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 Sophocles, 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 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 the poets."
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 Hecate, and one of the great sorceresses of the ancient world. She was the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, and the granddaughter of Helios, the sun god.
King Aeetes' most valuable possession was a golden ram's fleece. When Jason and the crew of the Argo arrived at Colchis seeking the 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 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, Aeson, by cutting his throat and filling his body with a magical potion. She then offered to do the same for 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 potion.
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 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 further pain.
Medea then took refuge with 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, 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 story of Medea, as told by Thomas Bulfinch.
A summary and analysis of the play by Euripides
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 Aeschylus; Sophocles creates characters to act on one another, and endows them with qualities accordingly; Euripides 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.