EURIPIDES first “ received a chorus ” — that is, was chosen as one of three contending poets, each of whom was to present a trio of dramas at the festival of Dionysos — in 455 R. c. His literary activity continued until his death, in 406. Though eighteen of his works survive, while the two elder dramatists are represented by but seven extant plays each, yet, if we permit our thoughts to linger over the wealth we have lost, the scattered remnants which we still possess will seem, in the case of Euripides as in so many others, to be but the chance drift from the wreck, cast in mockery at our feet by the tide whose waves are years.
The earliest drama of our poet now remaining carries us back only to the year 438. It is the Alkestis, which was but the light after-piece appended to the graver tragic trilogy. The group of dramas of which the Medea alone has been transmitted to us was presented in 431, and “ won third prize ; ” that is, was adjudged inferior to the trilogies of both the rival poets, Euphorion and Sophocles. The Hippolytos was performed in 428. No other of the eighteen extant plays can be referred positively, or even with probability, to so early a date, and these three are therefore naturally grouped together as our only specimens of Euripides’ earlier art; though even these are by no means essays of a ’prentice hand.
Nevertheless, it was only after long hesitation that the Medea was selected as the subject for this third Euripidean study. The legend is a peculiarly painful and harrowing one; perhaps more so to us than to the original Athenian auditors. We fancy that children, as individual existences, are nearer and more precious to us than they were to the ancients, who seem to have valued their offspring, after all, mainly as the means for perpetuating the unbroken life of the family. Moreover, it is well known, at least within the walls of Alma Mater, that a complete translation, most brilliant and poetic in character, of this, among other Euripidean dramas, will doubtless soon appear. The translator is an eminent young Greek scholar, whose versions from our poet have for years been a source of enjoyment to his pupils and his friends.
But apait from the natural desire to complete a definitely limited task, the Medea has another, and on the whole irresistible, attraction for us. It illustrates, probably better than any other play of our author, certain characteristics regularly found in good Greek work, which are rightly regarded as indispensable to any truly artistic creation.
No sensible man desires a resuscitation of Greek forms and Greek subjects in dramatic art, any more than in architecture and sculpture. We are the children of our own age and land, and no work of our hands or of our imagination can have real value and vitality which is not the expression of our own experience, of our own aspiration. But there are some canons of art which are necessarily true everywhere and always, whose observance does not destroy our liberty, whose neglect is fatal to every attempt at the creation of the beautiful. The artist who refuses to study the methods by which success has been attained among other races and under different conditions is as short-sighted as the statesman who disdains all lessons drawn from the history of other nations, on the ground that our own country must work out a wholly independent science of political economy, suited to our unique circumstances.
Lessing, in his essay entitled Laocoön, finds that the essential peculiarity of a picture or a statue is its changelessness ; Its power to represent one instant of an action, and only that one. The artist may therefore add any number of accessory details, provided the eye, unaided by explanation, can readily perceive their connection with the central object of interest. The one absolute requirement is unity.
A literary masterpiece, on the other hand, says the great German critic, can be read only line by line. It is therefore worse than useless to attempt, in verse or artistic prose, to describe the various features of a landscape, — or a woman, — or the complicated details of any object, because the memory will not retain the successive impressions so perfectly as to form that complete mental picture which the poet desires to present. The one essential of a poem, then, he concludes, is progress, movement.
We cannot but feel how much of truth there is in all this. Every one remembers skipping the wearisome attempts to draw word-pictures of natural scenery in particular, whether in narrative verse or prose romance. The only striking exception we recall from our own boyhood is the first canto of the Lady of the Lake. Every imaginative child enjoys that: partly, indeed, because his interest is so strongly aroused to know the fate, first of the stag, and then of the huntsman ; but largely also for the very reason that the reader seems to be himself kept in rapid motion, either pursuing the deer over mountain, plain, and river, or following with the weary knight the devious course of the ever-widening stream. Even the description of the mountain which bars the wanderer’s way is so managed that our own vision rises lightly with the poet’s lines, higher and higher, from
that nestle in the dells to where, upon the topmost ridge, the pine waves against the blue sky. Yes, it is most true that in reading or hearing a poem we require constant movement and action.
But is there not another side, even to a truth so important? We read the poem or the romance once: once, at any rate, with eagerness and suspense as to its plot. But if it appeals strongly to our imagination, it remains with us forever, as a picture in the long gallery of memory. The expression is too literally true to he called a figurative one.
Take the most thoroughly American romance of our greatest artist in prose. What is the Scarlet Letter to each one of us, as we pause to recall it at this moment? A picture, or at most two pictures. At first we see Hester, with her infant on her arm, alone upon the shameful scaffold, of which her imperial beauty makes a pedestal. The grim elders, the gray-haired witch-wives, the Puritan youths and maidens, the jeering children below, are but as the illustrative frieze wherewith the sculptor adorns the block on winch his figures stand. The years and occurrences which then intervene we can only recall vaguely, as adding slowly a clearer meaning to that scene, until at the last we see Hester once more, the centre of a group which completes and fully explains the first picture ; for now she stands between her guilty lover and her husband, who has been wronged so deeply and has so deeply sinned. Only Pearl’s childish figure reminds us distinctly that years have elapsed during the progress of the simple narrative.
But it may be said that we have here selected an example where the author’s own treatment of his subject chanced to fall in with our theory. Let us turn, then, to the far more ambitious and elaborate Florentine romance of George Eliot. What do we perfectly remember, or care to remember, but the Madonna-like figure of Romola herself, with the others most closely associated with hers ? On the one side her blind old father, on the other the darkly beautiful face of the weak-souled Greek, while Tessa and the children nestle under her protecting arm. Little more, save perchance the despairing eyes and clenched hands of old Baldassarre. Even the carefully wrought figure of the great preacher fades gradually away into the wide historic background of our picture, because the romancer has not succeeded in connecting him inseparably with the fortunes of Romola.
We may venture, then, to use some of the same expressions in describing a good drama which would be applicable to a noble piece of sculpture or a great painting. For each, we may insist on unity of action, simplicity in design, complete subordination of every detail to the general effect.
Such canons we do not fear to apply to the myriad-minded one himself. Let us look at any Shakespearean drama; for example, Othello. The sole subject is the jealousy of the Moor. Not a character, a scene, a line, exists for any other purpose than to illustrate this terrible passion. The plot could not be simpler. The incidents are in themselves trifles light as air. The drama is but the fierce current of Othello’s suspicions, as it hurries him on to murder and self-destruction. When Edwin Booth throws all his genius into a purely subordinate part, while the character of the highhearted Moor himself, stripped of half its lines, is assigned to some dull, aimless declaimer, what an unmeaning string of scenes does the drama appear to us, and how unmoved do we leave the theatre! But when Salvini fuses the force of his mighty personality with the heroic nature of Othello, then it matters not whether his words are familiar or meaningless to us. We have no strength to criticise or even to resist. We are carried along helpless in the rushing stream of action. This is tragedy indeed, purifying, through the terror and pity it excites, the emotions of men.
This unity and simplicity of plot, this subordination of details to heighten the general effect, the Medea possesses in a remarkable degree, as even our poet’s severest critics generally concede. Moreover, the dramatist, alone among literary artists, since he appeals to eye as well as ear, has the power to illustrate the harmony of his design by the grouping of the actual figures upon the stage. Such an intention is clearly indicated by the text of several among the most faultless classical dramas still existing. Three in particular will occur at once to every student’s mind, wherein the chief figure occupies during the whole action, or through most of the scenes, a position which may well have reminded the Athenians of the central figure in a temple pediment, such as the Apollo upon the Olympian sanctuary of Zeus. The tragedies we have in mind are the Prometheus Bound, the Oedipus Coloneus, and the Medea.
