born c. 484 bc, Athens [Greece]
died 406, Macedonia
last of classical Athens’ three great tragic dramatists, following
Aeschylus and Sophocles.
Life and career
It is possible to reconstruct only the sketchiest biography of
Euripides. His mother’s name was Cleito; his father’s name was
Mnesarchus or Mnesarchides. One tradition states that his mother was a
greengrocer who sold herbs in the marketplace. Aristophanes joked about
this in comedy after comedy; but there is better indirect evidence that
Euripides came of a well-off family. Euripides first received the honour
of being chosen to compete in the dramatic festival in 455, and he won
his first victory in 441. Euripides left Athens for good in 408,
accepting an invitation from Archelaus, king of Macedonia. He died in
Macedonia in 406.
Euripides’ only known public activity was his service on a diplomatic
mission to Syracuse in Sicily. He was passionately interested in ideas,
however, and owned a large library. He is said to have associated with
Protagoras, Anaxagoras, and other Sophists and philosopher-scientists.
His acquaintance with new ideas brought him restlessness rather than
conviction, however, and his questioning attitude toward traditional
Greek religion is reflected in some of his plays. Of Euripides’ private
life, little can be said. Later tradition invented for him a
spectacularly disastrous married life. It is known that he had a wife
called Melito and produced three sons. One of these was something of a
poet and produced the Bacchants after his father’s death. He may also
have completed his father’s unfinished play Iphigenia at Aulis.
The ancients knew of 92 plays composed by Euripides. Nineteen plays
are extant, if one of disputed authorship is included. At only four
festivals was Euripides awarded the first prize—the fourth posthumously,
for the tetralogy that included Bacchants and Iphigenia at Aulis. As
Sophocles won perhaps as many as 24 victories, it is clear that
Euripides was comparatively unsuccessful. More to the point is that on
more than 20 occasions Euripides was chosen, out of all contestants, to
be one of the three laureates of the year. Furthermore, the regularity
with which Aristophanes parodied him is proof enough that Euripides’
work commanded attention. It is often said that disappointment at his
plays’ reception in Athens was one of the reasons for his leaving his
native city in his old age; but there are other reasons why an old poet
might have left Athens in the 23rd year of the Peloponnesian War.
Dramatic and literary achievements
Euripides’ plays exhibit his iconoclastic, rationalizing attitude toward
both religious belief and the ancient legends and myths that formed the
traditional subject matter for Greek drama. These legends seem to have
been for him a mere collection of stories without any particular
authority. He also apparently rejected the gods of Homeric theology,
whom he frequently depicts as irrational, petulant, and singularly
uninterested in meting out “divine justice.” That the gods are so often
presented on the stage by Euripides is partly due to their convenience
as a source of information that could not otherwise be made available to
Given this attitude of sophisticated doubt on his part, Euripides
invents protagonists who are quite different from the larger-than-life
characters drawn with such conviction by Aeschylus and Sophocles. They
are, for the most part, commonplace, down-to-earth men and women who
have all the flaws and vulnerabilities ordinarily associated with human
beings. Furthermore, Euripides makes his characters express the doubts,
the problems and controversies, and in general the ideas and feelings of
his own time. They sometimes even take time off from the dramatic action
to debate each other on matters of current philosophical or social
Euripides differed from Aeschylus and Sophocles in making his
characters’ tragic fates stem almost entirely from their own flawed
natures and uncontrolled passions. Chance, disorder, and human
irrationality and immorality frequently result not in an eventual
reconciliation or moral resolution but in apparently meaningless
suffering that is looked upon with indifference by the gods. The power
of this type of drama lies in the frightening and ghastly situations it
creates and in the melodramatic, even sensational, emotional effects of
its characters’ tragic crises.
Given this strong strain of psychological realism, Euripides shows
moments of brilliant insight into his characters, especially in scenes
of love and madness. His depictions of women deserve particular
attention; it is easy to extract from his plays a long list of heroines
who are fierce, treacherous, or adulterous, or all three at once.
Misogyny is altogether too simple an explanation here, although
Euripides’ reputation in his own day was that of a woman hater, and a
play by Aristophanes, Women at the Thesmophoria, comically depicts the
indignation of the Athenian women at their portrayal by Euripides.
The chief structural peculiarities of Euripides’ plays are his use of
prologues and of the providential appearance of a god (deus ex machina)
at the play’s end. Almost all of the plays start with a monologue that
is in effect a bare chronicle explaining the situation and characters
with which the action begins. Similarly, the god’s epilogue at the end
of the play serves to reveal the future fortunes of the characters. This
latter device has been criticized as clumsy or artificial by modern
authorities, but it was presumably more palatable to the audiences of
Euripides’ own time. Another striking feature of his plays is that over
time Euripides found less and less use for the chorus; in his successive
works it tends to grow detached from the dramatic action.
The word habitually used in antiquity to describe Euripides’ ordinary
style of dramatic speech is lalia (“chatter”), alluding probably both to
its comparatively light weight and to the volubility of his characters
of all classes. Notwithstanding this, Euripides’ lyrics at times have
considerable charm and sweetness. In the works written after 415 bc his
lyrics underwent a change, becoming more emotional and luxuriant. At its
worst this style is hardly distinguishable from Aristophanes’ parody of
it in his comedy Frogs, but where frenzied emotion is appropriate, as in
the tragedy Bacchants, Euripides’ songs are unsurpassed in their power
During the last decade of his career Euripides began to write
“tragedies” that might actually be called romantic dramas, or
tragicomedies with happy endings. These plays have a highly organized
structure leading to a recognition scene in which the discovery of a
character’s true identity produces a complete change in the situation,
and in general a happy one. Extant plays in this style include Ion,
Iphigenia Among the Taurians, and Helen. Plays of the tragicomedy type
seem to anticipate the New Comedy of the 4th century bc.
The fame and popularity of Euripides eclipsed that of Aeschylus and
Sophocles in the cosmopolitan Hellenistic period. The austere, lofty,
essentially political and “religious” tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles
had less appeal than that of Euripides, with its more accessible realism
and its obviously emotional, even sensational, effects. Euripides thus
became the most popular of the three for revivals of his plays in later
antiquity; this is probably why at least 18 of his plays have survived
compared to seven each for Aeschylus and Sophocles, and why the extant
fragmentary quotations from his works are more numerous than those of
Aeschylus and Sophocles put together.
The dates of production of nine of Euripides’ plays are known with some
certainty from evidence that goes back to the official Athenian records.
Those plays whose dates are prefixed by c. can be dated to within a few
years by the internal evidence of Euripides’ changing metrical
The plays » Alcestis
Though tragic in form, Alcestis (438 bc; Greek Alkēstis) ends happily
and took the place of the satyr play that normally followed the three
tragedies. King Admetus is doomed to die shortly, but he will be allowed
a second life if he can find someone willing to die in his place. His
wife, Alcestis, voluntarily dies in place of her husband, who sees too
late that the fact and manner of her dying will blight his life. But
Admetus’ old friend Heracles shows up and rescues Alcestis from the
clutches of Death, restoring her to her happy and relieved husband.
