She’s killed two people to protect the man she loves. She’s followed him into exile in a foreign land. But now her hero husband has dumped her for a younger model (who happens to be the King’s daughter) so she determines to take her revenge. First she poisons the new bride and the bride’s father and then slays her own sons.
It sounds like the plot of a TV drama or even a Polanski film. With its theme of gender relations and female oppression in a patriarchal society, it sounds very twentieth century. But it’s actually a play that’s more than 2,000 years old.
Medea, written in 431BC by the Greek dramatist Euripedes, is based on the legendary story of Jason (the leader of the Argonauts’ quest to gain the Golden Fleece) and his vengeful wife Medea. It was performed in a competition as part of a religious festival to the god Dionysus held in Athens.
Although the play reflects the stylistic elements of traditional Greek tragedy that the original audience would have expected ( such as the Chorus who reflect on and amplify the events they witness, and the hymn of praise to Athens) , it was not well received. Euripedes actually came last in the competition. One theory is that the theme was considered too radical, blurring the boundaries of conventional gender and social roles and undermining Jason’s role as heroic figure. For instead of a Jason who is the honourable and brave Greek hero, the accusations levelled against him by Medea show us a figure who is disloyal and self interested. He’s conveniently forgotten that she saved his life and in doing so was forced to leave her homeland.
For modern audiences, her desire to see Jason suffer would be understandable though the means she uses wouldn’t be generally acceptable. But less easy to comprehend is her act of infanticide against two children who have little part to play in her marriage breakdown. The only reason she gives for such a shocking act is that she is saving them from a greater fate they would experience if she were to flee the country and leave them behind. Presumably she thinks they would be killed in revenge for her own actions – so it would be bettter for her to be their killer than anyone else. Other characters suggest she is deranged and mad yet she shows little sign of this when she has her big shown down with Jason, arguing very coherently why she sees his marriage as a supreme act of betrayal. The play thus raises an important question – are there some circumstances under which it would be justifiable – or acceptable – for a mother to kill her children? Equally important is the question of whether such individuals should be punished for their action – Medea escapes from any form of justice since the play ends with her riding away in a chariot to start a new life in Athens.
There isn’t much subtlety in this play; it’s a full on study of a woman who is hell bent on revenge and systematically sets about achieving it. As to be expected, it’s full of references to Gods and prevailing beliefs that are no longer relevant for today’s society – but the themes and questions it raises are still pertinent.