A prime requisite for a drama of this kind is a strong principal character, upon whom may be concentrated the chief interest of the plot. Such a personage is, in the present play, the terrible barbarian princess, who murders her sons to punish her husband’s faithlessness.
This tale Euripides did not invent, nor is it probable that he added or suppressed any important feature in the legend which had been handed down to his time. His skill is chiefly shown in so leading up to the catastrophe, so clearly revealing the feelings and motives of the injured wife, that we, at any rate, comprehend her action ; while our sympathy for her wrongs and sufferings is at least so great that we are the more deeply moved by her awful crime. Of course neither poet nor auditor can be in real sympathy with Medea; and though so much genius is employed in the effort to make her deed intelligible and credible, yet the dramatist would no doubt assent, as Medea herself apparently does, to the declaration of Jason, near the close of the play : —
For such a drama of uncontrollable passion, the artist naturally sought his characters, not among the generation made familiar to us by the Homeric poems, but in that earlier age of mightier men and women, when the monsters were slain, the robbers quelled, and the land made habitable for mankind, — the time of Heracles, of Theseus, and of Jason. For we think it quite clear that the genius of Homer, or of the Homeric school, has unduly glorified in our eyes a race of men who by no means belong to the golden age of Greek mythology. Despite the haughty retort of Sthenelos, —
the poet of the Iliad himself is in evident agreement with Nestor, who laments, —
as those among whom his youth was spent, two generations before. Homer is quite aware that Heracles sacked, almost single-handed, the city before which Agamemnon’s host has lingered for ten weary years.1
At any rate, all three of these earlier dramas of Euripides draw their subjectmatter from that earlier time. Heracles will be remembered as the hero of the Alkestis. Theseus is an essential character of the Hippolytos, and Jason plays a part, but a most unheroic part, in the Medea.
Of course we have not space to relate the entire legend of Jason and Medea. Any one who is not familiar with William Morris’s Life and Death of Jason is to be congratulated on the hours of enjoyment yet in store for him. Perhaps a comparison of Morris’s poem with the equally delightful Helen of Troy, by Andrew Lang, may serve to test the truth of our assertion that the quest of the Golden Fleece, rather than the war against Ilium, was the true culmination of Greek mythical heroism, and better deserved a Homer to sing its glories.
After performing the labors imposed upon him and securing the Fleece, through Medea’s aid, Jason escaped with her from her father’s realm, and after many adventures reached in safety his old Thessalian home in Iolcos. Here Medea persuaded the daughters of Jason’s enemy, King Pelias, to kill their aged father, and boil his body in a caldron; promising to restore him, by her incantations, to life and youth. For this crime, Jason, Medea, and their two sons have been driven into exile, and have taken refuge in Corinth. Here Jason has found favor in the eyes of the royal family, and has accepted the opportunity to wed Glaukè, daughter of the monarch Creon. His connection with the barbarian Medea would not be regarded by Greeks as a legal bond, and it is not intimated that he has gone through any form of divorcing her. At this point the play opens.
This Corinthian legend of a Medea who murders her children has no original connection, we are told, with the tale of the sorceress in the far Orient or Occident, who aids the Argonauts to secure the Golden Fleece. They are two distinct examples of the sun-myth, or rather, in this case of the moon-myth. Our interest, however, is limited to the legend as tradition brought it down to the age of the dramatists; and Euripides certainly had as little conception of a dual Medea as he had of the origin of all the legends of his ancestors in the red clouds of sunset. We intend no disrespect to this meteorological explanation of all our favorite tales, but we do not wish to keep it in mind while listening to a Greek play. Me acknowledge that Medea, sprung from Helios, was evidently in the beginning a parable of the moon ; but to Euripides she was a most real woman, and he would no more have thought of explaining her story away as a fanciful description of natural phenomena than of applying the same method of analysis to Aspasia and Xantippe.
The whole action of the play occurs before the house in Corinth occupied by the deserted Medea and her sons, Jason having already taken up his abode in the royal palace. The prologue opens with the appearance of the nurse, lamenting the mistress’ wrongs. This character bears a close resemblance to the loquacious confidante of Phaidra, in the Hippolytos, but, like all the minor characters in this drama, is almost entirely overshadowed by her imperious and passionate mistress. Into this monologue a clear account of the position of affairs at the moment is skillfully and naturally interwoven.
Ah, would, that Argo’s hull had flitted not
Toward Colchis through the dusky Smiting Rocks,
Nor ever fallen in Pelion’s dales the pine,
Axe-hewn, to furnish forth with oars the hands
Of valiant heroes, who for Pelias sought
The fleece of gold !
TJnto Iolkia’s towns had never sailed,
Her heart with love for Jason quite distraught,
Nor, bidding Pelias’ daughters slay their sire,
Had she to Corinth hither come to dwell
With spouse and children. Dear indeed was she
To those whose land in exile she approached.
With Jason too she dwelt in harmony.
The mightiest security is this,
When wife from husband does not hold aloof.
For, leaving his own children and my queen,
Jason is wedded to a royal bride:
Has married Creon’s child, who lords the land.
Medea, unhappy woman, so disgraced,
Proclaims his oaths, invokes that sacred pledge
His hand-clasp, calls the gods for witnesses
What recompense from Jason she receives.
Fasting she lies, and gives herself to grief,
Wasting away in tears the livelong time,
Since she has known her husband does her wrong ;
Nor lifts her eyes, nor raises from the ground
Her face, but like a rock or ocean wave
She hearkens, being chidden of her friends.
Except that sometimes bending her white neck,
She to herself laments her well-loved sire,
Her land, her home, which she betrayed to
With him who treats her now disdainfully.
Calamity has taught the wretched one
How well it is to have a fatherland.
I fear her, lest she plot some desperate deed.
Her soul is violent, nor will she endure
To suffer wrong. I dread, who know her well
A fearful woman ! Nor will he who strives
With her bear off with ease the victor’s prize.
Approach, unconscious of their mother’s woes.
Not prone to sorrow is the childish heart.
As in the Hippolytos we breathe the fresh air of forest and field, and hear the enthusiastic praise of hunting and all athletic sport, so in this drama the poet’s imagination seems filled with the beauty and mystery of the sea. Allusions to the far and adventurous voyage of Medea, and especially to the Symplegades, or Smiting Rocks, through which the Argo barely passed uncrushed, recur again and again. Even the metaphors are almost invariably nautical.
The children are attended by the pedagogue, an old slave especially assigned to them, who accompanies them everywhere outside the house. He corresponds, in a certain way, to the aged servingman who follows Hippolytos ; but it is noticeable that he has no good words for Jason. Instead of the dual arrangement of characters so noticeable in the Hippolytos, the undivided sympathy of the stage and the orchestra is with Medea, at least so long as she is only suffering wrong, not retaliating.
The two gray-haired slaves condole with one another over the sorrows of the house. The pedagogue reluctantly makes known that another heavy blow is about to fall upon the head of Medea : —
Approaching where the old men play at draughts,
As by Peirene’s holy spring they sit,
That Creon, monarch of this land, intends
To drive Medea., with her children, forth
From Corinth. If the tale indeed be true
I know not, but would wish it were not so.
It is agreed that these tidings must be kept for the present from Medea’s ears, and the nurse now requests the boys to enter the house; adding, however, to her fellow-servant, —
Nor bring them near their mother in her rage:
For I have already seen her glaring eye,
That boded harm to them. Nor will she cease,
I know full well, until she smites, from wrath;
But may she wreak it not on friends, but foes!