The plays » Medea
One of Euripides’ most powerful and best known plays, Medea (431 bc;
Greek Mēdeia) is a remarkable study of the mistreatment of a woman and
of her ruthless revenge. The Colchian princess Medea has been taken by
the hero Jason to be his wife. They have lived happily for some years at
Corinth and have two sons. But then Jason casts Medea off and decides to
marry the Princess of Corinth. Medea is determined on revenge, and after
a dreadful mental struggle between her passionate sense of injury and
her love for her children, she decides to punish her husband by
murdering both the Corinthian princess and their own sons, thereby
leaving her husband to grow old with neither wife nor child. She steels
herself to commit these deeds and then escapes in the chariot of her
grandfather, the sun-god Helios, leaving Jason without even the
satisfaction of punishing her for her crimes. Euripides succeeds in
evoking sympathy for the figure of Medea, who becomes to some extent a
representative of women’s oppression in general.
The plays » Children of Heracles
The plot of Children of Heracles (430 bc; Greek Hērakleidai) concerns
the Athenians’ defense of the young children of the dead Heracles from
the murderous intentions of King Eurystheus of Argos. The play is
basically a simple glorification of Athens.
The plays » Hippolytus
In Hippolytus (428 bc; Greek Hippolytos) Aphrodite, the goddess of love
and sexual desire, destroys Hippolytus, a lover of outdoor sports who is
repelled by sexual passion and who is instead devoted to the virgin
huntress Artemis. Aphrodite makes Phaedra, wife of Theseus, the king of
Athens, fall violently in love with her stepson Hippolytus. Phaedra is
deeply ashamed of her illicit passion, but when Hippolytus angrily
rejects her love she is so mortified by his denunciation that she cannot
forbear from falsely accusing him of rape before she kills herself. Her
accusation provokes Theseus into pronouncing a curse on his son that
eventually leads to Hippolytus’ death. But Artemis reveals Hippolytus’
innocence before he dies, and the young man is able to forgive his
father, thus freeing Theseus from the dreadful stain of bloodguilt.
Given the nature of its plot, the play is remarkable for its propriety.
The plays » Andromache
This play is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War. After an exciting
beginning marked by strong anti-Spartan feeling, most of the original
characters in Andromache (c. 426 bc) disappear and the interest is
The plays » Hecuba
Also set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, Hecuba (c. 425 bc; Greek
Hekabē) shows the double disaster that reduces the aged Trojan queen
Hecuba, now a widowed slave, by sheer weight of hatred and misery to a
mere animal ferocity. Hecuba first loses her daughter Polyxena, who is
taken off to be sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles. Hecuba then
discovers the corpse of her last son, Polydorus, who has been murdered
by his Thracian host, Polymestor. Hecuba eventually persuades the Greek
commander Agamemnon to allow her to take vengeance; she and her women
then blind Polymestor and murder his two young sons. Such is the power
of misery to deprave, and the play’s closing prophecy of Hecuba’s future
transformation into a bitch seems appropriate.
The plays » Suppliants
The title figures of Suppliants (c. 423 bc; Greek Hiketides; Latin
Supplices) are the mothers of the Argive leaders who have been killed
while attacking Thebes. The bodies of their sons have been left unburied
by the Thebans, and they eventually persuade the Athenians to recover
them. It is disputed whether the play is a straightforward eulogy of
Athens and its democracy, or whether its sentiments are being expressed
The plays » Electra
The title character of Electra (c. 418 bc; Greek Ēlektra) and her
brother Orestes murder their mother, Clytemnestra, in retribution for
her murder of their father, Agamemnon. Electra herself is portrayed as a
frustrated and resentful woman who finally lures her mother to her death
by appealing to her maternal instincts. After the horrible murder both
Electra and her reluctant accomplice Orestes are consumed by remorse.
This is a bitterly realistic and antiheroic play that draws a
disturbingly convincing portrait of both Electra’s sufferings and her
The plays » Madness of Heracles
The title character of Madness of Heracles (c. 416 bc; Greek Hēraklēs
mainomenos; Latin Hercules furens) is temporarily driven mad by the
goddess Hera and kills his wife and children. Subsequently Heracles
recovers his reason and, after recovering from suicidal despair, is
taken to spend an honourable retirement at Athens.
The plays » Trojan Women
The setting of Trojan Women (415 bc; Greek Trōades) is the time
immediately after the taking of Troy, and the play treats the sufferings
of the wives and children of the city’s defeated leaders, in particular
the old Trojan queen Hecuba and her children. Hecuba’s daughter
Cassandra is taken off to be the concubine of Agamemnon, and then her
daughter-in-law Andromache is led off to be the slave of Neoptolemus.
Andromache’s son Astyanax is taken from her to be hurled to his death
from the walls of Troy. Finally, as Troy goes up in flames, Hecuba and
the other Trojan women are taken off to the ships to face slavery in
Greece. This play is a famous and powerful indictment of the barbarous
cruelties of war. It was first produced only months after the Athenians
captured the city-state of Melos, butchering its men and reducing its
women to slavery, and the Trojan Women’s mood may well have been
influenced by the Athenians’ atrocities and the Melians’ fate, which are
both mirrored in the play.
The plays » Ion
This tragicomedy’s sombre action is reversed by a recognition scene. In
Ion (c. 413 bc), Creusa, the queen of Athens, is married to an immigrant
king, Xuthus, but the couple do not have any children. Years before, the
Queen was raped by the god Apollo but abandoned the subsequent child.
The boy Ion has grown up as a temple slave at Delphi, where the play is
set. When they meet, mother and son feel a strong affinity, but when the
Delphic oracle says the boy is the son of Xuthus, the Queen in her
despairing childlessness plots to kill the young stranger who threatens
to take over her inheritance. At the last minute they recognize each
other by means of the cradle Creusa had long ago left with her baby. The
play has a superficially satisfactory ending, but its portrayal of human
suffering and of divine carelessness and mendacity is tinged with darker
The plays » Iphigenia Among the Taurians
This is another tragicomedy, composed chiefly of a recognition scene
followed by a clever escape. The title character of Iphigenia Among the
Taurians (c. 413 bc; Greek Iphigeneia en Taurois; Latin Iphigenia in
Tauris) has been saved by the goddess Artemis from sacrifice by her
father and now serves the goddess’ temple at Tauris in Thrace.
Iphigenia’s brother Orestes is captured by the local tyrant and is
delivered to her for sacrifice. She recognizes him, however, and after
some exciting mishaps they manage to escape from Tauris with the help of
The plays » Helen
In this frankly light play, Euripides deflates one of the best known
“facts” of Greek mythology, that Helen ran off adulterously with Paris
to Troy. In Helen (412 bc; Greek Helenē) only a phantom went with Paris
to Troy, and the real Helen pines faithfully in Egypt. When Menelaus on
his way home from Troy is shipwrecked in Egypt, he is baffled by the
duplicate Helen until the evaporation of the phantom allows his reunion
with the real one. The pair then escape from the King of Egypt, who is
keen to marry Helen, by an amusing artifice.
The plays » Phoenician Women
This is a diverse, many-charactered play whose original version has been
tampered with. Phoenician Women (c. 409 bc; Greek Phoinissai) is set at
Thebes and concerns the mutual slaughter of the two sons of Oedipus,
Eteocles and Polyneices.
The plays » Orestes
In this play Euripides makes nonsense of the old story of Orestes’
murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, by setting the play in a world where
courts of law already exist. In Orestes (408 bc), the main character,
his sister Electra, and his cousin and friend Pylades are condemned to
death by the men of Argos for the murder. Their uncle Menelaus is too
spineless to defend them, and they are finally reduced to plotting to
kill Menelaus’ wife, Helen, and abduct her innocent daughter. This chaos
of violence and attempted murder is only resolved by the deus ex machina
Apollo, who appears and restores harmony at the end of the play.
