Thoughts On Medea by Euripides

I think I’ve been avoiding this play for years. I, like most people who read or see Medea for the first time knew what happens, but not how it happens. Normally I start these ‘Thoughts On’ posts by saying I keep this a spoiler-free zone, but I’m going to take it for granted for this one, that most people know the basic story of Medea, and if you don’t, and don’t want to know, then stop reading now.

The reason I’m waving my normal spoiler-free zone rule (though I will try not to talk about the plot in great detail), is it is hard to discuss the play without discussing what the play is all about, and what it is best known for.

Anyway, so back to why I think I’ve been avoiding this play for years. Because I knew what happens. Medea kills her children. If you were annoyed to read that, then I did warn you to stop reading. But yes, I thought for a long time ‘what kind of sick play has much to say, when the woman kills her children?!’. But then, I think I’d been avoiding Titus Andronicus for a long time as well, before reading it in the last couple of years. Come to think of it, the theme is quite similar….

Playwrights love a sick play obviously. But I guess it’s because the audience love a sick play. Speaking of Titus Andronicus, apparently that was one of Shakespeare’s big hits with the Elizabethan crowd. They loved all that blood and guts, especially when there were no public executions that weekend.

There are 2 big differences though with Medea; Firstly, apparently (according to the introduction of the Oxford World’s Classics version I read) it actually wasn’t a hit at first with the Greek audience. The idea of a woman killing her children was just not cool with them. And it wasn’t that she killed them, other Greek plays had featured infanticide before, but because Medea got away with it. Whoops, did it again! Sorry.

The second reason, is that there wasn’t really blood and guts in the play at all to be honest. Most of the sick things that happen in Greek plays, happen off stage. Medea does not graphically kill her children on stage, though the scene where it is about to happen and the cries of help from her children as they realise their awful fate, does not make it any less horrific.

But how did we get into this mess? Let’s rewind to the beginning. Medea at the beginning of the play is a very unhappy woman. I’m not sure how the whole divorce thing happened in Ancient Greece, or if they bothered going through the whole thing at all, but Jason has left his wife Medea for a new wife, the daughter of Creon, the ruler of the land (which is Corinth). You’d think Jason would be a bit more tactful and respectful, but he actually says during the play to Medea, that he hated having sex with her! To say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, would be putting it mildly here.

Medea, in reality and in her own mind, has lost everything. The kids will be gone to live with their Dad and their new step-mum, and Medea has been ordered into immediate exile by Creon. She’s just too dangerous and unpredictable to have around for him. She begs him to grant her one last request, that she can stay in Corinth for the remainder of the day, and he reluctantly grants her this.

This is a great part of the play, because you know the slight leniency shown by Creon, means there are going to be disastrous consequences. It always does in these situations. I haven’t read The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, but through flicking through it once in a bookshop, I’m pretty sure that one of the laws is you have to stamp out any threat to your power immediately. Any slight glimpse of leniency and you are done for. SIDE NOTE: I do not intend to read The 48 Laws of Power, it’s not how I choose to see life.

Medea then puts her awful plans into play. We all know what happens to her children. Not for anything they have done of course, but to truly hurt Jason more than anything else could. She has awful plans for his new wife too. And she doesn’t intend to be a martyr at all. She hatches a plan to escape, to a place where she will be protected. From being a woman we are meant to feel sympathy for at the start of the play, to becoming perhaps the most evil woman in all of Greek myth and theatre.

What to make of all this? Medea is one of the best known plays in all of ancient Greece, written by one of the three leading tragedians Euripedes. This is the second play I have read by Euripedes, the first one being Elektra. I imagine that the greek audiences did not know what to expect of Euripedes’s plays. They were based on the greek myths, but he created his own versions of them.

For instance, whilst retaining the same basic plot, Euripedes’s version of Elektra is very different from Aeschylus’s play The Libation Bearers, and for that matter, Sophocles’s version of Elektra. The latter 2 though with some details altering, are in common with the greek myth of Orestes and the revenge of the killing of his father Agamemnon. Euripedes puts an entirely different setting in place and introduces new characters for his version (Elektra has a husband for instance).

It is likely that Medea’s deliberate killing of her children was an invention by Euripedes. Greek scholars suggest that in the original myth, the death of her children was accidental. So, there was always an element of surprise when going to see a Euripedes play, whether that was welcome or not.

Like a lot of greek plays, Medea is short and sharp. It runs at about 40 pages in a translated English version, so could easily be read in one sitting by many people. It is different reading a short play like this as opposed to a novel. You don’t really have the time to grow to love the characters (not that you would in this play), but the drama is full on from the very beginning.

It is a great play to read; the interactions and arguments between Jason and Medea are relatable, and in the end devastating at the same time. Jason is not a character to be respected throughout the play, but towards the end, with the death of his children and Medea’s refusal to even let him touch their dead bodies, there is a great sadness towards him. There are very few innocent characters in the ancient greek plays, but they are all vulnerable to the range of human emotions like everybody else.

Do I really learn anything for life from the play? Not really, only what I already knew, that people are unpredictable and we can never really know them for sure (including ourselves). The law of cause and effect is at play as well. It is obviously not in line with Christina themes of forgiveness and loving your enemy, but I think it is a reflection of the natural and unnatural ways that people act in life. We are temperamental creatures, governed largely by our emotional whims.

