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EURIPIDES was born at the island of Salamis, whither his parents had
fled for refuge at the time of the Persian invasion. He died in 406
B.C., the same year as his senior HYPERLINK
, just before the close of the Peloponnesian war. He lived the life of a
student and studied philosophy, as a youth, under Anaxagoras; and, in
later life, with HYPERLINK
«http://www.usefultrivia.com/biographies/socrates_001.html» Socrates .
He is the latest of the Greek tragedians, both the most Attic and the
most modern. He is saturated with the new skeptical spirit which was
beginning to question old faiths, old traditions, and old customs.
His intellectual activity, his subtle speculations, his wide democratic
sympathies give a special interest to his writings, though they have in
the past often diverted attention from the high artistic value of his
work. He has lately, in our own somewhat similar days, been restudied
with new results. He abandoned the principle of the older tragedians,
that all the interest and action should be concentrated in one character
and theme, as in the Prometheus, Agamemnon, or Oedipus; and in many
other respects he seems to break away from the canons of Greek tragic
art. He is carried away by political feeling against Sparta or Argos;
and he digresses into philosophical discussions. But the tenderness and
pathos of his best work, the overmastering passion in which the rules of
art are lost, the deep sympathy with every down-trodden or injured
thing, give him a title to Aristotle’s description— «the most tragic of
He is said to have been deserted by his wife, with whom he was deeply in
love. This, perhaps, explains the contrast between his frequent
invective against women on the one hand, and, on the other, the
marvellous beauty and strength of his female characters.
Medea was a devotee of the goddess HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/hecate.html» Hecate , and one of
the great sorceresses of the ancient world. She was the daughter of King
HYPERLINK «http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/aeetes.html» Aeetes of
Colchis, and the granddaughter of HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/helios.html» Helios , the sun god.
King Aeetes’ most valuable possession was a golden ram’s fleece. When
HYPERLINK «http://www.pantheon.org/articles/j/jason.html» Jason and
the crew of the HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/argo.html» Argo arrived at Colchis
seeking the HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/golden_fleece.html» Golden Fleece ,
Aeetes was unwilling to relinquish it and set Jason a series of
seemingly impossible tasks as the price of obtaining it. Medea fell in
love with Jason and agreed to use her magic to help him, in return for
Jason’s promise to marry her.
Jason fled in the Argo after obtaining the golden fleece, taking Medea
and her younger brother, Absyrtis, with him. King Aeetes pursued them.
In order to delay the pursuit, Medea killed her brother and cut his body
into pieces, scattering the parts behind the ship. The pursuers had to
stop and collect Absyrtis’ dismembered body in order to give it proper
burial, and so Jason, Medea and the HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/argonauts.html» Argonauts escaped.
After the Argo returned safely to Iolcus, Jason’s home, Medea continued
using her sorcery. She restored the youth of Jason’s aged father,
HYPERLINK «http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/aeson.html» Aeson , by
cutting his throat and filling his body with a magical potion. She then
offered to do the same for HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/p/pelias.html» Pelias the king of
Iolcus who had usurped Aeson’s throne. She tricked Pelias’ daughters
into killing him, but left the corpse without any youth-restoring
After the murder of Pelias, Jason and Medea had to flee Iolcus; they
settled next in Corinth. There Medea bore Jason two children before
Jason forsook her in order to marry the daughter of HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/c/creon.html» Creon , the king of
Corinth. Medea got revenge for Jason’s desertion by killing the new
bride with a poisoned robe and crown which burned the flesh from her
body; King Creon died as well when he tried to embrace his dying
daughter. Medea fled Corinth in a chariot, drawn by winged dragons,
which belonged to her grandfather Helios. She took with her the bodies
of her two children, whom she had murdered in order to give Jason
Medea then took refuge with HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/aegeus.html» Aegeus , the old king
of Athens, having promised him that she would use her magic to enable
him to have more children. She married Aegeus and bore him a son, Medus.
But Aegeus had another son, HYPERLINK
«http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/theseus.html» Theseus . When
Theseus returned to Athens, Medea tried to trick her husband into
poisoning him. She was unsuccessful, and had to flee Athens, taking
Medus with her. After leaving Athens, Medus became king of the country
which was later called Media.
The HYPERLINK «http://www.bulfinch.org/fables/bull17.html» \t «_blank»
story of Medea, as told by Thomas Bulfinch.
A summary and analysis of the play by HYPERLINK
MEDEA CONTEMPLATING SLAYING HER CHILDREN
An original painting by Franz Stuck
The Medea tells the story of the jealousy and revenge of a woman
betrayed by her husband. She has left home and father for Jason’s sake,
and he, after she has borne him children, forsakes her, and betroths
himself to Glauce, the daughter of Creon, ruler of Corinth. Creon orders
her into banishment that her jealousy may not lead her to do her child
some injury. In vain she begs not to be cast forth, and finally asks for
but one day’s delay. This Creon grants, to the undoing of him and his.
