Ancient History & Civilisation


Preface to Medea

The Medea, a play of dark revenge and child-slaughter, is one of the most powerful and horrific of all the Greek tragedies. It is dominated by the figure of Medea herself, the foreign princess who aided Jason in the past and whom he now spurns. Medea is by far the most dynamic character in the play, easily outclassing and outwitting the men whom she manipulates. It is easy to see why Euripides’ first audiences could brand him a misogynist (in Aristophanes’ play Women at the Thesmophoria, the women of Athens complain that he constantly blackens and slanders their sex). But it must also be stressed that Euripides is extraordinarily acute and often sympathetic in his presentation of women, their situation and their psychology. Medea’s speech to the chorus of Corinthian women (230ff.) is a prime example of the dramatist’s willingness to see, and give a voice to, the women’s case.

It is probable, though not absolutely certain, that Euripides was the first to make Medea kill her own children deliberately. Other versions were current and may well be earlier: in one, she killed them inadvertently, in an effort to give them immortality; in another, the Corinthians killed them in anger at the revenge Medea had taken upon their princess. In our texts of the play Medea does not reveal this part of her plan until a fairly late stage (792); the chorus, who have been happy to support her in her efforts to punish Jason, now recoil in horror, but are bound by their earlier oath of silence. There have been some hints earlier that Medea may do some harm to the children (e.g. 37ff.), but her intentions are at first not made explicit. These adjustments make Medea’s action all the more terrible; the tragic effect is further heightened by her own hesitation and self-torture as she prepares herself for the deed.

As often in Euripides, some of the issues of the play are aired at length, and with vigorous rhetoric, in the agon, the debate between Medea and Jason, in which the latter inadequately defends his betrayal of his wife. It is unusual for Euripides to make a debate of this kind so clear-cut; most readers will agree that Medea wins hands-down. The amazement and outrage of Aegeus when he hears of Jason’s behaviour seem to confirm this verdict. But Euripides’ interest in this play is not primarily in the conflicting rights and wrongs of the participants, but rather in the psychology of Medea: what kind of a woman, even in such circumstances, could bring herself to kill her own infant children? Her situation is viewed from several perspectives: as an ordinary woman, suffering from the same disadvantages as everyday Athenian wives; as a stranger in a foreign land; as a cunning woman, one of exceptional quickness and intelligence; as a barbarian witch, skilled in potions and poisons; and as an avenging daemonic figure. The last aspect is dominant in the shocking finale. Some have felt that the mixture is too rich, that Medea does not come together as a coherent and believable personality; but this may be the result of applying over-rigid criteria of consistency and plausibility. Certainly, the part offers abundant scope for an actor or actress, who may choose to emphasize different aspects of her complex character.

The practicalities and conventions of the Greek stage discouraged the presentation of violence and death before the eyes of the audience: neither the destruction of Creon and his daughter nor the infanticide could be enacted in all their horror. In the case of the revenge on Creon’s daughter, Euripides uses another regular device, the messenger speech: an eye-witness narrates the events to the gloating Medea. This speech is a tour de force of gruesome detail, and the messenger’s dismay provides a perfect foil to Medea’s exultation. Still more memorable is the long soliloquy (1021–80) in which Medea prepares herself for the child-killing, tenderly addresses and caresses her children, repeatedly falters in her determination, and finally dismisses thoughts of mercy. Euripides presents this inner conflict with a sharper eye and with more dramatic shifts of attitude than Aeschylus in his treatment of Orestes’ dilemma in the Libation-Bearers, and even surpasses Sophocles’ sensitive portrayal of Deianira in the Women of Trachis. Perhaps the most striking feature of the play is the clarity with which Medea sees the full horror of her revenge, yet proceeds to execute it; though she speaks of her anger and her fury, these emotions are combined with a terrible lucidity and resolution.

Vengeance is a recurrent theme in Greek myth and hence in tragedy: the Oresteia is a pre-eminent example. Euripides often returns to this theme: besides his own treatments of the Orestes legend, we may single out Hecabe, in which the Trojan women blind Polymnestor and kill his young sons as punishment for his treachery. As in the Medea, there is no doubt that the revenge is just, but the way in which it is exacted, and the viciousness of the avenger, must shock and disturb the spectator. It is no accident that so many avengers are women (compare also Alcmene in The Children of Heracles): in mythical drama, the weaker sex assert their power and often gain the upper hand over their supposed masters. Aeschylus’ husband-slaying Clytemnestra had set the pattern. The dramatist draws on myths, on earlier drama, and on the conflicting attitudes of his own society, then reshapes this material into a form which will arouse the pity and fear of his audience. We cannot expect to deduce Euripides’ own views about women, or extract a simple moral imperative, from the tightly knit structure of the Medea.

The finale of the play is a further shock. When Jason and his followers arrive seeking Medea, she finally appears above them, beyond their reach. How this was staged is uncertain, but she is presumably on the roof of the stage-building, or on the ‘crane’ which often conveys divine figures. The end of a play is a common place for the appearance of a deity (e.g. Artemis in the Hippolytus), and Medea seems to occupy that role here: she speaks with super-human authority and remoteness, prophesies Jason’s death, dictates the form of a future cult. She is in fact the granddaughter of the sun, and it is he who has sent a chariot on which she can escape. Triumphant and malevolent, she shows no sign of grief or regret (despite her own earlier anticipations, 1067–8; 1249–50). This astonishing scene disappoints any hope that the gods might step in to restrain Medea, or to punish her (the chorus had invoked the sun himself in these terms, 1251ff.). Medea, descendant of the gods, here transcends all human limits: it seems that someone who has done such a deed cannot be human, but must be something more (or less?). Yet the bitterness with which Jason reproaches her shows that she is not beyond human judgement. In this final scene Euripides even makes us feel some pity, improbably, for Jason. Nor is the tale of Medea ended; she will go on now as planned to find refuge in the Athens of King Aegeus (1384–5; cf. 824ff.). In every way the ending of the Medea is disturbing: the horror of the action, the consequences for Athens in its mythical past, the disruption of simple expectations about human crime and divine punishment. If both civilized Athens and the heavenly gods protect Medea, how can we make sense of the world? Here and elsewhere, Greek tragedy offers the audience no easy answers.


NURSE, an old servant of Medea

TUTOR to Medea’s sons


CHORUS of Corinthian women

CREON, king of Corinth


AEGEUS, king of Athens



[The scene is set before the house ofJASON in Corinth.]

NURSE:1 Oh, if only it had never gone to the land of Colchis, the ship Argo, winging its way through the dark-blue Clashing Rocks! If only that pine in Pelion’s glens had never fallen to the axe and furnished with oars the hands of those heroes who went to get the golden fleece as Pelias commanded! For never then would my mistress Medea have sailed to the towered city of Iolcus, her heart transfixed by desire for Jason; never would she have persuaded Pelias’ daughters to kill their

10         father or now be living in this land of Corinth with her husband and children, an exile who has won a warm welcome from her new fellow-citizens and who seeks to please her husband in all she does. This is what keeps a marriage intact more than anything, when a husband can count on complete support from his wife.

But now everything has turned to hatred and where love was once deepest a cancer spreads. Jason has betrayed my lady and his own children for a princess’ bed; he has married

20         the daughter of Creon, ruler of this land. And Medea, poor lady, dishonoured in this way, cries out, ‘What about his oaths? His right hand that clasped mine and pledged his heart? You gods, I call you to witness Jason’s gratitude to me!’ From the moment her husband’s criminal behaviour came hometoher, she has remained where she lies, all thought of food dismissed, surrendering herself to anguish and melting each passing hour with tears, not raising an eye or turning her face from the ground. A rock or wave of the sea would pay more attention to the counsel of friends than she does.

30         All she does is occasionally turn her white neck away to speak bitter words to herself: ‘O Father dear,2 my country, my home, I have betrayed you all in coming here with a man who now treats me with contempt!’ Misfortune has taught her, poor lady, the misery of losing one’s country. She hates her children3 and takes no pleasure in seeing them. My fear is

40         she may hatch some unheard-of scheme. She is no ordinary woman; no one making an enemy of her will win an easy victory, take it from me.

But here are the children coming, finished with their running around; their mother’s troubles don't enter their heads; grief knows no place in a child’s mind.

[As theNURSE ends her speechMEDEA’s two SONS come in with theirTUTOR.]

TUTOR: Old servant of my mistress’ house, why are you standing

50         all alone like this at the door, muttering to yourself about your troubles? Surely Medea would want you waiting on her at this time?

NURSE: Old man, tutor to Jason’s children, when the dice of life fall badly for a master, a good slave’s heart shares the pain. Take me, I'm so upset by what’s happened to my mistress I just had to come out here and tell earth and sky!