The children and their protector are still lingering without, when suddenly the voice of Medea is distinctly heard within the house, bewailing her miseries, and calling for death to end them. The nurse now insists upon the children passing in, though she is in terror as to the result.
That imperious-hearted, implacable one
Whose soul has been smitten by sorrows !
Meanwhile, the boys have not succeeded in eluding their mother inside the house, and her shrill voice is again heard: —
I have suffered in misery, suffered a wrong
That demands expiation! Ye children accurst!
May ye perish, who sprang from a mother abhorred,
May your sire and his house be extinguished!
Nurse (turning toward the house). Ah me !
Ah me ! Thou ’rt bitterly wronged,
But what share have the sons in the deed of their sire ?
Why are they so detested ? Ye children, alas !
I am grievously worried lest ye may be harmed.
The passions of monarchs are fearful indeed ;
They are ever commanding, and rarely controlled :
Not easily do they relax their wrath.
It is better, in truth, among equals to live.
For myself, though it be not in lofty estate,
In security may I at least grow old.
For even the name moderation, when heard,
Outweighs, and in actual life it is found
Far better for men; but power in excess
Is never a blessing for mortals, but brings
A heavier sorrow, whenever a god
Is enraged, on the house in requital.
These last dozen lines may perhaps seem like a digression, and they were no doubt written with a rather inartistic purpose ; namely, to win the good-will of the democratic audience. It must be said, too, that the poet here speaks in his own tones through the lips of the nurse. Still, the reflections are suitable to the occasion, quite orthodox, and indeed somewhat commonplace. They contain the moral which the ordinary Athenian might draw from almost any tragedy. Here the prologue ends.
The chorus is composed of Corinthian matrons, and their devotion to Medea rather than to their own rulers is not explained. It is a curious coincidence, nothing more, that in every one of the three earlier Euripidean dramas which we possess, the chorus first appear expressing their sympathy for a languishing queen. The Parodos, or intermezzo occasioned by the entrance of the chorus, we desire to give in full, without interruption. The lyric portions alternate with bursts of excited recitative from the nurse and Medea, who is still unseen. The whole is well fitted to excite the feelings of the audience, and render them eager for the appearance of the maddened princess. As for the long passage about music, if the reader does not welcome it for its own sake, he may at least, forgive the loquacity of the devoted old nurse, whose voice he will hear no more.
I have heard the cry,
Of the wretched one,
Of the Colchian, nor is she gentle yet.
Speak to us, prithee, thou ancient dame.
Wails from within have I heard at the gate.
Joyless to me are the woes of your home,
Since it is grown so dear to me.
Nurse. A home there is none,—that al-
ready is past!
For he has wedded a royal spouse,
The queen in her chamber is wasting away,
And in nowise the words of one of her friends
May bring to her heart consolation !
Medea (within). Ah me !
Through my head may the heavenly lightning dart,!
What profit longer have I in life ?
Alas ! Alas ! By death released,
May I flee an existence detested!
Chorus. Hast thou heard, O Zeus, and earth
Heard the sound of lamentation
Uttered by the wretched wife ?
Rash one, why does this insatiate
Passionate desire for wedlock
Hasten on the end of death ?
This by no means shouldst thou pray for ;
If thy husband
Holds a newer tie in honor,
Cherish not thy wrath at him.
Zeus shall be thy champion.
Ho not waste away with wailing
For thy husband utterly.
See what I endure, though I bound unto me
By the strongest of oaths my accursèd spouse !
May I some day behold both himself and his bride,
Along with their palace, to nothingness ground,
Since they first ventured to do me wrong !
O father! O city ! from which I fled,
Most shamefully slaying my brother !
Nurse. Hear ye what words she utters and shouts,
Invoking Themis in prayer, and Zeus,
Who is counted the keeper of mortals’ vows ?
It cannot be by a trifling deed
That the queen will sate her anger!
Chorus. Would that, issuing forth into ourpresence,
Of the words that we would speak,
That her soul-devouring anger
And her frenzy might be banished.
Never to my friends in need
Shall my zeal, at least, be lacking.
Prithee lead her
From her habitation hither ;
Tell her, too, our loving words.
Hasten ! lest on those within
Evil fall: for overwhelming
Is the grief that now begins.
To persuade nay queen.
But gladly your thanks I will labor to win.
And yet, like a lioness over her whelps,
She glares at her servants, whenever each one
Attempts to approach her, and utters a word.
In calling foolish and noway wise
The men of old thou wouldst not err,
Who composed their songs for occasions of joy,
For festivals and for banquetings,
Those sounds that bring us delight in life;
With music and many-stringed song
The hateful griefs of men, whence spring
Death and disasters that ruin our homes.
And yet, ’t were a gain indeed if men
By melody might be healed of these.
When the banquet is ready, why raise a vain shout ?
For the feast of itself doth sate them then.
And brings enjoyment to mortals.
Chorus. Tearful was the cry I heard.
She with shrill lament proclaims
Him who cruelly betrayed her.
Suffering wrong, she calls on Themis,
Child of Zeus, of oaths the guardian,
Who across to Hellas led her,
Through the strait impenetrable,
Over seas in darkness veiled.
As the reader will have foreseen, the first episode opens with the appearance of Medea, for which the whole drama thus far has been preparing us. Henceforth she remains upon the stage through the greater part of the play, and leaves it at last upon an errand so terrible that our imagination can but follow her within. Her savage and masterful figure dominates the changing scene, and in the lyrical interludes she still remains before her gates, looking down in proud misery upon the chanting matrons, unresponsive to their sympathy, unmoved by their prayers.
Her long address to the chorus, when she now first comes forth, will alone convince any attentive reader that our poet thoroughly understands the thoughts and feelings of women.
Has crushed ray soul; and since the grace of
Is wholly lost, I long to perish, friends.
My husband, is revealed most base of men.
Of all created things endowed with soul
And sense, we women are the wretchedest;
Who, first, with overplus of gold must buy
Our lord, and take a master to ourselves.
. . . Entered on novel ways and customs, each
Must needs divine, if she has never learned,
How it is best to live with him she weds.
... A man, when vext with those within his home,
Goes forth, and frees his heart of weariness,
Betaking him to comrades, or a, friend,
While we may look but to one single soul.
They say we live at home a life secure
From danger, while they struggle with the spear!
A foolish thought! I thrice would choose to stand
Beside my shield ere once to bear a child.
— But the same words suit not myself and thee.
Thou hast a city and a father’s house,
A happy life, and dear companionship.
I, lonely, homeless, by my husband scorned,
From a barbarian land as booty led,
Have not a mother, brother, no, nor kin,
With whom to seek a haven from these ills.
This much I wish I may obtain from you:
If any means or plan by me be found
To avenge these wrongs on Jason, on the girl
He has wedded, and the sire who gave him her,
Speak not! A woman else is full of fear,
Nor dares to look on violence and arms ;
But if it chance her marriage-bed is wronged, There is no soul more murderous than hers.
It is important to notice how craftily Medea has aroused, first the sympathy of the chorus as fellow-women, and then their pity, before making this request. The promise demanded is given hastily but unconditionally, and the immediate entrance of Creon cuts off further discussion. Medea has been too shrewd to avow to them her intention to bring about the death of Creon and his daughter. This pledge of silence must be held to account for the failure of the women to interfere at subsequent crises of the drama; or, rather, it is merely a plausible excuse for that inactivity, which seems to have been really made necessary by the traditional proprieties of the stage.
