Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Most people have heard about Jason and the Argonauts. They may have some vague notion about a heroic journey and a Golden Fleece. But that’s about it. Most people don’t know the rest of the story. Jason didn’t grab the Golden Fleece and get back home on his own. He had help. He was helped by an “Asian” princess named Medea. To help Jason get back home she had to betray her own country and even contributed to the death of her own father. Now they’re safely back in Greece and have a couple of children of their own. But Jason has an opportunity to advance in the world by marrying a rich Greek princess. He takes it. The play opens with Jason planning on his upcoming wedding while Medea sits absolutely furious.

The Nurse (or modern-day Nanny) is worried. She’s afraid Medea might harm her own children to get back at Jason. NURSE: Why link your children with the nasty things their father's done? The boys aren’t to blame for what Dad does. But what bothers Medea mostly is her own pride has been insulted. Jason is leaving her for a Greek princess, true. But Medea is also a princess. Not only is Medea a princess, she’s a sorceress too. This is not a woman you want to cross. The Nurse tries to persuade her to pursue the path of moderation. NURSE: I don't want a grand life for myself; just to grow old with some security. They say a moderate life's the best of all, a far better choice for mortal men. Going for too much brings no benefits. This sounds like good advice to modern middle-class Americans. Don’t go for too much, Medea. Forget about Jason, just move on and get on with your life. Everybody will be happier that way. But Medea is an ancient Asian princess. Her honor has been damaged. She will get revenge, no matter the cost.

What makes Medea a sympathetic character is her underlying humanity. She’s not an evil witch and she’s not a monster. Medea’s a flesh and blood woman and a princess. She loves her children. She has been a faithful wife and dutiful mother. But she will not tolerate being dismissed. If Jason leaves her for another woman there’ll be hell to pay. Medea decides killing their two boys would hurt him most. She loves her sons, but she hates Jason more. She is fully aware of what she’s about to do. MEDEA: The evil done to me has won the day. I understand too well the dreadful act I'm going to commit, but my judgment can't check my anger, and that incites the greatest evils human beings do. In her mind there are no good options left. The gods may or may not take vengeance on Jason for breaking his marriage oath to her. But Medea will help the gods by taking matters into her own hands. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and it’s even worse if she’s got the powers of a witch. Jason’s fiancé/bride gets burned alive by a magic gown and the father-in-law Creon also dies a horrible death trying to save his ill-fated daughter. Then Medea takes the lives of Jason’s two sons using her own hands. Then there’s nothing left but to taunt Jason before she leaves in a chariot drawn by dragons.

What is a modern reader supposed to make of all this? The modern term “depth psychology” may well apply here. Euripides probes the human mind long before Freud made it popular. Modern readers like to ask questions such as: What makes Medea tick? Why do we hurt ourselves in order to “get back” at someone? Does primitive sexuality trump civilized behavior? Is there a thin line between love and hate? What happens when that line is crossed? Why is domestic violence so rampant in our culture? Euripides explored these questions too. But he had a broader agenda in mind. CHORUS: Zeus on Olympus dispenses many things. Gods often contradict our fondest expectations. What we anticipate does not come to pass. What we don't expect some god finds a way to make it happen. So with this story. So it is with our own lives.


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