TUTOR: You mean the poor lady still continues with her laments?

60     NURSE: How naive you are! This sorrow’s just beginning, not half way yet!

TUTOR: How stupid of her! She’s my mistress, I know, and I shouldn't call her that, but wait until she learns the disaster she faces now.

NURSE: What is it, old fellow? Out with it, please!

TUTOR: Nothing. What I said there, I take it back.

NURSE: Oh, I beg you, we're both slaves together, don't keep me in the dark! I won't say a word about it, if necessary.

TUTOR: I'd gone over to the draughtsboards, you know the spot, where the old fellows sit and play, round Pirene’s holy spring, and there I heard someone say it (no one thought I

70         was listening): these children are to be driven out of Corinth, and their mother with them; it’s the will of Creon, king of this land. Now I don't know how true this story is; I'd be glad if it were false.

NURSE: I know Jason has a quarrel with their mother, but will he tolerate this treatment of his children?

TUTOR: Old ties of affection give way to new; this house has no claims on that man’s heart now.

NURSE: That’s scuppered us, then, if a new wave is going to crash over us before we've managed to bale out the old one!

80     TUTOR: Well, your task in this is to do nothing and keep quiet about my story; this is no time for the mistress to know this.

NURSE: You young ones, do you hear how your father treats you? Death’s not good enough for him – oh, no, I mustn't say that of my master. But where he should be showing love he’s proving a traitor and that I can say!

TUTOR: Is he so different from the rest of mankind? Has it only just dawned on you that no one loves his neighbour more than himself? Have these children not lost their father’s love because he now loves elsewhere?

NURSE: Inside with you, children, it will be all right, into the

90         house! And you do all you can to keep them out of the way; don't let them near their mother while she’s in this depression! I've already seen her glaring at them like a bull, as if she wanted to do something awful. I'm sure of one thing, that anger of hers won't die down until someone’s felt the force of her thunderbolt. I pray her victims are enemies, not those who love her!

MEDEA [from inside]: Oh, I am wretched, pity me for my sufferings! Oh, if only I could die!

NURSE: There you are, my poor little loves! Wasn't I right? Your

100       mother has a troubled heart, and an angry one, too. Inside the house with you quick and no delay! Don't let her catch sight of you or approach her! Watch out for that savage temperament of hers, that stubborn will and unforgiving nature! Off with you right now, go in and quickly! It’s clear that this anger of hers will grow; soon enough her grief like a gathering cloud will be kindled by it and burst in storm. What action will she take then, that proud, impassioned soul, so

110       ungovernable now that she has felt the sting of injustice?

MEDEA: Ah, my sufferings, my wretched sufferings, they invite a world’s tears! O cursed children of a hateful mother, I want you to die along with your father, and all the house to go to ruin!

NURSE: Oh, mercy! I can't bear it! What makes you blame the children too for their father’s crime? Why do you hate them? Oh, you poor dears, I've a terrible fear in my heart that you'll come to some harm! They have frightening natures, those of

120       royal blood; because, I imagine, they're seldom overruled and generally have their way, they do not easily forget a grudge. Better to have formed the habit of living on equal terms with your neighbours. Certainly, what I want for myself is to grow old in secure and modest circumstances. For moderation in the first place sounds more attractive on the tongue and in practice is by far the best for a man. Excess, though, means no profit for man and pays him back with greater ruin,

130       whenever a house earns heaven’s anger.

[TheCHORUS of Corinthian women now enter the orchestra and begin to sing in lyric exchange with theNURSE, interrupted twice byMEDEA’s outbursts from inside the house.]

CHORUS: I heard the voice, I heard the shouting of the unhappy Colchian. Has she still not softened? Tell us, old woman. I heard laments coming from inside the two gates of the fore-court and I take no pleasure, woman, in the sorrows of the house, as I have chosen to give it my loyal friendship.

NURSE: There is no house; all that is now ended. Its master is

140       the captive of a princess’ bed, while the mistress pines her life away in her bedchamber, refusing to let a single friend bring any comfort to her heart.

MEDEA [screams]: If only a flaming bolt from heaven would pierce my head! What benefit is it to me to continue living? Oh, the pity of it, the pity! Oh, to die and so find rest, leaving behind loathsome life!

CHORUS [Strophe]: Did you hear, Zeus and Earth and light,

150       how sad a lament she sings, the sorrowful wife? Why this longing for the bed that others abhor, poor, rash creature? Will you hurry to the end that is death? Do not pray for that! If your husband worships a new bride, do not let this fault in him vex you. Zeus will aid you in seeing justice done. Do not grieve so much for a husband lost that it wastes away your life.

160   MEDEA: O great Themis and lady Artemis, do you see what I suffer, though I bound my accursed husband by weighty oaths? How I wish I might see him and his bride in utter ruin, house and all, for the wrongs they dare to inflict on me who never did them harm! O Father, O land of Colchis, forsaken by me to my shame when I took my own brother’s life!

NURSE: Do you hear what words she speaks, how she calls upon

170       Themis, who listens to prayer, and upon Zeus, the appointed steward of mortal oaths? The mistress will not lightly abandon her rage, it cannot be.

CHORUS [Antistrophe]: If only she would come before our eyes and hear the sound of these words that have been spoken, in the hope that she might give up this anger that weighs on her heart and alter her mood. Let it never be said I have failed to

180       lend a helping hand to friends. Go and bring her here from the house. Tell her that we also wish her well and lose no time before she does some harm to those inside. This sorrow of hers sweeps on violently.

NURSE: I'll do this, though I doubt whether I'll win my mistress round. It’s no easy task but I'll do you this further kindness. And yet that fierce look she throws at any servant who approaches her with a message, it reminds me of a lioness

190       with cubs! Blockheads, witless fools, that’s all you can call them, those men of earlier days who thought up songs to cheer our lives at feasts and banquets and at dinner, without one of them ever inventing music of song or tuneful lyre to banish the hateful sorrows we mortals know, those that lead to death and the cruel strokes of fortune which overthrow homes.

And yet how much our lives would be improved if we

200       could cure these ills by the remedy of song! When they find themselves at rich banquets, why do men raise their voices in unnecessary song? The fine food served in plenty before their eyes gives them pleasure enough.                       [ExitNURSE.]

CHORUS: I heard the sound of heartfelt lamentation, as she bewails her piteous sorrows and cries out against her wicked husband, traitor to her bed. She calls upon the gods to witness how unjustly she is treated, on Themis, child of Zeus,

210       protectress of oaths, who brought her over the salty depths by night to where Greece faces the waters that lock the boundless Euxine.

[The doors ofJASON’s house open to revealMEDEA. Slowly she walks out with theNURSE behind her and begins to address theCHORUS in measured tones.]4

MEDEA: Ladies of Corinth, I have come out of doors in case you may be blaming me in some way; for I know that arrogance is a common trait in people whether it is noticed or kept private, but it happens too that some win a bad reputation for idleness simply through keeping their own company. For there is no

220       justice in the eyes of men; a man who has done them no harm may be hated on sight before they have formed a true assessment of his nature. And in the case of one who has made his home in a strange city, he must take pains not to alienate the community he has joined. Even the citizen should be criticized if he is a law unto himself and offends his fellows by his lack of finer feeling.

As for myself, this unexpected blow of circumstance has wrecked my confidence. I am finished, my friends, and any pleasure I took in life I now renounce; it’s death I want. The man who was the world to me (oh, how I know the truth of this!)has proved to be the foulest of traitors, my own husband!

230       Of all creatures that have life and reason we women are the most miserable of specimens! In the first place, at great expense we must buy a husband, taking a master to play the tyrant with our bodies (this is an injustice that crowns the other one). And here lies the crucial issue for us, whether we get a good man or a bad. For divorce brings disgrace on a woman and in the interval she cannot refuse her husband. Once she finds herself among customs and laws that are unfamiliar, a woman must turn prophet to know what sort

240       of man she will be dealing with as husband – not information gained at home. Now if we manage this task successfully and share our home with a husband who finds marriage a yoke he bears with ease, our lives are to be envied. But if not, we'd be better off dead.

When a man becomes dissatisfied with married life, he goes outdoors and finds relief for his frustrations. But we are bound to love one partner and look no further. They say we live sheltered lives in the home, free from danger, while they wield

250       their spears in battle – what fools they are! I would rather face the enemy three times over than bear a child once.