Creon, doubtless attended by his suite, comes to make known to Medea, and put into instant execution, the decree for her banishment, together with her children. He is evidently prepared for a violent scene. In answer to Medea’s calm inquiry, he frankly declares that his action is prompted by dread of her.
Grieved for thy marriage-bed and husband lost.
I hear thou threatenest — so ’tis told to me —
To punish bride and bridegroom, and myself
Who gave her. I will guard me ere I suffer.
At this crisis of her fate, Medea tries upon Creon himself all the cunning skill of which he has just avowed his fear. The merciless eyes fill with tears. With well-feigned humility she clasps his hand as a helpless suppliant. She even denies that she has any reason for ill-will toward Creon.
To whom thou wouldst. My husband I detest!
(This concession is evidently forced from her by the consciousness that her look and tones still belie her pretense of goodwill to all mankind.)
The king is clearly bewildered by this unexpected reception. At first lie makes a firm resistance to her entreaties.
I fear me lest thou plot.test harm for me;
So much the less I trust thee than before.
A choleric woman —and a man as well —
Is safer than a crafty, brooding one.
Nay, get thee gone at once, and speak no word,
For this is fixed ; and by no arts shaft tliou
Remain among us, since thou art my foe.
But she continues to beg for at least a respite of a single day,
And may secure resources for my sons,
Since now their sire for this has no concern.
Have pity on them! Thou art a father, too;
It is but natural thou shouldst be kind.
The king falls open-eyed into the snare, and against his avowed judgment grants the day’s delay, which, as the auditors at once realize, is to be fatal to himself and his house.
Much have I suffered through my gentleness:
And now I see my error, woman, yet
Thy wish is granted. But be thou forewarned:
If Phoibos’ torch to-morrow see thy sons
And thee within the confines of this realm,
As he turns to depart, we seem to see the look of contempt and hate which the wily sorceress sends after him. She at once casts aside all pretense of submission, and to the pitying words of the chorus, —
Or home wilt thou seek for a refuge from ills ?
For into impassable billows of woe
The divinity leads thee, Medea ! —
she replies in tones of rising confidence, openly avowing all her murderous intent : —
Had I not aught to gain, or shrewd device ?
Else had I spoken not, nor clasped his hands.
But he is gone so far in foolishness,
That while he might have overthrown my plans,
Driving me from the land, he grants this day
For me to tarry, wherein of my foes
Three will I slay: the girl, her sire, my spouse.
Her plans are not, indeed, fully formed. She considers whether firebrand or sword be the most effectual weapon, but decides upon poisonous drugs. The next instant, however, she recollects that she has no place of refuge thereafter. A general confidence that a way will open seems never to leave her.
If some safe stronghold may appear for us.
Then will I work their death with silent craft.
For by that power whom most I venerate,
And chose from all to help me work my will,
Heeate, dwelling in mine inmost shrine,
Not one of them shall vex me with his bliss.
Their marriage bitter will I make, and sad;
Bitter their kinship, and my banishment.
. . . Steal on to mischief ! Now is courage tried!
. . . Thou child of Helios’ illustrious son,
Full wise art tliou: and women ever are
Unprofitable unto noble deeds,
But craftiest contrivers of all harms !
The episode closes here, though Medea does not leave the stage.
The last three lines, call for especial remark. Our poet excels, as all concede, in the delineation of women, good and bad. His plays furnish us a long line of most noble and lovable female characters. His wicked women are almost invariably masterful, at least, and usually have redeeming virtues. Yet he has always been called a woman-hater. If the charge is based on such occasional slurs upon the sex as this, he may be defended, but only by accusing him of a fault which in the artist, if not in the man, is more serious still. We fear that a fling like the present one is little more than an unworthy employment of a stock jest to tickle the ears of the groundlings.
We have little cause for quarrel with either of the great tragic authors, on such grounds. The Odyssey gives what is probably a true picture of social conditions among the ancestors of the historic Greeks. Woman is there the free and enlightened companion of man, hardly less than in the Boston of today. This state of things is, on the whole, fairly reflected in that delineation of the heroic foretime which was attempted by Aesehylos and his successors upon the tragic stage of the fifth century. Had the women of Periclean Athens occupied, or been worthy to oc-_ cupy, the position held by the matrons and maids of the Homeric Ilium, Scheria, and Sparta, Athenian freedom might have lasted longer ; certainly, Attic civilization would not have rotted at the core, as it did. But this beguiling subject leads us too far afield.
What we have to say of the first Stasimon is true in general of the lyric interludes throughout the play. They are suitable in sentiment and dignified in tone. They rarely supply anything essential to the action of the tragedy; but as they were doubtless rendered with a simple and fitting musical accompaniment which permitted the words to be distinctly heard, they may well have deepened the earnest impressions made by the drama proper, while affording a welcome relief from the close attention required during the dialogue.
The first pair of strophes declare that women need no longer bear the infamy of fickleness in love, since men are grown no less treacherous. The two closing stanzas we quote :
Sailing by the double sea-girt crags;
On the stranger’ s soil abidest,
Of thy marriage-bed bereft.
In dishonor art thou driven
From the land to exile forth.
Leaving mighty Hellas, fits on high.
Thou hast not a father’s dwelling,
As a haven for thy woes;
And another mightier princess
Rises to oppose thy home.
With the arrival of Jason the second episode begins. He enters, moralizing gently on the harmfulness of uncontrolled anger, which has brought Medea to this sad pass, despite his unceasing efforts to save her !
Of angry princes, wishing thee to stay.
Thou dost not cease from folly, uttering still
Evil of rulers : hence thy banishment.
Yet even so, I come, unwearying,
To aid my dear ones, taking thought for thee,
That ye may not go forth in poverty,
Nor lacking aught.
Medea pours out upon her dastardly husband all her fury and contempt : —
Not boldness nor audacity is this,
To face the dear ones thou hast treated ill,
But — greatest of all evils among men —
'T is shamelessness! Yet thou dost well to come.
I in reviling thee shall make more light
My heart, and, hearing, thou wilt suffer pain.
She reminds him in detail of the wonders she has worked to save his life and rid him of his foes, and continues : —
Winning a newer tie, hetrayest me,
Though we had offspring. If no child were
To seek this wedlock had been pardonable.
She taxes him with perjury ; shows him how, through the crimes committed for his sake, she has no home or refuge anywhere ; and closes with a most bitter taunt, apparently recalling former words of his : —
Thou hast made me in return ! A wonderful
And faithful spouse have I, alas, in thee,
If I must flee, an outcast from the land,
Alone and friendless, with my sons alone !
If I, who saved thy life, and thine own sons
Wander in poverty!
Bestowed on men sure tests for spurious gold,
But on the human body is no stamp
Whereby to know the base among mankind ?
But he who doubts that Jason, even in this sorry position, will make at least an ingenious and fluent defense little knows the resources of Euripidean sophistry. Perhaps the hero ought to have a hearing. With our poet, Kypris is a favorite name for Aphrodite.
To thee— think Kypris, on my venturous voyage,
Alone of gods and mortals rescued me.
Thou hast a cunning wit: for me to tell
Would be presumptuous, how with his sure darts
Eros compelled thee to preserve my life.
Nor will I weigh this all too curiously.
Whatever aid thou renderedst, ’tis not ill.
Yet in my safety greater good hast thou
Received than given, as I will explain.
And first, instead of a barbarian land,
Greece is thy home. Thou knowest righteousness,
Enjoying law instead of violence.
Perhaps at this point we may imagine that a satirical smile played over the face of the deserted mother of his children, for he hastens to strike a more effective note.
