Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell: Euripides Medea (play)

Euripides, Medea (431 BC) (translated by Philip Vellacott, 1963)

Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) (translated by Philip Vellacott, 1963) can be interpreted solely in terms of the way that this playwright from classical Greece would have related to his original ancient Athenian audience and the likely way they would have interpreted the author’s messages according to the values and issues relevant to that time.  However, in recent times this play has attracted increasing interest from feminists who have given the play a postmodern feminist re-interpretation that treats it as a proto-feminist treatise on domestic politics.  Both of these interpretive paradigms produce different answers to questions posed regarding the text so both will be considered.    

The original Athenian interpretation centres on the character Jason.  The play Medea is a tragedy and Jason is the tragic hero who is undone by fatal flaws in his character, namely pride leading to complacency and underestimating the volatile and violent passion of a barbarian, his wife Medea. Consequently, he loses all his accomplishments and what he cherishes most.  The play is a warning to Athenians of the need to protect their civilisation from barbarians and to guard against the failings that led to Jason’s fall from grace.  The ancient Athenians prided themselves on their civilisation and perpetually feared the dangers posed by the barbarians that surrounded them.  Medea represented the barbarian inside the gates.   

Jason was a mythological hero, the highly regarded leader of the Argonauts who had travelled to the ends of the Earth and found and captured the legendary Golden Fleece.  On this distant adventure, he met and was assisted by Medea, who fell in love with Jason and used her sorcery to help him succeed and escape. Later, living in Corinth in Greece as Jason’s wife, she gave him two sons.  But Jason later broke his marriage oath to Medea by arranging another marriage to the princess Glauce, the daughter of King Creon, a match that would see Jason and his sons rise socially.  Leaving Medea feeling jilted, she was consumed by righteous anger and she plotted to kill Glauce, King Creon, and, even more outrageously, to kill her own children to deliver to Jason the greatest punishment. Jason’s pride had led to his complacency and his gross underestimation of how far the uncontrollable rage of his barbarian wife would go.  He tried unsuccessfully to reason with her and only ended up being lulled into a false sense of security.  After executing her bloody revenge, Medea fled and Jason was left as a wreck of his former self to contemplate the role his fatal flaws played in his downfall. 

Alternatively, from a postmodern feminist perspective, the play can be seen as centring on the character Medea.  The play is seen as a treatise on politics in the domestic realm or home and as a broader critique of the unjust treatment of women in a patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist society.  The Medea of mythology and the character Medea in the play (which is derived from the myths) are valued as early mythical and theatrical representations of a strong female character.  Medea is seen as a strong and aggrieved woman who would not be disrespected and mistreated anymore and who chose to fight back. The play is seen as presenting a moral warning to men about the appropriate way to treat women and the dire consequences of mistreating them. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Medea meaning, Medea themes, Medea analysis, Medea notes