However, we are not in the same position, you and I. You have your city here and the homes where your fathers have lived; you enjoy life’s pleasures and the companionship of those you love. But what of me? Abandoned, homeless, I am a cruel husband’s plaything, the plunder he brought back from a foreign land, with no mother to turn to, no brother or kinsman to rescue me from this sea of troubles and give me shelter. And so there is one small kindness I ask of you, if I

260       devise some ways and means of making my husband pay for this suffering of mine: your silence.5 Women are timid creatures for the most part, cowards when it comes to fighting and at the sight of steel; but wrong a woman in love and nothing on earth has a heart more murderous.

CHORUS-LEADER: I will do as you ask, Medea; it is just that you should take revenge upon your husband. Your grief at what has happened to you causes me no surprise. But here I

270       see Creon, ruler of this land, approaching. He brings news of fresh decisions.


CREON: You there, Medea, with your sullen looks and angry feelings against your husband, I order you to leave this land and become an exile, taking with you your two sons, and to lose no time! I am sole arbiter of this decree and shall not return to my palace until I banish you beyond this country’s boundaries.

MEDEA: Oh, I am ruined, utterly ruined! Oh, misery! My enemies are running up full sail and there is no easy place for

280       me to reach and escape from ruin. I will put the question in spite of all the abuse I am suffering: why, Creon, are you sending me away from this land? CREON: I fear you – there is no need of prevarication here – in case you do some irreparable harm to my daughter. Any number of things make me afraid of this. You are a sorceress and a woman who is no stranger to dark knowledge. Your husband’s desire for you is gone and the loss vexes you. I hear that you are making threats, so my informants tell me, to do some harm to the three of us, my daughter, her new husband and myself who gave away the bride. And so I will protect myself against this before anything happens to me. Better for

290       me to be hateful now in your eyes than to be talked round by you and regret it bitterly in the future.

MEDEA: Ah, this is hard to bear! This is not the first time but one of many, Creon, that my reputation has hurt me and caused me serious harm. Any man of good sense should never have his children taught to be unusually clever. For, apart from being good for nothing, into the bargain they invite the envy and hostility of their fellow citizens. Present fools with clever new ideas and they will think you useless and a born

300       fool yourself. And those with a reputation for fine intelligence will regard you with hatred, if the city judges you are their superior. I myself have fallen victim to this misfortune. Because I have special knowledge, some view me with resentment, others again with distaste.

This knowledge that is mine has limits. Never mind, you find me frightening. What unpleasantness do you fear may happen to you? Have no fear of me, Creon; my circumstances at present do not encourage me to offend against kings! After all, in what way have you done me wrong? You gave your daughter in marriage to the man of your choice. No, my

310       hatred is reserved for my husband. You had sound reasons for doing what you did, I have no doubt. So now I do not grudge you the successful outcome of your plan. Make your marriage and heaven’s blessings on your house! But allow me to live in this land. I will not speak out, though I have been wronged, and will yield the victory to stronger opponents.

CREON: Your words are soothing to the ear but I have a terrible misgiving that in your heart you are hatching some evil plan. This makes me trust you even less than previously. A woman who is hot-tempered, and likewise a man, is easier to guard

320       against than one who is clever and controls her tongue. No, away with you, and this very moment! Enough of your talk! This decision is fixed and all your skill with words will not keep you in our company when you are my enemy.

MEDEA: No, I beg you most humbly, in the name of your newly wedded daughter!

CREON: You are wasting words; you would never persuade me.

MEDEA: What? Do you mean to drive me out and show no respect for my prayers?

CREON: I do; am I to show you more love than my own family?

MEDEA: O Colchis, my dear homeland! How I think of you now!

CREON: There you are right; only my children win more love from me than my country.

330   MEDEA: Ah, the loves of mortal men! What a boundless source of woe!

CREON: That would depend, I imagine, on the circumstances of each case.

MEDEA: Zeus, I pray that you do not forget who has caused these sufferings!

CREON: On your way, foolish woman, and rid me of my troubles.

MEDEA: You have troubles, but have I not met with troubles myself?

CREON: In a moment you will feel the rough hands of my servants as they bundle you out.

MEDEA [sinking to her knees and seizingCREON by the hand]: Oh no, Creon, not that, I beg you!

CREON: It seems you are determined to cause trouble, woman.

MEDEA: I will go into exile; it was not that I begged from you.

CREON: What does this new show of resistance mean? Let go my hand!

340   MEDEA: Allow me to stay for just this one day. Let me think about my going into exile and a start in life for my children, now that their father sees fit to make no plans for their future. Show them some pity! You are also a father of children; my little ones should stir some kind thoughts in you. I do not care what happens to me if I go into exile; it’s my children, my poor, suffering children I weep for.

CREON [disengaging his hand]: I am no tyrant in my heart but a king; yet in showing respect to petitioners I have too often

350       invited disaster. And now, too, woman, I see my own error but, for all that, your wish will be granted. But this I command you: if the light the god sends tomorrow sees you and your children within the boundaries of this land, you shall be put to death. This is my word and it shall prove true.


CHORUS-LEADER: Oh, the pity of it! Poor lady, wretched in your sorrows, where will you ever turn? Who will now show

360       you hospitality? What house, which land will save you from these troubles? Oh, a god has launched you on a sea of troubles, Medea, setting your course where no course lies.

MEDEA: [now back on her feet and composed] Troubles indeed, wherever I look; there’s no denying it. But my present situation is by no means terrible – don't think that! They still have trials to face, these newly-weds, and, as for the one who made the match, his troubles will not be slight. Do you imagine I would ever have stooped to flattery of this man without having some profit, some scheme in mind? Would I

370       have wasted breath on him or touched him with these hands? Never! But he is so advanced in folly that, when he might have thwarted my plans by banishing me from Corinth, he has allowed me to stay for this day, the day on which I will make corpses of three of my enemies, father, daughter and husband – my husband!

I have no shortage of deadly routes to follow that will lead them to their deaths; I don't know which one I should try first, my friends. Shall I set fire to the bridal chamber or steal

380       into the palace to the place where their bed is spread and thrust a sharpened sword through their hearts? There is one difficulty I must face: if I am caught entering their house and plotting, I will be killed and give my enemies a chance to laugh at me. The best way is the direct one, in which I am particularly expert, using poisons to overcome them.

Very well; there they are, dead. What city will open its doors to me? Who will show me hospitality and grant me protection by providing a country where I cannot be harmed, a home where I would enjoy security? Impossible! I will delay

390       for just a short while and, if I find someone to support me without fail, I'll use cunning and secrecy to carry out this bloody deed. But if I am foiled by circumstance and driven out, I will show my resolution to all: I'll take a sword in my own hands and kill them, even though I am to die for it. Not one of them will live to boast of vexing my heart – this I swear by the mistress I revere above all others, my chosen accomplice, Hecate, who dwells above the hearth deep within my home. Pain and sorrow I will give them for this marriage,

400       pain for this union and this exile they have forced on me! Come, Medea, make full use of your knowledge, plan and plot! On to the dreadful deed! Now is your courage put to the test! Do you see how you are treated? Are you to be laughed at by this Jason and his Sisyphean wedding,6 you whose noble father is the Sun? You have the knowledge; what’s more we are women, quite helpless in doing good but surpassing any master craftsman in working evil.

410   CHORUS [Strophe]: Uphill flow the waters of sacred rivers; ature and all things are overturned. Men make deceitful plans and the pledges they swear in the name of the gods no longer stand firm. As for the manner of our lives, the stories will change it from a foul to a fair name; recompense is coming

420       for the female sex. No more shall we women endure the burden of ill-repute.

[Antistrophe:] The songs sung by poets of early days shall cease to harp on our faithlessness. For Phoebus, Lord of Poetry, did not put in our minds the lyre’s inspired minstrelsy; else would I have made my song ring out against the sex of men.

430       The rolling ages have much to tell of our side, much, as well, of men’s.7

[Strophe:] From your father’s home you sailed with madness in your heart, threading the twin rocks of the great sea; but now you dwell in a foreign land, poor lady, with no husband to warm your marriage bed, and are driven without rights into exile.

[Antistrophe:] Vanished is the binding spell of oaths and

440       reverence abides no more in all the length of Greece but has taken wing to the skies. You have no father’s home, unhappy lady, to offer haven from your troubles, and another queen has triumphed over your bed and holds sway in your home.

[As theCHORUS finishes its song, JASON enters and addressesMEDEA.]

JASON: This is only one of numerous times I have observed how incurable an evil is a surly temper. You had the opportunity to have this country and this house as your home by submitting graciously to the will of those in power, but no: you speak

450       your foolish mind and for this exile is to be your reward. Now as far as I'm concerned this matters little; please continue to tell the world about ‘that arch-criminal, Jason’. But as regards what you have said against the royal house, count yourself lucky that banishment alone is your punishment. As they seethed with indignation, I tried repeatedly to calm their feelings of anger, arguing for your continued stay. But you would not back down from your stupid attitude, your constant abuse of the royals. This is why Corinth cannot be a home for you now. None the less, in spite of all this, I have

460       not disowned my family and here I am; I am looking to your future, my lady, to prevent your being driven out together with our children, either penniless or in need of anything else: many are the troubles that exile carries in its wake. You may feel hatred for me, but I could never wish you anything but good.

