"And she hates her children now and feels no joy at seeing them; I fear she may contrive some untoward scheme; for her mood is dangerous nor will she brook her cruel treatment; full well I know her, and I much do dread that she will plunge the keen sword through their hearts, stealing without a word into the chamber where their marriage couch is spread, or else that she will slay the prince and bridegroom too, and so find some calamity still more grievous than the present; for dreadful is her wrath; verily the man that doth incur her hate will have no easy task to raise o'er her a song of triumph."
The Nurse in the opening scene of Medea by Euripides
What is the most striking aspect of Medea, by Euripides? Is it the deus ex machina rescue of Medea at the end, her vengeful acts, or the glib insouciance with which Jason denies responsibility? In the Medea, by Euripides, the viewer knows from the outset that something terrible will happen. Whether it will be revenge against an errant husband, suicide, or the unthinkable murder of her own two children, remains to be seen, but the nurse, Cassandra-like, is powerless to deflect the course she predicts in the opening scene of Medea.
Medea the Filicide (Son-killer)
That Medea does, in the end, murder her children was not a foregone conclusion. Other versions of the Medea legend say the Corinthian king, Creon, had them murdered and put the blame on Medea. In the version of Medea by Euripides, Creon doesn't come across entirely blameless and he does pay for banishing and mistreating Medea and her children, but Euripides' version is not about him. It is, instead, about Medea and her husband Jason.
Medea's Crime Is in Response to Jason's Treatment
Had Jason provided Medea with satisfaction, remedy, or even an apology, the outcome might have been different; instead, Jason pushes Medea far beyond the levels of human endurance for frustration and helplessness.
In the confrontation about Jason's bigamous marriage to Creon's daughter, Medea itemizes the things she has done or sacrificed for her husband's sake:
- Saved his life
- Slew the guardian of the golden fleece.
- Left her father and homeland.
- Caused the death of Pelias [see The Lesser Share for the significance of Pelias in Jason's life];
- Bore him 2 sons.
Jason counters that
- Medea did nothing:
It wasn't Medea's doing, but the love gods that led to the acts that saved Jason's life.
- Jason has given the gift of civilization to Medea:
He has provided Medea with a home in a civilized land, Hellas, which was unlike her barbarian homeland where men don't have justice, but rule by brute force. The irony here is that Medea has rightly shown that it's the civilized Jason who has broken an oath.
- Jason has given Medea a reputation:
Jason has provided Medea with the opportunity to have a reputation -- something she would not have had had she stayed in Colchis [if Jason had paid attention to her reputation -- as a witch/murderer -- the outcome might have been different].
- Jason is trying to help Medea and their children:
Jason claims he has married to make his own, Medea's, and their children's lives more comfortable.
How do you argue with what Jason says to Medea? If your spouse says it's not free will but the workings of the gods, you can't prove him wrong. If he can twist every action of yours to his own glory so that an act done for love of him becomes an act to his credit, you can't deny that he inspired it. If he believes that his intention -- to provide money and a secure home, supposedly -- is no less important for the fact that the children and wife have been banished, there's no reasoning with him. What's more, it's clear he didn't turn Medea aside for love of the other woman. Perhaps Medea could have understood that and murdered only the woman who "came between them," but Jason sees women as an affliction:
Yea, men should have begotten children from some other source, no female race existing; thus would no evil ever have fallen on mankind."
Medea's Murder Overcomes Her Sense of Powerlessness
Seething with frustration, Medea does what she must to overcome her sense of powerlessness. That she's the niece of Circe, the grand-daughter of the sun god, and that he's witnessed more than a little of her sorcery, should have given Jason pause, but he's smug, self-confident, feeling more powerful than any woman, and he ignores the warnings.
Resources Related to Euripides by Medea• Medea
• Poseidon and Jason - The Lesser Share