Medea and Morality

While discussing Euripides’ Medea with a student last night, I was briefly stunned by their comment that the play seemed too simple – that it lacked elements that could be explored in depth, and was therefore not a good bet to write an essay on.

I say briefly stunned, because comments like this generally precipitate a rant of about half an hour from me.  On this occasion I managed to hold myself to a tightly run twenty-three minutes.  But it got me thinking.

The basic story of Medea is certainly nothing that’s going to challenge a reader.  It doesn’t have multiple plots, the events it describes occur more or less in real time, and modern translations mean we’re not confronted with archaic language or complicated verse forms.

So – a doddle, then.

But I don’t think so.

The thing that has always fascinated me about Medea is Euripides’ unflinching view of the world.  Euripides wasn’t interested in imposing a moral order on a world he saw as being bereft of one, and he wasn’t afraid to leave audiences seriously discomfited at the conclusion of his plays.

Many of the best-known and the most blood-soaked tragedies tend to insist on placing some form of pattern on horrific events – the wicked will eventually suffer for their crimes, and the good are depicted in such a way as to maximise our pity for them even as they suffer.  In other words, while we may be horrified by the content of such tragedies, it is a content that is morally comprehensible to us as audience members.

When Gloucester is blinded in King Lear, for instance, we recognise that Shakespeare is dealing out a symbolic punishment for Gloucester’s moral blindness; the self-blinding of Oedipus resonates in just the same way.  When Macbeth faces Macduff in single combat we recognise in the former the characteristics of courage and responsibility that made us respect him in the first place.

You could go on with such a list eternally – I’m sure you’ve thought up a few additions of your own already – but what is truly striking about Medea in the context of moral intelligibility is that this play depicts a world that is morally unintelligible. It’s quite a lot like our world, in that respect.

Who is the ‘tragic hero’ in Medea?

It can’t be Jason, because he’s too much of a boorish bore.  It can’t be Medea, because she’s clearly psychotic.  It can’t be the Nurse or the Tutor because they fail to warn anyone of the slaughter that they recognise to be imminent from the very start.  It can’t be the chorus of Corinthian Women, because they fail to intervene on behalf of Medea’s children even as the screams of the dying kids are heard.  It can’t be Aegeus, because we know him only as a rather selfish man who is quickly wrapped around Medea’s little finger before being dismissed.  It can’t be the Messenger because – well – he’s just a messenger.

And it can’t be Creon or his daughter, or indeed Medea’s sons, because we just don’t know enough about them.

The lack of a tragic hero is not a weakness in Medea: quite the reverse.  The realisation that the play lacks the figure we commonly look on as the key-stone of tragedy is, in fact, the first hint about Euripides’ intentions.

But the final lines of Medea are the key to the whole play (this is the Penguin Classics translation by Philip Vellacott):

‘Many matters the gods bring to surprising ends.
The things we thought would happen do not happen;
The unexpected God makes possible;
And such is the conclusion of this story.’

And notice, by the way, how similar those are to the final lines of the Bacchae (also by Euripides, also in Penguin Classics, but this time translated by John Davie):

Many are the forms taken by the plans of the gods and many the things they accomplish beyond men’s hopes.  What men expect does not happen; for the unexpected heaven finds a way.  And so it has turned out here today.’

Euripides’ orthodoxy so far as Ancient Greek polytheism was concerned is endlessly debatable (in Medea, for instance, the sole intervention of the gods is the Deus Ex Machina, or, if you prefer the Greek: ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός – apò mēkhanḗs theós, at the very conclusion of the play), but we can be certain that Euripides’ world was one in which chaos ruled, not the plans and values of people.

What are the things that ‘we thought would happen’ in Medea?  Actually a better question would be ‘what did we think would not happen?’

Well – that the children would not be slaughtered simply so that Medea’s revenge on her ex can be complete.  That no god – much less a foreign king – would take pity on an infanticidal, fratricidal and regicidal maniac such as Medea.  That someone, somehow would intervene to prevent the deaths of the innocent in the play – amongst whom must be numbered Glauce, whose death is particularly agonising and hideous:

‘Her eyes, her face, were one grotesque disfigurement;
Down from her head dripped blood mingled with flame; her flesh,
Attacked by the invisible fangs of poison, melted
From the bare bone, like gum-drops from a pine-tree’s bark’.

Euripides knows only too well that to impose a moral order of any kind on the real world – be it order coming from gods or from humans – is to distort reality.

But at this point it is important to say that nor was he arguing that artists mustn’t distort reality.

The profoundly uncomfortable drama that Euripides created was generally derived not from the confidence that moral order can be found even in tragedy, but from the stoical acceptance that in the world we live in it is often the case that the wicked prosper, while the good manifestly do not.

And that seems plenty complicated to me.


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