(Euripedes, c.431 BC)
Euripedes’ play is a retelling of a classic myth that centres around the characters of Jason (leader of the Argonauts and seeker of the Golden Fleece) and Medea, his wife. The play is a classic revenge story; Medea’s role is that of the betrayed wife as Jason has left her and their children for Glauce, the daughter of the King, Creon. The play follows her as she moves from despair to anger and then to revenge, culminating in a tragic and shocking ending that has earned Medea her place in cultural consciousness as an unnatural woman and an unhinged child-killer.
Medea’s grief at being left by Jason escalates when she is threatened with exile by King Creon, and Jason doesn’t do much to help when he helpfully tries to make everything better by explaining that he will keep her on as a mistress when he is married, after all how can he pass up the chance to marry a princess when Medea is only a Barbarian (never mind that she left her home and killed a dragon for him…). Needless to say, Medea is not comforted, and refuses to accept. The race is on to exact her revenge before she is exiled.
In preparation, she makes a deal with the King of Athens that he will give her refuge in return for helping his wife conceive a child with certain potions she knows about. She then pretends to make peace with her estranged husband Jason and sends some robes and a coronet to his bride. However, the gifts are poisoned, and the murder of Glauce is accomplished before she has a chance to marry Jason. The King is also killed by the poison when he throws himself on his daughter’s corpse.
Medea hears the news and is pleased, but realises that the only way to truly punish Jason is to kill their children, thus depriving him of any comfort and ending his lineage. She believes that the pleasure of seeing Jason suffer will override the pain she will feel on losing her children. After she has stabbed the children to death, she confronts Jason and taunts him that she is not even going to allow him to hold the bodies; instead she takes them with her as she ascends to the heavens in the chariot of the grandfather – Helios, the sun god. She escapes to Athens, leaving Jason in despair having lost everything he valued. Anyone seeking a happy ending may be disappointed!
The play explores the themes of vengeance, passion and the different types of love – love of power, romantic love and the love of a parent for their children – and has been performed in various forms for centuries.
Medea Character List