The plays » Iphigenia at Aulis
The Greek fleet is becalmed at Aulis and is thus unable to convey the
expeditionary force against Troy. Agamemnon learns that he must
sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia as a means of appeasing the goddess
Artemis, who has caused the unfavourable weather. Agamemnon lures his
daughter into coming to Aulis to be sacrificed by pretending that she
will marry Achilles. Once the truth is out, Iphigenia, after begging
pathetically for her life, goes willingly to her death. Though
incomplete and corrupted by later adapters, Iphigenia at Aulis (c. 406
bc; Greek Iphigeneia en Aulidi) is a fine tragedy whose realistic
atmosphere is heightened by several subtle and poignant scenes between
its main characters.
The plays » Bacchants
This play is regarded by many as Euripides’ masterpiece. In Bacchants
(c. 406 bc; Greek Bakchai; Latin Bacchae) the god Dionysus arrives in
Greece from Asia intending to introduce his orgiastic worship there. He
is disguised as a charismatic young Asian holy man and is accompanied by
his women votaries, who make up the play’s chorus. He expects to be
accepted first in Thebes, but the Thebans reject his divinity and refuse
to worship him, and the city’s young king, Pentheus, tries to arrest
him. In the end Dionysus drives Pentheus insane and leads him to the
mountains, where Pentheus’ own mother, Agave, and the women of Thebes in
a bacchic frenzy tear him to pieces. Agave returns to Thebes triumphant
carrying Pentheus’ head, and her father, Cadmus, has to lead her back to
sanity and recognition. The play shows how the liberating and ecstatic
side of the Dionysiac religion must be balanced against the dangerous
irresponsibility that goes with the Dionysiac loss of reason and
The plays » Cyclops
Cyclops (Greek Kyklōps) is the only complete surviving satyr play. The
play’s cowardly, lazy satyrs with their disgraceful old father Silenus
are slaves of the man-eating one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus in Sicily.
Odysseus arrives, driven to Sicily by adverse weather, and eventually
succeeds (as in Homer’s Odyssey) in blinding the Cyclops. He thus
enables the Cyclops’ victims to escape.
Òóðå of work: Drama
Author: Euripides (480-406 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: Thebes, in Boeotia
First presented: ñ 405 B.C.
This complex and disturbing drama has been the subject of
interpretations so diverse as to be sometimes diametrically opposed. It
has been treated, for example, on the one hand as a condemnation of
religious excess, and on the other as the playwright's late acceptance
of the Dionysian rites.
Dionysus (dl'a-m'sus). also called Bromius, Evius,
and Bacchus. He is a god of the general fertility of nature and
especially of wine. He has been traveling through the world spreading
his teachings but has met with opposition at Thebes, where he appears
disguised as his own prophet to take measures on the human level to
overcome his opponents. He has driven his mother's sisters (he was the
son of Semele by Zeus) to frenzy because they refused to recognize him
as a god, and they now revel as thyrsus-bearing Bacchantes with the
other women of Thebes on the slopes of Mount Citaeron. Chief of the
god's enemy was young King Pentheus, who refuses to recognize Dionysus
as a god. Appearing at first as the friend of mortals, he is joyful and
willing to reason with the young king, even when Pentheus imprisons him
in the royal stables. He frees himself and makes one last attempt to
convince Pentheus that he must acknowledge Dionysus' divinity and power.
Only when Pentheus determines to drive the Bacchantes from the hills by
force does Dionysus reveal the opposite aspect of his character.
Becoming cruel, ruthless, and cunning, he establishes control over the
mind of Pentheus and leads him, disguised as a woman, through the
streets of Thebes to Cithaeron, where he is torn apart by the maddened
women of his own city, led by Pentheus' mother, Agave. At the end of the
play, after Agave has returned and has realized what she has done,
Dionysus appears to pass the sentence of exile on the family of
Pentheus. The most terrible aspect of his character emerges as he
extends Pentheus' fate to include the suffering of the old and the
Pentheus (pen'thus), the young, still beardless king of Thebes. He is a
puritan with something in his own mind which prevents his seeing any but
the extreme aspects, the supposed sexual excesses, of the worship of
Dionysus. His opposition of the god is adamant; he imprisons some of the
women who follow Dionysus and even the disguised Dionysus himself. When
the imprisoned women are miraculously released he remains angry and
scornful. After he determines to move with armed force against the
Bacchantes, Dionysus exerts control over him and the young king appears
beastly drunk, losing all self-control and self-respect. Disguised as a
woman, he is led off by Dionysus to spy. as he thinks, on the
Bacchantes. The maddened women fall on him and tear him to pieces.
Agave (ý-ga've), the mother of Pentheus. In a frenzy she leads the
Bacchantes as they tear her son limb from limb under the delusion that
he is a lion. Still under her delusion, she first appears carrying her
son's mangled head affixed to her thyrsus like a trophy. She praises the
gods for guiding her in the deed, inquires after her father, Cadmus, and
calls out to Pentheus to come and receive the trophy she has brought.
When Cadmus slowly and painfully brings her back to sanity, dazed and
perplexed, she realizes what she has done. She is condemned to exile by
Cadmus (kad'mus), the father of Agave. He first appears on his way to
worship Dionysus, whom he has conventionally accepted as a god for the
good of the family, since Dionysus is reputed to be the cousin of
Pentheus. He urges his grandson to do the same but is refuted. He next
appears, after gathering the mangled remains of his grandson from the
slopes of Cithaeron, to bring Agave back to sanity. He is condemned to
exile by Dionysus, even though he protests that such action is too
Tiresias (ti-re'si-ss), the blind prophet of Thebes. He appears with
Cadmus as they prepare to worship Dionysus. He has cleverly accepted
Dionysus while retaining his old beliefs. He is proud of his good sense;
he has not reasoned dangerously. He urges Pentheus to do the same.
Ino (T'no) and Autonoe (6-ton'o-i), Agave's sisters who help her tear
apart Pentheus' body.
Chorus of Asian Bacchae, followers of Dionysus. Their odes in praise of
Dionysus present a picture of Dionysus worship in its purer form and
contrast with Pentheus' warped ideas.
Visited by Zeus, Semele, daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes,
conceived a child. While she was still carrying her unborn child, she
prayed to see Zeus in all his regal splendor. Zeus accordingly appeared
to her in the form of a bolt of lightning; Semele was killed instantly.
Zeus took the prematurely born child he had fathered and placed him
In its proper time the child was born again and was named Dionysus. When
he grew up and became the god of revelry and wine, men established a
cult for his worship. The cult of Dionysus spread throughout western
Asia, but it had not yet gained a real foothold in Europe. Dionysus, the
god-man whom his devotees associated with the vine and with the
ecstasies derived from the juice of the grape, decided that Thebes, home
of his ancestors, would be the logical place for the beginning of his
cult in the West. At first Theban resistance to Dionysiac behavior
balked his efforts, and many Thebans refused to believe that he was a
son of Zeus. Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus and cousin of Dionysus, ruled
as king of Thebes. Dreading the disorders and madness induced by the new
cult, he stubbornly opposed its mysteries, which hinged largely upon
orgiastic and frenzied Nature-rites.
A group of Eastern women, devotees of Dionysus, called upon the Theban
women to join them in the worship of their beloved god. During the
ceremonies blind Tiresias, an ancient Theban prophet, summoned old
Cadmus, now withdrawn from public life, to the worship of Dionysus.
