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The publisher and the University of California Press Foundation gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Joan Palevsky Endowment Fund in Literature in Translation.
Medea Euripides Translated by Charles Martin Introduction by A. E. Stallings
UNIVERSIT Y OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
University of California Press Oakland, California © 2019 by Charles Martin Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Euripides, author | Martin, Charles, translator. | Stallings, A. E. (Alicia Elsbeth), writer of introduction. Title: Medea : Euripides / translated by Charles Martin ; introduction by A. E. Stallings Other titles: Medea. English (Martin) Description: Oakland, California : University of California Press,  | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Identifiers: lccn 2019019336 (print) | lccn 2019021814 (ebook) | isbn 9780520973756 | isbn 9780520307407 (pbk. : alk. paper) Classification: lcc pa3973.m4 (ebook) | lcc pa3973.m4 m37 2019 (print) | ddc 882/.01—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019019336 Manufactured in the United States of America 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For David Landon and Paul Watsky first responders
A Note on This Translation
Introduction Euripides, His Life and Times euripides, athenian He grew old between the fires of Troy and the quarries of Sicily. He liked caves on sandy beaches, and seascapes. He saw the veins of men as the toils of the gods, in which they snared us like game. He tried to rip holes in them. He was dour. His friends were few. When the time came, dogs tore him apart. —george seferis, 1955; trans. a. e. stallings
It is nearly impossible to discern fact from legend in the biographies of ancient poets, but that doesn’t stop us from searching for the bright sharp needles in the stacks of hay. Our fuller biographies of Euripides come centuries after his death, in the Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda (tenth century c.e.) and the work of grammarian Aulus Gellius (second century c.e.), with other scattered details coming from Plutarch (also second century c.e.) or the snarky remarks of contemporary Athenian comedians, who may not be excused from the motive of professional envy. As often with the lives of poets, there is a temptation to reconstruct Euripides’ life through the words spoken by his characters, as well as through the plots of his plays. Tradition has it that Euripides was born in 480 b.c.e. on Salamis on the very day of the famous Athenian naval victory over the Persians in 1
the straits between Salamis and Piraeus. In an almost novelistic touch, his mother is said to have been heavily pregnant when she and a handful of other Athenians fled the city for the safety of the nearby island (only one nautical mile from the port of Piraeus, and elsewhere even closer to the mainland), where Euripides’ family had property; she went into labor with the future poet on the spot. The Battle of Salamis marks a date in the life of all three of the major Athenian tragedians— Aeschylus fought in it, Sophocles was the handsome youth chosen to lead the victory chorus, and Euripides emerged into the world (presumably with a wail) on that day. This is a convenient shorthand for understanding both their contemporaneity and their relative ages, and as such is suspect; on the other hand, coincidences happen, and dates of major events in the ancient world (such as the Olympiads) were one firm way of nailing down a year. A pregnant woman fleeing war in a flimsy boat and going into labor from the stress is not an uncommon story in the news in recent years in the eastern Mediterranean. Stranger things have happened. Another appealing story about Euripides and Salamis was that he used a cave there as a writer’s retreat, rowing over from Piraeus, and writing his poetry there against the backdrop of the Saronic Gulf. Some have taken this to be a metaphor for Euripides’ misanthropy, his desire to avoid people, or as an explanation for the extensive seaimagery in his work. (Later biographical accounts also assert that Euripides was a painter, and had trained as a boxer.) Excavations of Salaminian caves in the late 1990s revealed that a cave in the south of the island was visited as a shrine to Euripides, at least in later times, with a potsherd there (possibly the offering of a fan in the second century b.c.e.) bearing the first six letters of his name. It is a scholar’s job to hold all such stories suspect, and to consider even this archaeological tidbit as proof of nothing more than that there existed a sort of literary worship cum tourism; other poets such as Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, and Sophocles likewise had a (literal) cult following. As a poet, I will just say I do not know a writer who, if he or she had a cave on Salamis and lived in Athens, would not gladly row over a stretch of sea to their writer’s retreat with a view, thinking metrically along with the oar strokes. It’s certainly attractive to think of Euripides looking
out at the water while writing, of Medea in her anguish, “She’s like a wave beating against a sea-wall.” Euripides’ father was a man named Mnesarchus, who may have owned a tavern or other shop. Athenian playwrights enjoyed relating that Euripides’ mother, Cleito, was an herb woman or a sort of greengrocer. (Clearly he was not so highborn as Sophocles, but some of this gossip may again be a way of reading his plays, which feature people from all walks of life, and register something closer to common speech.) Ancient gossip tells us he married twice, having divorced his first wife for infidelity with a house slave, and had three sons. He died, perhaps in exile, away from Athens, in the kingdom of Macedonia. Legend has it that he was torn apart by King Archelaus’s Molossian hounds (Greek mastiffs). There was a centotaph for him in Athens, which was said to have been struck by lightning. Whatever the unknowable details, the real life of Euripides played out against a time of tensions between Athens and Sparta, and of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 (the year in which Medea was first produced, and as it happens the year in which the video game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is set). It’s worth noting that the city that is the setting of the play, Corinth, was a rival of Athens, and an ally of Sparta, at the time of the play’s debut. It’s also notable that Aspasia, the consort of Pericles, the lead statesman of Athens at the time, was a controversial and powerful woman of great mental acuity, as well as an immigrant from Asia Minor. (This might have added to the effect on an Athenian audience of a play about a brilliant and dangerous foreign woman wed to a Greek leader; indeed, imagine if, in defiance of Athenian norms for freeborn Athenian women, she were present at the performance.) Euripides died in 406, two years before the final defeat of Athens by Sparta, a defeat marking the end of Athenian hegemony, but perhaps the beginning of Athens’ enduring cultural legacy, the afterlife of Athens’ philosophers and poets. In fact, it’s hard to think of an ancient playwright with a more popular afterlife. While he lived, Euripides’ plays were not as successful as his rivals’, at least if we go by prizes at the Dionysia festival (and Athenian playwriting existed strictly in the context of such competitions); out of his ninety odd plays—most now lost to us, or existing only in
fragments—only five won prizes, and of those, there were only three firsts; two won seconds, and Medea placed a disappointing third. But if not an immediate critical hit when it debuted, Medea went on to have a huge influence on art—Greek vases depicting Medea almost invariably depict scenes from Euripides’ stage—and on later Greek and Roman (and English) literature. Despite Euripides’ paucity of ancient Greek Oscars, two stories, one from during the playwright’s lifetime, and one from not long after, tell us much about the esteem in which Euripides’ poetry was held by the ancient Hellenic world. And both are stage-worthy (or cinemaworthy) in their own right. Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian War, relates that as a result of the disastrous Sicilian expedition (in 415 b.c.e.), 7,000 Athenian prisoners were kept corralled in the Sicilian quarries for months, with no shelter from the elements; given only a pint of barley meal and a half pint of water a day, many died from hunger, thirst, or exposure before the rest were eventually sold into slavery. What evidently had kept many of the prisoners of war alive was their knowledge of Euripides: For the Sicilians, it would seem, more than any other Hellenes outside the home land, had a yearning fondness for his poetry. They were forever learning by heart the little specimens and morsels of it which visitors brought them from time to time, and imparting them to one another with fond delight. In the present case, at any rate, they say that many Athenians who reached home in safety greeted Euripides with affectionate hearts, and recounted to him, some that they had been set free from slavery for rehearsing what they remembered of his works; and some that when they were roaming about after the final battle they had received food and drink for singing some of his choral hymns. (Plutarch, Life of Nicias 29.2–3)1 Also (according to Plutarch), Euripides posthumously saved Athens itself with his poetry. When the Spartan admiral Lysander, 1. Plutarch, Lives, vol. 3, Pericles and Fabius Maximus, Nicias and Crassus, trans. Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916).
exasperated that the defeated Athenians had not observed the conditions of their surrender, was considering proposals to not only tear down the long walls of the city, but to raze Athens and enslave its inhabitants, a singer came in to entertain the assembly, and began with a chorus from Euripides’ Electra. Deeply moved, those in the audience broke down: all “felt it to be a cruel deed to abolish and destroy a city which was so famous and produced such poets” (Plutarch, Life of Lysander 15.3).2 That the singer should have begun with a chorus from Euripides is not surprising if we consider that Plutarch gives the date for this debate as the “sixteenth of the month Munychion,” which is to say, the playwright’s traditional birthday: the anniversary of the Battle of Salamis. —A. E. Stallings T H E P L AY
Medea’s story has always been impossible to disentangle from the adventures of Jason and the golden fleece, a mission that takes the hero all the way to the coast of the Black Sea, where Medea is a princess, but not one in distress. It is Jason who needs saving. Medea, having fallen head over heels in love with him (herself bewitched, perhaps, by the goddess of love), uses her sorceress knowledge of potions and magic to help him overcome lethal and seemingly impossible fairy-tale tasks, such as harnessing fire-breathing robot bulls to plow a field, killing an army of warriors sprung out of the sown furrows, and snatching the golden fleece out from under the jaws of a watchful dragon. Set in the generation before the Trojan War, this story seems to be known to the earliest Greek poets, though we tend to read it through the Hellenistic Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes. In some earlier Greek poets, such as Hesiod and Pindar, Medea is a witch (granddaughter of the Sun and niece to Circe), but not necessarily a bad witch—a tyrannicide (of the bad king Pelias), but no murderess. Her name derives from the Greek medomai—“to pay attention, think, calculate, prepare, plan, 2. Plutarch, Lives, vol. 4, Alcibiades and Coriolanus, Lysander and Sulla, trans. Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916).
plot, concoct, devise.” To be Medea is to premeditate. Her witchiness seems to be part and parcel of her intelligence. Yet the play does not open with the jilted princess Medea. Most Greek tragedies begin with a supernatural being, or royalty, or even the Chorus itself. This play, though, has no gods; it opens in the voice of the mortal of absolute lowest status in Greek society—not only a woman, but a slave; not only a slave, but a foreigner; indeed a female foreign slave whose mistress is herself a refugee. Throughout the play, the emphasis is on those without power or protection, and their limited choices when faced with injustice. Euripides was notorious for piling on exposition at the opening of his plays, but the Nurse’s opening monologue is not the famous backstory, but an unraveling of it, a contrary-to-fact wish that none of it had ever happened—not only that Medea had never left their home in Colchis, but that Jason had never come on his adventures, and that the magic ship the Argo herself had never been built. Interestingly, those who have been interviewing migrants today who have come over the seas seeking asylum in Greece come across such negative wishes again and again. “If I had known about how I would be treated along this journey, I might have never left my country. Better to die under the bombs in my home than to be treated like this in Europe,” says one Syrian man; a woman from Yemen says, “Sometimes I think it would have been better to have died in the sea rather than be in this place.” Similar laments, spontaneous and yet an ancient genre unto themselves, are a chorus to be heard in all the refugee camps of Greece.3 The children’s Tutor is also a slave; likewise his fortunes are caught up with the household and the fate of his young charges. The Nurse knows what goes on inside the house; the Tutor knows the word on the street, eavesdropping, as he does, at the sacred spring, a sort of town square 3. “Nonviolent Peaceforce Conducts Assessment along Refugee Migration Route in Europe,” Read Stories (blog), June 22, 2016, Nonviolent Peaceforce, www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/blog/middle-east-news/596-nonviolent-peaceforce-conducts-assessment-alongrefugee-migration-route-in-europe; Marianna Karakoulaki, “Women Struggle to Survive Greece’s Notorious Refugee Camp,” Deutsche Welle, October 21, 2018, www.dw.com/p/36i77.
where the men hang out playing tavli and talking politics (as today, in modern Greece, one might catch conversation against the clatter of backgammon under a plane tree). Medea may be churning with anger and hurt, dangerous to herself and others, but she is about to receive information—about the looming “deportation,” in Charles Martin’s contemporary language, of herself and her children, a future of exile, that will compel her to act. Gossip and rumor were personified divine forces in ancient Greece (Rumor in Hesiod “is a kind of god”), and we see how the thoughts and actions of the highest in society are “leaked” by the lowest, unnoticed members, flowing freely in and out of doors.4 Perhaps Fame—the ultimate goal of Greek heroes, to be immortalized in song—may be thought of as publicity, a controlled glorification of one’s story, while Rumor is what escapes control, is even decried as fake news, damaging reputations, particularly the reputations of women. Consider Pericles’ funeral oration, delivered in 430 b.c.e. (a year after the play’s debut), on the fame of women: “The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.”5 It seems plausible that Pericles had seen Euripides’ play. Medea’s first utterance, her aria (Greek drama being closer to opera than to our idea of a play), from inside the house, is pure voice, pure vowel—the Greek io! would have been intoned, sung. For us, this might sound more like a howl, but io was the Greek expression both of triumph and of grief, as if we had one word that meant both “alas!” and “hallelujah!” And indeed in the course of the play, Medea will make a triumph of her grief, and a grief of her triumph. The utterance resists translation, but Martin’s solution is a good and bold one, to begin on an incantatory trochaic tetrameter (a meter we might also associate with witches and their spells, as in “Double, double, toil and trouble”), with a vowel music ranging from the long o’s of “sorrow” to high e’s. Medea is voice before she is visible, and her eerie vocal entrance should raise hairs on the back of the neck. 4. Angela Taraskiewicz, “Medea Volans: The Bride’s Tragedy in Euripides’ Medea” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, n.d.). 5. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, Penguin Classics, book 2, chapter 46.