And fame is thine. On earth’s remotest bounds
If thou hadst dwelt, there were no thought of thee.
I would not wish for gold within my halls,
Nor sweeter gift of song than Orpheus’ self,
Unless my lot might be illustrious.
Thus much of mine own efforts have I said;
And since thou railest at my royal marriage,
Herein I, first, will show that I was wise;
Then virtuous; last, most earnest in my love
To thee and to thy sons. Nay, pray he calm!
Medea, in her impatience, has evidently made a threatening gesture.
Dragging with me full many desperate griefs,
What luckier treasure-trove could I have found
In exile than to wed a monarch’s child ?
Not wearied, as thou ’rt vext to think, of thee,
Nor struck with longing for another bride ;
Nor for much offspring did I wish to strive, —
The sons I have suffice, I am content.
This most I sought: that we might live at ease,
And not in destitution, for I knew
How every friend deserts the impoverished man ;
And that I worthily might rear my sons,
And might, begetting brothers for thy boys,
Bring them together and unite my race,
And so be blest. . . . Have I counseled ill ?
Thou wouldst not say so, had my marriage not
Aggrieved thee : but ye women go so far
As to deem all is well if wedlock be
Assured; but if mischance to that befall,
The best and noblest actions ye account
Most hostile. Would that mortals otherwh
Might get them offspring, and there were no women;
For then there were no ills among mankind !
The plea, however ingenious, is so perverse and shameless that even the chorus, instead of the usual line or two of conciliatory commonplace, interpose their decided disapproval: —
Yet, though I err, to me thou dost appear,
Betraying thy wife, to do an evil deed;
and Medea herself disdains to refute him in detail: —
Wert thou not base, first winning my consent,
Thou shouldst have married ; not unknown to us.
As he repeats his claim of devotion to her best happiness, Medea utters the striking lines : —
That gnaws my heart, I pray may not be mine!
Jason. Thus shouldst thou change thy prayer, and seem more wise :
May blessings not appear as griefs to thee,
Nor in good fortune deem thyself ill-starred.
Jason offers money for the journey, and tokens which will secure to the mother and children the hospitality of his guest-friends in other cities. These proffers are rejected, with a phrase that reminds us of Ophelia’s words : —
Jason makes final assertion of his good intentions, but is dismissed with a sneer and a threat.
Seizes thee, if thou lingerest forth from home.
Ay, wed her! Yet perchance, if the god wills,
Thy wedlock thou ’It be eager to disown.
The first two strophes of the second Stasimon are a prayer for security from excessive or sinful passion. The third stanza we will quote : —
May I not an exile be,
Leading a most helpless life,
Pitiable for its woes !
Erst by death may I be quelled,
Should I live to see that day;
Since there is no other worse disaster
Than to be offatherland bereft.
The Stasimon closes with an earnest condemnation of Jason’s deeds.
Medea still remains upon the stage, and the third episode is chiefly taken up with an interview between her and Aigeus, king of Athens. This prince chances to pass, on his way from the Delphian oracle — which he has consulted in regard to his childlessness — to the court, of his friend Pittheus, in Troizene. This purely accidental arrival of Aigeus has been often criticised ; and indeed the successive incidents of the plot should arise naturally, as it were inevitably, out of one another. To the audience, however, there was no shock of surprise, as Medea’s plans evidently required that some place of refuge should open to her. Moreover, the Athenian audience surely knew that the traditional story made Medea escape to Attica, and the introduction of a national hero in so honorable a fashion would be likely to gratify their pride.
In order that the spectators may not he wearied by repetition, the state of things is made known to Aigeus by means of a conversation carried on in those alternating single-line speeches which are the despair of a translator. A few verses will suffice as an illustration.
Aigeus. From passion, or through hatred of thyself ?
Med. A mighty passion! Faithlessness in love.
Aig. Well lost is he, being, as thou say’st, so base.
Med. Creon from Corinth drives me exiled forth.
Aig. Jason permits it ? This too I condemn.
Med. Nay, not in words; but he ’ll he reconciled !
At this point Medea bursts into an appeal which would be hard indeed for any chivalrous monarch to resist: —
And at thy knees am I a suppliant.
Pity me ! Pity me, the wretched one !
Do not look on while I go forth alone,
But in thy realm receive me, and thy halls.
So may thy wish for children be fulfilled
At the gods’ hands, and happy mayst thou die.
Thou dost not kuow what boon thou here hast found :
Thy childlessness through me shall have an end ;
Thou shalt beget thee sons. Such drugs I know !
Aigeus is quite ready to promise the exile a secure asylum whenever she reaches Attic soil, but objects to affording her any aid in Corinth, since it might be regarded as a hostile act against his ally Creon. When Medea asks him to swear a solemn oath that he will faithfully protect her, the king asks if she then distrusts him. Her reply is a model of conciliatory persistence : —
And Creon are my foes. Yet, bound by oaths,
Thou wilt not let them hale me from thy land.
If thou but promisest, by gods unsworn,
Thoumightst befriend them, and their herald’s words
Perchance might win thee; for my cause is weak;
Prosperity and royal homes are theirs.
He readily consents, and swears,
. . . By Earth, by Helios’ holy power,
And all the gods,
to keep his plighted word. The Athenian ruler now leaves the stage, passing off to the left, as if returning to his own land, and the chorus speed his departure : —
Escort thee homeward, and mayst thou win
That boon thou hast sought for and greatly desired;
For an upright man,
O Aigeus, to me thou appearest!
To the Athenian king Medea has given no hint of any retaliatory intentions on her own part. Already, however, her plans are fully matured, and they are now rehearsed by her, without reserve, to the matrons of the chorus: —
Of Jason that he to my presence come ;
And I will speak soft words when he arrives,
Saying his doings please me, and are well.
But I will beg my children may remain;
Not that I mean to leave on hostile soil
My sons, to be insulted by my foes,
But that by craft the princess I may slay.
For I will send the boys with gifts in hand
To give the bride, that they be not cast forth:
If she accepts and dons these ornaments,
She perishes, and whoso touches her ;
With drugs so strong will I anoint the gifts.
But I will leave that tale no further told.
Even now I groan when I recall what deed
Must next be done : for I will slay my sons,
My own! and no one shall deliver them.
Thus utterly destroying Jason’s race,
Fleeing my murdered sons will I go forth.
. , . Let no man think me indolent, or weak,
Or helpless, but of nature quite diverse;
Fierce to my foes, and gentle unto friends, —
For such men win most glory in their lives.
The last line, if compared with a previous utterance of Jason, seems to show that this passionate desire to be known of men, for good or ill, is common to both these lawless natures, who have wrought, or are bringing about, so much misery for each other.
The chorus, or rather the leader, cries out with unusual boldness : —
For love of thee and by the laws of men,
I do forbid it, and arrest thy hand !
This courageous protest Medea puts aside calmly, with the remark that they have never suffered like herself. The prompt departure of her servant, to seek Jason, closes the episode.
The opening portion of the third Stasimon is an eulogy of Athens, suggested by the appearance and manly words of Aigeus. It contains some beautiful and famous lines : —
Sons of holy gods,
Culling fruits of most illustrious wisdom
From unharried land,
Gently moving through the shining ether,
Where, as runs the tale,
Once the sacred nine Pierian muses
Fair Harmonia bore.
But how, the chanting chorus ask, can the helpers in every virtuous deed, who dwell in the city of the holy rivers, whose land is the safe refuge of their friends, receive and harbor a mother stained with her children’s blood ? And so the song of praise to Athens glides naturally into an impassioned prayer to the queen to refrain at least from this most awful of crimes.