Performing the frenzied rites, the two old men miraculously regained
Pentheus, enraged because some of his people had turned to the new
religion, imprisoned all women who were caught carrying any of the
Bacchic symbols: wine, an ivy crown, or a staff. He rebuked his aged
grandfather and accused Tiresias of responsibility for the spread of the
cult in Thebes. Tiresias championed Dionysus, declaring that wine
provided men with a temporary release from the harshness and miseries of
life. The Theban maidens, he said, were exalted and purified by the
Bacchic ecstasies. Old Cadmus seconded the words of Tiresias and offered
to place an ivy wreath on Pentheus' brow. Pentheus brushed it aside and
ordered some of his soldiers to destroy Tiresias' house; others he
directed to seize a mysterious stranger, a priest of Dionysus, who had a
remarkable influence over Theban women.
When the stranger, Dionysus in disguise, was brought before the king,
all the Theban women who had been jailed suddenly and mysteriously found
themselves free in a forest where they were engaged in worship of
Dionysus. Meanwhile, in the city, Pentheus asked the prisoner his name
and his country. Dionysus answered that he was from Lydia, in Asia
Minor, and that he and his followers had received their religion from
Dionysus. He refused, however, to tell his name. When Pentheus asked to
know more about the strange religion, Dionysus said that this knowledge
was reserved for the virtuous only. Pentheus impatiently ordered a
soldier to cut off Dionysus' curls, which the prisoner had said were
dedicated to his god. Then Pentheus seized Dionysus' staff and ordered
him to be imprisoned. Dionysus, calm in spite of these humiliations,
expressed confidence in his own welfare and pity at the blindness of
Pentheus. Before the guards took Dionysus to be imprisoned in the royal
stables, he predicted catastrophe for Pentheus. The king, unmindful of
this prophecy, directed that the female followers of Dionysus be put to
practical womanly labors.
From his place of imprisonment Dionysus called out encouragement to his
devotees. Then he invoked an earthquake which shook the foundations of
Pentheus' fortress. Flames danced on Semele's tomb. Dionysus appeared,
mysteriously freed from his prison, and rebuked his followers for any
doubts and fears they had expressed. He had cast a spell on Pentheus,
who in his mad frenzy mistook a bull for Dionysus and chained the animal
in its stall while the man-god looked on. Another earth tremor tumbled
the royal fortress in ruins.
Pentheus, enraged at seeing Dionysus free, ordered his guards to shut
the gates of the city. At the same time a messenger reported that many
Theban women, among them Agave, mother of Pentheus, were on nearby Mount
Cithaeron observing Dionysiac rites that were partly a dignified and
beautiful Nature-worship, partly the cruel slaughter of cattle. A battle
had taken place between the women and Boeotian peasants, but the
frenzied women, although victorious over the peasants, did not harm
them. Pentheus ordered the immediate suppression of the cult. Dionysus
offered to lead the women back to the city, but he declared that if he
did so the women would only grow more devoted to the man-god.
When Pentheus imperiously demanded that his orders be obeyed, Dionysus
cast over him a spell which made the king express a desire to see the
women at their worship. In a trance, he resisted only feebly when
Dionysus dressed him in woman's clothes in order that he might not be
detected by the women, who were jealous of the secrecy of their cult.
Pentheus, in fact, was almost overcome by Dionysus' charms as the god
led him to Mount Cithaeron.
On the mountain Pentheus complained that he could not see the rites
because of the thick pine forest. Dionysus immediately bent a large pine
tree to the ground, set Pentheus in its topmost branches, and gently let
the tree return to its upright position. At that moment the man-god
disappeared, but his voice boomed out to his ecstatic devotees that a
great enemy of the cult was hidden in the tall tree. The women, wild
with fury, felled the tree, Pentheus with it. Agave, in a Dionysiac
frenzy, stood over her son. He frantically threw off his feminine dress
and pleaded with her to recognize him, but in her Bacchic trance she
imagined him to be a lion. With prodigious strength she tore off his
left arm at the shoulder. Her sisters, Ino and Autonoe, joined her and
together the three women broke Pentheus' body to pieces. Agave placed
his severed head on her wand and called upon the revelers to behold the
desert-whelped lion's head that she had taken.
Cadmus and his attendants carried the maimed body of his grandson back
to the city. When Agave displayed her bloody trophy, the old man could
only feel the deepest pity for his daughter in her blind excess. When
Agave awoke from her trance and recognized the head of her beloved son
on her wand, she was bewildered and grief-stricken. Cadmus, mourning the
violence that had occurred, urged all men to comply with the wishes of
the Olympian deities.
Dionysus returned in his divine form and prophesied that Cadmus and his
wife, Harmonia, transformed into dragons, would overcome many Grecian
lands before they died. He showed no sympathy for Agave, who cried out
that she had been guilty of sinning against him. He doomed her and her
sisters to wander without respite until death overtook them.
The Bacchae, written in Macedonia after the author's voluntary exile
from Athens and produced posthumously, is one of Euripides' most
poetically beautiful as well as thematically difficult dramas. The play
abounds in passages of nature description unsurpassed in any of the
playwright's other works; the lyrics of the chorus in praise of Dionysus
and his gifts of wine and sensuality are particularly exquisite. The
vivid landscapes and hymns to bacchanalian pleasure in the first part of
the play are so intriguing, in fact, that Pentheus seems a combined
brute and prude for opposing the spread of the Dionysian cult in Thebes.
In the second half of the play, Euripides' descriptive talent turns to a
different purpose with equal effectiveness, as he presents the grisly
scene of Pentheus' slaughter by the revelers, terrifying in their
mindless, maddened frenzy.
The fact that The Bacchae has been alternately interpreted as Euripides'
approval of the Dionysian nature-worship cult and as his condemnation of
religious excess, attests to the play's thematic complexity. Critics of
the first persuasion can cite several undeniable facts as evidence.
Perhaps the first thing one notices upon beginning the play is that the
Chorus, which traditionally functions as the upholder of moral values
and mouthpiece of social standards, in The Bacchae aligns itself with
Dionysus and fully supports his attempt to introduce his cult into
Thebes. Also a follower of the god-man is Tiresias, the familiar blind
prophet of Greek tragedy, who vehemently exhorts Pentheus to accept the
new cult and accompany him—along with Pentheus' grandfather, Cadmus—to
the worship rites. But perhaps the strongest evidence that can be used
to support this interpretation is that the doom foretold by the Chorus
for Pentheus, if he persists in opposing what they view as the
unquestionable right of the gods to demand worship, comes true; the king
of Thebes is killed by his own mother in a most savage and gruesome
manner. And yet critics who feel that the play is Euripides'
condemnation of excessive emotionalism and religious fanaticism can turn
this same event of Pentheus' cruel death around: Is the author not
portraying the king as a victim of an unnecessary, unreasoning frenzy?
This reading can also be supported by pointing out that Pentheus is not
an evil character by any means, but a king who has a duty to protect his
city from disruptive social influences. Furthermore, this second
interpretation would explain Agave's sentence of lifelong exile at the
close of the play.
In view of Euripides' rational and humanistic stance throughout all his
dramas, however, it would seem most likely that each interpretation
contains some amount of truth, but that both are greatly oversimplified.
It is true, for example, that Pentheus is not an evil king, but on the
other hand he is unwise in his rejection of advice from his elders, his
total reliance on his own reason. His insistence that the cult be
destroyed is a denial of one powerful aspect of man's nature; Dionysus
represents a force— man's animal nature which must be reckoned with. It
is also true that Agave is banished, but she is banished, one must not
forget, by Dionysus himself, against whom she has sinned; and her sin
certainly is not in worshiping him, but in perverting her worship by
carrying it to such excessive lengths that she kills her own son. Thus
it would seem that in The Bacchae, as elsewhere, Euripides is arguing
for moderation in all things. Pure reason which denies the animal
element in man leads to destruction just as surely as pure sensuality
unleashed without reasonable control.