Medea’s cries trigger the entrance of the Chorus of native-born Corinthian women (the Chorus will remain onstage till the end of the play): I have heard the voice, I have heard the cry Of the anguished woman of Colchis: Is she not calm yet?
The Corinthian women prove a sympathetic sisterhood to the foreign woman in their midst, and Medea, having gathered herself, knows how to approach and persuade them. With caution and self-control, she admits the need for assimilation: A foreigner who lives in a strange city Must ever be compliant to its customs,
while also calling on civility from the native-born. Medea carefully draws comparisons between her situation and theirs, on the universal difficulties of being a woman. Marriage itself, declares Medea, is a kind of exile: When a young bride goes to her husband’s home With all of its new customs and arrangements Untaught to her beforehand, she must become A prophet or a mind-reader to cope With this complete unknown who’s now her mate.
(Remember that Medea is also a prophetess.) And she argues that motherhood is its own kind of heroism, in her rousing comparison of childbirth to being on the front line of battle: I’d rather fight three battles, shield to shield, In the first line of men, than once give birth!
One can imagine a sort of “amen” from the Chorus here, nodding and gesturing in approval. The audience too would have been struck by this comparison—all Athenian freeborn men were on active-duty status in the military, and had either seen combat, or were about to do so. It was an audience of veterans.
The Chorus, too, continues the play’s concern with the contraryto-fact, with wishing things hadn’t happened, or had happened otherwise—if only women, not men, had written the stories and songs that gave glory to male heroes while casting women in the shade: Verses made by men of old Sang of our inconstancy; Their songs will now be put on hold. Had Phoebus given us the lyre, I could well have made reply To lies about female desire.
(As Jane Austen might chime in, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.”) The choral ode then proceeds to invert expectations and to reweave the story from Medea’s point of view. Compared to the sympathetic portrayal the playwright provides of Medea, the slaves, and the Chorus, when it comes to the two principal men in power—King Creon and the legendary Jason himself— Euripides depicts them as bullies and buffoons. Medea is a tragedy, but one whose protagonist is not a traditional tragic hero; Medea’s rage is epic rather than tragic, and the mortal sin of hubris is beneath her as the granddaughter of a god. If there is a character with a tragic flaw or hubris in the play, it is Jason, at the peak of his fame, relentlessly selfinterested and self-esculpatory, consistently minimizing or erasing the debt he owes Medea, and cavalier when it comes to his past oaths; he is more politician than hero. (The contemporary term “gaslighting” comes to mind.) Yet if Jason seems something of a caricature of dimness to set off Medea’s cleverness, the portrait Euripides paints of an unhappy marriage in the cut and thrust of their exchange, with its bitterness, misunderstandings, recriminations, and tug-of-war over shared history, rings uncannily true and timeless. That the marriage is beyond repair is emphasized by Medea’s twisting a quotation from Homer, on the perfect marriage of true minds, as applying to herself alone: “A joy to friends, a danger to my foes!” Interestingly, each spouse is the claim to fame of the other in their he says/she says argument: Medea points out that Jason could not have completed the tasks that make him famous without her; Jason scoffs,
with a Make Greece Great Again nativism, that Medea would have no fame at all if she still lived in the obscurity of the Black Sea. A princess and a sorceress, outside of Greece, she would still be a nobody. As Martin notes, the interlude with King Aegeus of Athens, which falls smack in the middle and divides the work, was thought problematic by Aristotle, an “irrational” occurrence. (Aristotle likewise frowned at the play’s deus-ex-machina ending.) But the interlude serves many purposes. For one, it offers up a release from the claustrophobic tension, putting off the moment of crisis. Having seen Medea only as a wronged foreign bride, treated with contempt by her host Creon, and with condescension by Jason, we have a glimpse into what Medea was like before, and, in an alternative universe, could be again. Treated with respect and even affection, on equal footing with a man and a king, Medea behaves like the self-possessed royalty and priestess that she is. King Aegeus and Medea greet one another with the affection of old friends. King Aegeus also serves as a foil for Creon, showing how a king (an Athenian and a gentleman, as it were) ought to behave, as both a tactful guest and a generous host. Aegeus’s greeting of Medea could not draw a sharper contrast with Creon’s brute rudeness. As Martin captures it, compare King Aegeus’s “I wish you joy, Medea!” with Creon’s sneering “You there, Medea.” The further irony—even comic relief—of the incident is that King Aegeus, no intellectual match for Medea (after all, who is?), is the business around the prophecy. Having sought the reason for his childlessness from the oracle at Delphi, he has been given a riddle, “words that could not be understood by men.” (Euripides uses the Greek word for “male,” not “human being.”) He starts the prophecy, “Do not . . . the wineskin’s . . . outreaching foot . . . untie . . . ,” only to have Medea, gently but impatiently, one imagines, try to finish it for him, “Until you do what, or come to what place?” Medea knows full well what the implication of the bawdy metaphor is—as does the Athenian audience, who were familiar with the story—that King Aegeus needs to “keep it zipped” as it were until he gets back to Athens; but she deliberately omits telling him. In fact, she effectively sends him on his way to the very man whose daughter he will get tricked into impregnating, producing in the process the greatest of the legendary national Athenian heroes, Theseus.
King Aegeus’s sorrow in his childlessness adds another level of irony and poignancy to Medea’s unchilding of Jason and herself. As a representative of civilized Athens, the king is also the occasion for the Chorus to hymn praises of the city. Jason, in his own description of barbarism on the one hand, and Greek civilization on the other, is shown to be a hypocrite. With Medea having secured protection in the sanctuary city of Athens and a promise that she will be free from “extradition” to her enemies, we can glimpse an improbable but possible happy ending, the eucatastrophe of Tolkien rather than the catastrophe—the violent downturn—that helps to define tragedy in Aristotle.6 What follows therefore is all the more distressing. As the Nurse had imagined a past contrary-to-fact world, where the story of Jason and the golden fleece had never happened, as the Chorus imagines a topsy-turvy universe where the laws of physics are suspended and streams flow uphill, so Medea imagines the alternative peaceful future that might exist but that doubly cannot be: how in her exile, she would never live to see her boys married, nor will her children tend to her in old age and death. At any event, once the machine of her revenge is put into motion, the slaying of the children is mandated to protect them from worse retributions: My friends, I have decided what to do: I’ll kill my children now, at once, then flee This land, for if I linger, hands less kind Will bring them far more crudely to their deaths.
Whose hands? we might wonder, as might the Chorus, and the audience. What worse fate for the children is she aiming to avoid? As is common in Greek tragedy, the violence of Medea takes place offstage. Messenger scenes like the one describing the death of Creon and his daughter are a staple of ancient drama, allowing us to imagine, almost cinematically, violence that would involve changes of scenery (not an aspect of Greek plays), additional characters, and perhaps special effects. That they are left to the audience’s imagination increases 6. See Taraskiewicz, “Medea Volans.”
their power.7 The Medea messenger speech, one of the longest such in ancient literature, allows us to see and get to know the proud princess who has displaced Medea in Jason’s affections—the new bridecum-stepmother who cannot stand the children—“Soon as she noticed them, she veiled her eyes / And turned away her pale cheek in disgust”—but is vain with respect to her own beauty and greedy for the costly adornments with which Medea has tempted her (“as pleased as any girl by a new bonnet”). It is a neat trick that Euripides makes the princess both dislikable and an object of pity, even though we never set eyes on her. Horror, perhaps, rather than tragedy is the proper genre for describing the murder of the children; Euripides uses the almost Hitchcockian device of having their murders happen in earshot but not eyeshot, as the audience becomes somehow complicit along with the Chorus, which does not lift a hand to stop it. The end of the play chillingly shows Medea and Jason still locked in grim contention, both calling the dead children as witnesses to their unbridgeable grievances. And the power that Medea has had all along (we have hints of it in the magic—radioactive?—tiara and gown, heirlooms from granddaddy Sun, and her skill in medicine and soothsaying) is made visible in the chariot, the dracones ex machina, in which Medea escapes. The play begins with the whispers of gossip, and ends in the rush of monstrous wings. Yet the logical necessity and inevitability of Medea’s infanticide seem far from fixed. The Chorus tries over and over to persuade her to change her mind, and she also wavers. (Again, the etymology of the name Medea suggests someone pondering and thinking; in Roman art she is often shown at just the moment where she tries to steel herself to the deed.) Even after her plan is accomplished, the Chorus struggles to find any antecedent for such an act. They can think of only one, and that involves suicide as well as infanticide: 7. A modern cinematic example is Hattie McDaniel’s hair-raising performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, in which she describes in detail to Melanie the death of the child Bonnie from a fall from her pony, and Rhett’s subsequent derangement in grief, off-screen scenes drenched in Aristotelian pity and fear.
Ino, maddened by Hera, Chased from her house to wander Until she fell into the sea! —Until she stepped over the cliff ’s Edge with a child in each hand, And all three perished together!
Based on the accounts of Medea that we know to have been in circulation at this point, the Chorus is right to be surprised. (That this play placed third, which is to say last, may indicate the audience itself was discomfited.) Euripides seems to signal innovations; at the very least, adoption of a little-known variant. Ancient scholia (the ancient commentary) on the play suggest Euripides may have borrowed elements of the plot from Neophron, who had a play of the same name. But it seems more plausible that Euripides put his own twist on this ancient and well-known tale. A bit of old slander, or gossip maybe, lurks in the margins of the play, pointing in this direction. An ancient scholion asserts that Euripides took a bribe of five silver talents from the Corinthians to change Medea’s story, and to make her, and not the Corinthians, responsible for the deaths of her children—other versions being that either the Corinthian women had stoned Medea’s children after her murder of the Corinthian royal family, or that they sacrilegiously slew them at Hera’s altar, where Medea had left the children as supplicants. (A third variation holds that Medea was unwittingly responsible, and the children’s deaths were an accident following a botched immortality ritual in which she buried them at the altar of Hera.)8 An alert listener may have caught some foreshadowing of this twist earlier in the play, when the Nurse says: She loathes her children, can’t bear the sight of them, And I’m afraid she’s plotting wickedness!
8. Centuries later (second century ce), the travel writer Pausanias, visiting the ruined city of Corinth, which had been razed and sacked by the Romans in 146 bce, mentions these tales as still having currency, and that a memorial still stood to Medea’s children near the city’s famous spring; he also remarks that Corinthian children used to
In the Greek, what is rendered as “wickedness” is literally “something new”—the connotation in Greek, as Martin rightly suggests in his translation, being that what is new is inherently bad. (For instance, in Greek, the verb for “to make new” usually indicates the instigation of violent revolution.) On a more literal level, perhaps it is not only Medea who is plotting something revolutionary; it is also the playwright. That the whole ending of the play, from the murder of the children on, may have come as a surprise, even a shock, to the first audience is underscored by the final words of the Chorus, who declare: What we expect does not occur, For some god always finds a way To bring about the unforeseen; That is what happened in this play.
The audience must have been left to debate not only the ethics of Medea’s actions, but also those of Jason’s, and the position of Athens itself as a center of enlightenment and sanctuary, and the Greek world’s claim to civilization over the barbarism of others. (“Barbarian,” in fact, simply meant “one who does not speak Greek.”) These are still topical issues in the eastern Aegean—that sea named after King Aegeus—issues that promise to become more urgent worldwide: refugee, foreigner, citizen, deportation, extradition, asylum, exile— Martin emphasizes these timeless issues with a modern vocabulary out of our news cycles. In the light of this modern Medea, the British-Somalian poet Warsan Shire’s contemporary “Home” could be a lost choral ode from the play: no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well ............................................................................. observe a hero cult in honor of their unhappy shades, rituals in which they would wear black and cut off their hair. For a fuller look at the Medea story variations, as well as evidence of the hero cult, see Corinne Ondine Pache’s chapter on Medea’s children in Baby and Child Heroes in Ancient Greece (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
no one crawls under fences wants to be beaten pitied
Euripides’ Chorus seems to reply: May I never lose my city And lead a life of helplessness Exposed to random cruelty, Or condescending looks of pity. Before that happens, let me die, Let the light of my life end: There is no source of greater woe That anyone may ever know Than to lose one’s native land.
