Love and passion are one of the most common themes in stories presented in various art forms. Despite its being common, man’s interest over it seems to be inexhaustible. Common treatment over the matter is almost always done in romantic fashion wherein audiences are treated to see it in its idealistic form. Human experience though, can attest to the fragility of such a notion. And it is within this context that the tragic story of Medea brings a depth of perspective on the subject that is remarkably raw and unapologetic. Through Medea, Euripides brings to light — the dark side of love and passion. He treats the mythical characters of Jason and Medea with outstanding psychological realism, mirroring the complexity of hidden motives that underlies every human speech and actions.
First presented before an Athenian audience in 431 B.C., the play Medea became one of the most known and lasting ancient Greek plays. Created by Euripides, it was overshadowed by other plays when it made its debut, being bested by two other more and thereby ending only on 3rd place which was said to have greatly disappointed the artist (Borey).
The story centers on the female protagonist Medea, wife of Jason from the famed adventure with the Golden Fleece and leader of the Argonauts. Although her husband received the accolade for his bravery and exploits and became honoured as a hero, it was largely through Medea’s knowledge of sorcery that aided Jason to obtain his victories. As the play unfolds, so does the transformation of Medea’s character. Her passionate love towards Jason has moved her to extreme steps, which she does — all for his benefit.
What provoked the change of character was when Jason abandons her relationship with Medea by marrying Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. The plot focuses on Medea’s pain and anguish upon her husband’s casual rejection and how this has tragically filled her with bitterness, turning her passion for love to raves of revenge. Blinded by her desire to avenge her fate, this ultimately led to her undoing and the terrible end of her two children by Jason.
II. The Plot
The story is set upon a backdrop that is quite familiar for its Greek audience. It is therefore quite useful that contemporary readers become familiar of the mythological events surrounding Jason and Medea.
Jason met Medea during his quest for the Golden Fleece. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Jason triumphs through Medea’s help that caused her to betray her father (Aeetes) and kill her own brother, cutting the body to pieces to distract Aeetes. Jason brings Medea to his own kingdom in Iolcus, only to find that his uncle Pelias had unlawfully ruled in place of Jason, upon his father’s death. Medea schemed to help Jason reclaim the throne by deceiving Pelias’ daughters to kill their own father, by making them believe that cutting him up would restore Pelias’ youth, with some assistance from her magic. Instead of ruling Iolcus, this however, resulted in their exile along with their children. They finally settled in Corinth and it was here that Jason takes the opportunity of marrying princess Glauce, in deference to Medea’s feelings. Upon learning of his betrayal, Medea declares her intent to take her revenge.
Creon releases an order that forces Medea and her two children to leave Corinth. Always the cunning woman over her enemies, she begs him to give her reprieve for one day. But one day is all she needs to set up her plan of destroying those who have crossed her path.
Jason on the other hand, is completely naive of his wife’s abilities and arrogantly blames Medea for causing her own exile. A heated exchange ensues between husband and wife, with Jason mostly defending his faithless action. Although his arguments are well presented, his reasons comes off as trivial, making him appear as both conceited and weak. Medea proudly refuses Jason’s offer of financial assistance upon her banishment.
After securing a place of refuge through Aegeus, Medea sets out her ruthless plan. She calls for Jason and begs ‘forgiveness’. She then offers a wedding gift for the new couple — an expensive robe and crown for the bride Glauce. The costly apparel however, was filled with poison. No sooner as it was worn, that it burned the flesh of the bride as with fire, and killed the king as well when it tried to rescue his daughter. Indeed, ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. But her plan for revenge does not end here.
In a moving soliloquy of debating the fate of her children, she then moves to slay them herself. She consciously defended such an atrocious act that killing them herself spares them from being murdered in retaliation by Creon’s friends. Later however, during her direct confrontation with Jason, Medea’s other hidden motive is revealed. She revels upon seeing the anguish in Jason for their children’s death, and the demise of his plan to secure his own self through the marriage with Glauce. Appearing triumphant before him atop the chariot of the sun and taking the children’s bodies with her, she parts with words of doom for her faithless husband (Bates 192-196).
Euripides brilliantly brings to attention the thin line that divides love and passion that causes someone to sacrifice everything in favour of the object of affection, and how that same strong emotion can become destructive — fuelling jealousy and possessiveness. Take for example Medea’s expression of love and commitment towards her husband. Her motives would appear though, that such passion is given for his aid for as long as he reciprocates her love. But his unfaithfulness has transformed her passionate love to rage. Her jealousy and wounded pride consumes her and became bent on nothing but revenge. In a manner that abandons all reason, as the Latin phrase suggests: ‘Ira est furor brevis’ (Anger is insanity brief), commits the murder of her own children to ironically protect them from being harmed by her enemies; but also use their death to hurt her unfaithful husband.
Euripides’ Medea continues to have a powerful hold largely because of the appeal of revenge fantasy. The character flaw of Medea also mirrors the same weaknesses in us. It is not uncommon that from some moment in our lives, we too have experienced being gravely hurt and would have entertained fantasies of carrying out our own just revenge.
Since Euripides had focused on the plight of Medea, many had come to the conclusion that Euripides was championing the feminist cause. Such an assumption however, would be misleading. Medea has the making of a heroine, but she allowed bitterness to get over her and transformed her into a monster.
Love and passion indeed, are powerful emotions. It can drive men and women to irrational decisions and behaviour that is either wonderful or disastrous. It drives men to greatness or destruction; fame to shame. It either enables men to conquer all odds, or be conquered and be its prisoner.
The themes of the story are quite unconventional for Greek mentality during its time. The themes were given with such brutal frankness against its Greek audience in many points; it is not surprising that it was greeted with less appreciation. Given the fact that it caused much discomfort for its original viewers, it is more surprising that it was still given recognition to land even 3rd place. The play though has surpassed the test of time and has proven to have bested its previous contenders that have now become virtually unknown.
1. Borey, Eddie. “About Medea.” GradeSaver –Study Guide. 2008. GradeSaver LLC. 1
Dec. 2008 <http://www.gradesaver.com/classicnotes/titles/medea/about.html>.
2. Bates, Alfred. The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization. Vol. 1.
London: Historical Company, 1906. 192-96.