Medea, with its conflict between the boundless egoism of the husband and the boundless passion of the wife, was a completely up-to-date play. Accordingly, the disputes, the abuse, and the logic used by all its characters are essentially bourgeois. Jason is stiff with cleverness and magnanimity; while Medea philosophizes on the social position of women—the dishonourable necessity which makes a woman surrender herself in marriage to a strange man and pay a rich dowry for the privilege—and declares that bearing children is far more brave and dangerous than fighting in battle. It is impossible for us to admire the play wholeheartedly; yet it was a revolution in its time, and it shows the true fertility of the new art.
—Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture
When Medea, commonly regarded as Euripides’ masterpiece, was first per-formed at Athens’s Great Dionysia, Euripides was awarded the third (and last) prize, behind Sophocles and Euphorion. It is not difficult to understand why. Euripides violates its audience’s most cherished gender and moral illusions, while shocking with the unimaginable. Arguably for the first time in Western drama a woman fully commanded the stage from beginning to end, orchestrating the play’s terrifying actions. Defying accepted gender assumptions that prescribed passive and subordinate roles for women, Medea combines the steely determination and wrath of Achilles with the wiles of Odysseus. The first Athenian audience had never seen Medea’s like before, at least not in the heroic terms Euripides treats her. After Jason has cast off Medea—his wife, the mother of his children, and the woman who helped him to secure the Golden Fleece and eliminate the usurper of Jason’s throne at Iolcus—in order to marry the daughter of King Creon of Corinth, Medea responds to his betrayal by destroying all of Jason’s prospects as a husband, father, and presumptive heir to a powerful throne. She causes a horrible death of Jason’s intended, Glauce, and Creon, who tries in vain to save his daughter. Most shocking of all, and possibly Euripides’ singular innovation to the legend, Medea murders her two sons, allowing her vengeful passion to trump and cancel her maternal affections. Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’s Oresteia conspires to murder her husband as well, but she is in turn executed by her son, Orestes, whose punishment is divinely and civilly sanctioned by the trilogy’s conclusion. Medea, by contrast, adds infanticide to her crimes but still escapes Jason’s vengeance or Corinthian justice on a flying chariot sent by the god Helios to assist her. Medea, triumphant after the carnage she has perpetrated, seemingly evades the moral consequences of her actions and is shown by Euripides apotheosized as a divinely sanctioned, supreme force. The play simultaneously and paradoxically presents Medea’s claim on the audience’s sympathy as a woman betrayed, as a victim of male oppression and her own divided nature, and as a monster and a warning. Medea frightens as a female violator and overreacher who lets her passion overthrow her reason, whose love is so massive and all-consuming that it is transformed into self-destructive and boundless hatred. It is little wonder that Euripides’ defiance of virtually every dramatic and gender assumption of his time caused his tragedy to fail with his first critics. The complexity and contradictions of Medea still resonate with audiences, while the play continues to unsettle and challenge. Medea, with literature’s most titanic female protagonist, remains one of drama’s most daring assaults on an audience’s moral sensibility and conception of the world.
Euripides is ancient Greek drama’s great iconoclast, the shatterer of consoling illusions. With Euripides, the youngest of the three great Athenian tragedians of the fifth century b.c., Attic drama takes on a disturbingly recognizable modern tone. Regarded by Aristotle as “the most tragic of the poets,” Euripides provided deeply spiritual, moral, and psychological explorations of exceptional and domestic life at a time when Athenian confidence and certainty were moving toward breakup. Mirroring this gathering doubt and anxiety, Euripides reflects the various intellectual, cultural, and moral controversies of his day. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the world after Athens’s golden age in the fifth century became Euripidean, as did the drama that responded to it. In several senses, therefore, it is Euripides whom Western drama can claim as its central progenitor.