Type of work: Drama
Author: Euripides (480-406 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: After the fall of Troy
First presented: c. 413 B.C.
Euripides' Electra is a psychological study of a woman's
all-consuming hatred for her mother and stepfather on the one hand, and
her love for her murdered father and exiled brother on the other. The
plot revolves around the attempts of Electra—who has been forced to
marry a farmer so that she will have no power—to spur her brother
Orestes on to murder her enemies.
Electra (¸-lek'tre), the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. On his
return from the Trojan War, Agamemnon was slain by Clytemnestra and
Aegisthus, her lover, who now rules in Argos. For his own safety
Orestes, Electra's brother, was smuggled out of the kingdom; Electra
remained, was saved from death at the hands of Aegisthus by
Clytemnestra, and was married to a poor farmer by Aegisthus. The farmer,
out of respect for the house of Agamemnon, has never asserted his
marital rights. In her first appearance Electra is thus the slave
princess, unwashed and in rags, longing for attention and some emotional
outlet, morbidly attached to her dead father and powerfully jealous of
Clytemnestra. Orestes appears and, posing as a friend of the exiled
brother, discusses with Electra the conduct of their mother and
Aegisthus. In her speech to him she betrays herself as a woman whose
desire for revenge has through continuous brooding become a
self-centered obsession; her motive for the murder of Clytemnestra has
now become hatred for her mother rather than love for her father, and
she is an ugly and perverted being. Her expression of joy in the thought
of murdering her mother causes Orestes not to reveal his identity until
an old servant recognizes him. Electra takes no part in plotting
vengeance on Aegisthus but arranges the murder of her mother. She sends
a message that she has been delivered of a son and needs Clytemnestra to
aid in the sacrifices attending the birth. When the body of Aegisthus is
brought in, Electra condemns him. The language in her speech is
artificial and stilted; it contrasts sharply with her passionate
condemnation of Clytemnestra shortly after. Electra never realizes that
she is committing exactly the same atrocity for which she wishes to
punish her mother. She leads her mother into the house and guides
Orestes' sword when he hesitates. It is only after the deed is committed
that she feels the burden of what she has done. At the end of the play
she is given by the gods in marriage to Pylades.
Orestes (o-res'tez), Electra's brother. He returns secretly from exile
under compulsion from Apollo to kill Aegisthus and his mother. Guided by
the oracle, he does not share Electra's extreme lust for revenge. He
kills Aegisthus by striking him in the back as he is preparing a
sacrifice to the Nymphs and then, driven on by Electra, stabs his mother
when she enters the house of Electra. The gods reveal that he will be
pursued by the Furies of blood-guilt for his actions, but that he will
find release at Athens before the tribunal of the Areopagus, where
Apollo will accept responsibility for the matricide.
Clytemnestra (kli'tanvnes'tra), the regal mother of Electra, who took
Aegisthus as her lover before Agamemnon returned from Troy. Together the
pair plotted the murder of the husband. Her attempt to justify the
murder on the grounds that Agamemnon had sacrificed her daughter
Iphigenia is unsuccessful. Her cruelty, vanity, and sordid private
affairs alienate her from any great sympathy, but she has saved the life
of Electra and has enough affection to answer Electra's request that she
help in the sacrifice to celebrate the birth of her daughter's son. She
is murdered by Orestes, at his sister's urging.
A Farmer, a Mycenaean to whom Aegisthus has given Electra in marriage.
He understands and accepts his station in life with nobility. Electra
acknowledges her gratitude for his understanding behavior.
Pylades (ðÏ'ý-dez), a mute character. He is the faithful friend who
accompanies Orestes during his exile and is given Electra as a wife by
An Old Man, a former servant in the house of Agamemnon who is still
faithful to Electra. Summoned by her, he recognizes Orestes and helps to
devise a plan for the murder of Aegisthus.
Castor (kas'tar) and Polydeuces (pol'i-du'sez), the Dioscuri, brothers
of Clytemnestra. They appear at the end of the play to give Electra in
marriage and to foretell the future of Orestes.
After Agamemnon, king of Argos, had returned home from the Trojan War,
his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, murdered him in cold
blood during the homecoming banquet. Afterward Aegisthus and
Clytemnestra were married, and Aegisthus became king. Orestes, young son
of Agamemnon, was sent by a relative to Phocis before Aegisthus could
destroy him. Electra, the daughter, remained, but was given in marriage
to an old peasant, lest she marry a warrior powerful enough to avenge
her father's death.
One day, after Electra and the peasant had gone out to do the day's
work, Orestes came in disguise with his best friend, Pylades, to the
farm to seek Electra. They heard her singing a lament for her lot and
for the death of her father. A messenger interrupted her lament with
word that a festival would be held in honor of the Goddess Hera and that
all Argive maidens were to attend. Electra said she preferred to remain
on the farm away from the pitying eyes of the people of Argos. The
messenger advised her to pay honor to the gods and to ask their help.
Electra mistook Orestes and Pylades for friends of her brother and told
them the story of her grief. She urged that Orestes avenge the death of
Agamemnon and the ill treatment of himself and Electra. Aegisthus,
meanwhile, had offered a reward for the death of Orestes.
The peasant returned from his work and asked Orestes and Pylades to
remain as his guests. Electra sent her husband to bring the relative who
had taken Orestes away from Argos. On his way to the peasant's cottage,
the old foster father noticed that a sacrifice had been made at the tomb
of Agamemnon and that there were some red hairs on the grave. He
suggested to Electra that Orestes might be in the vicinity, but Electra
answered that there was no chance of his being in Argos. When Orestes
came out of the cottage, the old man recognized a scar on his forehead;
thus brother and sister were made known to each other.
At the advice of the old peasant, Orestes planned to attend a
sacrificial feast over which Aegisthus would preside. Electra sent her
husband to tell Clytemnestra that she had given birth to a baby. Electra
and Orestes invoked the aid of the gods in their venture to avenge the
death of their father.
Orestes and Pylades were hailed by Aegisthus as they passed him in his
garden. The pair told Aegisthus that they were from Thessaly and were on
their way to sacrifice to Zeus. Aegisthus informed them that he was
preparing to sacrifice to the nymphs and invited them to tarry. At the
sacrifice of a calf, Orestes plunged a cleaver into Aegisthus' back
while Aegisthus was examining the entrails of the beast. Orestes then
revealed his identity to the servants, who cheered the son of their
former master. Orestes carried the corpse of Aegisthus back to the
cottage where it was hidden after Electra had reviled it.
At the sight of Clytemnestra approaching the peasant's hut, Orestes had
misgivings about the plan to murder her. He felt that matricide would
bring the wrath of the gods upon his head. But Electra, determined to
complete the revenge, reminded Orestes that an oracle had told him to
destroy Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.
Clytemnestra defended herself before Electra with the argument that
Agamemnon had sacrificed Iphegenia, their child, as an offering before
the Trojan venture and that he had returned to Argos with Cassandra,
princess of Troy, as his concubine. Electra indicted her mother on
several counts and said that it was only just that she and Orestes
murder Clytemnestra. The queen entered the hut to prepare a sacrifice
for Electra's supposed firstborn; within, she was killed by Orestes, who
moaned in distress at the violence and bloodshed and matricide in which
the gods had involved him.