MEDEA: You unspeakable wretch – my tongue can utter no worse abuse against your spinelessness – have you come to face me, has my worst enemy come? This is no feat of arms

470       or audacious stroke, to subject one’s own family to ill-treatment and then to look them in the face, but the malady that plagues mankind more than any other: shamelessness. Yet I thank you for your visit; my heart will gain some relief once I have told you what I think of you and, further, my words will make painful listening for you.

I shall start my tale from the very beginning. You owe your life to me, as they all know, those brave men of Greece who boarded the Argo as your shipmates, when you were sent to master with the yoke the bulls that breathed fire and to

480       sow the field of death.8 And there was the serpent that kept sleepless watch over the golden fleece, enfolding it within its sinuous coils – this creature’s death I caused and so lifted up the torch that lit your way out of peril. I betrayed my own father, my own family to come here with you to Iolcus under Pelion, showing more eagerness than sense. Pelias, too, I killed by the most painful of deaths, at the hands of his own daughters, bringing destruction on his entire house.

All this I have done for you and yet you have betrayed me, you unfeeling monster; you have taken a new wife, though

490       we have children of our own. For if you still had no sons, it would be something I could forgive, this desire you have for a new bride. Gone is the trust to be placed in oaths; I cannot discover if you think that the gods you swore by then have lost their sovereignty or that new laws these days are prescribed for men, since you know well the value of your oaths to me. Ah, my poor hand, that you so many times would take in yours, my poor knees so earnestly clasped in entreaty, and all, all for this, you man of stone! My hopes are dashed!

500       Come, I will confide in you as if I had your love (and yet what benefit do I imagine I will gain from you? Still, I will do it, for my questions will expose more clearly your lack of principle). Where am I to turn now? To my father’s house that I betrayed together with my homeland when I came here? Or to Pelias’ wretched daughters? A fine welcome to their home would they give me, the woman who caused their father’s death! No, this is how things stand: my own family at home now have cause to hate me, while, to please you, I have become hated by the very people who should have had kindness from me, not harm.

And so, for all this you have made me the envy of many a

510       Greek woman. Yes, a remarkable husband I have in you (may the gods help me!), a true heart if ever there was one, seeing that I am to be cast into exile from this land, without a friend to help me, I and my children, partners in isolation! A splendidreproach this to the new bridegroom, that your children and I who saved you should wander as beggars! O Zeus, why is it you have given men clear ways of testing whether gold is counterfeit but, when it comes to men, the body carries no stamp of nature for distinguishing bad from good?

520   CHORUS-LEADER: Terrible is the anger and almost beyond cure, when strife severs those whom love once joined.

JASON: It seems I must prove myself a capable speaker indeed, my lady, and, like a seasoned helmsman, I must trim the edges of my sail to run before the tempest of your noisy protestations. My own view, since you put such a heavy emphasis on your favours to me, is that only one person, human or divine, lent success to my voyage, and that was the Cyprian. Now, you do possess a shrewd mind; but it would

530       be invidious to recount how Love with his inescapable arrows compelled you to save my life. But this is not a point I will count too strictly; where you did give assistance it was of some benefit.

But in fact in saving me you gained more than you gave, as I shall tell. In the first place, instead of an uncivilized country your dwelling is now the land of Greece, where you have come to know justice and the use of law, instead of being subject to force. Your special gifts became known to all Greeks

540       and won you renown. If you had been living at the furthest ends of the earth, your name would be quite unknown. I should not wish either for gold in my house or the skill to sing a song lovelier than any Orpheus sang, if these gifts were not accompanied by a famous name.

This and this alone have I said on the subject of my labours; after all, this verbal encounter was not of my choosing. But as regards the criticisms you made of my marriage to the princess, I shall demonstrate that in so doing I have shown wisdom, yes, and prudence, and further that I have acted like

550       a true friend to you and to my children.

[MEDEA reacts angrily.]

No, calm down! When I came here from the land of Iolcus, weighted down as I was by countless insoluble problems, what happier stroke of luck could I have met than this, to win the hand of a king’s daughter, I, a man with no country of his own?

It was not because I had lost my desire for you – the thought that torments you – and had fallen hopelessly in love with a new bride, or even that I was eager to rival fathers with many sons. For I have a sufficient number of sons and am well content with them.9No, my motives were different; above all

560       I wanted us to live comfortably and not go without anything, for I know that an impoverished friend is shunned, given a wide berth by everyone he knows. I also wanted to raise my sons in a manner worthy of my house and, by producing brothers for my sons by you, to put them on an equal footing and so, by joining our two families into one, to ensure my prosperity.

For what need have you of children? But it is to my advantage to assist my existing ones by means of children yet unborn. Surely I have planned well? Even you would grant this, if you were not so embittered by jealousy. The fact is

570       that you women have reached the point where you think your happiness is complete when love smiles on you but, should some misfortune mar that love, you take all that is good and beautiful in life and turn it into grounds for bitter hatred. There should have been some other means for mankind to reproduce itself, without the need of a female sex; this would rid the world of all its troubles.

CHORUS-LEADER: Jason, you have set out your arguments skilfully and plausibly; it is my view, however, though I may surprise you with these words, that you have betrayed your wife and are behaving unjustly.10

MEDEA: How much I differ from many people! For in my eyes

580       the criminal with a gift for speaking deserves the worst of punishments. So confident is he in his tongue’s ability to dress his foul thoughts in fair words, there is nothing he dares not do. But he is not as clever as all that, and neither are you. Spare me your courteous looks and polished words now! For one word will floor you. If you were a man of honour, you should have won my consent to this new marriage instead of keeping it a secret from your own family.

JASON: Oh yes, you would be supporting this proposal whole-heartedly, I imagine, if I had told you about the marriage,

590       when you can't bring yourself even now to abandon the anger that sears your heart!

MEDEA: This was not your motive for saying nothing; it was marriage to a foreigner that you felt would detract from that great name of yours as old age drew near.

JASON: Be assured of this right now, no woman’s charms are the cause of this royal match I have made; no, as I said before now, my intention was to make you safe and to father princes who would be kindred to my own sons and so provide security for our family.

MEDEA: I only hope I may never enjoy a life of prosperity that brings pain or a happiness that would torment my heart.

600   JASON: Change your prayer and you will prove wiser, believe me. Pray that good things may never distress you and that you never think yourself deserted by fortune when she is your friend.

MEDEA: Continue with your insults; you have a place of refuge, but I am to turn my back on Corinth with none to share my fate.

JASON: This was of your own choosing; do not put the blame on anyone else.

MEDEA: And what was it I did? I took you for my husband, did I, and then betrayed you?

JASON: You uttered unholy curses against the royal house.

MEDEA: In fact I am now a curse to your house as well!

JASON: I will not debate the rest of this business with you. But

610       if you want to accept any sum of money from me to help you or our children on the journey from here, just say; I am ready to provide it with ungrudging hand and to send tokens of introduction to those who owe me favours and will open their homes to you. If you refuse this offer you are mad, my lady; give up this anger and you will find things more to your advantage.

MEDEA: I would not on any terms resort to friends of yours or accept anything from you; make me no such offer; gifts from wicked people bring only harm.

JASON: Well, anyway, I call the gods to witness that I am willing

620       to do anything I can for both you and the children. But you are indifferent to these advantages and out of stubbornness you reject those who wish you well. This is why your pain is all the greater.

[He turns away and makes swiftly for the doors.]

MEDEA: Go away! You are overcome by desire for your new-won bride and are wasting valuable time here outside the house. Don't disappoint her!

[JASON is now out of earshot.]

It may well turn out (and may the gods agree) that you are entering upon a marriage you will have cause to lament!

CHORUS [Strophe]: When passions come upon men in strength beyond due measure, their gift is neither one of glory nor of

630       greatness. But if the Cyprian tempers her visit, no other god-dess is so gracious. Oh never, my lady, may you fire at me from your golden bow the unerring arrow you have poisoned with desire!

[Antistrophe:] May I know the blessing of a heart that is not passion’s slave; no fairer gift can the gods bestow. But may the dread Cyprian never inflict upon me quarrelsome

640       moods and insatiable strife, firing my heart with love for a stranger; may she rather show respect for marriages where peace reigns and judge with a shrewd eye the loves of women.

