On Teaching Medea

Topics: Medea, Euripides, Jason Pages: 24 (8816 words) Published: February 12, 2014
K.O. Chong-Gossard
Euripides’ Medea remains one of the most often performed Greek tragedies today, and one of the favourite tragedies for secondary school students to read in Classics or English courses. Since there is a tremendous amount of scholarship already published on this play of plays, this article is intended to provide a quick reminder of the background to the play, a discussion of the character of the chorus and the character of Medea, and thus a variety of topics which students can ‘think about’ or indeed write essays about. It also includes some previously unpublished comments by an actress and a director of an international production of Medea from 2002.1

1 The original production
We know that Euripides’ Medea was first produced in March of 431 BCE at the City Dionysia festival in Athens. How do we know this? In the medieval manuscripts of the Medea, the play is preceded by a hypothesis or ‘summary’ attributed to Aristophanes the Grammarian (also known as Aristophanes of Byzantium, the Alexandrian scholar of the 3rd to 2nd century BCE), who writes that the play was produced ‘in the archonship of Pythodoros, in the first year of the 87th Olympiad’, which is 431 BCE. Later in this same year, war broke out between Athens and Sparta, inaugurating the Peloponnesian War. At the City Dionysia it was customary for three tragic playwrights to compete against each other, and each playwright would produce four plays—three tragedies, and a satyr-play (a kind of burlesque with a chorus of satyrs). According to Aristophanes the Grammarian’s hypothesis, in 431 BCE the three competitors were Euphorion (the son of the deceased playwright Aischylos), Sophokles (who was about 65 years old at the time), and Euripides (who was just about age 50). We know that Euphorion was awarded first prize, Sophokles second place, and Euripides third and last.2

Aristophanes the Grammarian’s hypothesis also states that Euripides produced his Medea with the (now lost) tragedies Diktys and Philoktetes, and the satyr-play The Harvesters (Theristai). Diktys was a fisherman, half-brother of King Polydektes of the island of Seriphos. Diktys found Danaë and her infant son, the future hero Perseus, inside a chest that washed ashore, and raised Perseus as his own son; then Polydektes tried to seduce Danaë. Philoktetes was a Greek hero bound for the Trojan War when he was bitten by a snake; he was abandoned on the island of Lemnos when his wound refused to heal; yet it was prophesied that his bow was needed to sack Troy. Sophokles’ version of Philoktetes (from 409 BCE) does survive, but

1 Throughout this article I have used English transliterations of the Ancient Greek spellings (Kreon, Korinthos, Aigeus, etc.). There are only a few exceptions in Latinized forms, e.g., Medea, Jason, Aristotle, Helen, Athens, and Crete. All English translations of Euripides are my own. 2 An English translation by Celia Luschnig of the two hypotheseis to the Medea (one anonymous, one by Aristophanes of Byzantium) can be found online at the website of ‘Diotima: Materials for the study of women and gender in the ancient world, URL



Euripides’ does not, except for several fragments and some descriptions of the plot.3 We know nothing about The Harvesters. It is clear that Euripides’ three tragedies in 431 BCE did not revolve around the same myth (as, for example, Aischylos’ Oresteia trilogy from 458 BCE did). Nonetheless, there was a certain gender symmetry; Medea is about an ‘evil woman’, Diktys was about an unhappy (but presumably ‘good’) woman, and Philoktetes had no female roles at all. Perhaps an even better ‘common thread’ in these three plays was the theme of abandonment. Medea is abandoned by her husband and fights back (but ultimately to her own disadvantage); Danaë is abandoned by Zeus (the father of her child) and seduced by the half-brother of...

Bibliography: Barlow, Shirley A. (1989), ‘Stereotype and reversal in Euripides’ Medea’, Greece & Rome
36, 158-71.
Boedeker, Deborah (1997), ‘Becoming Medea: Assimilation in Euripides’, in James J. Clauss
and Sarah Iles Johnston (eds.), Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy,
Bongie, Elizabeth Bryson (1977), ‘Heroic Elements in the Medea of Euripides’, Transactions
of the American Philological Association 107, 27-56.
Collard, Christopher (2004), Commentary on Euripides’ Philoctetes, in C. Collard, M. J.
Fletcher, Judith (2003), ‘Women and Oaths in Euripides’, Theatre Journal 55, 29-44.
Holland, Lora (2003), ‘Pas domos erroi: Myth and Plot in Euripides’ Medea’, Transactions
of the American Philological Association 133, 255-79.
Shaw, Fiona, and Warner, Deborah (2002), Comments at ‘Love and Death: an interdisciplinary discussion about Medea in performance’, Michigan League, University of Michigan,
18 October 2002.
Tessitore, Aristide (1991), ‘Euripides’ Medea and the Problem of Spiritedness’, The Review
of Politics 53, 587-601.
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