There is no hint of a response from Medea.
The fourth episode contains only the brief second interview of Medea with Jason. Her pretended penitence seems almost overdrawn, but is unhesitatingly accepted by him as sincere. Indeed, in this scene her husband is far more plastic in her hands than were Creon and Aigeus. She expresses regret that she has not heartily aided in bringing about his marriage, and thanks him for replying so gently to her wild reproaches. The children are summoned forth to greet their father. Medea says to them, —
To loving kindness, as your mother is.
We are at peace, and wrath has passed away.
But as she leans over them to clasp their hands in Jason’s, her self-control suddenly gives way altogether, and amid wild sobbing she utters words which seem to betray clearly her intention to murder the boys : —
When I bethink me of what yet is hid!
(meaning her own secret plans). Instantly, however, she realizes that both her utterance and her tears must be explained ; and continues in such a strain that the former words now appear to have applied mainly to the uncertainty of all mortal events : —
Your loving arms ? Oh, wretched that I am,
How prone am I to tears and full of dread !
Ending at last my quarrel with your father,
Thus have I filled mine eyes with tender tears.
She fearlessly raises her face to meet Jason’s, assured that the signs of real grief will now disarm all suspicion, instead of exciting it. A fearful woman, indeed! The father expresses the utmost confidence that his sons will soon be restored to a prosperous life with him in Corinth. To Medea’s future lot he gives not a single thought, but something like suspicion rises within him, as her wild grief overpowers her once more.
with gushing tears
Thine eyeballs, turning thy pale cheek aside,
And joyless dost receive these words from me ?
Medea. ‘T is nothing. With the children
were my thoughts.
Jas. Be cheered, for I will order this aright.
Med. I will, nor do I doubt thy words; but yet
Woman is feminine, and apt to tears.
Jas. Why dost thou mourn for them, unhappy one ?
Med. I bore them. When thou pray’dst for them to live,
The piteous thought came, if this should not be.
Recovering herself, Medea explains to Jason her plan to send the boys with gifts to the young bride, to win her intercession for their release from banishment. He consents, but is sure his own request will have far more weight with Glaukè than the presents. Indeed, his speech, when the magnificent robe and coronet are brought out for him to see, is the most manly word we hear him utter: —
Dost think the royal house hath lack of robes,
Or yet of gold ? Save this, and give it not.For if my wife have any care for me,
That shall outweigh thy treasures, well I know.
Jason departs first; then the boys, who are enjoined to place the gifts in the princess’ own hands.
The chorus perceive that the first of the train of disasters is now inevitable, and the Stasimon is a lament successively for the boys, the young bride, Jason, who unconsciously leads his sons upon an errand fatal to themselves as well as Glaukè, and lastly for the frenzied mother herself.
Meanwhile the children return from the palace, and the pedagogue, who as usual has attended them, briefly announces to Medea that the princess has joyfully accepted the gifts, and will intercede with her father that Jason’s sons may remain in Corinth. Medea receives these words with a sharp cry of grief, as she realizes that her sons must now perish, in any case.
Medea. Ah me!
Ped. Have I some evil tidings brought,
Unknowing, missing thanks for happy news ?
With more self-control than Cleopatra,
his mistress responds : —
Without receiving any explanation, the pedagogue is sent within the house, and Medea, left alone with her sons, begins the famous monologue, in which she is swayed this way and that, until her thirst for revenge finally overmasters the love of offspring. The reader’s imagination will easily enable him to see how thrilling the scene might be made by the genius of a great actor. Through it all, her words are carefully chosen, so that the boys themselves do not comprehend her intention.
And home wherein ye shall abide for aye,
Bereft of mother, leaving me forlorn!
I, exiled, to another country pass,
Ere I had joy in you and saw yon blest,
Delighting in your wife and wedded bliss,
Holding aloft for you the marriage torch.
Accurst am I in my perversity !
In vain my labor, and my agony
When I the heavy pangs of travail bore !
High hopes were mine, alas! in other days,
That ye should be the prop of my old age,
And honorably care for rue when dead,
That men should envy me.
That fancy sweet; for I, bereft of you,
Shall spend a sad existence, full of pain.
And you with loving eyes will watch no more
Your mother, passing to another life.
Ah me! Why do you gaze on me, my sons ?
Why are ye smiling with that final smile ?
Q women, when I saw their beaming face !
I could not do it. Fare ye well, my plans
That were ! My sons I will lead forth with me.
Why need I, but to grieve their father’s heart
Through harm to them, have twofold harm myself ?
Nay, that I will not do. My plans, farewell!
And leave unrecompensed mine enemies ?
— It must be done ! Fie on my cowardice !
That I should utter such faint-hearted words !
Enter the house, my sons ; and whosoe’er
Must not be present at my sacrifice
Be on his guard! My hand shall weaken not!
Ah me ! Ah me !
Release them, wretched one: thy offspring spare
To live with us elsewhere, and give thee joy.
This will I never do, to leave my sons
To he insulted by mine enemies.
'T is quite fulfilled. There shall he no escape.
Even now the crown is on the princess’ head,
And in her robe she is surely perishing.
But, — for I go a way most pitiful,
And send them forth by one yet more forlorn, —
I fain would greet my sons. My children, give,
Give to your mother your right hands to clasp.
O dearest hand, and head most dear to me !
O noble face and figure of my children !
May you be happy yonder! What is here
Your father robs from you. O gentle touch !
Ah me! my sons’ soft flesh and breath most sweet!
Begone ! Begone ! For I can look no more
Upon you, but by woes am overborne.
I realize what evil deeds I dare ;
But mightier than my conscience is my pride,
The source of utmost ill to mortal men !
A pause in the action now occurs, after the children have entered the house, during which Medea is watching restlessly for a messenger from the royal palace. The interval must be occupied in some way by the chorus, but, possibly for the reason that a regular Stasimon or lyrical intermezzo would make the drama exceed the maximum of five episodes, the coryphæus, or leader of the chorus, recites instead an anapæstic monologue, in which is elaborated at great length the theme that children bring to mankind far more of sorrow and anxiety than of joy.
Medea probably pays no attention to these words, which indeed give us the impression of being directed avowedly toward the audience only, almost like the Parabasis of a comedy.
I watch what tidings shall from yonder come.
Now one of Jason’s followers I descry
Approaching; and his heavy-laboring breath
Shows that he will announce some new mishap.
Messenger (entering). O ghastly deed, and lawlessly performed !
Begone, Medea ! Begone, neglecting not
Thy ship, nor chariot traversing the land !
Med. What cause for exile is befallen me ?
Mess. The royal bride has perished even now,
And Creon, who begat her, by thy drugs!
There is nothing but joy in Medea’s tones now, as she hears that her rival is already destroyed.
And benefactors shalt thou be henceforth.
The breathless messenger is amazed
afresh at her reception of his tidings.
Thou who art not affrighted, but rejoiced
To hear the monarch’s home is desolate ?
But there is no fear, only exultation, in, her heart. She even answers gently his rude words of surprise, so happy is her mood.
Unto thy words ; but pray be calm, good friend.
Tell how they died ; for twice as much shalt thou
Delight me, if they perished miserably.
And forgetful for the moment of the awful deed she has yet to do, indifferent to the avengers of blood who may at any moment appear, she listens with delight to the long and distressing account of the fate which has befallen Jason’s bride.