[Strophe:] O land of my birth, O my home, never, never may I know exile, living that helpless, wearisome life that is the

650       most piteous of sorrows! Sooner may death, death, lay me low, finished with this life. To be denied one’s native land is a misery beyond all others.

[Antistrophe:] My eyes have seen it; this is no tale heard from others that I can reflect upon. You have no city, no friend to show you pity when you have suffered suffering’s worst.

660       Untouched by grace or favour may he die, the man who cannot honour his loved ones, by opening a heart that harbours no guile! Never shall he be friend of mine.

[EnterAEGEUS,11 the elderly king of Athens, who is passing through Corinth on his way from Delphi to Trozen.]

AEGEUS: Medea, I wish you joy. No one knows a finer prelude than this in addressing friends.

MEDEA: And my greetings to you, Aegeus, son of Pandion the wise. Where have you been that you should visit this land?

AEGEUS: I have come from the ancient seat of Phoebus’ oracle.

MEDEA: Why this pilgrimage to the earth’s prophetic navel?12

AEGEUS: Children; to ask how I might father offspring …

670   MEDEA: What? You mean that you have been childless for all these years?

AEGEUS: I have no children because some god has willed it so.

MEDEA: Do you have a wife or have you never married?

AEGEUS: I am indeed a married man.

MEDEA: And what was it apollo said to you about children?

AEGEUS: Words too wise for human intelligence to fathom.

MEDEA: Is it right that I should know the god’s response?

AEGEUS: Most certainly, indeed a shrewd mind is what is needed.

MEDEA: Well, what was his oracle? Tell me, if it is something I may hear.

AEGEUS: That I should not undo the wineskin’s jutting neck…13

680   MEDEA: Until doing what or coming to which country?

AEGEUS: Until I had come once more to my hearth and home.

MEDEA: And what is your purpose in making the voyage to this land?

AEGEUS: There is a man, Pittheus, who rules the land of Trozen.

MEDEA: Yes, Pelops’ son, they say, a most god-fearing man.

AEGEUS: He is the one I wish to consult about this saying of the god.

MEDEA: Certainly he is a man of wisdom who has experience of such matters.

AEGEUS: Yes, and I value none of my allies more highly than him.

MEDEA [with emphasis]: Well, I wish you success! I trust you gain all your heart desires!

AEGEUS [looking at her more closely]: But why do you look so pale and wasted?

690   MEDEA: Aegeus, no woman has a husband as vile as mine!

AEGEUS: What are you saying? Tell me plainly what is troubling your heart.

MEDEA: I am being wronged by Jason, though I have done him no wrong.

AEGEUS: What has he done? Tell me more plainly.

MEDEA: He has taken a new wife and given her authority over me in his home.

AEGEUS: Can he really have dared to do something that shameful?

MEDEA: Make no mistake about it; he loved me once but now I stand for nothing.

AEGEUS: Has he fallen in love? Does he no longer find you attractive?

MEDEA: Oh yes, passionately in love! Loyalty to loved ones is not his way!

AEGEUS: Good riddance, then, if he’s a bad lot as you say.

700   MEDEA: Marriage to a royal bride – that’s the prize he set his heart on.

AEGEUS: Who gives his daughter to him? Tell me the full story!

MEDEA: Creon, who rules this land of Corinth.

AEGEUS: Now I see why you are distressed, my lady. You have my sympathy.

MEDEA: I am ruined. And what is more I am banished from the country.

AEGEUS: By whom? This is yet another fresh trouble you tell me.

MEDEA: Creon is driving me into exile from the land of Corinth.

AEGEUS: And Jason allows this? I hardly approve of that.

MEDEA: He says he objects but he is prepared to tolerate it. [As before with creon, she assumes a posture of helplessness in front of him.] Oh, I appeal to you by this beard of yours,14 by

710       your knees, I make myself your suppliant; pity me, pity this luckless woman and do not look on when I am banished without a friend but receive me in your country and at the hearth of your home! Then may the gods fulfil your desire for children and prosperity accompany you to the grave! You do not know what a piece of luck you have found in me. I will put a stop to your childlessness and give you the power to father sons.15 Such are the charms I know.

AEGEUS: There are many reasons why I am ready to oblige

720       you in this request, my lady: chiefly the gods and then your assurance to me of the birth of children. For in this matter I confess myself completely helpless. This is what I propose: if you come to Athens, I shall try to give you my country’s protection as is within my rights. But you must manage your departure from this land on your own. If you come to my home of your own accord, you shall stay there safe from harm and under no circumstances will I give you up to anyone. I do

730       not want to incur guilt in the eyes of friends.

MEDEA: So be it. But if I should have your assurance on this, I would be entirely content with your offer.

AEGEUS: Surely you do not doubt my word? What difficulty do you have?

MEDEA: I do not doubt it. But I have made enemies of Pelias’ family and of Creon. If you were bound by this oath, you would not abandon me to them when they tried to drag me from your land. If mere promises made up our agreement and you had not sworn in the name of the gods, you might perhaps become their friend and comply with their demands. My

740       position is weak, while they have all the resources a royal house enjoys.

AEGEUS: You have shown considerable foresight in what you say. If this is what you think best, I am quite prepared to carry it out. Indeed this course involves me in less risk: I have an excuse to present to your enemies and your fortunes are put on a firmer footing. Prescribe your gods.

MEDEA: Swear by this solid Earth and by the Sun, father of my own father, not omitting all the race of gods.

AEGEUS: To do or not to do what? Tell me!

MEDEA: For your own part, not to expel me ever from your

750       land, and, if anyone else, an enemy, wishes to take me away, not to give me up of your own accord while you live.

AEGEUS: I swear by Earth, by the shining light of the Sun and by all the gods to abide by these your words.

[MEDEA rises to her feet.]

MEDEA: I am satisfied. What are you to suffer, if you prove false to this oath?

AEGEUS: The fate awaiting mortals who offend against the


MEDEA: Go on your way with my blessing! For all is well. I shall come to your city with all speed, once I have carried out my intention and achieved my wish.

CHORUS-LEADER: May Maia’s royal son, the traveller’s guide,

760       bring you to your home and may you gain the prize your heart desires so much, for in my judgement, Aegeus, you have a noble heart.

[ExitAEGEUS. MEDEA’s tone changes completely.]

MEDEA: Zeus! Justice, child of Zeus! Light of the Sun! Now, my friends, I will triumph gloriously over my enemies! My journey is begun! Now I have hope that my enemies will get their deserts! This man has shown himself a haven to my plans, just when my ship was rolling in heavy seas. To him I

770       shall fasten my stern cable, once I reach the town and citadel of Pallas. Now I will tell you all my plans. Listen to my words; they won't be spoken lightly. I shall send one of my servants requesting that Jason visit me. When he comes, I shall use honeyed words, saying that this royal marriage he has betrayed me to make is for the best, yes, and well thought

780       out. I will ask for my children to stay, not with the thought of leaving them in the land of my enemies, but so that I may kill the king’s daughter by means of trickery. I will send them, you see, with presents in their hands: a finely woven dress and a coronet of beaten gold. And if she takes this finery and puts it on her, she shall perish horribly, as shall anyone else who touches the girl. Such are the poisons with which I shall anoint the gifts.

790       But now I dismiss this business from my thoughts. It makes me groan to think what deed I must do next. For I shall kill my own children;17 no one shall take them from me. I will wreak havoc on all Jason’s house and then quit this land, to escape the charge of murdering my beloved children, after daring to do a deed that is abominable indeed. You see, my friends, to suffer the mockery of my enemies is something I

800       will not tolerate. The time I went wrong was when I left my father’s house, persuaded by the words of a Greek, who, with the gods’ help, will answer to me yet. For never shall he see children born of me living in the years ahead, never father a child by his new-won bride, since, foul creature, she must meet a foul end through my poisons. Let no one think me a weak and feeble woman, or one to let things pass, but rather one of the other sort, a generous friend but an enemy to be

810       feared. It is people like that who achieve true fame in life.

CHORUS-LEADER: Since you have confided this scheme to me, I tell you, from a heart that wishes you well yet would not break mankind’s laws, do not do this thing.

MEDEA: There is no other way. I can understand your saying this, however; you have not suffered the treatment I have.

CHORUS-LEADER: But to kill your very own children – will you have the heart for that, lady?

MEDEA: Yes; it is by doing this that I shall hurt my husband most.

CHORUS-LEADER: But no woman would then know greater misery.

MEDEA: So be it! Anything you may say now is wasted. [Turning to the NURSE, who has been a silent presence on stage since

820       MEDEA’sentry:] Come! Go and fetch Jason here! In all matters of trust it is you to whom I turn. Say nothing of my plans if truly you are a loyal servant and a woman.

