Today I decided it was time for a classic after all these contemporary plays. Something nice and friendly … or Medea. Surprise, surprise, Medea won the toss.
Euripides wrote this well-known tragedy in 431 BC, based on the myth of Jason and Medea. The translation I read today was by Philip Vellacott (published in 1963 by Penguin).
The intensity of the language and the story has survived more than two thousand years and Medea is still a rivetting read. What doesn’t work so well for a contemporary audience is the inaction of the chorus leading to their complicity in Medea’s crimes.
CHILDREN’S VOICES: Mother, don’t kill us!
CHORUS: Shall we go in?
I am sure we ought to save the children’s lives.
Yes, yes! Of course you should go in and save the children. But, no. They stand outside and reminisce instead…
CHORUS: There was but one in time past,
One woman that I have heard of,
Raised hand against her own children.
It was Ino, sent out of her mind by a god [etc. etc.]
I wanted to shake the blasted chorus of gossips and send them in to do something, rather than prattling away outside. But, the times the play depicts were times when the chorus would have been slaves and Medea was their ruler. For them to go against her orders would mean death.
NURSE: The mind of a queen
Is a thing to fear. A queen is used
To giving commands, not obeying them;
And her rage once roused is hard to appease.
But, still …
Euripides writes about a time when women were thought of as less worthy than men, less intelligent and less honourable (sadly still the case in many cultures.). Some of his lines reinforce the stereotypes, but he also allows Medea to answer to them.
MEDEA: Surely, of all creatures that have life and will, we women
Are the most wretched. […]
And, they tell us, we at home
Live free from danger, they go out to battle: fools!
I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear
Medea is smart, renowned for her brain and her sorcery. She is a dangerous enemy. When her husband breaks his vows and takes a new, young wife, she is hell bent on revenge. But, instead of targetting her husband directly, her revenge is more devious. On hearing that she is to be banished from the city, Medea poisons gifts for the new bride so that she dies in agony:
MESSENGER: She leapt up from her chair,
On fire, and ran, shaking her head and her long hair
This way and that, trying to shake off the coronet.
The ring of gold was fitted close and would not move;
The more she shook her head the fiercer the flame burned.
At last, exhausted by agony, she fell to the ground;
Save to her father, she was unrecognizable.
Her eyes, her face, were one grotesque disfigurement;
Down from her head dripped blood mingled with flame; her flesh
Attacked by the invisible fangs of poison, melted
From the bare bone, like gum-drops from a pine-tree’s bark –
A ghastly sight.
But this is still not punishment enough for her cheating husband. Medea famously kills both her children so that Jason will be bereft of progeny. I was glad that Euripides made it difficult for her. That he portrayed her weeping for what she was about to do.
MEDEA: Dear sons, my blessing on you both – but there, not here!
All blessing here your father has destroyed. How sweet
To hold you! And children’s skin is soft, and their breath pure.
Go! Go away! I can’t look at you any longer;
My pain is more than I can bear. I understand
The horror of what I am going to do; but anger,
The spring of all life’s horror, masters my resolve.
The tragedy of Medea is that she lets her pride over rule her compassion and her love.
Publisher: Penguin (and others. You can read an e-book version here.)
Cast: 5M, 2F (plus chorus of women) and 2 boys