—A. E. Stallings with Angela Taraskiewicz
a note on this transl ation
When T. S. Eliot heard that William Butler Yeats was translating Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, he is reported to have said something like “Yeats doesn’t know Greek. What can he be translating it out of?” But Yeats had at least written his own verse plays for the theater; in our time, poetic drama is distinguished by its almost complete absence from the cultural scene. A translator today, even one who knows Greek, might very well wonder what he or she would translate Sophocles into. The same, of course, is true for Euripides’ Medea. Those who take greater liberties with the text would seem to have fewer problems than those who remain faithful to it. Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus is a brilliant adaptation of Sophocles, but few I think would argue for it as a translation; likewise, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic version of Medea is enthralling, but hardly faithful to the vision of Euripides. Despite the infrequency of verse plays in our time, there is I think a good case to be made for attempting to translate the play as a poetic drama, as I have done here. James Fenton reminds us that “poetic drama sometimes survives in modified forms. For instance if Racine or Sophocles is to be performed on the English stage, a poetic translation will be needed, and since the idiom in which either of these playwrights wrote involved much that is very far from our own traditions, conscious poetic choices have to be made by the translator in order to 17
a note on this translation
find an idiom for the modern stage.”1 I want to consider first Mr. Fenton’s idea that a poetic translation will be needed for performance purposes. Why should that be? Why wouldn’t a prose version do just as well? After all, prose is largely what we hear now in the theater. Most of us, however, would not regard a prose version of one of Dante’s sonnets as an adequate reflection of the experience of the sonnet itself: more of what Dante’s sonnet means can be caught in the net of an English sonnet than in prose. Or, as the English classicist Llewelyn Morgan says, “From an ancient point of view, if we deny the metrical dimension of a poetic artefact its full significance, we are discounting what identifies it as a poem.”2 I am not sure that the modern idea is all that different: if you know that Euripides wrote in complex and sophisticated verse forms, you might feel yourself cheated by a translation that does not at least attempt to acknowledge that fact. The tragic playwrights lost the singular epic voice, replacing it with the voices of the characters of the play to whom they gave a varied structure of metrical speech, verse-chanting, and song in their poetic dramas. Incorporating first- and third-person narrative, choral odes, pointed epigrams, and rapid-fire stichomythic dialogue, they were able to present characters in a more vivid and rounded way than the epic poets had. Medea, for example, is continually surprising us: the defeated, despairing figure described by the Nurse and the Chorus of Corinthian women reveals herself to be more than capable in dealing with the men she encounters in the course of the play. We remember that the Nurse did warn us at the end of her monologue: I tell you she is very dangerous, And no one who makes her an enemy Will celebrate an easy victory!
Jason too is a complicated character: a mythical hero, oath-breaker, and self-serving braggart, whose devastation at the climax of the play 1. James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 122. 2. Llewelyn Morgan, Musa pedestris: Metre and Meaning in Roman Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
a note on this translation
nevertheless turns him into a figure who engages our sympathies. Even the Nurse reveals aspects of herself that are not strictly speaking necessary to the development of the plot, which mostly has to do with the gradual evolution of Medea’s plans for the vengeance she will carry out against Jason. Do we really need to know the Nurse’s views on the inadequacy of music at banquets? Probably not, but they comprise a kind of grace note that allows us to see her as a real human being. Sarah Ruden, the classicist and translator, wrote that she doubted anyone had left the original performance of Medea, saying, “How terrible the consequences can be of treating women the way we Greeks treat them.”3 If that had been the point of Euripides’ play, then prose might very well have been a better choice for its composition than verse. If we reduce the complexity of Medea, or any other Greek tragedy, to the outcome of a single moral issue, if we ignore all of the real but unquantifiable elements of performance that make up the texture of the play, then we might just as well translate it into prose. But if we opt for poetry, then, as Fenton said, “conscious poetic choices have to be made by the translator in order to find an idiom for the modern stage.” Or for the modern reader of the play. The prosodic choices made for this translation presented themselves to me rather generously: blank verse was just what I wanted for most speakers. I have to admit to some worry about what Fenton calls the “pseudo-Shakespearean,” but I came to agree with him that the danger passed long ago: narrative blank verse has a long and varied history in English poetry. Rhyming stanzas took over Jason’s dialogue with Medea and would not leave. In my mind they stood in for Jason’s desperate need to persuade her of his essential goodness by offering her the gift of rhyme, which she refuses. The Messenger’s monologue also rhymes, but innocently and irregularly, as in Robert Frost’s “The Lesson for Today.” Rhyme also seemed useful for the epigrammatic utterances in the play as well as for the stichomythic dialogues, where it sometimes indicates an agreement between parties and sometimes a ferocious contest. Euripides used anapestic meter for the chanted verses; anapests in English are usually
3. Sarah Ruden, “Back to Tragedy,” New Criterion, January 2015.
a note on this translation
too light to be used for any kind of heavy lifting, but the trochaic meter often signals foreboding, as in Blake’s “Tyger, tyger, burning bright . . . ,” and can sometimes go beyond foreboding. I doubt that any translator can reproduce in English the metrical complexity of the choral odes, which left H. D. F. Kitto wondering if they could have been composed by mere mortals. However, some sense of their purpose, both as supplying a different point of view in the drama and as performance, should be brought across to the reader as to the spectator. There are limits to what can be done. As W. H. Auden put it, “We know that the chorus in Greek tragedy both chanted and danced, though we know almost nothing about classical Greek music and choreography. Today, vocal choral writing and ballet choreography demand so much more technical skill from performers that it is now an axiom that singers cannot dance and dancers cannot sing.”4 My imagined chorus consists of three women: a vocal trio, perhaps, like the one in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, though capable of registering horror as well as irony. In short, the choices I have had to make have resulted in a version that is analogous rather than imitative. Greek choral odes do not rhyme, but rhyme in an English translation of a choral ode frames the utterance, tells us that we must attend to it as to something set apart, something performed, and gives, one hopes, some sense of the intention of the original. —Charles Martin
4. W. H. Auden, Secondary Worlds (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 110.
Dramatis Personae (in order of appear ance)
Medea’s Nurse Tutor to the children of Jason and Medea The two children Chorus of Corinthian women Medea Creon, King of Corinth Jason Aegeus, King of Athens Messenger
The action of the play is continuous and takes place in the course of a single day. The scene is a street in front of the house in Corinth in which Jason and Medea were living before he left their marriage. On one side of the house is a path that leads further into the city. Most characters will use this path for their entrances and exits. On the other side, a path leads out of Corinth and into the countryside. It will be used principally by King Aegeus, though some of the Chorus may use it as well. The play begins as the Nurse enters from the house.
nurse Oh, how I wish the Argo hadn’t flown Across the Aegean, through the Clashing Rocks To land at Colchis! How I wish the pines That grow in glens high on Mount Pelion Never had been harvested to furnish Oars for the hands of the heroes ordered By Pelias to fetch the Golden Fleece! If only none of that had ever happened, My lady Medea never would have sailed To the land of Iolcus and its towers, Infatuated by her love for Jason, Nor would she ever have convinced the daughters Of Pelias to murder their own father, And she wouldn’t now be living here in Corinth, A refugee, estranged from her own kin. Yet when her exile here had just begun, Her life with Jason and their sons was good, For the Corinthians approved of her behavior, The way she was supportive of her husband. That is the greatest of securities, When husband and wife are of a single mind. But their relationship’s now rancorous, Former affection is presently diseased, For Jason has walked out, abandoning His children and my lady for a new
Marriage into a royal family: The trophy bride he’s taken to his bed Happens to be the daughter of King Creon, Ruler of Corinth. Medea, now cast-off, Dishonored, weeps for all the broken oaths That Jason piously swore to uphold, And calls upon the gods above to witness The shabby way her husband has repaid her! My lady now lies fasting, racked with pain, Ceaselessly weeping, as ever since she first Discovered that her husband had betrayed her. Lying face down, she never lifts her eyes, Not even to acknowledge visitors, Those friends who come to offer their advice. She’s just as unresponsive as a stone, She’s like a wave beating against a sea-wall, Silent, except for when she bows her head And to herself moans of her dear father, Her country, her ancestral home, betrayed When she abandoned them to run away With someone who has left her in dishonor. At first hand now, the wretched woman knows From her misfortune what a good it is Not to be cut off from your native land. She loathes her children, can’t bear the sight of them, And I’m afraid she’s plotting wickedness! —She has a savage temper, that one does, And won’t put up with being so mistreated. Mark what I say here, for I know her well! I fear she’ll slip into the bridal chamber And thrust a sharpened sword into her liver, Or kill the royals and the bridegroom too, And then go on to even greater mischief! I tell you she is very dangerous, And no one who makes her an enemy Will celebrate an easy victory!
The Tutor and the two sons of Jason and Medea enter, returning from the city. But see her children back now from their games, All heedless of their mother’s sad condition: Such young minds cannot bear to dwell on grief. The Tutor crosses to center stage and addresses the Nurse.
tutor Agèd retainer in my lady’s retinue, Why is it that you stand outside and groan About your troubles to yourself alone? Surely Medea has some need of you?
nurse Old guardian of Jason’s sons, you know How, for loyal slaves, the bad luck of their masters Is ours as well; we’re touched by their disasters. Grief overwhelmed me with its need, and so I came out here all by myself, to cry My lady’s troubles to the earth and sky.
tutor What? Has she not yet ceased her lamentation?
nurse Your ignorance is bliss: I envy you. She’s just begun. She isn’t halfway through.
tutor Poor fool, I say, despite her lofty station! She has no inkling of impending woe.
nurse Speak up, old man! What is it that you know?
tutor Nothing. Let me take back what I just said.
nurse Now, by your chin, I beg you to entrust Your fellow slave with this! For if I must, I know to keep a still tongue in my head.
tutor As I drew near those tables where the old Men play at checkers in the afternoon By Corinth’s sacred spring, I overheard someone, While pretending not to listen in, who told Some other someone that King Creon planned— Here he nodded at the children—to deprive Them of their haven. Creon plans to drive These children and their mother from this land! Did he speak the truth? That I do not know, Although I strongly wish it were not so.
nurse Jason is fighting with his cast-off spouse, But will he let Creon ruin his two sons?
tutor Old marriage ties are given up for new ones, And Jason is no friend to our house.
nurse Well, that’s the end of it for us then, if, before We’ve weathered old griefs, we take on another.
tutor Say nothing of this to the children’s mother: She mustn’t know what troubles are in store.
nurse Hear, children, how your father acts toward you! I must not curse my master, but it’s true, He has betrayed the ones who loved him best.
tutor As who does not? Because of his new bride A father has now put his sons aside: Surely you’ve heard about self-interest?
nurse Into the house now, children—all will be well! Keep them in isolation, for it’s best To hide them from her while she’s so distressed. I saw her glaring at them like a bull, And knew that she must act. So if she does ill, It would be better that her wrath destroys Some enemy, and not her precious boys.
From inside the house, we hear Medea keening: her speech and the following dialogue with the Nurse should be spoken rhythmically, in a kind of chant.
medea Sorrow leaves me wholly wretched, Only death would end my anguish!
nurse Just as I feared, my dear ones, your mother Churns up her feelings into outrage. Go inside now, children, quickly, Keep out of sight, don’t go near her, Be mindful of her savage nature, That willfulness she cannot temper! Inside now, children, quickly, quickly!
The children and their Tutor exit into the house. Clearly her increasing passions, Flashing forth will soon ignite Rising clouds of lamentation— Her proud heart will not be subdued. Affliction goads her to—what action? From inside the house:
medea Great griefs demand abundant weeping. Acursèd children of a hateful mother, May you both die beside your father, May Jason’s house collapse in ruins!
nurse How I pity this poor woman! —Why blame your children for their father’s Wickedness? Why hate them so? Children, I fear that evil stalks you.
To the audience: Dangerous, the minds of rulers: Because they only issue orders Which they seldom have to follow, They find it hard to give up anger. It’s better to get used to living On equal terms with other people. Just let me make it to old age Safely, with enough to live on, No more, no less: moderation’s Best in theory—and in practice, too. Excessive wealth brings no advantage, For when a god directs his anger At some great house, its ruin is In proportion to its greatness.