The Dioscuri, twin sons of Zeus and brothers of the half-divine
Clytemnestra, appeared to the brother and sister, who were overcome with
mixed feelings of hate and love and pride and shame at what they had
done. The twin gods questioned the wisdom of Apollo, whose oracle had
advised this violent action; they decreed that Orestes should give
Electra to Pylades in marriage and that Orestes himself should be
pursued by the Furies until he could face a trial in Athens, from which
trial he would emerge a free man.
Electra is a compelling example of Euripides' dramaturgy, but it also
affords us a means of comparing his purpose and techniques with those of
Aeschylus and Sophocles, for each of them used the same legend and
presented roughly the same action. Aeschylus in The Libation-Bearers
(part of his trilogy, the Oresteia), Sophocles in Electra, and Euripides
in his Electra all treat Orestes' return to Argos, his presentation of
himself to his sister Electra, their planning of the revenge against
Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, and the execution of that revenge. Each
treatment is unique, showing the distinct temper of mind of these three
With Aeschylus the twin murders of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra are the
culminating crimes in a family polluted by generations of kin slay ings.
Regicide and matricide are evils instigated by Apollo to punish and
purge the earlier murder of Agamemnon. Orestes alone takes on the burden
of these crimes. A minor character, Electra offers him encouragement to
the deed, but her gentle nature prevents her from being an actual
accomplice. Aeschylus shows us Orestes' revenge as an act of divine
justice, a crime that will in time earn an acquittal.
Sophocles takes a different view of the matter. The regicide and
matricide are justifiable for him in human terms mainly, as the proper
retribution for Agamemnon's killing. Electra is portrayed as a hard,
bitter, determined young woman who aids her brother as a rightful duty.
This perspective is similar to that in Homer's Odyssey.
Euripides, however, calls both points of view into question. He sees the
murders of Aegisthus and Clytem-nestra as wholly unmitigated evils that
are neither humanly nor divinely justifiable. Euripides says in effect
that no killing is permissible for any reason. And he carries this logic
to its ultimate conclusion—that killers have as much right to live as
anyone else no matter how twisted their psyche or how questionable their
motives. This is a radical stand, but it is based on Euripides' firm
belief in the value of every human life. This conviction shines through
the whole of Electra and makes the idea of just retribution a mockery.
One has the impression that Euripides would have liked to abolish all
courts and prisons, turning justice into a matter of individual
conscience. What is interesting is the way he works out these ideas
Whereas Aeschylus and Sophocles concentrate on royalty and heroes,
Euripides does not hesitate to depict an honorable peasant or to show
ignoble blue bloods. In fact, the entire action of Electra takes place
in front of a peasant's hut. To Euripides each life had worth, but the
index to that worth was strength of character. Position, wealth, power,
beauty, and physique were nothing to him. He was chiefly interested in
an accurate, realistic psychology—a direct consequence of his beliefs.
Each of the main characters is shown as a clearly defined personality in
relation to a specific environment. Euripides tends to concentrate on
the sordid aspects in Electra as the legend would seem to demand, yet it
is here that his faith in human dignity reveals its power. We find it
easy to love good people, but to love people as warped by circumstances
as Electra, Orestes, or Clytemnestra requires moral courage. Euripides
had it, and he portrayed their pain as though it were his own.
Electra has fallen from lavish prosperity to squalor in a forced,
loveless marriage to a peasant. She is slovenly and full of self-pity
and spite. Further, she envies her mother, Clytemnestra, who lives in
luxury and power, and she hates Aegisthus. Her single passion is to kill
them both, and when she discovers Orestes, she uses him to obtain
revenge. Orestes himself is a neurotic vagabond of no status, with
authorization from Apollo to kill his mother and her lover, yet he
declaims pompously about nobility of character.
Clytemnestra seems like a housewife in queen's clothing, operating by a
retaliatory logic. She takes a lover because her husband had a mistress,
and she kills Agamemnon because he killed their daughter Iphigenia. But
none of this has made her happy. And when she visits Electra out of
motherly concern, she is hacked to death by her two children. Even
Aegisthus appears to be decent. It is precisely their ordinariness that
makes the realistic descriptions of their murders so hideously
sickening. We feel with Euripides that they deserve to live.
Once their passion for revenge is spent, Orestes and Electra are filled
with self-revulsion, having arrived at the depths of a nightmarish
degradation. Then Euripides brings two gods on stage, Castor and
Polydeuces, to settle the matter. This deus ex machina ending puts the
action in a new light. Apollo is directly responsible for the murders,
just as Zeus is responsible for the Trojan War. These are not wise or
just gods by human standards, and an individual person has infinitely
more worth than their abominable edicts. Euripides is supremely
confident in his position, and he does not shrink from judging gods by
Consistent with his faith in man's value, he allows Orestes and Electra
a good measure of compassion in the end. These two share in the
blood-guilt and will be exiled. Orestes will be driven mad by the
Furies, but even they deserve to live, Euripides says in essence, and in
time they will win forgiveness. The belief in human dignity has rarely
had such a steadfast champion as Euripides.
Translated by E. P. Coleridge
A PEASANT OF MYCENAE, husband of ELECTRA
ELECTRA, daughter of Agamemnon
ORESTES, son of Agamemnon
PYLADES, friend Of ORESTES
CHORUS OF ARGIVE COUNTRY-WOMEN
CLYTEMNESTRA, widow of Agamemnon
OLD MAN, formerly servant of Agamemnon
Before the hut of the PEASANT, in the country on the borders of
Argolis. It is just before sunrise. The PEASANT is discovered alone.
O Argos, ancient land, and streams of Inachus, whence on a day
king Agamemnon sailed to the realm of Troy, carrying his
warriors aboard a thousand ships; and after he had slain Priam
who was reigning in Ilium and captured the famous city of
Dardanus, he came hither to Argos and has set up high on the
temple-walls many a trophy, spoil of the barbarians. Though all
went well with him in Troy, yet was he slain in his own palace
by the guile of his wife Clytemnestra and the hand of Aegisthus,
son of Thyestes. So he died and left behind him the ancient
sceptre of Tantalus, and Aegisthus reigns in his stead, with the
daughter of Tyndareus, Agamemnon's queen, to wife. Now as for
those whom he left in his halls, when he sailed to Troy, his son
Orestes and his tender daughter Electra,-the boy Orestes, as he
was like to be slain by Aegisthus, his sire's old foster-father
secretly removed to the land of Phocis and gave to Strophius to
bring up, but the maid Electra abode in her father's house, and
soon as she had budded into maidenhood, came all the princes of
Hellas asking her hand in marriage. But Aegisthus kept her at
home for fear she might bear a son to some chieftain who would
avenge Agamemnon, nor would he betroth her unto any. But when
e'en thus there seemed some room for fear that she might bear
some noble lord a child by stealth and Aegisthus was minded to
slay her, her mother, though she had a cruel heart, yet rescued
the maiden from his hand. For she could find excuses for having
slain her husband, but she feared the hatred she would incur for
her children's murder. Wherefore Aegisthus devised this scheme;
on Agamemnon's son who had escaped his realm by flight he set a
price to be paid to any who should slay him, while he gave
Electra to me in marriage, whose ancestors were citizens of
Mycenae. It is not that I blame myself for; my family was noble
enough, though certainly impoverished, and so my good birth
suffers. By making for her this weak alliance he thought he
would have little to fear. For if some man of high position had
married her, he might have revived the vengeance for Agamemnon's
murder, which now is sleeping; in which case Aegisthus would
have paid the penalty. But Cypris is my witness that I have ever
respected her maidenhood; she is still as though unwed. Unworthy
as I am, honour forbids that I should so affront the daughter of
a better man. Yea, and I am sorry for Orestes, hapless youth,
who is called my kinsman, to think that he should ever return to
Argos and behold his sister's wretched marriage. And whoso
counts me but a fool for leaving a tender maid untouched when I
have her in my house, to him I say, he measures purity by the
vicious standard of his own soul, a standard like himself.
