In the Poetics, Aristotle describes three essential parts to Greek Tragedy and in turn successful art. The three components work in relationship with each other, a collaboration leading to higher consciousness and restored order, whether socially or individually defined. The first is "recognition" which implies the realization of some truth, that often times (initially) appears to the protagonist as a form of ignorance. In Greek culture blindness and seeing are transposed to indicate this moment of recognition as tragic vision; recognition manifests itself in blind prophets like Tiresias the seer and Oedipus' act of blinding himself (after seeking out the reality of his life). In Greek sculpture, a few statues have somewhat featureless eyes, perhaps suggesting the idea of the blind seer again; and of course ancient rumors reported that Homer--in all his visionary poetry--was also blind. Let me remind you that Homer is undoubtedly a tradition--evolving out of three ages of oral culture--rather than a single human being. See optional reading: The Age of Heroes.
The second component of tragedy is "reversal" where through some form of inquiry or journey, the hero discovers that recognition is held in a kind of 180 degree turn where formerly held truths are actually versions of ignorance or that former versions of ignorance turn out to be visionary. The ancient story of the hunter Actaeon shows us this connection between recognition and reversal. Diana, the woodland goddess, transforms Actaeon into a deer and thus he is hunted down and destroyed by his own vicious hounds. The story tells of the hunter becoming the hunted--reversal--and the recognition of the other's experience in life (in this case the deer)--Actaeon surely recognizes the perspective of the wild buck before his brutal undoing. The fate of the lovers of Ishtar in The Epic of Gilgamesh also shows us the reality of recognition and reversal--for instance, the gardener is transformed into a mole. And more importantly we see our relation with nature portrayed as a reversal, when Enkidu is transformed from a wild beast into a domesticated man (forever estranged from the wild creatures), who knows the trappings of civilization and culture.
The third aspect of successful tragedy is the "tragic flaw." This term is elusive. In most cases, it refers to one's true character, the nature of one's soul or daemon or "divine spirit." It is not about being evil. It implies unforeseen consequences that arrive in mass when a hero fails to follow his true character or when one's character causes a mistake in judgment. Tragic flaw is about the reality of human frailty.
When we talk about Medea, we might begin by thinking about how reversal plays an important role in understanding Euripides' intentions. First, as the play opens (prologue), the Nurse gives us history and a view of the "diseased love" between Jason and Medea. There is no equivocation; Jason has wronged Medea. The audience (and the reader) will perhaps fill sympathy for this woman and Corinthian women in general. Obviously the patriarchal elitism and the consequent double standard of masculine behavior is put on display. Women live oppressed lives. Jason himself will confirm these sympathies as his reasoning and thus his words (in the second episode) are visibly absurd. He is transparent and vain.
What strikes me as important in reading this play is the notion of reversal as mood. Medea kills her own children and in doing so nullifies any initial sympathy we might have for her. In fact by the end of the play, one might have a great deal more sympathy for Jason instead of Medea and in this Euripides has reversed the sentiments of the audience through dramatic action. It appears that the idea of having Medea kill her own children was solely the creation of Euripides. So while Medea gets away with murder--unlike Clytemneastra--she also brings destruction on Athens (in the future) for King Aegeus offers her sanctuary in that city. Harboring a murder brings the waft of the furies.
The theme of the children is important in this play. They remain central throughout, always visible or nearby. It is the children that bring about this reversal.
Setting: Jason and Medea's house. There is no need for a shift in scene. In the case of people dying, the messenger conveys the details and thus eliminates the necessity of changing scenes. This alternate depiction of violence through dialogue is indicative of Greek drama--the root of the word obscene is "off stage."
Prologue: Nurse, Tutor, Medea
What is the purpose of the Nurse's speech?
Part of her purpose is to tell the audience about the past and thus locate the story in time and place; this is a literary convention--many prologues in Greek drama provide us with necessary information and give us a history lesson. Ask yourself if the prologue generates any sympathy for Medea.
Why does she sail away with Jason in the first place?
Medea's attitude toward her children concerns the Nurse. Explain. The children play an essential role in this tragedy. The central focus of the play could be characterized around "the theme of the children." The sons of Jason and Medea are always present to some degree, if not on stage then in the dialogue. They may exist on the margins momentarily, but they are never marginalized.
Euripides is regarded by some people as the first feminist. He shows us that the patriarchal system perpetuates destructive inequality, especially applicable to the double-standard that defines the institution of marriage. Whether we can maintain this perspective is a matter of interpreting the evidence. Euripides does mess with the status quo, for instance, allowing Medea to claim as her own previously held exclusive male rights. The sacrifice of the innocent child has been the prerogative of Kings like Agamemnon, who at Calchas' decree sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia. But in the end, the killing of one's children may also reinforce an ancient archetype, in Medea's case, that women cannot be trusted. Once again interpretation plays a role. An assessment of Medea's character sways on our ability to put aside our own version of truth, at least momentarily, in order to consider alternatives. Whatever else, this challenge, this movement toward cognitive dissonance seems catalytically to be Euripides' modus operandi.
And we have modern women writers who offer a similar challenge. Toni Morrison gives us a female character, a mother, in Beloved who slays her own children rather than have them live as slaves in the southern plantation system. Injustice is a greater cruelty than death.
First Episode: Medea, Chorus, Creon
Medea has been weeping; yet she is lucid. Her speech again underscores the plight of women. "Of all creatures that can feel and think, / we women are the worst-treated things alive."