The Chorus of Corinthian women enters separately from both directions.
chorus First woman I have heard the voice, I have heard the cry Of the anguished woman of Colchis: Is she not calm yet? Second woman Her misery Poured through the double thickness of her doors, Was mine to hear from where I stood. Third woman I grieve for the misfortunes of her house, Since I have come to cherish it.
nurse Fallen, that house. It is no more: Jason embraced a royal bride,
Medea wastes away inside And finds no consolation for The grief of hers that never ends In visits from well-meaning friends. From inside the house:
medea Split my skull, Zeus, with your lightning! What do I gain to go on living? May I find my peace in dying And leave behind this hateful life!
chorus O Zeus and Earth, Sun’s holy light, Have you not heard, do you not hear The cry she uttered in her plight? Why do you seek Death’s empty bed, Which we’re forbidden to draw near? Are you that eager to be dead? This is no fate for which to pray. And if your husband’s gone astray, Don’t make a show of outsized grief, For Zeus will be your advocate. Don’t weep, then, for your faithless mate, Don’t waste yourself past all relief! From inside the house again:
medea Powerful Themis! Lady Artemis! See how I am made to suffer, Though I bound my mate with oaths? Let me see him and his new bride Ground to powder, all hopes dashed,
For they have wronged me without cause! O father, O my native city, It is my shame that we were parted For the murder of my brother!
nurse Didn’t you hear her shout to Themis, Daughter of Zeus, the guardian Of any oath a mortal swears? There’s no way that she’ll end her anger With some light deed or trivial gesture.
chorus Oh, how I wish she would come forth To meet with us here face-to-face And hear the tenor of our words— Perhaps, then, she might be persuaded To put aside her violent rage— So friends are by their own friends aided. I cherish the opportunity To help those who are dear to me. Go now and bring her from the house, Tell her that her friends are here— She’ll harm someone inside, I fear: Her grief has gathered speed and force.
nurse I will, although I can’t imagine That words of mine will move my mistress. But for your sakes, I’ll make the effort, Give it one more try—although she glares At any servant who comes near to speak, Like a lioness crouched above her cubs.
To the audience again: You’d not be wrong to say that our Ancestors were imbeciles: True, they devised songs to please us At festive banquets and at dinners, But no one’s learned how all this music, These songs we play upon the lyre, Can put an end to grief and sorrow, Which lead to death and to disasters, The fall of houses. How much better It would be for us if only music Could take away these ills of ours! What’s the point of song at banquets? Gilding the lily’s what I call it. Surely an abundant dinner Is all the pleasure that we need.
The Nurse exits into the house.
chorus I’ve heard her groaning, her shrill cries, The accusations that she spat At faithless Jason for his lies. She summons Themis, Zeus’s daughter, The guardian of oaths, who brought her To Hellas on her journey through The waters of the Hellespont, A gateway that’s traversed by few. Medea enters from the house.
medea Women of Corinth, look! I have come outdoors So you will have no reason to rebuke me. For I realize that many folks are haughty,
Some when indoors, some when out in public; But others of a more retiring nature, Because of that, are wrongly thought to live In idleness, neglectful of their neighbors. Appearances deceive: men sometimes despise At first sight one who’s harmed them not at all, Before they get to know his character. A foreigner who lives in a strange city Must ever be compliant to its customs, Nor can I praise the self-centered citizen Whose rudeness is offensive to his fellows. But as for me, I have been shattered by This unexpected blow. Left now for dead, Bereft of joy in living, I would die, For the man who had been everything to me, My husband—oh, how well I know it now! Has shown himself to be the worst of men. We women are unluckiest of all Creatures alive and capable of thinking: First we must pay a fortune for a husband, And thereby get a master of our bodies— That second evil, greater than the first, Piling an insult onto injury. The stakes could not be higher for a woman, Since everything for us depends on whether The husband that we get is good or bad: Divorce destroys a woman’s reputation, And spurning him in bed is not an option. When a young bride goes to her husband’s home With all of its new customs and arrangements Untaught to her beforehand, she must become A prophet or a mind-reader to cope With this complete unknown who’s now her mate. And if, after so much effort on our parts, Our husbands’ resistance to the yoke is broken And they are tamed, our lives are enviable.
If not, it were far better to be dead. If he should weary of domestic life, Your man can ease the boredom of his heart By finding some relief away from home, But we must keep our eyes fixed on his star. Men say that our lives are free of care, While they dodge spears upon the battlefield, But this is nonsense! No, for what it’s worth, I’d rather fight three battles, shield to shield, In the first line of men, than once give birth! My situation, though, is not like yours: Yours is the city and a father’s house, A pleasant life, companionable friends. —I have no city, no relations here, And I’ve been outraged by my own husband, Treated like booty seized on his foreign adventure. I have no mother, no brother, and no kinsman To shelter me from this calamity. So here is one small favor that I ask you: If I can find some means to take revenge, Some scheme to punish Jason for these wrongs, Please keep my secret! For in all other ways Women have incapacitating fears, And cringe at the sight of battle and cold steel: But when a woman has been harmed in love, There is no mind more murderous than hers.
chorus leader I will, Medea! Yours is the right: no blame Will come to you for paying Jason back, Nor does your grief astonish me—but look: Creon draws near, with some news to proclaim. Creon enters from the city, crowned and holding a scepter, with attendants.
creon You there, Medea, scowling in black rage Against your husband, I proclaim that you Must go off into exile from this land Without delay, taking your children with you. This order I will execute myself: I won’t leave here until you’ve been deported.
medea Well, that’s the end of it for me, then; ruined, My enemies sailing fast against me, And I have got no haven from disaster. But even though I don’t deserve this treatment, I want to know your reasons for this, Creon.
creon No beating round the bush: you frighten me. I fear you’ll do my child irreparable harm. Much evidence assembles to that end: You’re a clever woman, skilled in evil arts, And now distressed with losing Jason’s love; Reports have come back to me that you’ve made threats To harm the bride, her husband, and myself. It’s only sensible to take precautions: I’d sooner have your hatred now than be Your victim later, to my regret.
medea Yes, yes! Not for the first time, Creon—no, often before, My reputation’s been a harm to me. I just don’t understand why anyone In his right mind would educate his sons
To be thought clever: the clever ones are scorned As idlers and shunned for their attainments. If you present ingenious new ideas To dullards, you’ll be thought a fool yourself. And if you’re thought to be superior To those who think themselves superior, People will think that you’re a troublemaker. —I know whereof I speak, since I am clever, And so, for some, a magnet for ill will; Some say that I’m a recluse, some a busybody, Others an obstacle to get around. —I’m simply not as clever as all that! And now to learn that you’re afraid of me— Creon, what evil can you think I’ll do you? You needn’t worry! It isn’t in my nature To think of harming you or your family. Why, where’s the harm that you have done to me? You married off your daughter to the man Your heart selected: he is the one I hate, But I think you behaved most sensibly. Nor do I envy your prosperity: Let the marriage proceed, attended by good fortune! —Please don’t deport me: wronged though I have been, I’ll yield in silence to your greater power.
creon Your words attempt to sooth me, but I fear That in your heart you may be plotting evil, And so I trust you much less than before. It’s easier to guard against hot-tempered folk, Than someone clever who conceals her purpose. Don’t waste more words: go into exile now. You are my enemy, and I am fixed In my resolve to drive you from our midst.
Medea kneels before him as a suppliant, grasping his knees and his hand.
medea By the new bride, I kneel and clasp your knees.
creon You waste your words—I’ll never be persuaded.
medea Custom would have a suppliant be aided.
creon Shall I place your needs above my family’s?
medea Oh, how I mourn the loss of my own nation!
creon After my children, that’s what I cherish most.
medea O mortal love, that comes at such great cost!
creon Depends—I’d say—on your situation.
medea God, don’t lose sight of Jason—this evil’s source!
creon Go, and take with you my fears of future sorrow!
medea My fears suffice. I have no need to borrow.
creon Soon my attendants will cast you out by force.
medea No, no, I beg you, Creon! Please understand.
creon What have we here, now? One last provocation? One final chance to vex me with your guile?
medea Creon, I’m willing to go into exile: That’s not the reason for my supplication.
creon Then let me go! Why do you grip my hand?
medea Allow me to remain here one more day, Just to prepare my parting and provide Resources for my children—since their father Shows no concern at all for their well-being. You have your children: be merciful to mine,
It’s only natural to show them kindness. I take no thought for my own situation: Rather I weep for theirs in their misfortune.
creon I am too sensitive to be a tyrant, So I have often bungled matters badly. Even though I can see that I’m mistaken, You’ll have what you have asked me for, Medea. —But hear my warning: if tomorrow’s sun Looks down upon you still within my borders, You will be slain. That is my final word. So stay, if stay you must, just one day longer, Not long enough to do the harm I fear.
Creon exits with his attendants. Medea rises.
chorus leader Unhappy woman, where can you go, What stranger will extend his hand To someone crushed by such great woe? What host will have you as his guest In a safe house in a safe land And shield a woman dispossessed? Some god has flung you into a sea Of overwhelming adversity.
medea Undeniably, the situation Could hardly be much worse. But don’t imagine That everything will turn out as you think: I foresee problems for our newlyweds, And for their matchmaker, no little grief. Can you imagine I’d have fawned on Creon
If I had not been plotting my advantage? I’d not have talked to him nor touched him neither. But his stupidity has grown so great That even though he could have neutralized My machinations by deporting me, He’s given me a day—and on this day I’ll make three corpses of three enemies: The father with his daughter and my husband! I have so many means at my disposal I hardly know which I should choose, my friends: Set fire to the bridal chamber? Search The house until I find the marriage bed, and plunge my sharpened sword into their vitals? There’s just one obstacle: If I am taken While breaking in to carry out my plot, My certain death is certain to delight My enemies. And so I think it best To head directly down the path on which I have the greatest skill: I’ll poison them. That’s settled. Now, imagine that they’re dead: Where is the city that will take me in, The friend with a safe house in a country I can’t be extradited from? There isn’t any. I’ll wait a little, then: if some protector Should appear, some refuge open up, I’ll do the deed in stealth, as I have planned. —But if I’m driven out from under cover, I’ll take the sword, although it means my death, And with the utmost daring, slay them all.
Medea turns from the Chorus to invoke the goddess Hecate: Now, by that goddess whom I most revere, My chosen helper, close companion, Hecate, I swear that none of them will ever smile
To see me grieving. Bitter will be the taste Of marriage in their mouths, bitter the match That Creon made, bitter my banishment! Come now, Medea, show your expertise! Display for us the arts you’re mistress of, As you work out your plot! Bring it on now! Your bravery is here put to the test. Do you see what you have been made to endure? You mustn’t let yourself be mocked by Jason’s Marriage to some Sisyphean upstart; You are the daughter of a noble man, The granddaughter of Helios, the Sun-god, You know what to do!
Medea turns back to address the Chorus: Besides which we are women: Of no use when it comes to doing good, But the skilled instigators of every evil.
chorus Uphill to their hidden springs The streams of sacred rivers flow, And the order of all things Is now reversed, as honest men Converse in lies, make “yes” mean “no,” And violate the oaths they’ve sworn. It looks as though we’ll shortly find Women held in high esteem, No longer commonly maligned By scandalmongers—or I dream! Verses made by men of old Sang of our inconstancy; Their songs will now be put on hold.