ELECTRA enters from the hut, carrying a water pitcher on her
head. She is meanly clad.
O sable night, nurse of the golden stars! beneath thy pall I go
to fetch water from the brook with my pitcher poised upon my
head, not indeed because I am forced to this necessity, but that
to the gods I may display the affronts Aegisthus puts upon me,
and to the wide firmament pour out my lamentation for my sire.
For my own mother, the baleful daughter of Tyndareus, hath cast
me forth from her house to gratify her lord; for since she hath
borne other children to Aegisthus she puts me and Orestes on one
side at home.
Oh! why, poor maiden, dost thou toil so hard on my behalf, thou
that aforetime wert reared so daintily? why canst thou not
forego thy labour, as I bid thee?
As a god's I count thy kindness to me, for in my distress thou
hast never made a mock at me. 'Tis rare fortune when mortals
find such healing balm for their cruel wounds as 'tis my lot to
find in thee. Wherefore I ought, though thou forbid me, to
lighten thy labours, as far as my strength allows, and share all
burdens with thee to ease thy load. Thou hast enough to do
abroad; 'tis only right that I should keep thy house in order.
For when the toiler cometh to his home from the field, it is
pleasant to find all comfortable in the house.
If such thy pleasure, go thy way; for, after all, the spring is
no great distance from my house. And at break of day I will
drive my steers to my glebe and sow my crop. For no idler,
though he has the gods' names ever on his lips, can gather a
livelihood without hard work.
ELECTRA and the PEASANT go out. A moment later ORESTES and
Ah Pylades, I put thee first 'mongst men for thy love, thy
loyalty and friendliness to me; for thou alone of all my friends
wouldst still honour poor Orestes, in spite of the grievous
plight whereto I am reduced by Aegisthus, who with my accursed
mother's aid slew my sire. I am come from Apollo's mystic shrine
to the soil of Argos, without the knowledge of any, to avenge my
father's death upon his murderers. Last night went unto his tomb
and wept thereon, cutting off my hair as an offering and pouring
o'er the grave the blood of a sheep for sacrifice, unmarked by
those who lord it o'er this land. And now though I enter not the
walled town, yet by coming to the borders of the land I combine
two objects; I can escape to another country if any spy me out
and recognize me, and at the same time seek my sister, for I am
told she is a maid no longer but is married and living here,
that I may meet her, and, after enlisting her aid in the deed of
blood, learn for certain what is happening in the town. Let us
now, since dawn is uplifting her radiant eye, step aside from
this path. For maybe some labouring man or serving maid will
come in sight, of whom we may inquire whether it is here that my
sister hath her home. Lo! yonder I see a servant bearing a full
pitcher of water on her shaven head; let us sit down and make
inquiry of this bond-maid, if haply we may glean some tidings of
the matter which brought us hither, Pylades.
They retire a little, as ELECTRA returns from the spring.
The CHORUS OF ARGIVE COUNTRY-WOMEN enter. The following lines
between ELECTRA and the CHORUS are sung responsively.
Bestir thy lagging feet, 'tis high time; on, on o'er thy path of
tears! ah misery! I am Agamemnon's daughter, she whom
Clytemnestra, hateful child of Tyndareus, bare; hapless Electra
is the name my countrymen call me. Ah me! for my cruel lot, my
hateful existence! O my father Agamemnon! in Hades art thou
laid, butchered by thy wife and Aegisthus. Come, raise with me
that dirge once more; uplift the woful strain that brings
On, on o'er thy path of tears! ah misery! And thou, poor
brother, in what city and house art thou a slave, leaving thy
suffering sister behind in the halls of our fathers to drain the
cup of bitterness? Oh! come, great Zeus, to set me free from
this life of sorrow, and to avenge my sire in the blood of his
foes, bringing the wanderer home to Argos.
Take this pitcher from my head, put it down, that I may wake
betimes, while it is yet night, my lamentation for my sire, my
doleful chant, my dirge of death, for thee, my father in thy
grave, which day by day I do rehearse, rending my skin with my
nails, and smiting on my shaven head in mourning for thy death.
Woe, woe! rend the cheek; like a swan with clear loud note
beside the brimming river calling to its parent dear that lies
a-dying in the meshes of the crafty net, so I bewail thee, my
After that last fatal bath of thine laid out most piteously in
death. Oh I the horror of that axe which hacked thee so cruelly,
my sire I oh! the bitter thought that prompted thy return from
Troy! With no garlands or victor's crowns did thy wife welcome
thee, but with his two-edged sword she made thee the sad sport
of Aegisthus and kept her treacherous paramour.
O Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, to thy rustic cot I come, for
a messenger hath arrived, a highlander from Mycenae, one who
lives on milk, announcing that the Argives are proclaiming a
sacrifice for the third day from now, and all our maidens are to
go to Hera's temple.
Kind friends, my heart is not set on festivity, nor do necklaces
of gold cause any flutter in my sorrowing bosom, nor will I
stand up with the maidens of Argos to beat my foot in the mazy
dance. Tears have been my meat day and night; ah misery! See my
unkempt hair, my tattered dress; are they fit for a princess, a
daughter of Agamemnon, or for Troy which once thought of my
father as its captor?
Mighty is the goddess; so come, and borrow of me broidered robes
for apparel and jewels of gold that add a further grace to
beauty's charms. Dost think to triumph o'er thy foes by tears,
if thou honour not the gods? 'Tis not by lamentation but by
pious prayers to heaved that thou, my daughter, wilt make
fortune smile on thee.
No god hearkens to the voice of lost Electra, or heeds the
sacrifices offered by my father long ago. Ah woe for the dead!
woe for the living wanderer, who dwelleth in some foreign land,
an outcast and vagabond at a menial board, sprung though he is
of a famous sire! Myself, too, in a poor man's hut do dwell,
wasting my soul with grief, an exile from my father's halls,
here by the scarred hill-side; while my mother is wedded to a
new husband in a marriage stained by blood.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
Many a woe to Hellas and thy house did Helen, thy mother's
ELECTRA catching sight of ORESTES AND PYLADES
Ha! Friends, I break off my lament; yonder are strangers just
leaving the place of ambush where they were couching, and making
for the house. We must seek to escape the villains by flying,
thou along the path and I into my cottage.
Stay, poor maid; fear no violence from me.
O Phoebus Apollo I beseech thee spare my life.
Give me the lives of others more my foes than thou!
Begone! touch me not! thou hast no right to.
There is none I have a better right to touch.
How is it then thou waylayest me, sword in hand, near my house?
Wait and hear, and thou wilt soon agree with me
Here I stand; I am in thy power in any case, since thou art the
I am come to thee with news of thy brother.
O best of friends! is he alive or dead?
Alive; I would fain give thee my good news first.
God bless thee! in return for thy welcome tidings.
I am prepared to share that blessing between us.
In what land is my poor brother spending his dreary exile?
His ruined life does not conform to the customs of any one city.
Surely he does not want for daily bread?
Bread he has, but an exile is a helpless man at best.
What is this message thou hast brought from him?
He asks, "Art thou alive? and if so, How art thou faring?"
Well, first thou seest how haggard I am grown.
So wasted with sorrow that I weep for thee.