CHORUS:18 [Strophe]: Happy have they been from earliest days, the stock of Erechtheus,19 and sons of the blessed gods, sprung from their sacred land untouched by foeman’s spear and nurtured on the arts most glorious, ever moving with

830       delicate step through the brilliant air, where once, they say, the Pierian maids, the Muses nine, created golden-haired Harmony.

[Antistrophe:] And on Cephisus’ bank, they tell, the Cyprian drew water from that fair-flowing stream to sprinkle on the

840       land, breathing upon it the winds’ breezes, soft and odorous; and ever she wears, flung on her hair, a garland of sweet-smelling roses and ever sends the Loves to sit by Wisdom’s side, inspiring with that goddess all manner of excellence.

[Strophe:] How, then, shall the city of sacred streams or the land so hospitable to friends give you a home, the killer of

850       your children, the unholy one who would live among them? Consider what it is to strike your children down, consider whose blood it is you mean to spill. No, at your feet, by every means, in every way we beg you not to murder your children! [Antistrophe:] Where will you find the boldness for such a deed? And in the fearful act, as you bring death upon your children, how will you prepare hand and heart? How will

860       you look upon your children and in the act of slaying them refrain from weeping? When your children fall down to beg for mercy, you will not be able to dip your hand in blood with a heart that does not falter.


JASON: Here I am at your bidding. You may think of me as an enemy, but I would not deny you this right; I will listen. What new request do you wish to make of me, my lady?

MEDEA: Jason, I ask your forgiveness for what I said earlier. It

870       is reasonable that you should be tolerant of my moods; we two have many memories of love once shared. I had words with myself and did not spare my own feelings: ‘What a perverse creature I am! Why do I madly resent those who have my interests at heart? Why do I view as enemies the rulers of the land and my husband who is doing what is best for me in marrying a princess and fathering brothers for my children? Shall I not give up my anger? What is the matter

880       with me? Are the gods not generous? Do I not have children? Have I forgotten that I am in exile and in need of friends?’

When I reflected on this, I realized the full extent of my folly and the futility of my anger. So now you have my thanks; indeed, I consider you showed good judgement in making this new match for us. I have been the foolish one; I should have shared in these plans of yours, helping to bring them to fruition, standing beside the nuptial bed and happily seeing to the needs of your bride. But we are what nature made us,

890       I will not say creatures of wickedness, but women. You ought not to imitate our shortcomings or seek to vie with us in childish behaviour. I ask for your favour and admit to a lack of sense earlier; I have now come to a better understanding of my situation.

[TheCHILDREN now enter with theTUTOR.]

Children, children, come here, leave the house! Come out and give us your greeting! Join me in saying goodbye to your father and share with your mother her change of heart – not hatred now for those who loved us but love! For we have made peace, we two, and bitterness has gone. Take hold of my right hand! [As memory ofJASON’s treachery stirs in her

900       again:] Ah! It came upon me there, the thought of sorrows hidden from us now! Oh, children, in all your years to come will you greet your mother like this with loving arms outstretched? What a wretched creature I am, how quick to shed tears and full of fear! These tender eyes fill with tears to think my quarrel with your father is finally over!

CHORUS-LEADER: Fresh tears spring from these eyes of mine as well. I pray that this trouble may not proceed to greater lengths than now.

JASON: I approve of this attitude, my lady, and do not blame you for what you said before. It is natural for womenfolk to

910       feel anger against a husband when he deals in contraband love. Your heart has changed for the better and now at last you have come to see the superior way of thinking. This is how a sensible woman should behave. As for you, children, your father has shown himself no fool in working to achieve – the gods willing – your perfect safety. You shall yet be foremost in this land of Corinth, I fancy, you and your brothers together. Grow to manhood only; your father and whatever friends he has in heaven will see to the rest. May I

920       see you reared in proper fashion and grown to man’s estate to triumph over my enemies! [Noticing thatMEDEA has again broken down:] What is this, lady? Why these fresh tears moistening your eyes? Why do you turn away a pale cheek? Are you not pleased to hear me say these words?

MEDEA: It is nothing; I was thinking about these children.

JASON: No more fears now; I will settle this business well.

MEDEA: I will do as you say; I will take you at your word. A woman is a soft creature, made for weeping.

JASON [giving way to exasperation]: Why all these sighs over the children now? It is too much!

930   MEDEA: I gave them birth. When you prayed for a long life for them, I felt a pang of pity at the thought that this might not happen. But I have touched on only some of the reasons for your coming to talk to me; the rest I will come to now. Since it is the royal will that I be banished from Corinth (and I am well aware this is the best course for me, not to continue living here as an embarrassment to you and the king, with people thinking I am bitterly opposed to the royal family), I will leave this land for exile; but to ensure that your hands guide our

940       children’s upbringing, ask Creon to waive banishment for them.

JASON: I do not know if I am likely to persuade him but I must try.

MEDEA: In that case tell your wife to beg her father not to banish them.

JASON: Yes, that I'll do; I expect I'll win her round all right, if she’s a woman like all the rest!

MEDEA: I, too, shall give you my support in this task. I will send her in the hands of my children gifts more lovely, I know, by

950       far than any in the world today. A servant must fetch the finery here without delay. She will count her blessings not singly but beyond telling when she gains as husband such a hero as yourself and becomes the owner of the finery that Helios, my father’s father, bequeathed once to his offspring.

[ASERVANT enters with gifts and presents them toMEDEA , who then turns to the children:]

Take these bridal gifts in your hands, children, and carry them to the princess. Present them to the lucky bride! Once she has accepted them, she will find they are not to be despised.

JASON: Have you lost your senses, madam? Why do you give

960       away gifts such as these? Do you suppose the royal house has a shortage of clothes or gold? Keep them for yourself, don't give them away! If I count for anything in my wife’s eyes, she will prefer me to wealth, I have no doubt.

MEDEA: Oh, please humour me! Gifts win over the gods themselves, they say; gold carries more weight with mortals than any number of words. Her star now shines, her sails swell with divine favour, she is young and a queen! To save my children from exile, I would give my life, not merely gold! Come, children, go into that wealthy house with the gift of this

970       finery and humbly beg your father’s new wife, my mistress; entreat her to let you stay in Corinth. What is essential is that she receives these gifts into her own hands. Off with you now, lose no time! I pray you are successful and bring your mother good tidings of the prize she longs to gain!

[JASON now leaves with theCHILDREN.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: Now no more have I hopes that the children will live, no more; already they are going to embrace a bloody death. The bride will receive, she will receive, poor girl, the circlet of gold that will bind her to destruction. With her

980       own hands will she set on her blonde hair the ornament of death.

[Antistrophe:] The charm and divine brilliance of gowns and coronet wrought in gold will persuade her to put them on; soon she will dress for her wedding in the company of the dead. Such is the trap, the mortal doom she will fall into, poor lady; she shall not escape destruction.

990       [Strophe:] And you, poor fool, bridegroom of sorrow, making marriages with royalty, all-unknowing you are bringing destruction on your children’s lives and a hateful death on your wife. Wretched man, you are indeed deceived in your destiny!

[Antistrophe:] But I grieve now for your anguish, pitiful mother of sons, who will shed your children’s blood to avenge

1000     your bridal bed, forsaken lawlessly by your husband so that he might have another to share his house and bed.

[TheTUTOR now enters with theCHILDREN.]

TUTOR: Mistress, they're spared, you must know! No banishment for these children now! And your gifts are in the hands of the royal bride, joyfully received! As far as she’s concerned, your little ones are under no threat. But what’s this? Why do you stand in such distress when fortune is smiling on you?

MEDEA: Oh, misery!

TUTOR: This sounds a note that jars with the news I've brought.

MEDEA: Oh, misery, I say, misery!

TUTOR: Can it be that I have delivered terrible news without

1010     knowing it? Was I mistaken in thinking my message a happy one?

MEDEA: Your message was such as it was; I have no fault to find with you.

TUTOR: Then why these downcast looks, these tears you weep?

MEDEA: I have no choice, old man, none at all. This is what the gods and I devised, I and my foolish heart.

TUTOR: Have no fear; your children shall surely have you restored.

MEDEA: I shall give others a resting place before then, the gods pity me!

TUTOR: You are not alone in being separated from your children. One that is mortal must bear adversity with a patient heart.

MEDEA: And so I shall. Go inside the house and prepare their

1020     daily food for the children.

[Exit theTUTOR, medea turns to address her CHILDREN.]

O children, children, you have a city and a home where, leaving me to my misery, you will live for ever without a mother; but my fate is exile, to go to another country before I can take any pleasure in you and witness your happiness, before I see the water brought to you on the day you take your brides or deck your marriage beds or raise on high the wedding torches.

