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Theatre / Medea

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Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Medea in Catulle Mendès's eponymous play, based on Euripides'. (Art Nouveau poster c. 1898, by Alphonse Mucha)
"νῦν δ΄ ἐχθρὰ πάντα͵ καὶ νοσεῖ τὰ φίλτατα." English 
Euripides, Medea, Line 16

Euripides’ adaptation of the myth of Jason and Medea starts when the couple have returned to Corinth after all their adventures, quests, and battles. Medea, being not only a genius schemer but something of a sorceress, abandoned/betrayed her family and people to be with Jason and help him succeed, even when it required arranging her brother's death. Now they have two young sons together. She has suffered horribly for love of him. So now that the adventure's over, it's time for The Hero and his Magical Girlfriend to settle down and live Happily Ever After, right?

Wrong! It's time for Jason to dump the "barbarian" now that he has no more use for her and marry the beautiful princess Glauce. Nothing personal, he says. He's not even marrying her for love but for the money and power, which he'll use to keep Medea and the kids in their gilded cage. He tells Medea to accept this peacefully and be content as the woman on the side.

Jason has created the original Woman Scorned, and for the Greek Chorus, it's only a question of whom she intends to kill—herself, or Jason. She chooses — neither. Medea kills the new girl and Glauce's father (King Creon, not be confused with Creon of the Thebes tetralogy), who arranged the marriage, but decides simply killing Jason would be too good for him. A conversation with the as-yet-childless Aegeus teaches her the cruelest, most painful, most unbearable punishment to inflict on a man—the death of his children. She takes their two children off-stage and kills them... but she struggles with it a bit first.

As was the standard for Greek Tragedy, all the deaths occur off-stage and are narrated on-stage by eyewitnesses. The play ends with Medea refusing Jason's request to at least give him his sons' bodies for burial before she takes the bodies and flees to Aegeus' kingdom, Athens (by way of a magical chariot, drawn by dragons). The chorus then marvels at the cruelty of the gods that such tragedies happen. Medea is not condemned for her actions.

The most well known adaptation is perhaps the 1969 Italian film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring soprano Maria Callas as Medea.

Medea provides examples of:

