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Medea | Study Guide


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Medea | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Euripides's Medea has thrilled, fascinated, and appalled audiences for well over 2,000 years. This play about a spurned wife who takes revenge on her husband by murdering their children has been reinterpreted in countless films, works of art, and novels.

While the horror of child murder, or filicide, is one draw of the play, audiences are also intrigued by Euripides's ability to make his Medea sympathetic. The play resonates with modern audiences as filicides are reported regularly in the news, and viewers seek to understand the actions of a mother who murders. In addition, Medea is presented as a woman reacting to oppression—she is subjugated by her husband and by society. The play's ability both to shock and to create sympathy in the viewer is the key to its lasting impact.

1. Medea was not a success at its premiere—in fact, it was a failure.

Medea was first performed at Great Dionysia, a drama festival in 431 BCE. The play did not receive first place—or even second place. Those prizes went to Euphorion and Sophocles, respectively, for their long-lost plays. Euripides received the third-place prize for Medea, which was basically the losing prize.

2. One film version of Medea was directed by a relative of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh's great-great-grandnephew, Theo, directed a television series based on the play. The series was set in the Netherlands, with the action transferred to Dutch politics. Theo was murdered in 2004 because of another film he made about the relationships between Muslim men and women.

3. There is a syndrome named for Medea based on her murderous actions.

The Medea Syndrome, also called spousal revenge, refers to a parent who murders their children as a way of getting revenge on the other parent. It is often sparked by a divorce or another extreme life event.

4. The Greek playwright Aristophanes might not have liked Euripides's plays.

Aristophanes made Euripides a character in his comedy The Frogs. In the play, Euripides is brought back from the dead by the god Dionysius. The merciless caricaturing of Euripides in the play has led many critics to assume that Aristophanes didn't like Euripides or respect his work, but the fact that Aristophanes was intimately familiar with Euripides's writings might suggest otherwise.

5. Medea has been considered both pro- and anti-woman.

After Euripides's death, under the influence of the playwright Aristophanes, biographers presented him as a misogynist—someone who hates women. However, more recent scholars believe that Euripides was a proto-, or early, feminist and that Medea illustrates how badly women were treated in the patriarchal Greek society.

6. Euripides's was not the only classical play based on the myth of Medea.

Around 50 CE, the Roman playwright Seneca wrote a dramatic version of the story. However, his Medea was more graphic and less sympathetic to the main character. Medea is clearly a deranged woman who's going insane. But in Seneca's version, she not only murders her children but takes sick pleasure in doing so. It would be difficult for anyone to find even an ounce of sympathy for such a despicable character.

7. Some versions of the Medea story don't include the murdering of children.

In the 1700s some British playwrights who wrote their own versions of the myth decided that filicide was too much to handle. One wrote, "Medea, as Euripides represents her, wou'd shock us....the murdering of her own Children, contrary to all the Dictates of Humanity and Mother-hood."

8. The myth continues after the story in Euripides's play.

According to Greek mythology, after the events in the play Medea went to Athens, married King Aegeus, and bore a son. She later tried to murder the hero Theseus, Aegeus's long-lost son, fearful that he would replace her own son. When this plot failed, she and her son went to Asia. Some myths claim Medea never died but went to live in the Elysian Fields.

9. There are mixed ideas about the names of Medea's children.

There is very limited information about the names of the children whom Medea had with Jason. Some accounts say the couple had two boys—Mermerus and Pheres. Others say they had a son and a daughter, named Medeus and Eriopis.

10. When Medea's chariot rose into the air, it was no big surprise.

Since the the 5th century BCE, Greek audiences have been watching divine interventions appear in the air to wrap up the action of a play. A crane was used to hoist an actor or, in this case, a chariot high above the stage—a trick called deus ex machina or "god from the machine." In fact, Euripides used this trick in just about all his plays.

Today, whenever someone or something swoops in unexpectedly to save the day—especially in a work of literature—we call it deus ex machina.

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