Originally written by Euripides, Medea is an ancient Greek tragedy based upon the myth of Medea and Jason. After encountering Jason during his quest for the Golden Fleece, Medea falls in love and abandons her homeland to help him throughout his journey with her sorceress powers. The two become lovers and are sentenced to exile in Iolcus, eventually seeking asylum in Corinth. Their relationship suffers when Jason is unable to remain faithful to Medea in their marriage, thus causing her to seek revenge on him in unthinkable ways. Seneca’s Medea is the other one of two surviving ancient versions of this tragedy and contains stark differences to Euripides’ version although maintaining a similar plot. Euripides and Seneca each offer a unique interpretation of Medea’s process of plotting her revenge against Jason. This is best shown through Medea’s behavior at the beginning, her plea to King Creon of Corinth, and her disturbing decision to kill her children in both plays.
In Euripides’ Medea, Medea is portrayed as a devoted wife that is wronged by her husband Jason and so, in the act of retaliation, causes the deaths of his new bride, his father-in-law, and her own two children. However, her exact plans for revenge are not quite obvious at the beginning of the play. Before Medea comes out to speak to the chorus, the Nurse explains her situation and states, “Poor Medea, mournful and dishonored, / shrieks at his broken oaths, the promise sealed with his right hand” (p. 4). Here, Euripides begins to show Medea as being pitiful and in a constant weeping state because of Jason dishonoring her by abandoning their oath. She is heard from within the house, crying out “Aaaah! I’ve suffered so much, / worth oceans of weeping. O children, accursed, / may you die―with your father! Your mother is hateful” (p. 8). While it is clear that she is upset and hurt based on her moaning in the background, it only seems that she is acting out because of her inability to control her feelings about what she has been through. Euripides introduces the possibility of Medea harming those who have hurt her when the Nurse says, “I’m afraid she might be plotting something. / Her mind is fierce, and she will not endure ill treatment” (p. 4-5). Despite this statement, it is important to notice that the Nurse is merely vocalizing her fear that Medea may seek revenge, and that it is still unclear to the audience how far Medea is willing to go to hurt those who have wronged her. Medea is deeply hurt over Jason’s betrayal and complains at first, but then she uses her feelings of grief and pain to strategize the perfect plot to pay him back for his unfaithfulness. Her acts of reprisal are improvised and further developed as the play progresses.
On the contrary, Seneca’s Medea has clear motives from the start of the play as she is both passionate and determined to get revenge for Jason’s unfaithfulness. Right from the opening of Act 1, Medea is seen invoking maledictions upon Jason while imploring the blessings of various gods to give her the power she needs to fulfill her plans for vengeance. As she calls out to “powers of feuding vengeance,” she says, “Kill his new partner, kill his new father… For the groom, may something worse remain” (p. 44). Unlike Euripides’ Medea, Medea herself expresses her detestation for Jason, King Creon, and princess Creusa at the start of Seneca’s play. In addition, Seneca chooses to reveal that Medea intends on killing both Jason’s new wife and new father-in-law, but has a different route of revenge planned for Jason himself. Like Euripides, Seneca still doesn’t give away the fact that Medea will sacrifice her children as well as the others to fully destroy Jason’s life. Medea’s thirst for vengeance is further shown when she tells herself, “Medea, bare your rage for fighting, and prepare yourself to kill, work to a frenzy” (p. 46). This demonstrates how Medea is praying to the gods in order to motivate and prepare herself to commit crimes worse than the ones she committed for Jason’s sake. Seneca’s Medea shows herself as being more in control of her emotions because of her fiery desire for revenge, whereas Euripides’ Medea is more emotional and pitiful in the opening of the play. Furthermore, it can be inferred that Medea’s plans for punishing Jason and Creon are already matured from the start of Seneca’s play.
In both versions of the ancient tragedy, Medea is cleverly manipulative as she pleads to Creon to grant her one additional day in Corinth. He eventually gives in to her request, which is a significant element in both plays because it allows Medea the time she needs to carry out the crimes she has plotted during her final day. Seemingly consistent with her behavior throughout Euripides’ play, Medea behaves emotionally and pitifully in order to persuade Creon to let her have one more day in Corinth. Nevertheless, it is crucial to realize that in her dialogue with Creon, Medea knows exactly what she is doing with her language and is doing this on purpose. When Creon bluntly tells Medea that he fears her, she uses that fear to convince him with soothing words that she has no intent to hurt him: “Don’t worry, Creon. I don’t have it in me / to do wrong to a man with royal power” (p. 15). She utilizes strong language to make Creon feel more powerful than her because of his royal status, thus making it more likely for him to grant her the additional day. Medea even goes as far as to kneel before him and grasp his hand and knees in supplication, begging that he “Take pity on them. You yourself have children… I’m not worried about myself―I weep for their disaster” (p. 17). Knowing how dearly Creon loves his children, Medea appeals to him by citing her worries about her own two children. Consequently, Euripides’ Medea is effectively able to convince Creon to permit her one last day in Corinth, allowing him to believe that the sole purpose for this extra time is to make arrangements for her exile and her children’s asylum.
