Medea – Seneca the Younger – Ancient Rome – Classical Literature
(Tragedy, Latin/Roman, c. 50 CE, 1,027 lines)
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“Medea” is one of the best known of the tragedies of Roman playwright Seneca the Younger, completed around 50 CE or possibly earlier. It tells the story of the revenge of the enchantress Medea on her faithless husband Jason. Although it is generally agreed that Euripides’ earlier Greek version of the story (also called “Medea”) is superior in most respects, Seneca’s themes of bloodthirsty revenge and the supernatural were very influential in the revival of tragedy on the Renaissance stage, particularly French Neoclassical and Elizabethan English tragedy.
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As assumed background to the play, the “barbarian” princess and witch Medea met the Argonaut hero Jason while he was in Colchis on his quest for the Golden Fleece. She fell in love with Jason and used her magical knowledge to aid him in the seemingly impossible tasks set by her father King Aeetes as the price for obtaining the Golden Fleece. She fled Colchis with Jason back to his home at Iolcus in Thessaly, but they were soon forced to flee once more to Corinth, where they lived in relative peace for some ten years, during which time they bore two sons. Jason, however, looking to better his political position, deserted Medea in favour of an advantageous marriage with Creusa (known as Glauce in Greek), the daughter of King Creon of Corinth, which is the point at which the play begins.
Medea opens the play, cursing the situation and vowing her revenge on the faithless Jason, fantasizing a twisted revenge, some of which foreshadows the action to come. A passing Chorus sings a wedding song in anticipation of Jason and Creusa’s nuptials. Medea confides in her nurse, saying that whatever evil things she has done in the past, she did them for Jason. She does not completely blame her husband for her woes, but has nothing but contempt for Creusa and for King Creon, and threatens to bring his palace to utter desolation.
When Creon decrees that Medea must go into exile immediately, she begs for mercy, and is granted a single day’s reprieve. Jason encourages her to take Creon’s offer of exile, claiming that he has in no way sought to harm her, and that he himself bears no guilt. Medea calls him a liar, saying he is guilty of many crimes, and asks to be able to take her children with her in her flight. Jason refuses and his visit only serves to infuriate Medea still more.
When Jason leaves, Medea finds a regal robe, which she enchants and poisons, and then orders her nurse to prepare it as a wedding gift for Jason and Creusa. The Chorus describes the fury of a woman scorned, and recounts the sad end of many of the Argonauts, including Hercules who ended his days accidentally poisoned by his jealous wife, Deianeira. The chorus prays that the gods will find these punishments enough, and that Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, will at least be spared.
Medea’s terrified nurse enters and describes the dark magic spells of Medea, involving snake blood, obscure poisons and pestilent herbs, and her invocation of all the gods of the underworld to curse her deadly potion. Medea herself enters and speaks to the dark forces she has conjured, and gives the cursed gift to her sons for delivery to Jason’s wedding. The Chorus wonders just how far Medea’s fury will go.
A messenger arrives to report to the Chorus the details of the catastrophe at Creon’s palace. He describes the magical fire which is fed by even the water intended to douse it, and the agonizing deaths of both Creusa and Creon due to Medea’s poisoned robe. Medea is gratified by what she hears, although she begins to feel her resolve weakening. However, she then flies into full-blown madness, as she imagines all the people she has killed in the thrall of Jason, and swings wildly between her plan to harm Jason and her love of her children, conflicted by the forces around her and driving her madness.
She offers one of her sons as a sacrifice, her intention being to injure Jason in any way she can. Jason then spots her on the roof of the house and pleads for the life of their other boy, but Medea answers by slaying the boy immediately. A dragon-pulled chariot appears and grants her escape, and she cries out in defiance as she hurls the bodies of the children down to Jason and flies off in the chariot. The final lines belong to the devastated Jason, as he concludes that there cannot be any gods if such deeds are allowed to happen.
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While there is still some argument on the question, most critics do not believe that Seneca’s plays were meant to be staged, only read, perhaps as part of the young Emperor Nero’s education. At the time of its composition, there were already at least two or three famous versions of the Jason and Medea legend, the ancient Greek tragedy of Euripides, a later account by Apollonius’ Rhodius, and a well-regarded tragedy by Ovid (now existent only in fragments). However, the story was apparently a favourite subject of both Greek and Roman dramatists, and there are almost certainly many lost plays on the subject that Seneca could have read and been influenced by.
The character of Medea completely dominates the play, appearing on stage in every act and speaking over half of the lines, including a fifty-five line opening soliloquy. Her superhuman magical powers are given great prominence, but in the end they are less significant than the thirst for vengeance and the pure ambition to do evil that drive her to the ruthless killing of her sons.