Had Phoebus given us the lyre, I could well have made reply To lies about female desire. But here is a song from my heart: The passing years have much to tell, Much to say on women’s part, And much to say of men as well. From your first home’s security, Impassioned by your love, you sailed Through the Twin Rocks of the Black Sea, To this strange land where you now live In a marriage that has failed, Poor wretch without a husband’s love! And if this were not yet enough, There’s more to come, you understand: No longer Jason’s honored wife, You’ll soon be chased out of this land. The force that oaths once had is gone, And Shame is now unknown below: It’s off to heaven she has flown. Where is your father’s gracious hall? It will not shelter you from woe, Unhappy woman, not at all: There is another in your stead, The one for whom he broke his vows, A princess warming him in bed, And she, the mistress of the house! Jason enters from the city.
jason How often have I noticed it before: An unbridled temper only makes things worse. Had you just shown yourself a little more
Agreeable to your superiors, You could live here. Now, for your reckless chatter, You will be exiled. To me it doesn’t matter, You can go on forever cursing me, For all I care. But what did you think you’d get By slandering the royal family? I tried to calm them when they were upset, I wanted you to stay—but you would vent! You’re lucky it’s not death—just banishment. But even after all your acting out, Why, here I am: concerned for your own good, Determined not to let you leave without My helping you in every way I could, For exile brings many hardships in its train, And though you hate me, I can’t wish you pain.
medea Lowest of the low is what I’ll call you, Since there’s no worse term for unmanly men. You’ve come to see me, now that you’ve become The bitterest of all my enemies? What courage is this now, what bravery, To wrong your friends, then look them in the face? That’s shamelessness, the worst of mortal vices! —It’s good, though, that you’ve come, for I will be Relieved to say how wicked you have been, And you will have the pain of hearing it. Allow me to begin where we began: I saved your life, as all the Greeks who sailed With you aboard the Argo will attest, When you were sent to bring the fire-breathing Bulls to the yoke and sow the field of death. I killed the ever-wakeful dragon who Guarded the Golden Fleece, surrounded in Its sinuous coils, and then I held aloft
The torch that led you from sure death to safety. More passionate than prudent, I abandoned My father and my home and followed you To live with you in Iolcus by Mount Pelion. I used the daughters of King Pelias To murder him, brought ruin on his house; That is the most horrendous death there is. And after I had done all this for you, All for your benefit, basest of men, You threw me over, marrying another. Had we been childless, I’d have understood, But Jason, we had children of our own! You have no more respect for the oaths you’ve sworn, And I quite simply cannot understand Whether you think the old gods are no more, Or that they’ve changed the rules for right and wrong— You must know that you’ve broken faith with me! So much for my right hand, or for the knees you clasped In an empty gesture once of supplication, Now that I have been cheated of my hopes. But come now; let me speak openly to you As to a friend, although expecting—what? But why not, since my questions will reveal The depths of your depravity to all? Where can I go now? To my father’s house, The country I betrayed in coming here? Or to the wretched daughters of Pelias, Their father’s murderer! A warm welcome I would get from them! Here’s my situation: I’m now an enemy to my own kin, And by the services I’ve rendered you, I have become the enemies of those I should not have harmed. Doubtless that is why, As my reward for everything I’ve done, You’ve made me very happy in the eyes
Of many Greek women! What a fine, Trustworthy spouse I have—My God!—in you, If I am to be sent off into exile, Homeless, friendless, lost with my lost children! And a fine reproach it is for the new bridegroom, Whose children from his former marriage go Busking like beggars in narrow alleyways Along with their mother—who once saved his life. O God, who made it easy to discern When gold is counterfeit, why couldn’t you Have placed on human bodies a like sign By which false men could be discovered, too?
chorus leader How difficult, for one side to give in, When kith are joined in conflict with their kin.
jason I’ll make no weak reply, woman—but rather, Like a skilled helmsman, reef my sail and race Before the storm of your fatiguing blather. Though you exaggerate your helpfulness, I’d credit plain old lust for your behavior: The goddess Aphrodite was my savior. I grant you have a mind that’s very subtle, But Eros, with his love-darts, vanquished you. To say as much would prompt your fierce rebuttal, So I won’t belabor this: in what you helped me do, You did me good—and for yourself did well. To prove this takes no time at all to tell: For you now live in Greece, far from the unrefined Barbarians, in Greek civility, Famous among them for your clever mind; If you were living still by the Black Sea,
No one would speak of you at all—your name Would be entirely unknown to fame. I am myself indifferent to gold, And the poetic gifts of Orpheus Leave me, to speak quite frankly, just as cold; The fate I want is to be conspicuous, A famous man, above the common herd— All other ways of living are absurd. Since it was you who started this debate, I’ve had to defend my past activities; But as for the future, I will demonstrate That in marrying the princess I am wise, A man of self-control, not passion’s slave, And the best friend you and our children have.
Medea turns to him as though to interrupt: Hold your tongue, woman! I came here, half-alive From Iolcus, overwhelmed by suffering— What better chance could I have found to thrive, An exile, marrying the daughter of the king? It wasn’t that I wasn’t satisfied With you in bed and wanted a new bride (That thought seems to be what most upsets you!) Nor did I seek congratulations for Producing hordes of little royal brats to Swell my progeny: ours, let me be clear, Are quite sufficient. No, I wed her so That we should all live well, for well I know A man will cross the street to keep from seeing A friend down on his luck. I wanted to Raise my sons fittingly and bring into being Brothers to those children born to you, All living on equal terms in one family, And in that way, achieve prosperity.
You don’t need to have children any more, But I saw value in using my still unborn For the advancement of the two you bore; That was my plan. Did it deserve your scorn? Not even you would say that, if you weren’t chafed By this sex thing! You women are all daft! When everything is going well in bed, That’s all that matters! But if adversity Or failure in that realm should rear its head, You turn against your real security And truest interests. God, if there were only Another way a man could get a son, we Wouldn’t have any need for this female sex— No need for marriage and the ties that vex!
chorus leader May what I tell you now not cause offense, Jason, for I am forced to disagree, Though you have skillfully brought forth your arguments; But in leaving your wife, you act unrighteously.
medea My views, as I have come to realize, Are rarely shared by the majority. But I would say that an unrighteous man Who argues falsehood plausibly incurs The greatest penalty: his confidence That he can spin injustice in fine words Shows an audacity that just won’t quit. But that one’s not as clever as he thinks. It’s you I’m speaking of. So spare me, please. No more specious arguments, false rhetoric: One word is all it takes to flatten you—
If you had not been utterly a knave, You should have come to me and gotten my Consent to marry, not gone behind my back.
jason Of course! If I had told you of the marriage, You would have been behind me all the way! Why, even now you just can’t bring yourself To put aside the rage you’re carrying!
medea That isn’t why you didn’t come to me: It was the fear you had that in your old age Having a wife who’s a barbarian Would come to seem unworthy of your status.
jason You can be sure that it wasn’t out of lust For the woman that I married my royal bride, But as I said, I did it for your safety, And to beget princes who’d be brothers To our children, and so protect the house.
medea Prosperity that only causes pain Is not my wish, nor heart-tormenting gain.
jason People will think you’re far more sensible If you would only change your mind on this: Pray that the good does not appear as pain, Nor dwell on loss when you have all to gain.
medea Insult me freely—you have your refuge here, While I must go into a friendless exile.
jason Blame yourself, then: you brought yourself to grief!
medea You’re saying I dumped you for another wife?
jason You cursed the royals with an unholy spell.
medea And not just them—I cursed your house as well.
jason Discussion over! I have had enough. If you should wish any of my money To help the exiled children and yourself, You can depend on my generosity. —I’ll introduce you to some friends by letter Who’ll treat you very well. Accept my offer, Forget your anger and you’ll do much better; Continue as you are, though, and you’ll suffer.
medea I will take nothing from your friends or you, And gifts you offer will be thrown back in your face. The time-worn proverb is, alas, still true: “No good can come of gifts from someone base.”
jason Let the gods observe that I am willing to Assist you and the children with my purse. But you recoil from what is good for you: The pain you’re suffering will grow much worse.
medea Go, you have stayed too long from your new bride: Desire is summoning you to her side. But I have sworn great oaths I mean to keep: The marriage you now make will make you weep. Jason exits, returning to the city.
chorus Love that comes in great excess Ruins any reputation; Yet no god brings such happiness As Aphrodite does whenever She appears in moderation; Therefore, Goddess, may you never, From your unerring bow, release An arrow poisoned with desire To set my mortal heart afire, That should glow in contented peace. May moderation, heaven’s best Gift, befriend me, may the dread Goddess keep anger from my breast, Quarrelsome feuding, and the crazed Desire for some stranger’s bed. May she, for her discernment praised, Honor those unions free from strife, And with the keenness of her mind
Let Aphrodite always find The husband best for every wife. O fatherland, the home I bless, May I never lose my city And lead a life of helplessness Exposed to random cruelty, Or condescending looks of pity. Before that happens, let me die, Let the light of my life end: There is no source of greater woe That anyone may ever know Than to lose one’s native land. We’re speaking now of what we’ve seen, Not of some tale come secondhand; You have no friend on whom to lean, No city that will shelter you From suffering few could withstand! For what you are now going through, May that man come to a bad end, Whose frozen heart can never be Unlocked to loved ones graciously. Him I will never have as friend. Aegeus enters from the countryside.
aegeus I wish you joy, Medea! Such words, as a way Of greeting friends, can’t be improved upon.
medea I wish you joy as well, Aegeus, son Of Pandion the wise. What brings you here today?
aegeus I’ve just come from the oracle at Delphi.
medea Had you a question for the Prophetess?
aegeus I asked how I could end my childlessness.
medea Have you been childless then until this hour?
aegeus Indeed I have been, by some god’s power.
medea Have you a wife, or have you never wed?
aegeus Oh, yes, I have a wife who shares my bed.
medea What was the Delphic oracle’s reply?
aegeus Words that could not be understood by men.
medea Am I allowed to hear the prophecy?
aegeus Of course! It wants the sharpness of your mind.
medea Tell me the message then, if that’s the case.
aegeus (slowly, as if puzzled) “Do not . . . the wineskin’s . . . outreaching foot . . . untie —”
medea (interrupting him) —Until you do what, or come to what place?
aegeus “ . . . Until you come . . . to hearth and home again.”
medea Why have you sailed here? What did you hope to find?
aegeus A man named Pittheus, the king of Troezen.
medea The son of Pelops, famed for his reverence.
aegeus I want to share with him the god’s response.
medea He is most wise in matters such as these.
aegeus And of my allies there is no one closer.
medea May fortune crown your efforts with success.
aegeus (noticing medea’s tear-streaked face) Ah, but, Medea, you’ve been weeping! Why?
medea Because my husband is the worst of men.
aegeus What are you saying? What has made you cry?
medea Jason harms me, although I did him none.
aegeus Tell me more clearly: what is it he’s done?
medea A new wife rules his household in my place!
aegeus Surely he’d never dare a thing so base!
medea Ah, but he has. Once loved, I have been shed.
aegeus Was it the old appeal of novelty, Or boredom in the too-familiar bed?
medea A new love taught him infidelity.
aegeus Forget him, if he’d do so base a thing!
medea He set his cap on the daughter of the king.
aegeus Who gave her to him? Tell me the whole story!
medea Creon, the ruler of this land of Corinth.
aegeus Your anguish is now understandable.
medea I’m ruined and about to be deported!
aegeus By whom? You speak of yet another trouble.
medea King Creon has proclaimed my banishment.
aegeus I’m shocked to think that Jason gave consent.
medea He hasn’t—so he says: but he’ll support it. Medea kneels before Aegeus: Kneeling before you as a suppliant, I beg you by your chin and by your knees, Have pity on a woman in despair, Don’t let me go off into friendless exile, But take me into your own land, your home, And as you grant my prayer, your desire For children will be answered by the gods, And you yourself will die a happy man. You don’t yet know what good luck I will bring you: I’ll end your childlessness, you will become A father through my skill in medicines.
aegeus My dear, for many reasons, I am keen On granting your request, for to ignore A suppliant offends the gods above— And then there are the children that you promise. In this regard, I have no other hope. Here’s how I see it: if you make your way To Athens on your own, I will protect you; However, I must tell you in advance That I cannot assist in your departure, That has to be your own initiative. Once in my palace, you’ll be safe from harm, And I will never yield you to another. I must be evenhanded, and my hosts Must find me just as blameless as my guests.
medea So be it then! If you would swear to this, I will be satisfied with all you’ve said.
aegeus You don’t trust me? If that’s not it, what is?
medea That isn’t it at all! I trust you, but The House of Pelias and Creon hate me. If you are sworn, you cannot hand me over When they show up to take me from your land. Mere words unsworn have no force behind them, And you might find my enemies persuasive, For I am weak and they are powerful.
aegeus Your speech is prudent. If this is what you wish, I have no problem with it, since, in fact, My own deniability is greater If I can plausibly refuse your enemies, And you’ll be safer too. Just name your gods.
medea Swear by the earth, and by my father’s father, Helios the Sun, and by all gods together.
aegeus Swear to—or to refrain from—doing what?
medea Swear never to banish me from your land, And swear that you will never give me up To anyone, as long as you may live.
aegeus I swear by Earth, by Helios, by all the gods, That I will do as I have heard you say.
medea And if you break your word, what punishment?
aegeus The punishment that falls on godless men.
medea Go on your way rejoicing! All is well. I’ll come to Athens as quickly as I can, When I have done what I intend to do, And when I have attained what I desire. Aegeus exits to the countryside.
chorus leader May the swift son of Maia lead You back home to your land again; And may your longed-for wish succeed, For you seem a most good-hearted man, Aegeus—Godspeed!
medea O Zeus and Justice, Daughter of Zeus, O Light of the Sun, it is apparent, Friends, that I will overcome my foes! My foot is firmly set upon the path, And I am sure my enemies will pay. Bless Aegeus! When I was foundering, He offered a safe harbor for my scheme, And for me a refuge! I will safely moor My craft within the city of Athena! It’s time I let you know what I’ve been planning, Although my words won’t give you any pleasure: I’ll send one of the servants off to Jason And ask him to attend me: when he comes, I will speak soothingly to him, and say That I now share his opinion of his deeds: The royal marriage he betrayed me for Was wisely planned for our benefit,
A fine idea, superbly executed— I’ll ask that our children be allowed To stay here—not that I would ever leave them Where they could be insulted by my foes! You see, I mean to kill the royal bride By trickery. I’ll send the boys to her, Bearing gifts that argue against exile: A fine sheer gown and a golden tiara. If she accepts them, if she puts them on, She’ll die in agony, and anyone Who touches her will perish just the same. I know the very poisons I must use. But that’s entirely enough of that. I cry out when I think of what must follow. I have to kill my children: there will be No one to rescue them, in any case. When I’ve loosed havoc on the house of Jason, I’ll leave this land, fly from the charge of murder, Unholy murder of my darling boys! My friends, the laughter of one’s enemies Is unendurable—be that as it may! What can it profit me to go on living? I have no fatherland, no house at all, Nothing to defend me from misfortune. Mistakenly, I left that home behind, Persuaded by a Greek’s unfaithful words! With a god’s help, he’ll pay for what he’s done— After today, that man will never see The living sons that I have borne for him, Nor will they be replaced by his new bride, Since that poor wretch will die most wretchedly, By my design! Let no one think me pliable, A woman waiting to be stepped upon— For I am really quite the opposite:
A joy to friends, a danger to my foes! Better to be famous than to live life small: Life without glory is no life at all!
chorus leader Since you have shared with me your bold intent, I’d like to help you any way I can While still upholding the just laws of man: I beg you not to do this thing: relent!
medea There is no way it could be different. I don’t blame you: I know my suffering.
chorus leader But woman, is it possible to bring Yourself to take your helpless children’s lives?
medea Yes! If it would maximize my husband’s pain!
chorus leader You would become the most despised of wives!
medea So be it—until then, all words are vain. To one of her silent attendants: Go now and summon Jason back to me. (For I use you on confidential missions.)