Oh, this stubborn heart of mine! What misery it has cost me! It was all for nothing, then, children, that I reared you,

1030     all for nothing that I struggled and knew the agony of labour, suffering needlessly those stabbing pains when you were born? There was a time, oh yes, when, fool that I was, I had great hopes in you, that you would care for me in old age and, when I died, would dress me for the grave with tender, loving hands, a thing all men envy. But now that thought and its sweet comfort are no more. Robbed of your company, I shall endure a life that brings me pain and sorrow. And you, you will look no more at your mother with those eyes I love, once you have passed on to another form of life.

1040     Oh no, no! Why do you fix your eyes on me, children? Why smile at me with that last smile? Ah, the pain! What shall I do? My heart dissolves, ladies, when I see the shining faces of my children! I could not do it! Goodbye to those plans I made! I will take my children away from Corinth with me. In bringing suffering on them to cause their father pain, why should I bring twice as much suffering on myself? No, I shall not do it. Goodbye to my plans.

And yet what is the matter with me? Do I want to become

1050     a laughing-stock by letting my enemies off scot-free? I must find it in me to do this thing. To think I could have been so weak! Did I actually let myself be influenced by such cowardly thoughts? Off with you now, children, into the house! If anyone would harm my sacrifice by his presence, I give him warning now. I shall not weaken my hand!20

Ah, stop, my heart, do not do this deed! Let them be, poor fool, spare your children! When they are there living with us they will bring you joy. No, by those vengeful spirits that

1060     dwell in Hades’ realm, it shall never be! I will not leave my children to the mockery of my enemies. In any case the deed is done; she will not escape. Already the coronet is upon her head and in her dress she begins to die, the royal bride, make no mistake! Enough of that; I am now to tread a road of bitter pain and to send these children on one more painful still. I wish to speak to them.

1070     Give me your hands, children, give your mother your hands to kiss! O hands I love so much, dear, dear lips, my children, my pretty ones with your faces so noble! All happiness be yours, but not here! You have lost this world, thanks to your father. O how I love to hug them! The softness of their skin, the sweetness of their breath, my darling ones! Away, inside with you! I cannot look at you any more; my sorrows over-whelm me.

[TheCHILDREN disappear into the house.]

I am well aware how terrible a crime I am about to commit, but my passion is master of my reason, passion that causes

1080     the greatest suffering in the world.

CHORUS: Many times ere now I have entertained thoughts more subtle and engaged in arguments more weighty than the female sex should pursue. We also have a Muse, you see, who accompanies us and tutors us in wisdom, not all of us but a handful you might find among many who are not strangers

1090     to the Muse. And I declare that, in the matter of happiness, those mortals who have produced children are less fortunate than those who have no experience at all of parenthood. The childless, who have failed to attain children, because they are uncertain whether they are in the end a blessing or a torment to mankind, are spared many trials. As for those who do possess in their homes young offspring that they cherish, I see

1100     them worn away each passing hour by anxiety, first as to how they are to rear them properly and from what resources they are to leave them the means to live; further to this, it is hidden from them whether good children or bad will be the reward for their efforts.

One trouble, the last now of all that plague the world of men, I will describe. Suppose these children have won a sufficient livelihood and reached manhood and proved honest. Then,

1110     should fate so ordain, look, Death has made the journey to the kingdom below, taking with him the bodies of your children. What profit is it, then, to mankind, that the gods should cast upon them, to crown their other woes, this bitterest sorrow, all for the love of sons?

MEDEA: My friends, I have been waiting all this time for something to happen, watching how things will develop in the palace. And now I see one of Jason’s servants here on his way

1120     out of doors. He’s breathing hard; that shows he has a tale of strange suffering to tell.21

MESSENGER: Medea, flee, flee! Take whatever you can escape in – sea vessel or land carriage!

MEDEA: What has happened that I should flee?

MESSENGER: The princess is newly dead, she and Creon, her father, killed by your poisons.

MEDEA: Now there’s a welcome piece of news! From this day on I'll count you among my benefactors and friends!

MESSENGER: What are you saying? Are you thinking straight,

1130     my lady? Are you sane? You have desecrated a king’s home and now delight in hearing the tale! Have you no fear of the consequences?

MEDEA: I, too, have a reply I might make to what you have said. But don't be in too much haste, friend; tell your story! How did they perish? You would make me twice as happy if they died in agony!

MESSENGER: When those two sons of yours had left with their father and made their way into the bride’s home, we servants who had sympathized with you in your troubles were pleased. At once every tongue in the palace was describing how you

1140     and your husband had mended your quarrel of earlier days. One of us was kissing the children’s hands, another their golden heads. As for me, such was my delight I followed the children right into the ladies’ quarters. The mistress who now wins our reverence in place of you did not at first notice your two children but kept her eyes lovingly on Jason. But then at their entrance she showed her revulsion, covering her features with a veil and turning away a white cheek. Your husband

1150     tried to dispel the young woman’s anger and resentment with these words: ‘Do not regard my family as your enemies. Do stop feeling angry and look at them once more. Please consider worthy of your love all those who enjoy your husband’s love. Accept their gifts and entreat your father to spare my sons the penalty of exile, for my sake.’

Now, when she saw the finery, she could not restrain herself, but agreed to everything her husband said. Before your children and their father were any distance from the house,

1160     she had taken the elaborate dress and put it on. The golden coronet she placed upon her curls and began to arrange her hair in the gleaming mirror, casting smiles the while at her lifeless reflection. And then, rising from her seat, she walked through the rooms, stepping delicately with feet so white as she revelled in her gifts, and time and again stopping to stare back down at her ankles.

But then we were exposed to a horrific sight. The colour left her face and, with limbs trembling, she lurched backwards

1170     towards the throne and collapsed on to it, barely stopping herself from falling on the ground. At this an old servant woman, thinking, I suppose, that Pan22 or some other deity was attacking her wits, raised the cry honouring the god, until she saw white foam trickling over her lips, her eyes rolling and protruding, and a bloodless pallor invading her flesh. Then, to counter her earlier cry, she uttered a loud scream of lamentation. At once one servant rushed into Creon’s palace, another to the girl’s new husband to tell what had happened to his bride.

1180     Every room in the palace echoed to the sound of constant running. A fast runner, in his stride, would have turned the stadium bend and be closing on the finishing line by the time the poor girl broke her silence and woke from her trance with a terrible cry of pain. For she was being assailed by a double torment. The golden coronet resting on her head released a wondrous stream of devouring fire, while the fine dress that she wore, the gift from your children, began to consume the wretched girl’s white flesh. Up she leapt from the throne, all

1190     aflame, and took to her heels, tossing her head and hair this way and that in her desire to be rid of the crown. But the gold kept its fastening and would not move, while each time she shook her head, the flame burned twice as fiercely. She sank to the ground, crushed by her affliction, barely recognizable except to a parent’s eye. For her eyes had lost their normal look, her features their healthy bloom, blood congealed with fire was dripping from the top of her head and, as the poison’s

1200     jaws worked away unseen, the flesh melted away from her bones like resin from a pine-tree – a sight to stop the heart. She was dead, but not one of us was brave enough to lay a hand on her; her fate was a lesson we had all learned.

Then suddenly her father entered the room, unaware, poor man, of what had happened. Flinging himself on her corpse he cried out at once in pain and, folding her in his arms, he kissed her and spoke these words: ‘My girl, my poor girl, which god has brought you to this heartless end? Who has stolen you from me, an old man myself, ready for the grave?

1210     Oh, if only I could share your death, my child!’ When he had ceased his weeping and wailing, he tried to raise his aged frame but he stuck to her fine dress, as ivy clings to laurel branches. His struggles appalled us. Try as he might to lift up a knee, she clung to him and each time he used force to extricate himself, he tore the withered flesh from his own bones. At last the wretched man could strive no more against his awful predicament; he gasped and breathed his last.

1220     Together they lie in death, old man and young daughter.

I will say nothing now of what lies in store for you; you will discover for yourself that you cannot evade punishment. As for the life of man, I think and have often thought it is a shadow. I would not hesitate to say that those who pass for thinkers on this earth, for men of subtle reasoning, are guilty of being the greatest fools. For no one in this life of ours knows happiness. When fortune’s tide flows towards him,

1230     one man may surpass another in prosperity, but you should not call him happy.

[TheMESSENGER leaves.]

CHORUS-LEADER: This day it seems heaven has rained many blows justly on the head of Jason.

MEDEA: My friends, I have decided to act and at once. I will kill the children and then quit this land. I will not delay and so deliver them to other hands to spill their blood more eagerly.

