The Wickedness of Medea
- Pages: 6
- Word count: 1293
- Category: Medea
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Euripides uses the speech of the Medea’s nurse as an excellent prologue to the play, giving the background as well as the current situation Medea finds herself in. The desperation and sadness voiced by the nurse in the opening scene of Medea refers to the deadly past of her mistress which, if taken back, would erase the present wounds inflicted upon her: “(t)hen neither would Medea, my mistress, ever had set sail for the walled town of Iolcus, mad with love for Jason; nor would she, when Pelias’ daughters, at her instance, killed their father, have come with Jason and her children to live here…” (17) The nurse also gives us a sense of foreboding, something very evil to come from her mistress: “(S)ome dreadful purpose is forming in her mind. She is a frightening woman…” Yet the conversation between the nurse and the tutor, if not giving Medea a sympathetic light, certainly provides the reasons for her to be enraged. Not only has her husband Jason left her for the King’s daughter, the King is soon to expel her. However, once again, the nurse prays “she strike her enemies and not her friends.” (20)
Medea does not deny her past; instead, she blames Jason for it, as though she were somehow the real victim. She admits to deceiving her father, and then causing the “the most horrible of deaths” to King Pelias, at his daughters’ hands. (31) She now claims those actions “showed much love” to Jason, “and little wisdom.” (31) In her mind the evil one is her husband; despite all she had done in the past, and after bearing his children it is he who has “the wickedness to turn me out…” (31)
Creon, King of Corinth, is obviously aware of her past, and the malice she is capable of. He comes to her house to personally expel her; and while explaining the reasons, also unknowingly gives the result of becoming too close to a woman who is “skilled in many evil arts”:
I fear you. Why wrap up the truth? I fear that you may do my daughter some irreparable harm. A number of things contribute to my anxiety. You’re a clever woman, skilled in many evil arts; you’re barred from Jason’s bed, and that enrages you. I learn too from reports, that you have uttered threats of revenge on Jason and his bride and his bride’s father. I’ll act first, then, in self-defense. I’d rather make you my enemy now, than weaken, and later pay with tears. (26)
While the King gives us fair warning of the evil and wickedness Medea is capable of, he fails to heed his own wise counsel. She is well-skilled in the manipulative art of persuasion, and Creon succumbs to her seemingly heartfelt and realistic request for one day, “to settle some plan for my exile, make provision for my two sons, since their own father is not concerned to help them” (27). He succumbs to her entreaty, and she uses the time gained to perfect her plot.
Creon was correct, of course, in fearing for his daughter’s life as well as his own. In the interim, Jason comes to Medea, and they upbraid each other, not unlike any divorcing couple. Jason tries to explain his infidelity away, as being designed to better all of their lives, going so far as to claim his “action was wise, not swayed by passion, and directed towards your interests and my children’s.” (33) Jason tries to convince her he is not in essence, leaving her and the children, but creating an expanded family connected to royal blood: “(t)o ensure your future, and to give my children brothers of royal blood, and build security for us all” (35). Disparagingly, he claims she would understand his rationale if she were not female.
Cunningly she rejects his argument and begins her plan. First, she makes an alliance upon his oath with Aegeus of Athens, that “(n)ever yourself to expel me from your territory; and, if my enemies want to take me away, never willingly, while you live, to give me up to them” (40). With sanctuary guaranteed, she is now prepared to carry out her plot to “see my enemies punished as they deserve” (41). She summons Jason to return, and convinces him that he was correct, and plays upon his belief of her as the weaker sex; he believes her reversal “is the act of a sensible woman” (45). Thus disarmed, she plies him with her version of a peace offering: their children will return with their father to the royal home, where they children will present the Princess with a beautiful crown and robe. At first hesitant, he agrees, and sets into motion the horror Medea has planned.
She has used her evil skill of poisoning to dose both the golden crown and the robe, providing a ghastly death to the Princess: she is hideously burned by the crown, and the robe eats away at her flesh. Creon, hearing her death throes, rushes to her side and in his embrace, becomes victim to the robe as well, and dies embracing his daughter. She hears of her success from the Messenger, who remarks “What? Are you sane, or raving mad?” (52) But her madness has just begun. She has decided to kill her sons, knowing such a loss would bring complete despair to Jason. Euripides enforces the horror of her madness; the helpless children scream and plead for help, but they cannot “escape from her sword.” (56) The Chorus proclaims the evil: “What can be strange or terrible after this? O bed of women, full of passion and pain, what wickedness, what sorrow you have caused on this earth!” (57).
Medea’s wickedness is not yet finished. Upon learning of his children’s death at their mother’s had, Jason, of course, is beyond devastation:
If I cursed you all day, no remorse would touch you, for your heart’s proof against feeling. Go! Out of my sight, polluted fiend, child-murderer! Leave me to mourn over my destiny: I have lost my young bride, I have lost the two sons I begot and brought up; I shall never see them alive again. (58)
She does not kill Jason; she wants him to live with the horror for the rest of his life. Euripides use of the word “wicked” is extremely appropriate, particularly if the modern synonyms of “depraved”, “heinous”, “nefarious” and “fiendish” are substituted in its place. Any of these words will aptly describe the thinking and actions of Medea. If she did not have the malevolent history she seemingly bragged of, or planned to kill just Jason, she could be seen in a more favorable light, perhaps even justified in seeking revenge for the betrayal of her husband and the obvious embarrassment it would cause. If she had refrained from killing her children, she could arguably be considered mad, driven out of her senses by the selfish actions of her unfaithful husband. By killing her sons, whatever madness possessed her transcended into depravity, into wickedness, as shown best by the chilling dialog between her and Jason:
Jason: You suffer too, my loss is yours no less.
Medea: It is true; but my pain’s a fair price, to take away your smile. (59)
This is evil incarnate; a woman so desperate to destroy her unfaithful husband she will murder those who are dearest to both of them. Wickedness is really not enough to describe the her heinous ability to take this measure to ensure Jason’s grief.
Euripides. Medea. Translated by Philip Vellacott. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.