Don’t tell him anything of what I’m planning, If you are loyal to me—and a woman!
The attendant exits to the city.
chorus We sing of the Athenians, That uniquely favored band Of Erechtheus’ noble sons, Who, since ancient days, abide Unconquered in this blessed land; They feed on wisdom, as they stride Gracefully across the earth Beneath a nowhere-brighter sky; Here the Nine Muses once gave birth To golden-haired Harmony.
Athenians are proud of how Aphrodite slakes her thirst Where the streams of Cephisus flow, And her own breath perfumes the air Which the mild breezes see dispersed; While binding roses in her hair, She sends the Loves to sit beside Wisdom as her escort; hence, They join their forces to provide For every kind of excellence.
How will this land of holy streams And god-observant citizens Ignore your children’s anguished screams, Accepting as a suppliant The murderer of her own sons? Just think of those poor innocent Children whose slaughter you now plan;
We beseech you, by your knees, Begging in every way we can, Do not murder your sons, please!
How will you summon the intent The courage of your hand and heart To dare this thing and not relent When you have heard their piteous pleas Will you look, dry-eyed, upon their fate When they kneel to you and clasp your knees Will you be able to turn away Will you be able to ignore Their screams, their cries Will you not stay The hand that dabbles in their gore
Jason enters from the city.
jason You’ve asked me here, and here I am: although You hate me, woman, I will hear you out. What is it now that you would have from me?
medea It is your pardon, Jason, I would have; Our long history of love and passion Should have prepared you for my tempestuous moods! I see my folly now! I asked myself Why am I quarreling so stubbornly With those who have arranged things for the best? Why make myself an enemy of those Who rule this land, and of my husband too, Whose policy of marrying the princess And getting her to make brothers for our children
Is clearly in my own best interest? Why is it that I cannot cease this anger, When the gods are clearly well disposed to me? Do I not have children? Is it not true That I’ve been exiled and have need of friends? Well, such reflections made me realize The foolishness of my delusional rage. And so I now approve of what you’ve done, And agree that you have shown great judgment In contracting this marriage for our good. What a fool I’ve been! I should have taken part In planning it and in its execution, I should have stood beside the wedding bed And taken joy in tending to your bride! We women aren’t evil—I won’t go that far, But let that be: we are just what we are. That doesn’t mean that you should act like us, Weakness matching weakness—folly, folly! I ask your pardon. I was foolish then, But I have come into a better place. Children! Children! Come out here! Leave the house!
The children enter with their Tutor. Come, make your father welcome with your greeting, Speak to him as I do and join with me In ending this quarrel with one dear to us! We’re reconciled, and anger is no more! Take his right hand! Oh, what do I foresee But troubles that have not yet come to be! My children, will you live for a long time Stretching your dear hands out as you do now? —I am so anxious and so close to weeping! At last I have ended this quarrel with your father And now my tender eyes are full of tears.
chorus leader Nor can I look upon this scene dry-eyed: May the present troubles take no longer stride!
jason Woman, I praise your recent change of heart, And find no fault with your earlier displeasure, For after all, it’s only natural For any woman to react with anger When a husband smuggles in another wife. But now you’re set upon a better course. It took a while, but you came to realize The superiority of my conception: Such is the mark of prudence in a woman! And as for you, my children—Well, your father Hasn’t neglected you: rather, he has created, With heaven’s help, a future most secure, For I believe that you will someday hold The highest places in the land of Corinth, Beside your new brothers. Your only task Is just to grow to manhood. Leave the rest to me, And to whatever god smiles upon me! I pray to see you thriving as young men, Triumphant over all my enemies!
Medea turns away from him, weeping. But you there, why turn your pale face away? And why are your eyes glistening with tears? Are you not pleased to hear these words of mine?
medea It’s nothing—I was thinking of our children.
jason Poor thing! Why would you ever weep for them?
medea I gave birth to them. And when you prayed That they might live, I wondered if they would.
jason Don’t worry: I will keep them from all harm.
medea I’ll trust your words and do just as you say. My tears, my fancies? Just a woman’s way! I’ve told you part of why I wanted you To come here, but the rest is still unspoken. The royal family is fixed on banishment, And I can see how this is best for me; I’d only be in your way or in theirs, Since they believe that I’m their enemy. I understand why I must go, but since We think it best for you to raise our children, You must persuade the king to keep them here.
jason (doubtfully) Well, I could try to—though it isn’t clear . . .
medea (as though this has just occurred to her) —How? Why, through your wife! Let the king’s daughter pray To her father, and he’ll let our children stay!
jason Oh, that is good! I can persuade her to!
medea (seductively) A woman up against a man like you? No problem. I’ll assist you in this task: I’ll send the children to her bearing gifts Of irresistible beauty: a fine sheer robe And a tiara made of beaten gold!
To a servant: You! Go quickly! Fetch them out at once! The servant enters the house. Your wife will have Not one. Single. Joy, But ever so many! For in you she has The very best of men to be her husband, And now these adornments, the rich finery That Helios, the father of my father, Gave his descendants. The servant returns with the gifts. Children, take these gifts In your own hands and bring them to that woman, The royal bride in all her happiness: These will be no mean gifts that she receives! The children take the gifts from the servant.
jason Oh, don’t be foolish, woman! Don’t hand these over! Can you believe the royal household needs
More gold, more gowns? Keep them for yourself! If my wife truly values me, I’m certain My wishes will count more to her than wealth!
medea DON’T DO THAT! Please—they say that gifts persuade Even the gods, and gold means more to men Than a thousand words! At this moment, heaven Favors the princess, lifts her up on high, Gives her the power we must propitiate! And I would trade, not gold, but my own life To bring my children back from banishment.
Medea turns to her children: Now, children, once within the house of riches, Entreat your father’s new wife, now my mistress, To stay your exile. Then give her your gifts. Remember: she must take them in her hands. Go quickly now—and may you prove to be The bearers of the good news your mother longs for!
Jason, the children, and the Tutor exit to the city.
chorus I have no hope that they’ll survive, These children—they’re as good as dead; The bride will take the gifts they give, Accepting ruin by her own hand; She’ll place death’s finery on her head, Her golden hair in its gold band. Their brightness as they gleam and glow Will lure her to put on garland and gown,
A bride adorned for Death below; Such is her fate, such is the trap That she will stumble soon upon, The doom that she cannot escape. Unlucky bridegroom, you’ll fare worse! You’ve married into the king’s own house, The son-in-law who’ll prove a curse: You’ll slay your sons unwittingly, Bring ghastly death upon your spouse; You’ve strayed far from your destiny.
Next I will share in your pain and grief, Unhappy mother of two sons, who Now intends to slay them both, Because your husband broke his oath, Abandoning your bed and you, Abiding with another wife. The Tutor and the children enter from the city.
tutor (excitedly) Mistress, your children won’t be sent away! Your gifts gave pleasure to the royal bride, Who took them in her own hands! You’ve nothing more To worry yourself over on that score. Medea turns away, weeping. But what’s this? Why do you now turn aside? What reason is there for your new dismay? When all goes well, why should you be distraught? Are you unhappy with the news I’ve brought?
medea I am!
tutor That isn’t what I thought you’d say.
medea Once more, I am!
tutor Do I in ignorance Report misfortune, thinking it’s good news?
medea Your news is what it is—I don’t blame you.
tutor Why are you so downcast then? Why the tears?
medea I have no choice, old man: I weep at what The gods and I in my madness have concocted.
tutor Be of good cheer, my lady, weep no more: One day your sons will act to bring you home!
medea Old man, for me that day will never come: I will have brought some others home before.
tutor Other women have known such separation. It’s something you must bear with resignation.
medea (tenderly) And so I will, old man. Go now, provide For the boys’ needs, as usual, inside. The Tutor exits into the house. Medea addresses her sons: Children, you have a city and a home, And when your mother has been left behind In the wretchedness of separation, There you may live, so very far from me. I will be exiled to another land Before I can rejoice in your successes, Before I can prepare your wedding baths, Turn down the coverlets upon your beds, Tend to your brides and raise the wedding torches! How wretched my own willfulness has made me! Now it appears my raising you was pointless, The toil and stress that took their toll of me, Even the pains that racked me giving birth! Fool that I was, I once had many hopes— That you’d take care of me when I grew old, That your hands would dress me for burial, For we find nothing to be envied more. But now such sweet imagining is lost. Deprived of you, I’ll lead a life of pain, And you’ll no longer look on me with love, But pass . . . into another way of life. Why do you look at me like this, my children? Why do you smile this last, most winning, smile? What can I do? My boldness fled me, women, The moment that I saw my children’s faces!
I can’t continue with this plan of mine. I’ll take the children with me when I leave! Why, just to wound their father, should I inflict Far greater suffering upon myself? No, no, I won’t continue with my plan. But what’s come over me? Do I now wish To make myself a laughing stock by letting My enemies escape my retribution? Must I put up with that? No, no, I cannot! It is a shameful weakness to admit Thoughts of such tenderness into my heart! Inside now, children!
Medea turns to guide her children back toward the house, but stops and turns to address the Chorus and the audience beyond them directly. She speaks in the language of ritual: Anyone forbidden To be in attendance at this sacrifice Must go from here. My hand will not weaken. —No, no, my bitter heart! This can’t go on! Spare your children’s lives, hard-hearted wretch! You will take pleasure in their company If you take them with you when you flee to Athens! —By all the fiends in Hades, I will never Abandon my children to my enemies! In any case, the children’s lives are lost, Since that is so, the one who gave them birth Must murder them. This has now been settled: What has been done can never be undone.
The children begin to move toward the house. She’s placed the golden crown upon her head, The princess has, she’s dying in her robe. I see it clearly. But since I now must go On the path that leads me to the greatest woe,
And leads these down one still unhappier I want to say farewell to my children. The children return to Medea. Give me your hands to kiss, your sweet right hands! No hands or lips are dearer to me, children! You are so noble in countenance and bearing! May you find happiness where you are going: Your father has destroyed it for you here. How sweet the touch, how tender is the skin, How fragrant is their breath! Go in, go in!
The children exit into house. Only to look at you, and I am overwhelmed By my own suffering. I know all too well The evil that I am about to do, But outrage lets me take no other turn— Outrage, the greatest harm of all mankind.
chorus Often before, I have engaged in Subtler discourse, more complex— Debates that were more stimulating Than are thought proper for our sex; But women have a Muse that guides us And brings her wisdom to a few; I’m one of those; the words I speak are Worthy of being listened to. I say that those who have missed out on Parenthood, who know it not, Are quite superior in fortune To those who by begetting, got.
You see, the childless need not worry Whether their offspring prove to be Worth all the effort of their rearing, And so their lives are trouble-free;
But those who are with children . . . gifted, Must endlessly obsess about How they will raise them, how provide them The livings they can’t live without. And will they prove a bane or blessing, These strangers they’ve no choice but rear? Despite parental toil and stressing, The end result is seldom clear.
