Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Euripides’ Medea.
Medea is as powerful now – though in altered ways – as it was over two thousand years ago when it was written, and this is an excellent reason to offer students the opportunity to study it. Unlike a contemporary novel or film, which they might pick up and enjoy by themselves outside of school, a classical text like Medea might only be encountered by students if it is set for study. Allowing students to explore a text and even a genre that they might not otherwise easily come across can give them the inspiration and confidence to seek out other challenging texts throughout their academic career and beyond.
The historical and cultural context for any of the Greek plays is vital to an understanding of the text. It can also be detailed and complex; however, it is possible to provide students with sufficient background without exploring the classical Greek mythology and canon in depth. Once a basic grounding is provided, the play offers a really stimulating way for students to explore the enduring nature of the themes, ideas and characters in Medea. Though the language and setting might seem challenging or off-putting to students at first, it’s not a long play. There is room, therefore, for in-depth study and multiple re-readings in order to gain a genuine understanding of the play’s events and ideas – something that isn’t always easy with longer texts. And the themes themselves (while all underpinned by the intricate intertextuality of the other Greek narratives and generic conventions) are concrete, visceral, relatable and genuinely weighty topics that students can really get their teeth into, and argue various supported interpretations of.
Several of the central themes, which are closely intertwined, translate almost seamlessly to a modern context, enabling students to really engage with the philosophical ideas being examined. This also allows students to interrogate the underlying values of the play both in its own historical context and now – and indeed to challenge their assumptions of whether or not these values and ideals have changed or are altered by the historical perspective. These primary themes include the notions of revenge and justice; the value of passion over reason; and the role of gender in conflict.
One of the most persistent questions in the play is whether or not Medea’s actions are reasonable, just, or even defensible – a debate inextricably connected, of course, with the interpretation of character. Is Medea heroic or villainous (or something in between)? Does she represent the extreme of dedication to her own beliefs, ideals, values and integrity? Or is she unconscionably heartless, bloodthirsty, angry, unreasonable and immoral? The dichotomy represented by her behaviour and character is an excellent example of a central issue in a text that can be vigorously argued on both sides, with either interpretation able to be well supported by textual evidence. This is such a strong text for helping students develop their skills in forming and supporting an interpretation, and indeed helping them to fully grasp what is meant by interpretation of text: far from being a simple opinion, it is a broad and in-depth analysis of the text and all its elements, and of how these come together to present a particular view.
Students might choose to read Medea’s vengeance as a valid reaction to Jason’s betrayal of her, and the text offers support for this; for example, in the opening scene the Nurse sets the tone by reminding the audience of the betrayal that has occurred before (with the story of Jason and the Argos), priming us to empathise with Medea from the very beginning. On the other hand, the play does also condemn Medea’s murders (especially the infanticide). A particular example is the commentary provided at various points by the Chorus – a generic element whose traditional role is, at least partly, to comment on the action in order to help guide the audience in their responses to the events and ideas of the play. The Chorus tries to prevent Medea’s vengeance, such as when they question the extent of Medea’s grief or, more notably, when they briefly consider intervening to save the children.
The richness of this central moral dilemma, together with the classical presentation of it, will invite passionate discussion from students as they explore the text – a classroom debate would be a good way to stimulate dialogue – and this emotional connection is an invaluable means of drawing students in to their textual analysis.
- Examine the role of the Chorus in Medea. How does Euripides use this textual feature to offer insight into characters and themes that might not be available through the rest of the dialogue?
- Focus on the character of Jason. How do the events of the play and the dialogue shape our response to his character, and therefore also to his ultimate fate?
- How does the play’s ending influence your interpretation of the moral dilemmas presented throughout? (Consider how characters are ‘rewarded’ or ‘punished’ in the final outcome, as well as elements such as staging, symbolism and structure in the final scenes.)
Need help getting to grips with Medea? Purchase our Insight Text Guide for Medea by Sue Tweg. With section-by-section analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, and much more, the Insight Text Guide for Medea provides a clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.