I am big fan of the ancient greek plays, so it is hard for me to encourage people to read plays like Medea if the ancient plays just don’t do it for you. These plays though have survived for thousands of years, because they are an important part of education in the western world’s tradition. It is epic, it is a masterpiece, and I look forward to reading more of Euripedes plays.

Quotes from Medea

“For first, I say, the name of Moderation has a better ring than that of Greatness, and in experience it proves by far the best for men – while Excess brings no profit to mortals and, when the god has grown angry with the house, it pays the penalty of greater ruin”

“Let no one think of me as weak and submissive, a cipher – but as a woman of a very different kind, dangerous to my enemies and good to my friends. Such people’s lives win the greatest renown”

“I have long thought that man’s life is merely a shadow, and I should not fear to say that those who seem to be wise as they anxiously ponder their words of wisdom convict themselves of the greatest folly. For no man is ever truly happy. One may have better luck than another if wealth pours in – but that is not real happiness”

3 thoughts on “Thoughts On Medea by Euripides

  1. Your cogent retelling of this Greek tragedy brought the memory of it back to me, Pete, and made it live again. As I may have mentioned, I first read Medea in a class for school. I also have read five other plays of Euripides that were recommended by Clifton Fadiman in his Lifetime Reading Plan. Your insights into the characters are telling and insightful.

    I was interested in taking one of your apt insights a little bit further. That of the audience loving a sick play and blood and guts. What evil is it that lurks in the heart of man? I was put in mind of Thomas Wolfe who said, “This is the tragedy of man’s cruelty and his lust for pain-the tragic weakness which corrupts him, which he loathes, but which he cannot cure.” He was speaking of some brutal incidents that he witnessed recollected from his boyhood and the pleasure taken in watching these incidents by the male and female bystanders. And then there’s the quote from Freud. “Homo homini lupus. (Man is a wolf to man.) Who has the courage to dispute it in all the evidence of his own life and in history?” J.D. Salinger has something pertinent to say on this subject and Arthur Schopenhauer is rife with his musings on the topic of man’s inhumanity to man.

    Eugene O’Neill wrote a play titled “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, published posthumously 15 years after his death, as it autobiographically related the tale of a day in the life of his own tormented family. Nothing lethal takes place here except verbally and emotionally between a father and his two grown sons, all hard-drinking boozers, and a mother who is addicted to morphine. For those with a keen appetite for anguish in family relations it should be satisfactory. The play is still available on YouTube with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey as two of the four central characters. It’s almost three hours long.

    I enjoyed your able work on this piece very much, Pete. I think your insights are right on the target.

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    1. Thank you very much for your comments and thoughts as always George. It is a tricky subject to understand man’s obsession with seeing sick things. I guess it is inbuilt into our nature, and the desire for seeing violent things reminds us of the battles we would have probably faced on a daily basis in more primitive times.

      I am not a fan of violent films at all, but there clearly is a huge market for it, otherwise violent crime and horror movies wouldn’t exist. I did use to watch horror movies in my university days, but I avoid them now. Admittedly, they don’t make me feel good. I suppose if people can separate what they see on a movie screen, from anything that could happen in real life, then it wouldn’t be a problem to watch them, but my brain doesn’t make that separation very well. I always imagine bad things can happen in real life, because in some part of the world they are.

      It is a strange twist I guess, that I can read violent things in novels (Zola and Shakespeare are good examples) but these don’t trouble me that much. I guess it’s because reading it and seeing it are two completely different experiences for our brains. I don’t wish to read violent books because they are violent, but I accept it is a part of some books. We can’t pretend there aren’t violent parts to The Bible.

      I’m not sure if I went off on a tangent there regarding your point, but I love the fact it made me think about it. Your comments always remind as well, I have plenty more reading to do! All in good time though!

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  2. Pete, your comments always go beyond and expand the scope of what I would have considered. Your comment about primitive times and desire for seeing and experiencing violence being inbuilt into our nature is something that would not have occurred to me. Also, as you point out, the difference that exists between reading it and seeing it surely makes a difference. I fully give myself over to whatever illusion is being created on the screen rather than holding back with reservations telling myself it’s not real. (But I haven’t gone to see films in decades.)

    I know that Schopenhauer came long before the times of violent or horror films, but he believed that because of what he called the humdrum and mundane nature of ordinary life that people were prone to seek excitement in the strongest form their nerves could stand. For myself, I am willing to watch something like a boxing match in the days of Ali between two powerful men evenly-matched, but in a movie like A Clockwork Orange where weaker people (i.e. old men and women) are being violently abused is to me, abhorrent and pitiful. Burgess is supposed to have said that he had to get drunk to write some of the scenes in this book because of their so unpleasant (to put it mildly) nature.

    Don’t worry about going off on a tangent, Pete. I don’t think you did, but that’s all I ever do, and I think digressions can be of great interest. I’m glad that you are willing to consider plenty more reading, even beyond the admirable plan you have developed. As my father used to tell me when I was a only a boy, “You’ll never read all the good books.”

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