And then there comes one last misfortune, The hardest of all woes to tell: They’ve found a way to make a living, Your youngsters have turned out so well, But they are fated young to perish. —You cannot keep them, they must go, Death is approaching to recover Their bodies for the world below; How are we aided, where’s our profit, That, for the sake of getting heirs, The gods pile onto human sorrow This most painful of our cares? Medea sees the Messenger approaching.
medea My friends, I have been waiting in suspense For a long time, to see what would ensue! —Now one of Jason’s men comes into view,
Gasping for breath! No doubt to announce Some gratifying new catastrophe! The Messenger enters from the city.
messenger (gasping) Your lawless act’s resulted in disaster, Medea! Go NOW! You’ve no choice but to flee By ship or chariot, whichever’s faster!
medea (calmly) Why must I hurry? What is happening?
messenger You’ve poisoned both the princess and King Creon!
medea —You’ll be my cherished friend from this day on, So splendid a report it is you bring!
messenger (puzzled) You can’t be all there, lady. Are you mad? You’ve just destroyed the royal family And you joke about it? Aren’t you afraid?
medea Words, words. Oh, if I wished, I could reply . . . But slow down, friend: I mean to savor this. Now tell me—since you saw it: How did they die? In agony? Then I’ll have twice the bliss!
messenger When your two boys and husband had appeared At the bride’s house and entered, those of us who Had suffered from your griefs were greatly cheered: From ear to ear, the welcome news that you Had settled amicably with your spouse Went buzzing through the servants of the house. One kissed the children’s hands in his elation, Another, their golden curls. I shared in their joys And followed the swelling throng in celebration Into the women’s quarters with your boys. The mistress we now honor in your place Wasn’t aware your sons were there at first— Her gaze was fixed on her new husband’s face, And the boys’ approach took her by surprise. Soon as she noticed them, she veiled her eyes And turned away her pale cheek in disgust. Your husband, though, attempted to assuage Her anger, telling her, “You mustn’t be An enemy of those who are dear to me; Turn back to us again, without your rage, Let those I call my friends be yours as well; They bring you gifts, which I would have you take— Then plead with Creon so he won’t expel The children from this land—for your husband’s sake!” As soon as she had seen the elegant Finery they offered, all resistance Collapsed, and she gave Jason her consent. He and the boys had traveled no great distance From the bride’s house, when she put on the gown, And on her golden curls set the gold crown, As pleased as any girl by a new bonnet. She held a mirror up before her hair, Smiled at the lifeless image glimpsed within it, Then lifted herself lightly from her chair
And elegantly danced about her suite, Rapt in her gifts, admiring them And how they suited her: her pale white feet Capering as she checked her swirling hem. Then came a truly horrifying sight: Her color changed, she staggered left and right, Stumbling until she found her seat once more, Managing, barely, to avoid the floor! One of her slaves, perhaps in the belief That the girl had either been possessed by Pan Or by another god, raised a festive cry— Until she saw the white foam on her lips, And the tormented madness in her eye, Her bloodless skin—the cry that slave began Trailed off and turned into a wail of grief. At once a servant ran to find her father Back in his chambers, as yet unaware Of what had just been happening—another Went searching for the husband, now outside, To tell him what had happened to his bride; Others were running madly everywhere. In the time in which a rapid sprinter runs The second leg of a two-hundred-yard dash, The princess became conscious once again. Her eyes sprang open and she groaned in pain, For grief assailed her from two sources now, As suddenly a dreadful stream of flame Erupted from the garland on her brow, While the woven robe, the gift of your two sons, Was eating through the wretched woman’s flesh. Then leaping from her chair, she fled, on fire, Tossing her hair now one way, now another, Trying to shake the garland from her head, But the golden band shook her off instead, And her exertions made the flames leap higher! Disaster claimed her. She crumpled to the floor,
Unrecognizable but to a father: Her eyes no longer lovely, as before, That face of hers no longer beautiful. Fiery blood dripped from her ruined crown, And from her white bones the scorched flesh fell Like resin from a pine torch dripping down All burned off by the poisons you’d employed. No one could bear to see the girl destroyed, Yet none was brave enough to intervene, So well had we all learned from what we’d seen. But when her father, who had not yet heard Of the calamity that had occurred, Came in and stumbled on her without warning, He clasped her body in a last embrace, And as he kissed her desolated face, He cried out in his grief these words of mourning: “O my unlucky darling, my poor dear, Which of the gods has treated you this way, Has shamed you like this on your wedding day? I am bereft, a walking sepulcher! O daughter, daughter, let me die with you!” But when his lamentation had at last Ended and the king attempted to Lift his agèd body to his feet once more, He found himself stuck to the gown, held fast By the subtle stuff that drew him toward the floor, Clinging to him as ivy clings to bay. He struggled, but he couldn’t get away: She held him and prevented him from rising, And if he strove against her, it would flense The ancient flesh from his unyielding bones. That was enough. Enough to say that he Died, overwhelmed by his catastrophe. Who would not weep? They lie there side by side In death, an agèd father, a young bride.
I will say nothing of your likely fate, But soon enough, you’ll get your recompense. I’ve often thought that life is just a show Of shadows, and I wouldn’t hesitate To say that those most sure of what they know, Whose polished speeches reek of confidence, Are the more fools to think themselves clever! No mortal may attain to a blessèd state: If wealth pours in, you’re truly fortunate, You’re lucky in your life. But blessèd? Never.
The Messenger exits to the city.
chorus On this day Fate is ready to bestow Calamities on Jason, and justly so.
medea My friends, I have decided what to do: I’ll kill my children now, at once, then flee This land, for if I linger, hands less kind Will bring them far more crudely to their deaths. No way around the facts: since they must die, The one who bore them will now take their lives. —Steel yourself to do it now, my heart! There is no point in putting this deed off: However terrible, it must be done! And you, unhappy hand, take up the blade, And hasten to the starting line of grief! Do not break down, do not remember how You love your boys and how you gave them life! Forget them rather, for this single day, And mourn them every day that follows this one,
For they are still your darlings, even though You murder them. I am a wretched woman. Medea exits into the house.
chorus Look down, O Earth and the lustrous All-brightening eye of the Sun, Upon this ill-fated woman Before she lays murderous hands On her own children, the offspring Of the golden race of the gods— Fearful it is that such blood Should ever be shed by mortals! O Zeus-begotten Light, Hold back the hand of this cruel Fury, bring out of this house One seized by desire for vengeance! For nothing, the pains of labor, Nor the births of your dear sons, You who fled through those narrow Straits of the clashing blue rocks! Woman, why does such anger Burden your heart, why does one rash Murder so quickly follow another? It is hard for mortals to cleanse The stain from a kin-murdering hand, And killers are haunted by sorrows Fitting the crimes they’ve committed, Sent down by the gods on their house. From inside the house:
first child Help me!
chorus Did you hear the children’s cries? O wretched, ill-fated woman! From inside:
first child How can I hide from our mother’s blows? From inside:
second child Dear brother, I do not know! We are lost!
chorus Shall I go in? I should protect the children! From inside:
first child Yes, in God’s name, defend us! We need you!
second child The murderous snare is close at hand!
chorus O woman, heartless as a stone, As cold as iron, you are set Upon the murder of your own
Children—their mother who are yet The fate by which they’ll be undone! I have heard of only one woman, Who ever laid hands on her children; Ino, maddened by Hera, Chased from her house to wander Until she fell into the sea! —Until she stepped over the cliff ’s Edge with a child in each hand, And all three perished together! What horror’s unimaginable now? O womankind! O marriage bed, So laden with catastrophe, What evils have you brought to man?
Jason enters from the city.
jason You women standing there before the house, Where’s murderous Medea to be found? Has she fled? Is she inside? My former spouse Will have to bury herself underground Or fly to lofty heaven to avoid Just retribution. Ha! Can she believe That with the whole royal family destroyed, She’ll get away? She’ll be allowed to leave? Ah, but Medea’s not my major care: Those whom she’s harmed will harm her in return, But that is really none of my affair: Saving my children’s lives is my concern— It would be grief to me if Creon’s kin Should punish my boys for their mother’s sin.
chorus leader O Jason, if you knew how you’ve been broken By your misfortunes, you would not have spoken!
jason (flippantly) What is it now? Is my name on her list?
chorus leader Your boys are dead—and by their mother’s hand.
jason Woman, you slay me! What is it that you mean?
chorus leader Please, Jason, you must try to understand: Your children are no more. They don’t exist.
jason Where did she kill them? Out here or inside?
chorus leader Open the door onto a dreadful scene: Your children will be lying where they died.
jason Servants! Unbar the door and let me see These children’s corpses, a twin catastrophe, And see their murderer, whom I’ll repay For the grief that she has brought to me today!
Medea appears above the stage, in a chariot drawn by winged serpents, containing the corpses of the children.
medea Why shake the doors and try to pry them open, Searching for corpses and for me, the one Who made them so? Your labor is all ended. Speak up, if you need anything from me, But I am out of reach, thanks to this chariot My father’s father, Helios the Sun, Provided as protection from my foes.
jason Detestable beyond all other women, Hateful to heaven, to me, to all mankind, You brought yourself to murder your own children, And left me childless, my whole life ruined— Having killed those to whom you once gave birth, How can you bear the sight of sun and earth? Death and ruin take you! But my mind is clear Now, though I was mad to bring you here, From barbarism to a home in Corinth! Even back then you were malevolent, False to your father and your land of birth! But the gods sent me the vengeance that they meant For you, who killed your brother by the hearth, Then fled behind the Argo’s lofty prow! Such acts were the beginnings of your fame. But when you married me and babies came, Out of your lust, you struck your children dead As no Greek woman ever would have dared! If I had married a Greek wife instead Of you, what sorrows I would have been spared! My choice of mates has turned out now to be A fatally destructive one for me.
You are no woman but a lioness, Fiercer than Scylla in the Tuscan sea— Ten thousand insults would fail to distress Someone with your inborn audacity! You have the impudence now to appear Stained with your children’s blood! Get out of here! Mine is a fate that any would lament: To reap no benefit from my new bride, Nor speak to my living offspring once again— Begotten, raised, cut down and cast aside.
medea I could have made a long speech in rebuttal, If Father Zeus did not already know How you repaid all of my aid to you. —You were not going to leave my bed stained With your dishonor and enjoy your life, Mocking my foolishness—not you, not your bride, Nor Creon, who arranged this girl for you, And thought he’d gotten rid of me forever. So call me “lioness” and call me “monster”: I’ve plunged a needle right into your heart!
jason You own a part of this catastrophe.
medea My grief ’s repaid: you cannot laugh at me.
jason Children, your mother was pure wickedness!
medea Children, your father killed you with his own disease.
jason It was not my hand by which these children died.
medea You caused their deaths by taking a new bride.
jason My marriage justifies these two dead boys?
medea Should women be cast off like broken toys?
jason That isn’t fair! You blow up everything!
medea Your sons are still dead: grief will forever sting.
jason Like vengeful ghosts, they will come back again!
medea The gods know who is author of this pain.
jason The gods have looked into your evil heart!
medea Hate on, with the snarling voice that I abhor!
jason As I loathe yours! No problem, then, to part.
medea What shall I do? Nothing would please me more.
jason (points to the bodies of the boys) Let me inter the bodies and lament them.
medea Certainly not! For I will bury them In the sanctuary of Hera Akreia So that my foes cannot defile their graves. And here in Corinth, I will institute A solemn festival whose holy rites Will be celebrated annually In expiation of these unholy murders. Now as for me, I will depart for Athens To live with Pandion’s son, King Aegeus, And you will die a wretched coward’s death, Struck on the head by a fragment of the Argo, And see the bitter end of our marriage.
jason May vengeful Justice and that Fury who Is roused to punish these crimes fall on you!
medea What god or heavenly power gives reception To an oath-breaker, skilled so in deception?
jason I loathe you, unclean wretch, child-murderer!
medea Go back home: you’ve a bride there to inter.
jason I will! Bereft of my two sons, I leave.
medea In time old age will teach you how to grieve.
jason O children most dear!
medea Dearer by far to me.
jason And so you killed them?
medea To cause you agony!
jason Deprived forever of their fond embraces, I long to look once more on their dear faces!
medea Now you would speak to, now you would embrace Those sons you damned to exile and disgrace!
jason Let me just touch them, for one last time, please!
medea I would not if you took me by the knees!
jason Zeus, do you hear how I am driven off, The vicious treatment I endure From this monstrous child-murderer? But with all the strength that I have left I make lament and summon heaven To witness how you’ve murdered them And will not let me touch their bodies Or have a hand in their interment! I wish that I had not begotten My children to be slain by you!
