The audience of Athenians that poured into the Theater of Dionysus to witness the first performance of Euripides’ Medea in 431 BC might have been wondering what aspect of Medea’s complicated story the playwright would have taken as his subject. Was it her romantic infatuation with the Greek hero Jason when he journeyed with the other Argonauts into her father’s kingdom in search of the Golden Fleece? Her passion led her to use the magic that enabled him to steal that treasure, and she fled with him—eloped, really—to avoid her father’s wrath, killing her younger brother in the process. Was it the trick she played on the daughters of King Pelias that left the old man stewed in lifeless pieces in the cauldron that was supposed to reinvigorate him?
There was no lack of good theatrical material in Medea’s story, but, from that moment when the Nurse begins her prologue, the audience would have realized that Medea was in Corinth, where her husband Jason has abandoned her and their two sons for a far more advantageous match with the daughter of the Corinthian King Creon. Medea is in a terrible state, the Nurse tells us, but no less dangerous for that. She has been betrayed and there is no telling what she is capable of: she may kill Creon and his daughter. She may even harm her own children. The Tutor of those children appears onstage to confirm that they are in danger from another source: he has just overheard Creon telling of how he will send the children and their mother into immediate exile. In subsequent scenes, Medea must first counter the immediate threat from Creon and then advance her own rapidly developing plan for revenge against Jason by murdering Creon and his daughter, then murdering her own children, and finally escaping to Athens.
All of this happens in Euripides’ play with breakneck speed. When the Nurse first appears onstage, she attempts to run time backwards: if only, she says . . . if only the Argonauts hadn’t gone sailing off to Colchis; if only the pines that their ship had been built with had remained in place on Mount Pelion; if only King Pelias hadn’t commanded the Argonauts to go on their voyage, Medea would have had nothing to do with Jason and would not be here in Corinth now.
But time goes only in one direction, into a future that opens up swiftly and inevitably into a place of great horror. We can do nothing to stop it. Medea tricks her husband into using their children as the unwitting delivery system for poisoned gifts that will destroy the Corinthian princess and her father. They set out on their fatal mission. We wait with Medea onstage for the appearance of a messenger from the house of Creon. He arrives breathless, for he has been running.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 3, on page 25
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