Jason arrives and reproaches Medea with having provoked her sentence by
her own violent temper. Had she had the sense to submit to sovereign
power she would never have been thrust away by him. In reply she reminds
her husband of what she had once done for him; how for him she had
betrayed her father and her people; for his sake had caused Pelias, whom
he feared, to be killed by his own daughters.
«I am the mother of your children. Whither can I fly, since all Greece
hates the barbarian?»
«It is not you,» answers Jason, «who once saved me, but love, and you
have had from me more than you gave. I have brought you from a barbarous
land to Greece, and in Greece you are esteemed for your wisdom. And
without fame of what avail is treasure or even the gifts of the Muses?
Moreover, it is not for love that I have promised to marry the princess,
but to win wealth and power for myself and for my sons. Neither do I
wish to send you away in need; take as ample a provision as you like,
and I will recommend you to the care of my friends.»
She refuses with scorn his base gifts, «Marry the maid if thou wilt;
perchance full soon thou mayst rue thy nuptials.»
Meantime, Aegeus, the ruler of Athens, arrives at Corinth from Delphi,
Medea laments her fate to him and asks his aid; he swears that in Athens
she shall find refuge. Now, reassured, she turns to vengeance. She has
Jason summoned, and when he comes she begs for his forgiveness.
«Forgive what I said in anger! I will yield to the decree, and only beg
one favor, that my children may stay. They shall take to the princess a
costly robe and a golden crown, and pray for her protection.»
The prayer is granted and the gifts accepted. But soon a messenger
appears, announcing the result:
«Alas! The bride had died in horrible agony; for no sooner had she put
on Medea’s gifts than a devouring poison consumed her limbs as with
fire, and in his endeavor to save his daughter the old father died too.»
Nor is her vengeance by any means complete. She leads her two children
to the house, and that no other may slay them in revenge, murders them
herself. Very effective is this scene in which, after a soliloquy of
agonizing doubt and hesitation, she resolves on this awful deed:
In vain, my children, have I brought you up,
Borne all the cares and pangs of motherhood,
And the sharp pains of childbirth undergone.
In you, alas, was treasured many a hope
Of loving sustentation in my age,
Of tender laying out when I was dead,
Such as all men might envy.
Those sweet thoughts are mine no more, for now bereft of you
I must wear out a drear and joyless life,
And you will nevermore your mother see,
Nor live as ye have done beneath her eye.
Alas, my sons, why do you gaze on me,
Why smile upon your mother that last smile?
Ah me! What shall I do? My purpose melts
Beneath the bright looks of my little ones.
I cannot do it. Farewell, my resolve,
I will bear off my children from this land.
Why should I seek to wring their father’s heart,
When that same act will doubly wring my own?
I will not do it. Farewell, my resolve.
What has come o’er me? Shall I let my foes
Triumph, that I may let my friends go free?
I’ll brace me to the deed. Base that I was
To let a thought of wickedness cross my soul.
Children, go home. Whoso accounts it wrong
To be attendant at my sacrifice,
Let him stand off; my purpose is unchanged.
Forego my resolutions, O my soul,
Force not the parent’s hand to slay the child.
Their presence where we will go will gladden thee.
By the avengers that in Hades reign,
It never shall be said that I have left
My children for my foes to trample on.
It is decreed.
Jason, who has come to punish the murderess of his bride, hears that his
children have perished too, and Medea herself appears to him in the
chariot of the sun, bestowed by Helios, the sun-god, upon his
descendants. She revels in the anguish of her faithless husband.
«I do not leave my children’s bodies with thee; I take them with me that
I may bury them in Hera’s precinct. And for thee, who didst me all that
evil, I prophesy an evil doom.»
She flies to Aegeus at Athens, and the tragedy closes with the chorus:
Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!
Many a hopeless matter gods arrange.
What we expected never came to pass,
What we did not expect the gods brought to bear;
So have things gone, this whole experience through!»
This drama is a masterly presentment of passion in its secret folds and
recesses. The suffering and sensitiveness of injured love are strongly
drawn, and with the utmost nicety of observation, passing from one stage
to another, until they culminate in the awful deed of vengeance. The
mighty enchantress who is yet a weak woman is powerfully delineated. The
touches of motherly tenderness are in the highest degree pathetic. The
strife of emotions which passion engenders is admirably shown; and amid
all the stress of their conflict, and amid all this sophistical and
illusive commonplaces which work upon the soul, hate and vengeance win
the day. Medea is criminal, but not without cause, and not without
strength and dignity. Such an inner world of emotion is alien from the
genius of the religious and soldier-like HYPERLINK
«http://www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/aeschylus001.html» Aeschylus ;
Sophocles creates characters to act on one another, and endows them
with qualities accordingly; HYPERLINK
opens a new world to art and gives us a nearer view of passionate
emotion, both in its purest forms and in the wildest aberrations by
which men are controlled, or troubled, or destroyed.