Aegeus, King of Athens, greets Medea as an old friend and recounts the story of his visit to the Oracle at Delphi. Seeking a cure for his sterility, Aegeus was given advice in the form of a riddle by the Oracle, who told him "not to unstop the wineskin's neck" (line 679). Aegeus is passing through Corinth on his way to seeing the King of Troezen, Pittheus, a man famous for his skill in interpreting oracular pronouncements. Medea relates to Aegeus the circumstances of her banishment from Corinth, to which he responds by expressing his sympathy for her predicament. Pleading with Aegeus for sanctuary in Athens, Medea offers him a gift in exchange--magical drugs that can restore his fertility. Aegeus seals his promise to offer Medea refuge with an oath before the gods.
Alone on stage after Aegeus' departure, Medea screams out the names of the Olympian gods in excitement. The last obstacle to her plans for revenge has been cleared. Because of Aegeus' promise, Athens now stands as an unconditional sanctuary for her, even in her eventual condition as a polluted murderess. While the nurse listens in secret, Medea discloses the details of her plans. She will begin by pretending to agree with Jason's earlier arguments. Having drawn him into her confidence, she can then ask him to accept their two boys into his new family. The children will be used in a ploy to kill Glauce by bearing her gifts--a beautiful dress and gold coronet--which will be poisoned and kill anyone who touches them. Lastly, Medea will take the ultimate step of killing her own sons. Her revenge against Jason will then be total; the death of his own children along with that of his new bride will be the most severe injury he is capable of suffering, even if it means Medea must hurt herself in the process: "Yes, I can endure guilt, however horrible; the laughter of my enemies I will not endure" (lines 796-797).
The chorus, which had been entirely sympathetic with Medea's decisions, now warns her against violating the laws of human existence through her planned infanticide. Offering an ode to the city of Athens, praised for being a kingdom of "Grace" and "Knowledge," the women of Corinth question the possibility of Medea's acceptance into such a civilized society after committing the unnatural act of murdering her children. The chorus concludes its speech by expressing disbelief in Medea's ability to gather enough resolution to complete with her intentions. At the moment of crisis, she will break down and give in to her natural affections as a mother.
The Aegeus scene has been pointed out as an example of Euripides' clumsy handling of plot. He arrives apparently out of nowhere, and his offer of sanctuary to Medea turns around the course of events without any logical justification. Yet, despite its abruptness, Aegeus' appearance does extend some themes of the play in often unacknowledged ways. Most obviously, the questions surrounding children continue to be highlighted. Aegeus' sterility makes him an easy target for the assaults of Medea's cunning. Children and marriage are a constant source of conflict in Medea. The sympathies they inspire cause characters to sever ties to home and family, form strange new allegiances, and even, as we will see in Creon's case, suffer death willingly.
At a more abstract level, the play's symbolic structure depends upon Medea's implication in the foundation of Athens. Athens' reputation for being synonymous with high culture and refined civilization, rehearsed by the chorus in its ode, was well-deserved but obviously only a partial truth. Unjustified cruelty existed there to the same extent as it did everywhere else. The exploitation of women and slaves, addressed in Medea and other Euripidean dramas, was much more severe in Athens than in many surrounding cultures. An ancient culture's myths, especially those that recounted its origins, served as the primary tool for fostering its self-image. The tales of mythic Athenian kings such as Aegeus, who established rule under the approving eyes of the Olympian gods, became arguments justifying the privileged status of Athenian customs and institutions. The presence of Medea, then, a barbarian sorceress and infamous murderess, at the beginnings of Athenian civilization challenge this simplistic picture of its origins and influence; despite Athens' pretensions towards enlightened greatness, it had already wed itself to primal, unrestrained powers at its very mythical roots. Freedom and refinement are not the whole story of the culture; a background of murderous intrigue underlies it and testifies to the persistence of injustice into Classical times. The Aegeus scene, while slightly contrived, adds this crucial thematic depth to the play.
Medea's speech after Aegeus' departure, her most self-confident to this point, rings with an oddly heroic tone. Her exuberance previews the complete transformation from despair to poise she will have undergone by play's end. From the beginning of the tragedy, she claims to be acting without respect to human norms, a judgment with which the chorus does not entirely corroborate until she clearly expresses a wish to kill her children at this stage. At times she attempts to justify their deaths through pragmatic arguments: Creon's family will kill them regardless, better that she accomplish the deed herself than watch them suffer at another's hands. Echoed in later moments, her statement in this speech that she would prefer enduring punishment than humiliation (lines 796-797) seems a more convincing account of her decision. The heroes of ancient Greece often display unswerving convictions to principles that do not conform to common sense, but the extremity of Medea's response to her betrayal forces a recognition of the ambivalence inspired by heroic temperaments; their willingness to let their pride run unrestrained makes them admirable and offensive at once.
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