1240     They must be killed; there is no other way. And since they must, I will take their life, I who gave them life. Come, my heart, put on your armour! We must not hesitate to do this deed, this terrible yet necessary deed! Come, wretched hand of mine, grip the sword, grip it! On to the starting line! A painful race awaits you now! No time now for cowardice or thinking of your children, how much you love them, how you brought them into this world. No, for one day, one fleeting day, forget your children; there will be the rest of your life for weeping. For though you will put them to the sword, you

1250     loved them well. Oh, I am a woman born to sorrow!23

[MEDEA turns and goes into the house.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: O Earth, O Sun whose rays illumine all, look down, look upon that deadly woman before she lays bloody hands upon her children, slaying her own flesh and blood! For they are yours, sprung from your golden race, and it is a fearful thing that human hands should spill the blood of a god. No, brightness born of Zeus, restrain her, hold her back, drive her from the house, the wretched woman whom

1260     fiends have turned into a murderous Fury!24

[Antistrophe:] Gone for nothing is the toil you spent on your children; for nothing, it seems, lady, you bore these boys you love, after threading your way through the dark Clashing Rocks so feared by travellers! Unhappy woman, why do you surrender to this anger that crushes your heart, why this lust for blood? For kindred blood polluting the ground weighs heavy upon mortals; the murderers are paid in just measure

1270     by the sorrows that heaven wills upon their houses.

ONE OF THE CHILDREN [from inside the house]: Oh, help!

CHORUS [Strophe]: Do you hear it, do you hear it, the cry of the children? Oh, you wretched, accursed woman!

FIRST CHILD: Oh no! What can I do? Where can I escape my mother’s hands?

SECOND CHILD: I don't know, dearest brother! We are to die!

CHORUS: Should I enter the house?25 Yes, I will save the children from slaughter!

FIRST CHILD: Yes! For heaven’s sake, save us! We need your help!

SECOND CHILD: Yes, we stand already in the shadow of the sword!

CHORUS: Wretched woman, so you are made of rock or of iron,

1280     poised to kill the fruit of your womb, these children, with your own hands!

[Antistrophe:] One woman, only one, I have heard, in earlier times did violence to her own children: Ino,26 whom the gods had robbed of her senses, when she was driven from her home into a life of wandering by the wife of Zeus. Unhappy girl, prompted by the blood she foully shed, she stepped over a cliff that bordered on the sea and, plunging into the waves,

1290     perished, sharing the fate of her two sons. What further horror could match this? Oh, how many the troubles caused by the loves of women! How many sorrows you have brought on mankind before now!

[JASON rushes on stage in great agitation.]

JASON: You women standing here beside the house, is she in this house, that arch-criminal, Medea, or has she fled from Corinth? For she must either hide herself below the earth or soar on wings into the vault of heaven if she is to escape the vengeance of the royal house. Does she suppose she can shed the blood of this land’s king, and of his daughter, and then

1300     escape scot-free herself from this house? But she doesn't make me anxious so much as the children. She will be paid in kind by the victims of her misdeeds, but I fear for my children27 and am here to save them from any harm the king’s relatives may intend them should they seek to avenge their mother’s impious act of murder.

CHORUS-LEADER: Jason, you are to be pitied; you have no idea of the depth of your misfortune. These words of yours would then never have been uttered.

JASON: What is your meaning? Perhaps she has it in mind to kill me as well, is that it?

CHORUS-LEADER: Your children are dead by the hands of their mother.

1310 JASON: Oh no! What will you say next? You have destroyed me, lady!

CHORUS-LEADER: Your children’s lives are at an end and you must recognize this.

JASON: Where did she kill them? Inside the house or out of doors?

CHORUS-LEADER: Open the doors and you will see your murdered children.

JASON: Quick, you servants, remove the bars, undo the fastenings!28 I want to see this double catastrophe!

[At this pointMEDEA suddenly appears above the stage in a chariot drawn by dragons. Visible also to the audience are the corpses of her children.]

MEDEA: Why are you shaking the doors and removing their bars in your desire to see the dead ones and the one who made them so – myself? Save your labour! If you have need of me,

1320     tell me what you want; never will you lay hands on me, though. Such is the chariot that the Sun, my father’s father, has given me, to keep me safe from enemy hands.

JASON: You abomination, what woman can earn more hatred than you, from the gods, from me, from the whole human race? You had the heart to plunge a sword into your children, you, their mother, and have robbed me of life as well as sons! This you have done, this monstrous deed you have dared commit, and still you look upon the sun and earth? I curse you! Now I see it clear but what a fool I was before, when I

1330     brought you from that house of yours in a barbarous land to a home in Greece, a deadly passenger who had betrayed your father and the country that reared you. The spirit of vengeance for your crimes has been sent by the gods to punish me.29 When you boarded my fine ship Argo, had you not first shed your own brother’s blood in the home you shared? That was how your career began. And when I had taken you to wife and you had given me sons, you destroyed them because I chose to leave your bed. Not a woman in Greece today would

1340     ever have dared such a thing30 and I passed them all over to marry you, a union that brought me hatred and danger, taking to myself not a woman but a lioness, with a nature more savage than Tuscan Scylla’s. But enough of this; were I to heap insults on your head, I would not touch your conscience, so engrained is your audacity.

Away with you, artist in the unspeakable, children-killer! Now I must bemoan my fate; no joy for me in the marriage lately made, no words of greeting from the sons I fathered

1350     and raised up; they were alive but now are lost to me.

MEDEA: I would have spoken at some length in reply to these words, were it not that father Zeus knew what kind of treatment you have had from me and I from you. It was not for you or your princess to trample on my love and live a life of pleasure, laughing at me, and not for Creon who made this match of yours to cast me out of this land without regretting it. So call me lioness, yes, if you wish to, for I have my claws

1360     in your heart as you deserve.

JASON: The pain is yours to feel as well; you share in this suffering.

MEDEA: Let me tell you one thing: my pain is cancelled now that any mockery of yours is silenced.

JASON: O children, what a wicked mother you had!

MEDEA: O my sons, how your father’s weakness caused your deaths!

JASON: Yet it was no right hand of mine that dealt them ruin!

MEDEA: No, it was your lustful heart and that new marriage of yours.

JASON: What? You decided to kill them because I loved another?

MEDEA: Do you think this a minor annoyance to a woman?

JASON: Yes, if she is sensible; but to you it is all that is evil.

1370 MEDEA: These children live no more; I say this to wound your heart!

JASON: They live (oh, the pain of it!) to bring dire curses on your head!

MEDEA: The gods know who began this quarrel.

JASON: What they know is the rottenness of your heart.

MEDEA: Yes, hate me! But I grow weary of your tiresome whining.

JASON: And I of yours; I welcome the moment of our parting!

MEDEA: Well then, what am I to do? I, too, long for this!

JASON: Allow me to bury my dead and weep over them.

MEDEA: Never! I will bury them with these hands, taking them to the sanctuary of Hera of the Cape.31 I will not have them

1380     subjected to mockery by one of my enemies violating their tombs. In this land of Sisyphus I will establish a solemn festival with ritual observances to atone for this impious bloodshed in years to come. For myself, I shall go to Erechtheus’ land, to share the home of Aegeus, son of Pandion. And you, as is right, a coward at heart, shall meet a coward’s end, struck on the head by part of your Argo, so witnessing a bitter end to marrying me.

JASON: May you be struck down by our children’s avenging

1390     curse and Justice who punishes murder!

MEDEA: What god, what spirit listens to you, the breaker of oaths, the deceiver of hosts?

JASON: Oh, this is agony! You contemptible creature, killer of children!

MEDEA: Go into your house and bury your wife.

JASON: I go, bereft of my two children. MEDEA: You do not know lamentation yet; wait until you are old.

JASON: O children, my dear, dear children!

MEDEA: Dear to their mother, yes, but not to you!

JASON: And then you killed them?

MEDEA: Yes, to cause you pain.

1400 JASON: Ah, pity me, I long to clasp them, to kiss the dear lips of my children!

MEDEA: Now you have words for them, now a loving welcome, but then you thrust them away.

JASON: In heaven’s name let me touch my children’s soft skin!

MEDEA: It cannot be; your words are uttered in vain.

JASON: Zeus, do you hear how I am rejected, what injury she does me, this abomination, this lioness who takes the lives of children? But with all my power, with all my strength I do

1410     lament and call upon the gods, asking them to witness how, with my children’s blood on your hands, you prevent me from touching them or giving their bodies burial. I wish I had never fathered them to see them later destroyed by you!

[MEDEA now disappears from view, taking with her the bodies of her CHILDREN.]

CHORUS: 32 Many are the things Zeus on Olympus has in his keeping and many things do the gods accomplish beyond men’s hopes. What men expect does not happen; for the unexpected, heaven finds a way. And so it has turned out here today.

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