  • Asshole Victim: Jason. Not only is the audience not expected to sympathize with him after Medea's revenge, the gods themselves refuse to intercede on his behalf because he's just that much of an asshole.
  • Audience Monologue: Opens with one from the Nurse explaining what's happened. Lampshaded when the children's tutor comes and asks why she's talking to herself.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: To the extent she can be considered the villain, Medea ends the play having had pretty much had every bit of revenge she wanted, and with the implication the gods sided with her.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: One of the Chorus tries to warn Medea against praying for death, "Because that prayer will be answered."
  • Black Magician Girl: Medea is a sorceress, although she committed most of her magical acts before the play starts.
  • Body Horror: The description of Glauce and Creon's death. The poison Medea puts on Glauce's clothes burns and mutilates her skin so badly that no one but her father can recognize her face. Creon is physically stuck and melted into the jacket when he tries to take his daughter in his arms, leaving him helpless as he dies as well.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The deaths of Glauce and her father.
  • Cruel Mercy: At one point, Jason begs her to kill him and she refuses, letting him live to suffer the pain for the rest of his life.
  • Darker and Edgier: There are versions of the myth that predate the play where the children aren't killed by their mother, but by a mob of Corinthians, either in protest against Medea's foreign presence or in revenge for Creon and Glauce's murder. There's another tradition, too, where Medea kills her children by accident. For a dedicated pursuer of shock-value Euripides, though, these traditions hadn't gone nearly far enough - so he makes Medea kill her own children in cold blood. No mention is made in the play of Jason's son Thessalos surviving, as happened in most traditions. It's possible that the Athenians hated this ending for its brutality - out of the three tragedians that competed that year in the Dionysia, Euripides and his Medea (along with 3 other plays) came last.
  • A Deadly Affair: Jason cheating on Medea ends up leading to the deaths of their children, his new wife, and her father.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Medea when talking to Aigeus - and that is when she speaks to the closest she ever gets to a friend.
  • Deus ex Machina:
    • Medea carries the bodies of her sons away with her in a flying chariot drawn by golden dragons given to her by the Sun God Helios, her grandfather.
    • In some versions of the play, there is no chariot carrying Medea away and, correspondingly, no deus ex machina. The play ends just after she kills her children laughing in Jason's face. Because, really, if you're going the whole nine yards like she is, how much do you care about getting out?
  • Didn't Think This Through: Jason, for the following reasons:
    • When Medea murdered her brother and cut him up into little chunks to save Jason, Jason was so awed by her devotion to him that he swore by the Twelve Gods of Olympus that he would stay with her until the day he died. It does not occur to Jason that dumping his devoted wife is thusly a direct insult to the heads of the pantheon, who would find a way to arrange a punishment.
    • Jason's patron goddess is Hera. It does not occur to Jason that the goddess of marriage and family with an infamous temper regarding her husband Zeus's infidelity might get angry at him for breaking his marriage vows and leaving his wife for another woman, particularly after all the help she's given him on his quests.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Medea would rather have revenge instead.
  • Downer Ending: Medea not only murdered Jason's fiance and her father, but her own children. She either escapes with the bodies, preventing Jason from even burying them (and the chariot being divinely sent suggests the gods favor her revenge) or else just staying there laughing in Jason's face. If you go by mythology, Jason lives the rest of his life alone and miserable, dying anticlimactically when the stern of the rotting Argo falls on him.
  • The Exile: Medea is going to be exiled from Corinth.
  • Fatal Flaw: Jason's racism and sexism. His act of courting Glauce solely for the perks of being royal again would've utterly devastated Medea's life had the marriage gone through; even aside from the cheating (bad enough on its own), Medea would've been left alone in a foreign country with no legal protection for her and her kids, making it likely they'd be sold into slavery. Jason, however, just assumed that she would understand that as she was a barbarian he'd need a proper Greek wife and she'd be totally okay being his side chick, and dismisses Medea's concerns as being irrational.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • Medea intentionally inflicts one on Jason by killing basically everyone in his life, leaving him with nothing; no home (he'd been exiled from his kingdom with Medea and settled in Corinth, and Corinth wouldn't let him stay after he inadvertently killed their king and princess), no title (and no possibility of one with Glauce dead), no family (Medea killed them), and no future (since everyone would hear of what he'd done and caused). Medea specifically states at the end that she won't kill him too because that would be too merciful. Instead, he wanders Greece as a beggar for years until he dies unceremoniously crushed under the bow of the Argo.
    • Medea kills her children to prevent this in some versions; they would have been sold into slavery as a consequence of her actions.
  • Friend-or-Idol Decision: Medea wants to not just punish Jason but keep her honor by taking revenge on him, and believes that anything less would be horrible cowardice - but then she determines the best form of revenge is killing one's children, and she still loves her children. She ultimately decides to kill them anyway.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: None of the ancient versions of the play have Medea kill her children on stage, instead the details are given via the Greek Chorus.
  • Horse of a Different Color: Dragon chariot! Gotta wonder how performances represent that.
  • I Gave My Word: Not that Jason keeps it, of course. Jason breaking his sworn word to marry Medea is what turns both her and the gods against him.
  • Ignored Epiphany: When talking to her children, Medea realizes she loves them and cannot bear to kill them. But she changes her mind, telling herself she can't be a coward and not go through with it.