While Creon fears Medea in both versions of the play, Seneca’s Medea uses reason and appeal instead of putting on an emotional act to make Creon grant her an additional day in Corinth. In the dialogue between them, Medea’s goal is not to move Creon with her words but rather to be reasonable within her pleas so that he eventually must give in. She initially reasons with Creon to hear her case for sending her into exile with the same sources that brought her to Corinth in the first place, referring to Jason and the Argo. This plea is ineffective, so she declares her final request which is for Creon to have mercy on her sons who “have done no harm” (p. 58). He responds by telling her to leave, and that he will raise her sons with a father’s love. This response is not what Medea was looking for, so she again pleads for him to allow her a short delay so that she “may be a mother to [her] sons” (p. 59). Although Creon immediately suspects that she wants this extra time for a plot, Medea denies any possibility of this and asks for “a little time for tears” (p. 59). Her pleas prove to be successful as Creon delays her banishment for just one day. Like Euripides, Seneca has Medea appeal to Creon with an emphasis on love for her children, but Seneca’s Medea utilizes less of an inferiority act and instead continuously reasons with him until he has no choice but to give in.
Although Medea becomes torn over the choice of murdering her only two children, she ultimately decides that the sacrifice must be made to hurt Jason most greatly and effectively. Euripides and Seneca approach this difficult decision to kill her children in different ways. In Euripides’ version, Medea introduces the idea of killing her sons while explaining her revenge plot to the Chorus and even though they attempt to talk her out of it, she insists that it must be done to “wound my husband the most deeply” (p. 37). It can be inferred that Medea realizes the need for this brutal act in her previous conversation with Jason, where he states, “Men should really have some other method / for getting children. The whole female race / should not exist. It’s nothing but a nuisance” (p. 25). His statement is obnoxiously inaccurate, as Medea was at home raising their two sons in Corinth while Jason kept them all in the dark about his infidelity. As a result, Medea faces the realization that she must kill her children to “ruin Jason’s household” (p. 36). Instead of killing Jason along with everyone else, Medea finds it more efficient to ensure that he will lose his current children and his new bride, thereby ruining any chance of him ever fathering another child. Likewise to her behavior at the beginning of the play, Medea is still not fully able to control her emotions as she argues with her inner self about killing her children. She says, “Why should I, just to cause their father pain, / feel twice the pain myself by harming them? / … But wait―what’s wrong with me? What do I want? / To allow my enemies to … go unpunished?” (p. 46). As a mother with a genuine love for her children, Medea struggles to muster up the courage to kill her children but quickly changes her mind once she refocuses on her primary goal and purpose, which is to punish her greatest enemy, Jason.
In contrast, Seneca’s Medea realizes from conversing with Jason how much love he has for their children, which makes it easier for her to understand why she must kill them. Their conversation is different from that in Euripides because it gives her a subtle understanding of how Jason can best be attacked through his immense love for his sons. Seneca demonstrates Jason’s fatherly love for his children when Medea asks him to allow her to take their children with her when she leaves Corinth. He refuses her request immediately, stating that “My children are / the reason I live on, the thing that makes / me able to endure the pain / … I would more quickly sacrifice my soul / my body, life itself” (p. 74). This dialogue between Medea and Jason is especially significant because it shows Medea how deeply Jason loves his sons, which places him in a vulnerable position. She says to herself, “Is this how much / he loves his sons? That’s good. Then, he is caught” (p. 74), since she now recognizes that she can use his love for them to her advantage. Similarly to Euripides’ Medea, Seneca’s Medea becomes conflicted about her decision to kill her children because of her motherly instincts. Speaking to herself, she argues, “How can I shed / the blood of my children, my own flesh? / Anger and madness must not come to this!” (p. 92). However, Medea once again changes her mind when she realizes that if she must be torn away from her children due to exile, then Jason surely cannot have them either. As her anger builds up, she says, “To their mother they are / forever gone and lost, so they must be / gone and lost to their father as well” (p. 93). Regardless of how difficult a decision it is for a mother to kill her own two children, both Euripides’ and Seneca’s Medea can convince themselves that the deed must be done in order to guarantee the most gruesome revenge against Jason.
Despite their different stylistics of playwriting, Grecian Euripides and Roman Seneca are able to impressively portray the powerful shift of Medea’s feelings for Jason as his infidelity causes her love to turn into pure rage and fiery. Both playwrights elucidate Medea’s process for seeking revenge in distinctive ways, creating two versions of the same tale that can be interpreted differently. Nonetheless, neither Euripides or Seneca fail to prove to their audiences in the ancient tragedy of Medea that love and passion can ultimately drive anyone to commit the most unimaginable crimes.
Euripides. Medea. Translated by Diane Arnson Svarlien. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing
Company, Inc., 2008.
Seneca. Medea. Translated by Frederick Ahl. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1986.