For Medea, in marriage the husband becomes the dictator of a woman's body. Consider the critical Thinking Rubric # 1: What is the problem (or problems)? Separate out the different problems Medea and women in general face and explain the nuances of each.
What request does Medea make to the Chorus of Corinthian women?
Creon arrives! What order does Creon give? What does Medea say about smart women? What does Medea appeal to in Creon's nature that allows her more time?
After Creon's departure, Medea reveals her true intentions. What do you think of Medea here? Consider her situation and her motivation and her cunning. Does she still have your sympathy? How does she view the female sex?
First Stasimon (or Ode): Each Stasimon includes Strophe and Antistrophe.
What is the Chorus' reaction to Medea's intentions? What does the Chorus say about ballads of the ages gone by? How might the Chorus' reaction to Medea's intentions be similar to or different from your reaction? Explain why.
Second Episode: Jason, Chorus and Medea
This episode asks us to consider the character of Jason carefully. What does Jason say he has done for Medea? What has Medea done for Jason in the past? How does Jason rationalize his actions? What do the gods have to do with it? According to Jason what advantages did Medea derive from coming to Greece?
What do you think of Jason's perspective?
Second Stasimon: The Chorus speaks of the dangers of love. Explain this view. What does the chorus suggest about the relationship between one's passion and one's relationship to the State? What are the implications of what these Corinthian women say? Does love fit with politics? Why or why not?
Third Episode: Aegeus, Medea, and Chorus
Medea arranges for her escape and sanctuary in Athens under the protection of King Aegeas. He will receive Medea in his city. Why? Under what condition? What does Aegeus think about how Jason has treated her and their children?
Medea makes Aegeus swear an oath of loyalty to her and their agreement. By whom does Medea make him swear?
After Aegeus' departure, Medea rejoices. What is Medea's device for murdering the daughter of the King, Jason's future bride? What does she plan to do to her own sons? This is a critical turning point in the drama. Evaluate carefully Medea's intention to murder her own children. What is the Chorus' reaction to Medea's plan to murder her sons?
Medea directs the Nurse to go get Jason.
Third Stasimon: The Chorus of Corinthian women desperately try to move Medea from her purpose.
The Chorus sings of Athens plight as well. King Aegeus, it seems, doesn't realize what Medea has planned when he offers her protection in his city. As natural law, to harbor a murderer within your land spells certain doom. Historically, Euripides was regarded as a seer himself because Athens will indeed be defeated in the Peloponnesian War, and thus the playwright comprehensively prophesies this defeat within the play itself.
Fourth Episode: Jason, Medea, and Chorus
What attitude does Medea now present to Jason?
What is Jason's reaction to her seemingly change of heart?
Medea asks Jason to ask Creon to let their two children remain in Corinth with their father. She even asks that Jason employ the loyalty of his new wife to plead for the children's sake. We know this is ruse, a way of delivering the "gorgeous presents." We know that multiple murders are eminent.
Notice that the Chorus' attitude about Medea has changed as a result of her desire to murder her own children. It seems that having Medea murder her own sons was Euripides' idea. This is a new twist that previously has NOT been associated with the mythology of Medea. Why would Euripides have Medea murder her sons?
Fifth Episode: Tutor and Medea and Chorus
What news does the Tutor report to Medea? The boys return to Medea and she emotionally struggles with her own mind. Who is the only one that can stop Medea from murdering her children?
The Chorus suggests that women have a muse of their own that ushers in wisdom. What is this wisdom?
What is the saddest sorrow of all?
Sixth Episode: Messenger and Medea
The messenger reports the deaths of the princess and Creon himself to Medea. How were their deaths accomplished? Euripides gives us a detailed description of the deaths that is particularly gruesome. Explain what happens. Why does Euripides make their deaths so horrible?
What does Medea intend to do now?
Sixth Stasimon: The Chorus prays for something to stop the murder of the children
Seventh Episode: Jason, Chorus, and Medea
What concern does Jason have when he hears of his children's deaths?
Jason says: "Oh woman, you've just killed me." What does Jason mean?
Medea appears in a chariot drawn by winged dragons. By her side are the two dead boys. What is the significance of this chariot? What is the role of the gods in her escape?
Do you feel sympathy for Jason? If so, evaluate how your sympathies have changed as the drama unfolds. Obviously the event that shifts empathy away from Medea--the child-killer--toward Jason (for most people in the audience) is the death of the children. Is there any perspective at all that might lead you to acquit Medea for this act of infanticide?
Jason's question: You think it right to murder for a thwarted bed? In fact this question still plagues us. The obvious answer today is "No." What has replaced murder?
What does Jason ask Medea for in the end? What is Medea's answer?
Exodos: Jason and Medea and Chorus
In the end Medea is unrelenting. She predicts that Jason will indeed carry this grief into old age.
What comment does the Chorus make at the end of the play?
1. Medea's killing of her children can be juxtaposed to the attempted killing of the infant Oedipus by his father and mother and the sacrifice of Iphigeneia by Agamemnon. Discuss the way or ways you reacted to the different portrayal of "the death of children" as a literary motif in Homer and then in Euripides.
2. Medea has been described as a strong, independent woman, as a woman mad with passion, and as a witch. What view is finally conveyed in the play?
3. Euripides was considered an eccentric and an intellectual radical. In what ways is this true. In what ways is it false.