  • In Medias Res: The drama starts when Jason has already dumped Medea and is going to marry Glauce.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The major theme of the play is that Jason brought down every inch of Medea's wrath upon himself through his own actions, no matter how brutal her revenge was. The last chorus section even mocks him for thinking the gods will avenge him, when absolutely everything could have been avoided if he didn't break the sacred oath of marriage.
  • Karma Houdini: While contextually, Medea was justified, she still killed four people, two of whom were her own children and hurt her husband horribly, and in the end flies away in a magical chariot with no consequences for her actions other than her own guilt.
  • Killed Offscreen: Most of the deaths, though Medea's children are notable in that you can hear them screaming and begging offstage.
  • Light Is Not Good: Medea is the granddaughter of the sun god gets to exit on an appropriately sun-themed chariot, and, while sympathetic and having good reason for her actions, she is very ruthless in her revenge.
  • Love Hurts: Oh Medea, you wouldn't have thought it could end up like this the day you left your family behind?
  • Love Martyr: In Medea's backstory; she sacrificed everything so she could be with Jason, which is why his betrayal of her is so awful.
  • Magical Girlfriend: Played for Drama, showing just what happens when she gets mad.
  • Mama Bear: Medea can't see any way to protect her children other than killing them... so that's what she does.
  • Mercy Kill: It tends to get lost due to Values Dissonance, but this is one reason Medea kills her own children, since as a foreign-born woman her children lost their Greek citizenship, and therefore their inheritance, when Jason remarries. It's also very likely that they would have been sold into slavery.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Medea murders Glauce, although at that point she wasn't even considering getting back with Jason - she did it for revenge.
  • The Oath-Breaker: Jason's Moral Event Horizon was breaking an oath in the worst possible way. Medea sacrificed everything for him and saved his life multiple times, and in return he swore to marry and protect her. Then he got to Corinth, saw a chance to get his royalty back, and all that went out the window. Since Zeus is the god of law, the oathbreaking pissed him off. The vow was of marriage, pissing off Hera. And just to add a cherry on top, Jason swore it by the Olympians, pissing off all the others.
  • Offing the Offspring: Arguably the Trope Codifier, at least for women killing their own children.
    • Hence the term the Medea Complex.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Jason and Medea (who did it to herself) obviously, but also Creon, who watches his daughter die, and shortly after gets killed by the same poison that killed her.
  • Original Generation: Jason and Medea were new characters created for a Massive Multiplayer Crossover. This play is an Original Generation sequel that drops the crossover characters and focuses on the new characters.
  • Perfect Poison: The poison on Glauce's dress kills her instantly, as well as Creon when he tries to help her. Since Medea is a sorceress, the poison was likely magical in nature.
  • Pride: Jason full stop. He's extremely condescending the whole play, talking down to Medea and dismissing her feelings and arguments because she's a barbarian and a woman.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Ladies and gentlemen, we have found the Ur-Example. Jason would rue the day he dumped Medea, since she went to the extremes of kill his new girl, his new dad, and his old kids.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Medea kills the children instead of going straight for Jason because he will suffer more. (So will she, but by this point she's decided it's worth it.) This is a lot more explicit and gorier in the Latin version—she has a whole speech about how she wants to murder everyone he loves and then drive him out to wander, exiled and alone, for the rest of his life.
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: In keeping with most deaths in Greek plays, the demise of Creon and Glauce is described by a messenger who is equally horrified by the poison that killed the two and Medea's joy upon hearing these ill tidings.
  • Smug Snake:
    • Jason is depicted here as being a big one of these. The first thing he says when Medea (lyingly) claims that she has decided he was right all along is 'I am glad, Medea, that you have changed your mind'. That's just asking for it.
    • Creon, whose Establishing Character Moment involves him gloating about sending Medea into exile, soon finds himself dead at the hands of the very woman he mocked.
  • Tempting Fate: Creon, when he states that Medea's hate will not affect him.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Oh, Jason, you tosser. Of course, in the end, she decides that death is too good for him. Glauce and Creon count as well.
  • Tragic Mistake: Jason's pride and machismo lead to his downfall and the deaths of his bride and children.
  • The Unfettered: Medea is willing to kill anyone — even her own children — to gain her revenge.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Both Jason and Medea think this of each other. From Medea's perspective, she did most of the work on their quest, saving him multiple times, and betrayed her whole family for him, but he easily sets her aside when she's a liability to his reputation. From Jason's perspective, he was helping her and her children by securing the children a Greek mother, and she will be able to live in wealth and happiness now — though, of course, he doesn't consult her on doing this "favor" because he sees her as an irrational woman who will foolishly oppose it on principle.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Medea gets her children to deliver the gift of clothing to Glauce that is actually poisoned.
  • Villain Protagonist: Medea is a witch who plots to murder her own children and her lover's wife, and succeeds.
  • The War on Straw: There have doubtlessly been many essays written on whether Medea and Jason's representation of each other is accurate or not. On the whole, though, this is actually subverted.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Medea gives one to Jason. A well-reasoned one, given that not only he has dumped the woman who sacrificed everything for him and whom without he wouldn't even succeed in his mission, but also it makes uncertain the future of their sons.
  • Woman Scorned: And how. She's probably along with Hera the Ur-Example.
  • Yandere: Medea, according to modern interpretations, and therefore, the original. Boy, is she Not Good with Rejection.