Seneca’s “Medea” differs from the earlier “Medea” of Euripides in several respects, but most particularly in the characterization and motivations of Medea herself. Euripides’ play begins with Medea wailing and crying out to her nurse about the injustices done to her, content to consider herself merely a pawn of the gods and willing to suffer the repercussions and ramifications. Seneca’s Medea states her hatred of Jason and Creon boldly and without hesitation, and her mind is set on revenge from the very beginning. Seneca‘s Medea does not see herself as “just a woman” to whom tragedy will happen, but as a vibrant, vengeful spirit, fully in control of her own destiny, and determined to punish those who have wronged her.
More than likely a result of the different eras in which the two versions were written, there is a definite discrepancy in the power and motivations of the gods, with Euripides (despite his iconoclastic reputation at the time) appearing much more reverent towards the deities. Seneca’s “Medea”, on the other hand, is far from respectful and reverent of the gods and often condemns them for their actions or lack of actions. Perhaps most tellingly, the final line in Seneca‘s version leaves Jason to lament the fate of his sons and to baldly state, “But there are no gods!”
While Euripides introduces Medea quietly and off-stage, part-way into the first scene, with the self-pitying “Ah, me, wretched suffering woman! Would that I could die!”, Seneca opens his version with Medea herself as the first figure the audience sees, and her first line (“O gods! Vengeance! Come to me now, I beg, and help me…”) sets the tone for the rest of the piece. From her first utterance, Medea‘s thoughts have turned to vengeance, and she is portrayed as a strong, able woman, to be feared and not pitied, and fully aware of what she must do.
The Chorus of Euripides’ play is generally sympathetic to Medea, treating her as a poor, hapless woman whose life has been completely destroyed by fate. Seneca‘s Chorus is much more objective, seeming to represent more the average citizen, but pulling no punches when it comes to the scandal they are witnessing. Because Seneca‘s Medea is such a strong character, wedded to her plan of revenge from the very beginning, she needs no sympathy from the Chorus. They do not patronize Medea like the Chorus of Euripides, but in fact serve to further infuriate her and to strengthen her resolve.
The finals scenes of Euripides’ and Seneca’s plays also highlight the differences between the two characterizations of Medea. In Euripides, when Medea has killed her children, she makes a point of blaming Jason and of deflecting any blame from herself. Seneca‘s Medea makes no bones about who killed them or why, and even goes so far as to kill one of them in front of Jason. She openly acknowledges the killing and, although she lays the guilt on Jason, she does not blame him for the deaths. In the same way, Seneca’s Medea makes the events around her happen, forcing the dragon-drawn chariot to come down to her rather than waiting for them to come of their own accord or relying on godly intervention.
The character of Jason in Seneca’s play, on the other hand, is not as evil as in Euripides, but appears rather weak and helpless in the face of Medea’s anger and determined evil. He really does want to help Medea, and agrees all too easily when she seems to have a change of heart.
To the Stoic philosopher Seneca, a central element of his play is the problem of passion and the evils that uncontrolled passion can create. According to the Stoics, the passions, if not kept under control, become raging fires that can engulf the entire universe, and Medea is clearly just such a creature of passion.
The play exhibits many characteristics of the so-called Silver Age of Latin literature, such as the love of detailed description, the concentration on “special effects” (for example, the ever more gruesome descriptions of suffering and death) and the pithy, sharp “one-liners” or memorable quotations and epigrams (such as “he who cannot hope, cannot despair ” and “the fruit of sin is to count no mischief as sin”).
In much the same way as Ovid made old Greek and Near Eastern stories new by telling them in new ways and giving them a new romantic or horrific emphasis, Seneca takes such excesses to an even higher level, loading detail on detail and exaggerating the horror of the already gruesome events. Indeed, the speeches of Seneca’s characters are so full of formal rhetorical tricks that they begin to lose all sense of natural speech, so intent is Seneca on creating a picture of a witch of near total evil. To some extent, the truly human drama is lost in all this rhetoric and concern with the fantastic elements of magic, and the play is arguably less subtle and complex than Euripides’ “Medea”.
The theme of tyranny is brought up repeatedly in the play, such as when Medea points out the unjustness of Creon’s tyrannical banishment of her, and his claim that she should “submit to a king’s power, whether just or unjust”. Seneca had personally observed the nature of tyranny in imperial Rome, which may explain his preoccupation with evil and folly in his plays, and it is speculated that his plays may have been intended as advice for his pupil Nero against acting tyrannically. The theme of oaths also surfaces more than once, such as when Medea insists that Jason’s breaking of their oath by leaving her is a crime and deserves punishment.
The metre of the play mimics the forms of dramatic poetry laid down by the Athenian playwrights of the 5th Century BCE, with the main dialogue being in the iambic trimeter (each line divided into three dipodes consisting of two iambic feet each). When the Chorus comments on the action, it is usually in one of several varieties of choriambic metre. These choral songs are generally used to divide the play into its five separate acts, as well as to comment on the previous action or provide a point of reflection.
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- English translation by Frank Justus Miller (Theoi.com): http://www.theoi.com/Text/SenecaMedea.html
- Latin version (The Latin Library): http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/sen/sen.medea.shtml