This article is the first in a series of commentaries on the play Medea by the Athenian dramatist, Euripides (circa 480 – 404 BCE).
In Euripides’ day the modern-day nation state of Greece did not exist. The Greek world of the 5th century BCE consisted of hundreds of independent city states spread across the Mediterranean region, especially in what are now known as Greece and the Greek islands, Bulgaria, western Turkey, southern Italy, Sicily and southern France. What bound these cities together was a shared culture (religion, language, origins, stories) but with distinct dialects, political forms and other local differences. Some cities were democracies, some oligarchies and others military dictatorships. Some cities, mainly those outside modern-day Greece, were founded as colonies of other cities, and over time these colonies developed their own distinct cultures. Athens and Sparta were the most powerful cities in Euripides’ day. They had fought side by side against the Persians in the years immediately before Euripides’ birth, but during the 5th century they began to form alliances with other Greek cities and gradually dominate them. Rivalry and conflict followed. Medea was first produced in 431 BCE, only a few months before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which was to last for the remainder of Euripides’ life.
The Athenians did not go to the theatre all year round and they did not go purely for entertainment. They had a comedy festival in January and a tragedy festival in March or April. Both were major state events with deep religious significance. The tragedy festival was known as the City Dionysia in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine, the grape vine and agriculture and celebrated the arrival of spring and the planting of crops. For the City Dionysia three dramatists were each invited to present three tragedies and a satyr play. The latter was a kind of bawdy comedy, light relief after the tragedies. The dramatists would present their plays on successive days, with the production costs met by a wealthy patron. A panel of judges voted on the plays and awarded a prize to the winner. In 431 BCE Euripides came last. In fact, although he wrote about 90 plays (and so must have entered the City Dionysia 30 times), he only won first prize four times, and the last time was a posthumous win.
The City Dionysia took place when sailing around the Mediterranean Sea resumed after the winter storms. This meant that the Athenians could invite representatives from all the other Greek cities and show off their cultural (and military) superiority. Thus, when Medea was first performed, the theatre was packed with all the Athenian citizens (the free-born males) and their guests. The only women present were a few high priestesses. The Athenians’ wives and daughters would have been safely locked away at home in the women’s quarters.
Medea is set in Corinth, and Athenian tragedies were generally set outside Athens so the dramatists could comment on local politics without appearing to criticise the city directly.
One interesting aspect about Athenian drama is that although the actors were male, many of the central characters are female. That is certainly the case with Medea as once the heroine appears she dominates the stage for the rest of the play. The other female characters are the elderly Nurse who has looked after Medea since childhood and knows how her mind works and what she is capable of, and a Chorus of women. The Chorus functions as Medea’s sympathisers, advisers, critics and, ultimately, judges.
The main male characters are Medea’s husband, Jason; Creon, the King of Corinth; and Aegeus, the King of Athens. We see Medea interacting with these three powerful men in turn as she attempts to shape her own destiny.
People have been arguing over the play’s meaning for two and a half thousand years, and more recently the arguments have tended to focus on what Euripides was trying to say about women, often expressed as, “Was Euripides a feminist or a misogynist?”
The answer to that question hinges on what you make of Medea’s words and actions, which we will consider in the next article.