With the bodies of her children, Medea is borne aloft in her chariot and flies from Corinth. Jason exits to the city.
chorus From high upon Olympus, Zeus And the gods who govern our affairs
Arrange them unpredictably: What we expect does not occur, For some god always finds a way To bring about the unforeseen; That is what happened in this play. The Chorus exits separately.
Since my translation does not follow the Greek line for line, and since my readers are not likely to have access to a Greek edition, the numbers in the margin of the text refer to the lines of the English version, and my notes are keyed to these numbers. I have tried to walk a careful line between few or no notes and those that supply so much information that they compete with or detract from the translation itself. Readers will have questions that need to be answered before they can understand the text. Those questions are the ones I have endeavored to identify and answer. ll. 1–33. The Nurse, a slave in the household of Medea, explains how her mistress came to be living in Corinth, expresses anxious foreboding about Medea’s current situation, and offers a grim foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. Euripides often begins a play with a character explaining aspects of the backstory of the play to his audience, but he does not elsewhere use so minor a character or one of such low status. Even though minor, the Nurse is a woman of roundly developed opinions on many subjects and no fear of expressing them. The story that she tells is how the relationship of Jason and Medea emerged from a tangle of other stories; how, once, in a mythical time long before the beginning of the play, Aeson, king of Iolcus, lost his throne to his brother Pelias. When Aeson’s son, Jason, attempted to 93
reclaim it, Pelias agreed to exchange his kingship for the golden fleece, a treasure possessed by King Aeetes of Colchis. (On the origin of the golden fleece, see note on ll. 233–34.) In the company of other heroes, Jason led the treasure hunt on a ship called the Argo, built on the slopes of Mount Pelion in Thessaly. After many adventures, the heroic Argonauts crossed the Aegean Sea and sailed through the mythical Clashing Rocks to Colchis, the barbarian kingdom of King Aeetes. There the king promised Jason that he would give him the golden fleece if Jason could successfully perform a variety of daunting tasks. However, the king’s daughter Medea, skilled in magic and sorcery, fell in love with Jason and gave him spells by which he overcame the magical forces defending the treasure. When King Aeetes reneged on his promise, Jason and Medea stole the golden fleece and fled with it to Iolcus. There they discovered that, in Jason’s absence, King Pelias had murdered Jason’s father, Aeson, and now refused to return the kingship to the son. Medea tricked the daughters of King Pelias into murdering him. Jason and Medea fled from Iolcus and found sanctuary in Corinth. By this time, Jason had married Medea and had two sons by her. As the play opens, Jason has walked out on Medea and their boys and embraced a new connection: the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Emotionally devastated, Medea cries out for aid from the gods. l. 28: the daughter of King Creon. Other sources give her name as Glauce. l. 56: And thrust a sharpened sword into her liver. It is unclear in the original whose liver is being referred to here; though the confusion may be the result of interference by actors, I find persuasive the notion that while the Nurse doesn’t know exactly what Medea will do, she knows her well enough to guess that it will be either murder or suicide, or the one followed by the other. l. 65: The Tutor. Another domestic slave in the household of Medea. Though less roundly developed than the Nurse, he is notable for his genuine sympathy for the boys who are his charges.
l. 82: Now, by your chin. A formula used in supplication. The Nurse may be imagined as gesturing toward the Tutor’s chin rather than grasping it in her hand. l. 87: Corinth’s sacred spring. Known as Peirene. l. 109: Into the house now, children . . . ! Perhaps fearful of the increasing agitation of the Nurse and the Tutor, the boys do not hasten to obey. Medea’s outburst at ll. 116–17 may frighten them as well. They remain outside until after l. 124. l. 152: I have heard the voice. I have split up the Chorus here, giving them more time to assemble on stage than Euripides did. l. 169: O Zeus and Earth, Sun’s holy light. The Chorus addresses a trinity composed of Zeus, the most powerful of the Olympian gods, and the earth and sun, greatest of natural forces. l. 181: Powerful Themis! Lady Artemis! Themis, daughter of Zeus, personifies law and custom and stands also for the idea that the gods are concerned with the moral behavior of mortals. The domain of Artemis, another daughter of Zeus, lies outside the bounds of cultivation and civilization, in forests and on mountainsides. In calling on both Themis and Artemis, Medea invokes the guardians of culture and the natural world. l. 189: the murder of my brother. There were two extant versions of this story. In one, Medea slays her brother Apsyrtus while she and Jason are fleeing from Colchis with the golden fleece. In order to distract her father from his pursuit, she butchers her brother and drops parts of his body from their ship. (Aeetes would have had to pause to gather up the pieces in order to properly bury his son.) However, in l. 1480, Jason refers to a different version of the murder, which takes place in the royal palace before Jason and Medea run off. ll. 233–34: Hellas . . . the Hellespont. Themis, the guardian of oaths, brought Medea to Hellas, the land of the Greeks, from the barbarian
(that is to say, non-Greek) world she was born into. The Hellespont was the ancient name for the Dardanelles, after Helle, who drowned while fleeing on the back of a golden ram with her brother Phrixus, from the wrath of their stepmother, Ino. Phrixus was welcomed by King Aeetes of Colchis and presented him with the ram’s fleece. In mentioning the Hellespont, Euripides alludes to the quest that brought Jason to Medea, and to her wrath, which, like Ino’s, will be directed against her children. ll. 236ff.: Women of Corinth, look! After all that has been said about her, and after we have heard her despairing cries from within, Medea’s entrance is remarkable for its self-possession. l. 288: I have no city, no relations here. Without a city, without male relations to protect her and speak for her, a woman was truly helpless. As we will see, though, Medea has other resources to rely upon. ll. 302–3: no blame / Will come to you for paying Jason back. Medea’s situation and her rhetorical skills seem to have won the Chorus over: her description of the situation faced by women is echoed by the Chorus in the ode beginning at l. 447. At this point, though, the Chorus has no idea of what “paying Jason back” may entail. l. 362: I kneel and clasp your knees. A stronger gesture of supplication. l. 440: Hecate. Goddess of night, identified with ghosts and magic. She aids the work of witches: Medea is her disciple. ll. 450–51: Jason’s / Marriage to some Sisyphean upstart. Sisyphus is the mythical founder of Corinth, and Creon and his daughter are his descendants. ll. 457ff.: Uphill to their hidden springs. In the first two strophes, the Chorus ironically describes a reversal of order in the natural world that will occur when there is a reversal in the behavior of men toward women. The “reversal” is meant perhaps to remind us of the temporal reversal that the Nurse cries out for in her opening monologue.
ll. 525ff.: Allow me to begin where we began. Aeetes promised to give up the golden fleece provided that Jason subdued a pair of fire-breathing, bronze-hoofed bulls and yoked them to a brazen plow, with which he must plow the field of Ares (the war-god), sow the furrows with dragons’ teeth, and overcome the warriors who spring up from the earth as a result. Medea’s skill as a sorcerer provides him with the necessary spells to subdue the bulls, plow the fields, and overcome the warriors. ll. 537ff.: I used the daughters of King Pelias / To murder him. When Jason returned to Iolcos with Medea and discovered that Pelias had murdered his father, Medea took on the task of avenging him. She deceived the daughters of Pelias by showing them how she could cut an old ram into pieces, boil it in a concoction of her drugs, and have it then reappear as a whole, young ram. She persuaded Pelias’s daughters to cut their father up and simmer him in a concoction that she said would restore his youth in the same way. When it did not, Jason and Medea fled to Corinth. Later in the play, Medea will worry that the daughters of Pelias have still not forgiven her. (See ll. 559ff.) ll. 587–89: Aphrodite . . . Eros. Aphrodite is the goddess of love, and Eros is her son, often depicted as wielding darts to inflame hearts. Jason’s explanation of Medea’s behavior denies her any agency: he argues that she was simply overcome by lust. l. 601: Orpheus. The mythical poet, whose singing moved the natural world to respond, was also one of the Argonauts. Jason’s professed indifference to the art of poetry does not speak well of him, since an appreciation of the arts was a mark of aristocratic taste and behavior. Note the Nurse’s similar attitude in ll. 213ff. ll. 748–49: Aegeus, son / Of Pandion the wise. From the familiar way in which they greet one other, it is clear that Aegeus already considered Medea a friend. In his Poetics, Aristotle objects to Aegeus’s entrance here, most probably because it was dramatically unprepared for and seemed to be accounted for by chance—good luck for Medea—rather than by
necessity. Despite the apparent fortuitousness of his appearance, he enriches and advances the action of the drama in a number of ways: most importantly, perhaps, is his willingness to provide Medea a refuge in her exile, thus eliminating the most important barrier to her plan for revenge. ll. 750–51: the oracle at Delphi . . . the Prophetess. Apollo’s temple at Delphi, a sanctuary near Corinth, was where the god responded, often obscurely, to questions put to him by mortal visitors. The Prophetess was a maiden through whom Apollo was thought to speak when she went into an ecstatic trance. ll. 762ff.: “Do not . . . the wineskin’s . . . outreaching foot . . . untie.” The oracle’s meaning was apparently that he would not beget an heir unless he returned to Athens in a state of continence. (See note on l. 766.) l. 766: Pittheus, the king of Troezen. Apollo apparently meant only that if Aegeus wanted a legitimate heir, he would have to wait to have sexual intercourse until he got home. Leaving Medea, Aegeus went on to visit Pittheus, to whom he apparently confided the message of the oracle. Pittheus got Aegeus drunk and into bed with his daughter Aethra, by whom he conceived a son, the hero Theseus. l. 847: the swift son of Maia. Hermes, the messenger of the gods. l. 917: Go now and summon Jason. Some have argued that Medea sends the Nurse off on this bloodthirsty mission, but the Nurse defines her own character so clearly as a force of restraint in the prologue that this seems dramatically unlikely. At this point one of Medea’s silent attendants would have left the stage to do her bidding. ll. 921ff. A song in praise of Athens, which raises the question of how the city can give sanctuary to Medea after she has murdered her sons. l. 923: Of Erechtheus’ noble sons. Erechtheus is the mythical king of Athens, who married the river Cephisus, another deity; from their
union all Athenians were descended. The nine Muses inspired the arts that Athens famously supported. ll. 1079–80: Then give her your gifts. / Remember: she must take them in her hands. The attendant and the children will have already held the gifts in their hands but will not be harmed at all. We are more used to the logic of fairy tales in comedies than in tragedies, but there is no point in overly rationalizing the situation: the poisoned gifts are acts of magic. l. 1424: Ino, maddened by Hera. After Hera successfully connived to destroy Semele because of her affair with Zeus, Semele’s sister Ino volunteered to be a wet nurse for their offspring, Dionysus. Hera drove Ino mad, and she murdered her two sons and committed suicide. l. 1480: you killed your brother by the hearth. Euripides has Jason refer to another version of the death of Apsyrtus. ll. 1490–91: a lioness, / Fiercer than Scylla. A once-beautiful nymph, in some accounts, changed by the jealousy of her rivals into a hideous sea-monster. After l. 1561: Medea appears above the stage. A hidden crane would have hoisted the chariot with Medea and her dead children up above the stage. The chariot, wingèd (at least in the sense that it is capable of flight), is supplied by Medea’s grandfather, the god Helios. The audience is left to wonder whether the god is acting out of familial duty or from the conviction that Medea’s actions are justified. ll. 1565ff.: From high upon Olympus, Zeus . . . Four other plays by Euripides end with variations on this last reflection of the Chorus, and it is generally regarded as a later addition to Medea with no real connection to the action of the play. However, Medea’s escape from the consequences of her deeds, engineered by Helios, may have provided the original audience of the play with an example of those unforeseen outcomes that the Chorus is talking about.
I am grateful to the editors of the Jung Journal, the Hopkins Review, the New Criterion, Stone Canoe, and THINK, in which sections of this translation have appeared. For editorial help, useful suggestions, and general encouragement, I would like to thank Kyle Bass, Herbert Golder, Rachel Hadas, Mike Levine, Aaron Poochigian, David Rothman, Ryan Wilson, and David Yezzi. I am likewise grateful to the two friends who persuaded me to finish what I had begun and to whom this book is dedicated. As a character, Medea steps out of a tangled web of ancient stories into situations as current as today’s news: a single mother, abandoned by her husband, struggling to find her way in a misogynistic society; an outsider, a refugee threatened with deportation. I cannot think of a better person than A. E. Stallings—poet, classicist, and social activist—to introduce Medea to a contemporary audience. I am deeply grateful to her and to Angela Taraskiewicz for their essay on Euripides and his play. At the University of California Press, I would like to thank Eric Schmidt, Jolene Torr, Andrea Torres, Cindy Fulton, and Marian Rogers for their care in advancing this project. Thank you to my wife, Johanna Keller, for her support of this work from its inception. 101
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