Euripides wrote 92 plays, of which 18 have survived, by far the largest number of works by the great Greek playwrights and a testimony both to the accidents of literary survival and of his high regard by following generations. An iconoclast in his life and his art, Euripides set the prototype for the modern alienated artist in opposition. By contrast to Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides played no public role in the life of his times. An intellectual and artist who wrote in isolation (tradition says in a cave in his native Salamis), his plays won the first prize at Athens’s annual Great Dionysia only four times, and his critics, particularly Aristophanes, took on Euripides as a frequent tar-get. Aristophanes charged him with persuading his countrymen that the gods did not exist, with debunking the heroic, and with teaching moral degeneration that transformed Athenians into “marketplace loungers, tricksters, and scoundrels.” Euripides’ immense reputation and influence came for the most part only after his death, when the themes and innovations he pioneered were better appreciated and his plays eclipsed in popularity those of all of the other great Athenian playwrights.
Critic Eric Havelock has summarized the Euripidean dramatic revolution as “putting on stage rooms never seen before.” Instead of a palace’s throne room, Euripides takes his audience into the living room and presents the conflicts and crises of characters who resemble not the heroic paragons of Aeschylus and Sophocles but the audience themselves—mixed, fallible, contradictory, and vulnerable. As Aristophanes accurately points out, Euripides brought to the stage “familiar affairs” and “household things.” Euripides opened up drama for the exploration of central human and social questions embedded in ordinary life and human nature. The essential component of all Euripides’ plays is a challenging reexamination of orthodoxy and conventional beliefs. If the ways of humans are hard to fathom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, at least the design and purpose of the cosmos are assured, if not always accepted. For Euripides, the ability of the gods and the cosmos to provide certainty and order is as doubtful as an individual’s preference for the good. In Euripides’ cosmogony, the gods resemble those of Homer’s, full of pride, passion, vindictiveness, and irrational characteristics that pattern the world of humans. Divine will and order are most often in Euripides’ dramas replaced by a random fate, and the tragic hero is offered little consolation as the victim of forces that are beyond his or her control. Justice is shown as either illusory or a delusion, and the myths are brought down to the level of the familiar and the recognizable. Euripides has been described as drama’s first great realist, the playwright who relocated tragic action to everyday life and portrayed gods and heroes with recognizable human and psychological traits. Aristotle related in the Poetics that “Sophocles said he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides as they were.” Because Euripides’ characters offer us so many contrary aspects and are driven by both the rational and the irrational, the playwright earns the distinction of being considered the first great psychological artist in the modern sense, due to his awareness of the complex motives and ambiguities that make up human identity and determine behavior.
Euripides is also one of the first playwrights to feature heroic women at the center of the action. Medea dominates the stage as no woman character had ever done before. The play opens with Medea’s nurse confirming how much Medea is suffering from Jason’s betrayal and the tutor of Medea’s children revealing that Creon plans to banish Medea and her two sons from Corinth. Medea’s first words are an offstage scream and curse as she hears the news of Creon’s judgment. The Nurse’s sympathetic reaction to Medea’s misery sounds the play’s dominant theme of the danger of passion overwhelming reason, judgment, and balance, particularly in a woman like Medea, unschooled in suffering and used to commanding rather than being commanded. Better, says the Nurse, to have no part of greatness or glory: “The middle way, neither high nor low is best. . . . Good never comes from overreaching.” Medea then takes the stage to win the sympathy of the Chorus, made up of Corinthian women. Her opening speech has been described as one of literature’s earliest feminist manifestos, in which she declares, “Of all creatures on earth, we women are the most wretched,” and goes on to attack dowries that purchase husbands in exchange for giving men ownership of women’s bodies and fate, arranged marriages, and the double standard:
When a man grows tired of his wife and home,
He is free to look about for someone new.
We wives are forced to count on just one man.
They say, we live safe at home while men go to battle.
I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear one child!
