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Medea

Euripides

Lines 214-447

Lines 130-213

Lines 448-660

Summary

Restraining her grief and displaying self-control, Medea emerges from her house to address the chorus in a long speech. She begins by condemning those who are quick to judge silent people without first learning their true character. Continuing in this vein of abstract dissertation, Medea laments the contemptible state of women: they are forced to become their husbands' possessions in marriage (with no security, for they can be easily discarded in divorce), they must endure the pains of childbirth, and they are kept from participating in any sort of public life (unlike men, who can engage in business, sport, and war). Once their home is taken from them, women like Medea are left with nothing. Medea makes a single plea to the chorus--that Jason be made to suffer for the suffering he has inflicted upon her as a woman. The chorus agrees that Jason deserves punishment.

Having heard Medea's reproaches against Jason, Creon approaches the house to banish her and her children from Corinth, a course of action that had been rumored earlier. Creon fears that Medea may use her infamous cleverness to seek revenge against him, Jason, and his daughter Glauce, whose hand Jason has taken in marriage. Medea claims that her reputation as a clever woman inspires enmity in both the ignorant and the intelligent; the former find her incomprehensible and ineffectual, while the latter are jealous of her powers. Pointing out that the grudge she bears is directed against Jason, rather than Creon and his daughter, Medea pleads with the king to allow her to remain in Corinth, where she will endure her sufferings without protest. Creon is distrustful and unyielding, but ultimately agrees to provide Medea with one more day to make provisions for her family's flight into yet another exile.

As Medea prepares to wander into uncharted lands beyond the walls of Corinth, the chorus continues to lament her fate. Medea, however, is focused on the task she must accomplish over the course of the next day--that is, killing her three antagonists, "father and daughter; and my husband" (line 376). Considering the various possible means of murdering them, she settles on poison as the most effective. Medea calls on the goddess, Hecate, mistress of the underworld and the patroness of black magic, to serve as her accomplice in this mission. She also vows to restore honor to her lineage (Hyperion, the Sun-god, was her grandfather) and shame Jason's own tribe, which descends from Sisyphus. Finally, she concludes her prayer and tirade by claiming the natural affinity of women for acts of evil. The chorus responds to Medea in an imaginative ode, describing a world in which the presumed order of the sexes is reversed: men will be known for deception, women will be honored, male poets will lose their favor, and Apollo, the god of music, will inspire new epics that display a female perspective. The chorus continues by rehashing the tale of Medea's misfortune, "an exile with no redress" (439).

Commentary

Medea's first public pronouncement, a sort of "protest speech," provides one of the highlights of the play and demonstrates some of its complex, at times even contradictory, representations of gender. Simply at the level of character development, Medea's calm and reflective tone, especially after her preceding eruptions of despair and hatred, provides the first display of her unsettling ability to gather herself together in the midst of crisis and pursue her agenda with a staunch, almost inhuman determination. This split in her personality is to a certain degree gendered; the lack of emotional restraint is "typical" of women, and the uncompromising attention to principled action is the hallmark of heroic Ancient Greek males. Medea actually synthesizes these traits so that her uncontrollable emotions fuel her staunch principles, producing a character that fails to assume a clearly intelligible mold.

The speech itself highlights women's inarguably subordinate status in ancient Greek society, especially within the domain of public life. Euripides' introduction of such social criticism into his play remains remarkable because of how unprecedented it would have been to his audience. "Feminist" arguments, most of them not nearly so developed, were the province of a few renegade philosophers in ancient Greece. Works of art hardly ever explored political questions with any degree of self-consciousness. When Medea points out that women, especially "foreign" women, require some knowledge of magic and other covert arts to exert influence over their husbands in the bedroom, she argues for a kind of alternative power that women can enjoy, one that remains invisible to men and unacknowledged by society, yet sways each with unquestionable force. Medea also supplies a method for interpreting her own character towards the end of her speech (lines 251-257): we should read her history of exile as a metaphoric exaggeration of all women's alienation; in fact, her whole plight, past and yet to come, can be read as an allegory of women's suffering and the heights of tragedy it may unleash if left unattended. Under this model of interpretation, Medea portrays the rebellion of women against their "wretchedness." Such a transparent social allegory may seem forced or clichéd in our own contemporary setting, but in Euripides' time it would have been revolutionary, as tragedy generally spoke to the sufferings of a generic (perhaps idealized) individual, rather than a group. It would be a mistake, however, to claim that Medea's speech elaborates a clearly progressive political message, as her concluding remarks appeal to women's natural talent for devious manipulation (line 414). While Euripides' play manifests many revolutionary political sentiments, its social criticisms remain sporadic, forming just a part of some of the many trains of thought he follows.

Aside from providing a time frame that initiates a sense of urgency to the play (Medea only has a day to complete her plans), the exchange between Creon and Medea introduces the theme of her cleverness. At times, Medea appears more dangerous because of her cleverness than her rage--the latter would render her impotent if the former did not allow her to devise schemes for revenge. More than just a cold cunning, Medea's cleverness manifests a sensitivity to other people's psychological weak points: when Creon makes a casual reference to the absolute devotion he feels for his daughter, Medea appeals to him on behalf of her own children and secures the one-day grace period before his decree of banishment takes effect. Unlike other ancient tragedians who used dialogue more abstractly, Euripides places a lot of emphasis on revealing a character's personality through his or her way of maneuvering a conversation.

Concluding this section, the choral song depicts the theoretical reversal of natural order (streams flow up mountains) that would accompany an exchange in social prominence between women and men. This song is a strange hybrid of an archaic artistic form and a radical political sentiment. Choral odes of this type were adopted by older tragedians (particularly Aeschylus) to demonstrate how human actions--especially a murder within the royal house--could set the universe out of whack, tying moral and natural phenomena together. In his characteristically innovative style, Euripides employs the device to suggest that a rise to power by women would similarly unhinge the universe--to contemplate their comeuppance remains as unnatural as a king's murder.

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Comprehensive Summary Clarification

by kathy_clara, November 06, 2013

The comprehensive summary here says, "Seeing his daughter ravaged by the poison, Creon chooses to die by her side by dramatically embracing her and absorbing the poison himself," suggesting that Creon willingly committed suicide. However, the play itself says, "Everyone was afraid to touch the corpse. We had what had happened to teach us. But her poor father, still unaware of the calamity, suddenly came into the house and fell upon the corpse." True, Creon's lamentations suggest a willingness to die, but the text itself doesn't imply that hi

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Dragon Chariot?

by erinc42, March 06, 2014

Medea does not flee in a dragon chariot, Jason arrives at her house (hoping to kill her for Murdering Creon and Creosa) just after she has killed the children, then she comes out to talk to him at first denying that she killed the children. She then tells servants to bring out the children, who are dead, and Jason is heartbroken. Medea then goes back into the house and Jason tries to follow her, but "collapses". At least that is the way I have read it, maybe there are multiple versions, I would check to be sure which way you are reading it.... Read more

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