Medea is a Greek classic written by Euripides who was a contemporary of Socrates. He is said to have written around 92 plays. Euripides was a loner, writing in caves or in the island of Salamis. Unfortunately Euripides was not appreciated during his time. Medea came third in a play competition at the Theatre of Dionysus. Third place sounds very good but only that there were only three competitors in this competition. Since his plays were not appreciated he moved to court of the King of Macedonia where he wrote the timeless classic The Bacchae. It is said that he met his end with a pack of wild dogs. Times have proved that Euripides is the best ancient Greek playwright. Euripides finally got his due and only his plays remain to this day and the other two plays which were in the fray don’t exist at all now.
The play is named after the main female protagonist Medea. The play begins with Medea in trouble. Her husband, Jason, abandoned Medea and married Glauke, daughter the King of Corinth. Creon, the king was happy and banished Medea and her two sons from his country Corinth. Medea was not a weakling of a woman. She vowed to take revenge.
Though the play starts with this there is something that precedes the play and that is how Medea and her husband reachCorinth. Medea’s homeland is Colchis, an island in the Black Sea. It was a territory of barbarians and she was a sorceress and a princess. She used her power to help Jason to secure the Golden Fleece because she was in love with Jason. Golden Fleece was the sign of authority. But her family did not allow it, and she along with her husband Jason fled from Colchis to Lolcus which was the home of Jason. But during this escapade she kills her brother and dumps him overboard and seeks time. Her pursuers bury him and in that time she escapes. In Lolcus also she makes Pelias the princess kill her own father. Jason and Medea are exiled as murderers and both of them settle in Corinth. The play starts here.
Medea therefore has a history of being heartless as she is a sorceress and Jason insulting her takes her back to her true self. She plans to kill her children and make Jason suffer but things do not go as per her plans. She first asks Creon to stay for one more day in Corinth. She makes use of this time to get support from the King of Athens, Aegeus. He agrees to give her a safe place to stay in return for curing his sterility. Her next move is to plead to Jason to let her stay in Corinth, feigning happiness in his new marriage, to which Jason agrees. In return she gives a cloak requesting him to give it to Glauke. When Glauke wears the cloak her body catches fire and she dies. Her father rushes in to save her and he also dies. Now she kills her sons much against her motherly instincts. She flies away with the bodies of her sons, leaving Jason completely shattered.
Medea’s main theme is that of revenge. She wants to right the wrongs done to her and nothing can stop her from doing it. To take revenge on Jason she kills her own children. To overcome the motherly instincts is a difficult task but she does it and kills her children and flies away with their bodies. Jason has lost his new love, his wife and his children. Medea is very happy that she had her last laugh. Another theme is that of betrayal. The violence and revenge was the result of the betrayal. Jason betrayed his wife after years of living together. Medea killed her brother to be with Jason and was very true to him. The unfaithfulness of Jason stirs up a rage in Medea and she is driven to commit the most horrific acts. There is betrayal by Medea as well. She manages to get permission to stay on by pretending to accept Jason’s love for Glauke. This was betrayal as she asked for time only to kill Glauke. Love, marriage and exile are some minor themes of the play.
Symbolism and Imagery
Killing of Medea’s children is symbolic in many ways. The boys were the product of a loving relationship between Medea and Jason. The death of the children is symbolic of the death of the relationship as well. The killings are also symbolic of feminine revolt. In the play Medea is deserted by her husband and banished by Creon. She was trapped in a male dominated society ad she wanted to break it and the killing was symbolic of that. The boys, the future of the country might become dominating without respecting women and their killing symbolises death of male chauvinism.
Gods are almost like characters of most Greek plays and ‘Medea’ is no exception. We see Helios, Apollo and Hecate being invoked in this play. Helios is the sun god of the Titanic times and was barbaric. Hecate was the goddess of nature and was associated with witchcraft. Helios directly affects the play and is her grandfather. He gives her the gossamer and crown which is used to kill Glauke. Apollo is also sun god who is invoked by Jason. Hecate is invoked very often as she is a goddess and Medea relates better to women power. Medea invokes the gods of the barbaric times, Helios and Hecate, and that is symbolic of Medea’s nature. Apollo is invoked by Jason and Apollo belonged to the more refined generation and this god was not so much for women power and so here in this play he is being invoked by Jason who wants to subdue his wife.
The play is set in Corinth, a city-state. Most of the Greek writers lived in Athens but no one ever set their play in Athens. Whatever the problems or story was, they preferred it to be away from home and reality. Euripides was bold enough to bring it closer home and to be specific the setting was the home and front of the house of Jason and Medea.
The genre is tragedy and most tragedies are the result of one big flaw of the protagonist. In this case too, the flaw was vengeance but the twist to the plot is that Medea who was full of vengeance brought disaster to others while she escapes unscathed. The tone is not anything of humane qualities as both Jason and Medea don’t have any positive qualities. However, ‘love’ seems to be the undoing here. Medea loved Jason and could not accept his infidelity. Creon loved his daughter and loses his life trying to save her.
The play is unabashed expression of female revolt. For his times, Euripides was a revolutionary; he had specific opinions and aired it in a language that people could relate to. This might be the prime reason for the play to withstand the changing times and is still being talked and is considered as one of the finest plays of the Greek collections.