Euripides's play takes place in Corinth, where Jason had settled with his Colchian wife Medea after his adventure in pursuit of the Golden Fleece (in Greek mythology, a rare garment made from the wool of a magical flying ram). The scene opens with a prologue spoken by Medea's nurse. She summarizes what has led to her lady's current state of grief and rage: her husband Jason has married the daughter of the local king, Creon. The nurse recounts how Medea aided Jason in his exploits, even killing her own brother to help Jason escape. The nurse knows the many moods that Medea is capable of and fears that her rage may settle on her two children by Jason. When the attendant appears with the boys, the nurse warns him to keep them away from their angry mother.
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After planting the crucial backdrop to the story, the play immediately introduces us to Medea's total despair upon being abandoned by Jason, offering in the process Euripides' fundamental psychological insight that victims of an intense emotional wound (Medea) not only turn against those who inflict it (Jason) but against their entire world of emotional attachments (her children). Euripides frames this insight in Medea's two opening cries: the first (lines 95-96) displays her suicidal helplessness, while the second (lines 110-114) expresses a wish/curse that every trace of her love for Jason be severed. By placing Medea off-stage, Euripides allows the audience to concentrate on her words and grasp them as a cipher to her whole character. When she eventually emerges in the flesh, the tenor of these initial remarks will cast a shadow over all her succeeding character development.
Against some interpretations of Medea, which claim she struggles between her devotion as a mother and her desire for revenge, we could infer from her first cries that her children's murder is fated from the beginning--the natural consequence of Medea's overwhelming emotional shock. The nurse ominously foreshadows that the "rage" stirring inside Medea will not "relax" until it has received an outlet, and the only real hope is that she can target an enemy rather than a friend (lines 94-95). Euripides' tragedies often present ordinary human beings under the sway of extraordinary forces that must be respected and understood, if not wholly accepted. While the nurse may preach the virtues of a "middle way," Medea's character testifies to the fact that such a cautious life remains unavailable to those preyed upon by fearsome impulses. The nurse interprets Medea's excesses as the product of a sense of royal entitlement, her queen-like need to command. It may be more correct, however, to view Media as a vehicle for something greater, as someone chosen by the gods (or the cosmos, for Euripides was often thought an atheist) to reveal inconvenient truths about human nature.