Perhaps I’m cheating. No, I’m not. I just wanted to buy a couple of the books that are on my TBR that are not already on my shelf at home. I chose some shorter ones. So sue me. Medea was up near the top, anyway, since it’s Greek mythology and that’s what we’ve been studying in home school co-op.
I read this in high school. I’m sure I hated it. Why? I mean, I liked Greek mythology and still do. But the subject matter—it’s too tough. Of all the Greek and Roman myths to turn into a play, this is one of the last ones I would choose. Wife is jilted for a princess. In retaliation, she decides to go out in a blaze of glory by killing her two children by said husband. So, if you are familiar with such things, the story of Jason and Medea, the witch-woman he brought back from his little spree on the Argo.
She’s a bloody character to begin with, though she’s also tragic because—if I recall correctly—she ended up following Jason because she was magicked into love by the gods. She was the detritus of the quest, but she came with guns a-blazin’: she ran off in the dead of night and murdered her brother. Jason never really loved her, valued her, or treated her right, either, from the looks of it. And then we pick up after Jason has found himself a more lucrative deal with a local princess and so he’s told Medea he’s moving outward and upward. She’s mad.
She’s also, remember, a witch (or sorceress or magician or what-have-you). She’s always been tough as nails. She’s a woman of passion and of motivation. These poor kids don’t stand a chance and we, as the audience, get to watch the thing unravel. We even end up feeling a little sorry for Jason or even Medea, which I suppose is the point of the play. The ancient peoples knew the outcome, after all. These were familiar stories. But Euripedes has survived because of the language (probably) and the exploration of Medea and those around her. What would make a mother do such a thing? What led up to it and what made the tragedy inevitable? Can this sort of thing happen to me? Can I dodge my own fate? So by watching Medea go down in flames, we learn about humanity and we learn about ourselves.
If you’re ready to give 47 pages to hating (that’s a strong word) a play, then I would recommend this as part of your classical reading. You do get a lot of bang for your buck. It’s not modern story-telling (we don’t even find out the names of the kids(!)), but there is still something to be read here. Short and bitter.
(By the way, I read the Dover Thrift Edition with Rex Warner’s translation.)
“What’s strange in that? Have you only just discovered / That everyone loves himself more than his neighbor?” (p4).
“I would like to be safe and grow old in a / Humble way. What is moderate sounds best, / Also in practice is best for everyone. / Greatness brings no profit to people” (p5).
“Of all the things which are living and can form a judgment / We women are the most unfortunate creatures” (p8).
“Do not consider painful what is good for you, / Nor, when you are lucky, think yourself unfortunate” (p19).
“Mortals must bear in resignation their ill luck” (p33).
“The childless, who never discover / Whether children turn out as a good thing / Or as something to cause pain, are spared / Many troubles in lacking this knowledge. / And those who have in their homes / the sweet presence of children, I see that their lives / Are all wasted away by their worries” (pp36-37).
“Many things the gods / Achieve beyond our judgment. What we thought / Is not confirmed and what we thought not god / Contrives. And so it happens in this story” (p47).