glauce and Creon's deaths. When the children arrived with the robes and coronet, Glauce gleefully put them on and went to find her father. Soon the poison overtook Glauce and she fell to the floor, dying horribly and painfully. Creon clutched her tightly as he tried to save her and, by coming in contact with the robes and coronet, got poisoned and died as well.

Alas! The bride had died in horrible agony; for no sooner had she put on Medea's gifts than a devouring poison consumed her limbs as with fire, and in his endeavor to save his daughter the old father died too.

While Medea is pleased with her current success she decides to take it one step further. Since Jason brought shame upon her for trying to start a new family, Medea resolves to destroy the family he was willing to give up by killing their sons. Medea does have a moment of hesitation when she considers the pain that her children's deaths will put her through. However, she steels her resolve to cause Jason the most pain possible and rushes offstage with a knife to kill her children. As the chorus laments her decision, the children are heard screaming. Jason then rushes onto the scene to confront Medea about murdering Creon and Glauce and he quickly discovers that his children have been killed as well. Medea then appears above the stage with the bodies of her children in the chariot of the sun god Helios. When this play was put on, this scene was accomplished using the mechane device usually reserved for the appearance of a god or goddess. She confronts Jason, reveling in his pain at being unable to ever hold his children again:

I do not leave my children's bodies with thee; I take them with me that I may bury them in Hera's precinct. And for thee, who didst me all that evil, I prophesy an evil doom.

Although Jason calls Medea most hateful to gods and men, the fact that the chariot is given to her by Helios indicates that she still has the gods on her side. As Bernard Knox points out, Medea's last scene with concluding appearances parallels that of a number of indisputably divine beings in other plays by Euripides. Just like these gods, Medea “interrupts and puts a stop to the violent action of the human being on the lower level, … justifies her savage revenge on the grounds that she has been treated with disrespect and mockery, … takes measures and gives orders for the burial of the dead, prophesies the future,” and “announces the foundation of a cult.” [17]

She then escapes to Athens in the divine chariot. The chorus is left contemplating the will of Zeus in Medea's actions:

Manifold are thy shapings, Providence! / Many a hopeless matter gods arrange / What we expected never came to pass / What we did not expect the gods brought to bear / So have things gone, this whole experience through!

This deliberate murder of her children by Medea appears to be Euripides' invention, although some scholars believe Neophron created this alternate tradition. [18] Her filicide would go on to become the standard for later writers. [19] Pausanias, writing in the late 2nd century AD, records five different versions of what happened to Medea's children after reporting that he has seen a monument for them while traveling in Corinth. [20]

Modern productions and adaptations


Olivia Sutherland stars in MacMillan Films' Medea Medea Staging MacMillan Films Staring Olivia Sutherland.jpg
Olivia Sutherland stars in MacMillan Films' Medea
Angelique Rockas as Medea, Theatro Technis directed by George Eugeniou Angelique Rockas - Headshot Medea.jpg
Angelique Rockas as Medea, Theatro Technis directed by George Eugeniou





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  2. Gregory (2005) , p. 3
  3. 1 2 3 Euripides (2001). "Medea", in Euripides I. David Kovacs (ed. & tr.). Cambridge, MA; London, England: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press. p. 277. ISBN   9780674995604.
  4. 1 2 Helene P. Foley. Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage. University of California Press, 1 Sep 2012, p. 190
  5. 1 2 See (e.g.) Rabinowitz (1993) , pp. 125–54; McDonald (1997) , p. 307; Mastronarde (2002) , pp. 26–8; Griffiths (2006) , pp. 74–5; Mitchell-Boyask (2008) , p. xx
  6. Ewans (2007) , p. 55
  7. This theory of Euripides' invention has gained wide acceptance. See (e.g.) McDermott (1989) , p. 12; Powell (1990) , p. 35; Sommerstein (2002) , p. 16; Griffiths (2006) , p. 81; Ewans (2007) , p. 55.
  8. Diodorus Siculus 4.56
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  11. Macintosh, Fiona (2007). "Oedipus and Medea on the Modern Stage". In Brown, Sarah Annes; Silverstone, Catherine (eds.). Tragedy in Transition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. p. 193. ISBN   978-1-40-513546-7. [Medea] has successfully negotiated her path through very diverse cultural and political contexts: either by being radically recast as 'exemplary' mother and wife, or by being seen as proto-feminist wrongly abandoned by a treacherous husband.
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  1. Philoctetes, Dictys, and Theristai

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Further reading