Such passages of prolonged narration are not acceptable in the modern drama, accustomed as we are to rapid action and realistic effect. The dialogue, however, of Attic tragedy would probably seem to us little more than a solemn and dignified recitation in costume, and even this speech of the messenger, ninety-five lines long, would not weary spectators who had doubtless often heard a large part of the Iliad or Odyssey, if not the entire poems, recited on a single day by the rhapsodes. In Sophocles’ Electra, the death of Orestes is described at a length of eighty-six lines, although the audience have just seen him alive, and know that the tale is a mere invention to beguile Clytaemnestra. Of course, to us, who only read the whole drama, the want of action on the stage is no real loss.
Medea is doubtless still the centre of attraction, and expresses by gestures her delight in the miseries she has caused. The messenger is one of her family-servants, who, sympathizing, like all the household, with Medea, and rejoicing at the happier prospect for the children, had followed them into the princess’ rooms.
Ere yet thy pair of sons she had descried,
Fixt upon Jason kept her eager gaze.
But when they came indeed, she veiled her eyes,
And turned the other way her shining cheek.
Wroth at the entrance of the boys.
Strove to allay his young wife’s wrath and ire,
Saying, “ Be not unkindly toward thy friends,
But cease thine anger, turn again thy face,
Accounting dear e’en those thy husband loves.
Accept the presents, and beseech thy sire
To free these boys from exile, — for my sake.”
She, seeing the ornaments, withstood him not,
But did his will in all; and ere the sons
And father were far distant from her halls,
Taking the well-wrought robes, she put them on,
Upon her ringlets set the golden crown,
And at a shining mirror dressed her hair,
Smiling upon her soulless counterfeit.
Then rose she from her seat and crossed the room,
Daintily treading with her fair white feet,
Exulting in the gifts ; and evermore,
On tiptoe rising, backward cast her eyes.
The realism and grace of this picture have always been admired; but the reader should study it closely for another reason. Glaukè has not been seen upon the stage, doubtless because her youthful beauty would have made Medea’s crime seem utterly unendurable. She is now about to perish by an agonizing death, and, in order to intensify its horror by contrast, her girlish loveliness must be brought vividly before the hearer’s imagination. But the dramatist was unwilling to increase our detestation of Medea by enlisting our deeper sympathies at all for the victim ; and therefore, by a series of most delicate touches, Glaukè is made to appear so heartless, vain, and childish that in comparison with the faithful old servant, or even with the fatherly affection of Jason, she is to our thoughts as soulless and characterless as the mirrored image at which she smiles.
We follow William Morris’s example in passing lightly over Glaukè’s death. She is not, in this account, burned to ashes, as Morris describes, but lies, an unrecognizable corpse, smouldering arid blood-stained, upon the pavement, when Creon enters her abode summoned by the panic-stricken servant-women. The firm lines with which the whole picture is drawn may be exemplified, quite sufficiently for modern taste, in the briefer description of the old king’s death: —
Entering the palace, stumbled on the corpse.
At once he moaned aloud, and clasped her form,
Kissed and addressed it thus : “ Unhappy girl,
What god destroyed thee so disdainfully ?
Who hath bereft an old man’s tomb of thee ? Ah, would that I might perish with thee, child! ”
But when he ceased from moaning and lament,
And fain would raise again his aged frame,
Like ivy to the laurel’s boughs he clung
To her soft robes: and fearfully he strove ;
But as he attempted to uplift his knees,
She held him back; and when too hard he tugged,
Tore from the bones his venerable flesh.
At length he ceased to strive. His soul had fled;
For he no more was mightier than his woe.
Together now they lie in death, the child
And aged sire, — a grief that cries for tears.
Medea stands unmoved and triumphant. To afford a moment’s relief from action, the messenger concludes with a half dozen lines on the fallacious nature of all human happiness, — one of those commonplaces of which the Greeks seemingly never grew impatient, — and the chorus in response express sympathy for Glaukè, though they feel that Jason has deserved all he is to suffer.
Medea hereupon announces her intention to put her sons to death at once, lest delay should deliver them into “ more unfriendly hands ; ” that is, of course, the hands of Creon’s kinsfolk. She does not enter her home upon this errand without a final struggle with herself, in which the poet doubtless intends us to see that womanly feeling is not yet dead in her savage soul.
To work this dread, inevitable ill ?
Come, my unhappy hand, seize thou the sword, —
Seize it, and steal to life’s grim racecourse forth!
Weaken not, nor recall how thou didst bear
Thy children well beloved; but for this one
Brief day, at least, do thou forget thy sons,
And mourn them then; for though thou slay them, yet
Dear are they, and a wretched woman I.
So she passes in, closing the fifth and last episode.
The last Stasinion begins at once with an impassioned prayer to Earth and Helios to save these children of divine race from death at human hands ; a curious fancy of the poet, as it is through Medea herself that the boys are descended from the sun-god Helios. The anti strophe seems an attempt to reach the ears and soften the heart of the murderess herself. In the place of a third purely lyrical stanza is the following passage: —
O thou wretched woman, evil-starred !
Elder Boy (within). Alas! how may I flee my mother’s hands ?
Younger Boy (within). I know not, dearest brother ; we are lost!
Cho. Shall I enter in ? Methinks I ought
From the children to avert their doom !
Boys. Ay, aid us, by the gods, for there is need !
To the sword’s snares we are already near.
Cho. Art thou rock or iron, wretch, who slayest With thy hand the children thou hast borne ?
But the chorus certainly do not enter the house, and there is no indication that they make any attempt either to arrest Medea’s hand, or to summon aid. Instead, they merely sing the fourth stanza of the Stasimon.2 This contains merely an account of Ino, the only example of a mother murdering her children of which the Corinthian matrons have any remembrance. We may remark in passing that in this play Euripides draws his mythology largely from some unknown source, this form of the Ino legend, as well as the birth of the muses in Attica from a mother Harmonia, being otherwise quite unknown.
Jason now arrives in haste from the palace, and his entrance is the beginning of the Exodos, or final scene. His first words give us the impression that the matrons of the chorus have perhaps left the orchestra and rushed upon the stage, where they are probably standing and listening near the door of Medea’s abode.
Is she within who wrought this fearful deed,
Medea, or has she escaped in flight ?
For surely she must hide beneath the earth,
Or rise, a wingéd creature, toward deep Heaven,
If she atone not to the royal house.
Does she, who slew the rulers of the land,
Trust to escape unpunished from this house ?
But for my offspring, not for her, my care ;
They shall do harm to her whom she has wronged.
But I am come to save my children’s life,
For fear the kinsmen should do aught to them,
Exacting vengeance for their mother’s crime.
Chorus. Unhappy Jason, to what ills thou 'rt come Thou know’st not, else thou hadst not spoken so.
Jas. What is it ? Does she wish to slay me too ?
Cho. Thy sons have perished by their mother’s hand!
Jason is rendered almost frantic by this second blow, and, learning from the women that the murderess and her victims are within, he rushes madly at the bolted gates, striving to break them down with his hands, and shrieking to be admitted, that he may see his children’s bodies, and avenge their fate. But the dramatist realizes that we have horrors enough already. It is rather time to calm somewhat the feelings excited by the last scenes, before the close of the play. Anything like reconciliation is impossible. The best means at his command is to remind us of Medea’s divine origin and superhuman resources, in a manner which shall make her life with Jason seem little more than the voluntary descent of the great goddesses from Olympos ; as when Aphrodite deigns to dwell for a brief season on earth as the wife of a mortal man.
The voice of Medea is heard, and as Jason looks up he beholds her rising aloft upon a chariot drawn by griffins, her children’s bodies lying beside her.
Seeking the slain, and me who wrought the deed ?