Medea wins the Chorus’s complicit silence on her intended intrigue to avenge herself on Jason and their initial sympathy as an aggrieved woman. She next confronts Creon to persuade him to postpone his banishment order for one day so she can arrange a destination and some support for her children. Medea’s servility and deference to Creon and the sentimental appeal she mounts on behalf of her children gain his concession. After he departs, Medea reveals her deception of and contempt for Creon, announcing that her vengeance plot now extends beyond Jason to include both Creon and his daughter.
There follows the first of three confrontational scenes between Medea and Jason, the dramatic core of the play. Euripides presents Jason as a self-satisfied rationalist, smoothly and complacently justifying the violations of his love and obligation to Medea as sensible, accepted expedience. Jason asserts that his self-interest and ambition for wealth and power are superior claims over his affection, loyalty, and duty to the woman who has betrayed her parents, murdered her brother, exiled herself from her home, and conspired for his sake. Medea rages ineffectually in response, while attempting unsuccessfully to reach Jason’s heart and break through an egotism that shows him incapable of understanding or empathy. As critic G. Norwood has observed, “Jason is a superb study—a compound of brilliant manners, stupidity, and cynicism.” In the drama’s debate between Medea and Jason, the play brilliantly sets in conflict essential polarities in the human condition, between male/female, husband/wife, reason/passion, and head/heart.
Before the second round with Jason, Medea encounters Aegeus, king of Athens, who is in search of a cure for his childlessness. Medea agrees to use her powers as a sorceress to help him in exchange for refuge in Athens. Aristotle criticized this scene as extraneous, but a case can be made that Aegeus’s despair over his lack of children gives Medea the idea that Jason’s ultimate destruction would be to leave him similarly childless. The evolving scheme to eliminate Jason’s intended bride and offspring sets the context for Medea’s second meeting with Jason in which she feigns acquiescence to Jason’s decision and proposes that he should keep their children with him. Jason agrees to seek Glauce’s approval for Medea’s apparent self-sacrificing generosity, and the children depart with him, carrying a poisoned wedding gift to Glauce.
First using her children as an instrument of her revenge, Medea will next manage to convince herself in the internal struggle that leads to the play’s climax that her love for her children must give way to her vengeance, that maternal affection and reason are no match for her irrational hatred. After the Tutor returns with the children and a messenger reports the horrible deaths of Glauce and Creon, Medea resolves her conflict between her love for her children and her hatred for Jason in what scholar John Ferguson has called “possibly the fi nest speech in all Greek tragedy.” Medea concludes her self-assessment by stating, “I know the evil that I do, but my fury is stronger than my will. Passion is the curse of man.” It is the struggle within Medea’s soul, which Euripides so powerfully dramatizes, between her all-consuming vengeance and her reason and better nature that gives her villainy such tragic status. Her children’s offstage screams finally echo Medea’s own opening agony. On stage the Chorus tries to comprehend such an unnatural crime as matricide through precedent and concludes: “What can be strange or terrible after this?” Jason arrives too late to rescue his children from the “vile murderess,” only to find Medea beyond his reach in a chariot drawn by dragons with the lifeless bodies of his sons beside her. The roles of Jason and Medea from their first encounter are here dramatically reversed: Medea is now triumphant, refusing Jason any comfort or concession, and Jason ineffectually rages and curses the gods for his destruction, now feeling the pain of losing everything he most desired, as he had earlier inflicted on Medea. “Call me lioness or Scylla, as you will,” Medea calls down to Jason, “. . . as long as I have reached your vitals.”
Medea’s titanic passions have made her simultaneously subhuman in her pitiless cruelty and superhuman in her willful, limitless strength and determination. The final scene of her escape in her god-sent flying chariot, perhaps the most famous and controversial use of the deus ex machina in drama, ultimately makes a grand theatrical, psychological, and shattering ideological point. Medea has destroyed all in her path, including her human self, to satisfy her passion, becoming at the play’s end, neither a hero nor a villain but a fear-some force of nature: irrational, impersonal, destructive power that sweeps aside human aspirations, affections, and the consoling illusions of mercy and order in the universe.
Lectures on Greek Tragedy