The only Euripides play which I had read before compiling my Classics Club list was The Bacchae, an incredibly interesting work which I read as part of my undergraduate studies at University. As much as I was coveting the Oxford World Classics edition of Medea (pictured), I downloaded an older Oxford University Press copy to my Kindle instead so that I could take it on holiday with me as a last-minute read.
One of Euripides’ earliest plays, and one which was translated into ‘English Rhyming Verse’ by Gilbert Murray in 1906, the edition has a wordy yet thoughtful introduction: ‘The Medea, in spite of its background of wonder and enchantment, is not a romantic play but a tragedy of character and situation. It deals, so to speak, not with the romance itself, but with the end of the romance, a thing which is so terribly often the reverse of romantic for all but the very highest of romances are apt to have just one flaw somewhere, and in the story of Jason and Medea the flaw was of a fatal kind’.
Jason met Medea when the Argonauts looked certain to be just days away from destruction. She was ‘an enchantress as well as a princess’, banished with her two children by Creon, who ‘helped him through all his trials; slew for him her own sleepless serpent, who guarded the fleece; deceived her father, and secured both the fleece and the soul of Phrixus’. Medea also ‘formed at the least a brilliant addition to the glory of his enterprise. Not many heroes could produce a barbarian princess ready to leave all and follow them in blind trust’.
First acted in 431BC, and set in Corinth, where Creon is living, Medea is an incredibly absorbing play. So many emotions are brought to the fore, and the whole is rather dark from its very beginnings. Each of the characters has been beautifully and believably developed. The Nurse says the following, for example: ‘Rude are the wills of princes: yea, / Prevailing alway, seldom crossed, / On fitful minds their moods are tossed: / ‘Tis best men tread the equal way. // Aye, not with glory but with peace / May the long summers find me crowned; / For gentleness – her very sound / Is magic, and her usages’. Medea herself, in a later Act, gives the following, rather stirring speech, which exemplifies the position of women in Euripides’ world: ‘Women of Corinth, I am come to show / My face, lest ye despise me… / Oh we are drifting things, / And evil! For what truth is in men’s eyes, / Which search no heart, but in a flash despise / A strange face, shuddering back from one that ne’er / Hath wronged them?’
The monologues within Medea are nothing short of exquisitely crafted, and the dialogue between various players is both striking and thought-provoking. Each and every character, no matter the number of lines which they have to utter, has a distinctive voice. The whole is well textured, both geographically and historically, and the social constructs within it are fascinating, particularly when seen from a modern viewpoint. In Medea, Euripides successfully adds another layer to the myth of Jason and Medea, and probes their relationship in an engaging and absorbing manner.