Cease from that toil. If thou hast need of me,
Speak what thou wilt. Thou shalt not touch me more.
This chariot has my grandsire Helios
Given me, to save me from my foemen’s hand.
Jason assails her, nevertheless, fearlessly with the bitterest words, and shows to the end no consciousness of his own wrong-doing. Our sympathy is not drawn to him by his self-satisfied tone.
To gods, to me, and all the race of men !
. . . Accurst be thou ! Now am I sane ; not when
From thine abode and a barbarian land
I led thee to a Grecian home, thou wretch !
Betrayer of sire and land that nourished thee !
Thy line’s avenger the gods cast on me !
Thy brother at the hearthstone thou hadst slain,
Ere thou didst enter fair-prowed Argo’s hull.
But these are crimes committed for his sake and with his full knowledge, for which he has professed in the past only gratitude and devotion.
With me, and children unto me hast borne,
In lustful jealousy thou murderest them.
No Grecian woman ever could have done
This deed : instead of whom I chose to wed
With thee, — a deadly and hostile tie for me !
A lioness, no woman, with a soul
More wild than Scylla the Tyrrhenian!
He breaks off, only because he feels his powerlessness to touch her heart, and bemoans his own hapless destiny, bereft at once of bride and sons. Medea disdains to justify herself against his reproaches, assured that Zeus knows fully what she has done and suffered. She taunts him, however, mercilessly : —
To spend a joyous life and mock at me.
The royal girl, and Creou who made the match,
Were not to thrust me from the land in shame.
So call me, if thou wilt, a lioness,
And Scylla who dwelt in the Tyrrhenian land ;
For I have wrung, as it deserved, thy heart.
The chariot is apparently slowly departing, while the wretched pair, in a dialogue of single-line speeches, still revile one another. But presently, in reply to Jason’s demand, —
Medea makes an announcement clearly intended to remind the auditors that what they see and hear is after all only an ancient legendary scene : —
I ’ll bear and with mine own hand bury them,
So that no foe may do them violence,
Breaking their sepulchres: and on this land
Of Sisyphos a solemn festival
And rites I enjoin hereafter for this crime.
But I am going to Erechtheus’ land,
Where with Pandion’s son, Aigeus, I 'll dwell.
Thou, base one, basely, as is fit, shalt die,
Smitten upon the head by Argo’s wreck.
The expiatory rites still performed in the poet’s times at the shrine of Juno, in the neighbor-city, were no doubt well known to many Athenian citizens, and the reference to them is quite in character with the usage of Attic tragedy, though it is a little strange that their celebration is enjoined upon the Corinthians by the guilty shedder of blood herself.
A moment later Medea exclaims, —
to which Jason replies, —
Of both my children bereft I go.
And from this point he doubtless stands as if just about to leave the scene, and return to the palace. The dialogue of recrimination goes on, however, twenty lines longer, and seem to us a rather ineffective repetition, in varied form, of thoughts already sufficiently expressed. Jason finally utters an earnest appeal to Zeus to observe Medea’s utter inhumanity in refusing to permit him even to touch his children’s bodies and kiss their lips ; and exclaiming, —
Thus slain by thee to behold them !
he apparently departs to bury his dead bride, while the chariot passes out of sight. The chorus close the drama, and doubtless also march out of the orchestra, chanting the lines which are familiar from their occurrence in nearly the same form at the close of live Euripidean tragedies : —
Much unforeseen the gods fulfill.
What men have expected comes not to pass,
For what we expect not a god finds way,
And so has it fared in this matter.
These verses are hardly appropriate here, as there has been no evident intervention of any deity, and the catastrophe is not an unexpected one, except perhaps to Jason. It has been distinctly foreseen by the servants, openly proclaimed by Medea ; and Creon also had a foreboding of evil to come.
Doubtless every earnest reader has already become conscious of the great lack in this play. There is a striking absence of noble character and lofty sentiment. The Hippolytos is preëminently a drama of unflinching courage. Phaidra and Hippolytos, foes in life and death though they be, are alike in choosing destruction in preference to dishonor. In the Alkestis self-sacrifice is made lovely, and cowardly selfishness contemptible, though we confess the poet does not himself seem to realize how pusillanimous a figure his Admetos is.
In this drama, guilt triumphant in Medea, and guilt punished but unrepentant in Jason, are almost alike abhorrent. To both of them fame seems equally precious, whether it be won by great good or terrible evil wrought for other men. Sin is indeed made repugnant, but the sinners should have been brought nearer to our human sympathies, so that we might take deeply into our own hearts the lesson of their fall.
This lack of which we complain can perhaps best be felt by comparing the Medea with that other tragedy of murder inspired by jealousy, to which allusion has already been made. The error and the atonement of Othello have infinitely more moral significance and value to us, because we feel the warmest admiration and affection for the chivalrous soldier, the ardent lover, the devoted husband. As the last scene closes, our hearts tell us, Here is a man like unto, in much far nobler than, ourselves. Heaven guard us all from such temptation ! At Medea we shudder, and rejoice to see her at last lifted away from earth and out of full sisterhood with mortal women : but what wife or mother can feel she has learned the lesson which she would ever need to recall ?
It is perhaps not a satisfactory plea for the poet, but it is the simple truth, to reply that he probably used the legend just about as he found it. It is only justice to appreciate the skillful simplicity of the drama as he has given it shape, and the fitness of every part to its place. We regret extremely that our space has not permitted us to show this by a presentation of the entire text.
Noticeable also is the reverent tone of all allusions to the higher powers, even by the worst of the characters. The choral odes in particular breathe a spirit of earnest piety. The faithful devotion of the old house-servants, here as in many Euripidean plays, lightens the painful effect produced by the vileness of the more prominent figures.
We venture to question the soundness of one criticism made by the highest authority. The vengeance of Medea is said to be left incomplete, and perhaps ineffective, because the poet has overlooked the obvious possibility that Jason may yet have offspring by a third wife. It seems to us that this view fails to give the proper significance to the closing scene. Medea is not merely successful in her plans. She is revealed as under especial divine protection, endowed with prophetic power, and with complete knowledge of Jason’s fate. One of her merciless responses to his outcries of agony is : —
Lament not now ! Await old age !
and the clear intention of the dramatist is that Jason lives only to prolong the vengeance inflicted on him by this demoniac and superhuman savage, whom he wedded in madness and blindness, and whose might, though only now entirely revealed, was in fact resistless from the first.
It is true that in the earlier scenes Medea is not fully aware of her own power : but surely here every one will agree with the judgment of the poet, who has tried to paint the central figure of his tragedy as at least half woman, not all dæmon.
It is for men and women, after all, that our sympathies can be enlisted.
William Cranston Lawton.
- The remark attributed to Aischylos, that his own dramas were but " fragments from the great banquet of Homer,” hardly seems authentic, since it is difficult to find any sense in which it is strikingly true, even if we remember how wide a cycle of poems he may have ascribed to the Homeric name. Only a single extant Greek play, of disputed authorship, the Rhesos, is identical in action with any part of the Iliad or Odyssey. With the exception of Agamemnon’s immediate family, few of the generation who saw the fall of Ilium are favorite subjects of Attic tragedy ; and the reason we believe to be, that it was not the age of individual prowess.↩
- This is, in metrical form, identical line for line, as usual, with the third stanza, which we have just quoted. We say sing, since that is the usual arrangement, but, as we have indicated, the four lines assigned to the children are in the metre of the ordinary recitative, and so, of eoiu’se, are the corresponding lines of the fourth stanza, or antistrophe.↩