Next mark my head, shorn and shaven like a Scythian's.
Thy brother's fate and father's death no doubt disturb thee.
Yes, alas! for what have I more dear than these?
Ah! and what dost thou suppose is dearer to thy brother?
He is far away, not here to show his love to me.
Wherefore art thou living here far from the city?
I am wedded, sir; a fatal match!
Alas! for thy brother; I pity him. Is thy husband of Mycenae?
He is not the man to whom my father ever thought of betrothing
Tell me all, that I may report it to thy brother.
I live apart from my husband in this house.
The only fit inmate would be a hind or herd.
Poor he is, yet he displays a generous consideration for me.
Why, what is this consideration that attaches to thy husband?
He has never presumed to claim from me a husband's rights.
Is he under a vow of chastity? or does he disdain thee?
He thought he had no right to flout my ancestry.
How was it he was not overjoyed at winning such a bride?
He does not recognize the right of him who disposed of my hand.
I understand; he was afraid of the vengeance of Orestes
There was that fear, but he was a virtuous man as well.
Ah! a noble nature this! He deserves kind treatment.
Yes, if ever the wanderer return.
But did thy own mother give in to this?
'Tis her husband, not her children that a woman loves, sir
Wherefore did Aegisthus put this affront on thee?
His design in giving me to such a husband was to weaken my
To prevent thee bearing sons, I suppose, who should punish him?
That was his plan; God grant I may avenge me on him for it!
Does thy mother's husband know that thou art yet a maid?
He does not; our silence robs him of that knowledge.
Are these women friends of thine, who overhear our talk?
They are, and they will keep our conversation perfectly secret.
What could Orestes do in this matter, if he did return?
Canst thou ask? Shame on thee for that! Is not this the time for
But suppose he comes, how could he slay his father's murderers?
By boldly meting out the same fate that his father had meted out
to him by his foes.
Wouldst thou be brave enough to help him slay his mother?
Aye, with the self-same axe that drank my father's blood.
Am I to tell him this, and that thy purpose firmly holds?
Once I have shed my mother's blood o'er his, then welcome death!
Ah! would Orestes were standing near to hear that!
I should not know him, sir, if I saw him.
No wonder; you were both children when you parted.
There is only one of my friends would recognize him.
The man maybe who is said to have snatched him away from being
Yes, the old servant who tended my father's childhood long ago.
Did thy father's corpse obtain burial?
Such burial as it was, after his body had been flung forth from
O God! how awful is thy story! Yes, there is a feeling, arising
even from another's distress, that wrings the human heart. Say
on, that when know the loveless tale, which yet I needs must
hear, I may carry it to thy brother. For pity, though it has no
place in ignorant natures, is inborn in the wise; still it may
cause trouble to find excessive cleverness amongst the wise.
I too am stirred by the same desire as the stranger. For
dwelling so far from the city I know nothing of its ills, and I
should like to hear about them now myself.
I will tell you, if I may; and surely I may tell a friend about
my own and my father's grievous misfortunes. Now since thou
movest me to speak, I entreat thee, sir, tell Orestes of our
sorrows; first, describe the dress I wear, the load of squalor
that oppresses me, the hovel I inhabit after my royal home; tell
him how hard I have to work at weaving clothes myself or else go
barely clad and do without; how I carry home on my head water
from the brook; no part have I in holy festival, no place amid
the dance; a maiden still I turn from married dames and from
Castor too, to whom they betrothed me before he joined the
heavenly host, for I was his kinswoman. Meantime my mother, 'mid
the spoils of Troy, is seated on her throne, and at her
foot-stool slaves from Asia stand and wait, captives of my
father's spear, whose Trojan robes are fastened with brooches of
gold. And there on the wall my father's blood still leaves a
deep dark stain, while his murderer mounts the dead man's car
and fareth forth, proudly grasping in his blood-stained hands
the sceptre with which Agamemnon would marshal the sons of
Hellas. Dishonoured lies his grave; naught as yet hath it
received of drink outpoured or myrtle-spray, but bare of
ornament his tomb is left. Yea, and 'tis said that noble hero
who is wedded to my mother, in his drunken fits, doth leap upon
the grave, and pelt with stones my father's monument, boldly
gibing at us on this wise, "Where is thy son Orestes? Is he ever
coming in his glory to defend thy tomb?" Thus is Orestes flouted
behind his back. Oh! tell him this, kind sir, I pray thee. And
there be many calling him to come,-I am but their
mouthpiece,-these suppliant hands, this tongue, my broken heart,
my shaven head, and his own father too. For 'tis shameful that
the sire should have destroyed Troy's race and the son yet prove
too weak to pit himself against one foe unto the death, albeit
he has youth and better blood as well.
Lo! here is thy husband hurrying homeward, his labour done.
PEASANT entering and catching sight of strangers talking
Ha! who are these strangers I see at my door? And why are they
come hither to my rustic gate? can they want my help? for 'tis
unseemly for a woman to stand talking with young men.
Dear husband, be not suspicious of me. For thou shalt hear the
truth; these strangers have come to bring me news of Orestes.
Good sirs, pardon him those words.
What say they? is that hero yet alive and in the light of day?
He is; at least they say so, and I believe them.
Surely then he hath some memory of his father and thy wrongs?
These are things to hope for; a man in exile is helpless.
What message have they brought from Orestes?
He sent them to spy out my evil case.
Well, they only see a part of it, though maybe thou art telling
them the rest.
They know all; there is nothing further they need ask.
Long ere this then shouldst thou have thrown open our doors to
them. Enter, sirs; for in return for your good tidings, shall ye
find such cheer as my house affords. Ho! servants, take their
baggage within; make no excuses, for ye are friends sent by one
I love; and poor though I am, yet will I never show meanness in
'Fore heaven! is this the man who is helping thee to frustrate
thy marriage, because he will not shame Orestes?
This is he whom they call my husband, woe is me!
Ah! there is no sure mark to recognize a man's worth; for human
nature hath in it an element of confusion. For I have seen ere
now the son of noble sire prove himself a worthless knave, and
virtuous children sprung from evil parents; likewise dearth in a
rich man's spirit, and in a poor man's frame a mighty soul. By
what standard then shall we rightly judge these things? By
wealth? An evil test to use. By poverty then? Nay, poverty
suffers from this, that it teaches a man to play the villain
from necessity. To martial prowess must I turn? But who could
pronounce who is the valiant man merely from the look of his
spear? Better is it to leave these matters to themselves without
troubling. For here is a man of no account in Argos, with no
family reputation to boast, one of the common herd, proved a
very hero. A truce to your folly! ye self-deceivers, swollen
with idle fancies; learn to judge men by their converse, and by
their habits decide who are noble. Such are they who rule aright
both states and families; while those forms of flesh, devoid of
intellect, are but figure-heads in the market-place. The strong
arm, again, no more than the weak awaits the battle-shock, for
this depends on natural courage. Well! absent or present,
Agamemnon's son, whose business brings us here, deserves this of
us, so let us accept a lodging in this house.
Calling to his servants
Ho! sirrahs, go within. A humble host, who does his best, in
preference to a wealthy man for me! And so I thankfully accept
this peasant's proffered welcome, though I could have preferred
that thy brother were conducting me to share his fortune in his
halls. Maybe he yet will come; for the oracies of Loxias are
sure, but to man's divining "Farewell" say I.
ORESTES, PYLADES and their attendants go into the hut.
Electra, I feel a warmer glow of joy suffuse my heart than ever
heretofore; perchance our fortune, moving on at last, will find
a happy resting-place.
O reckless man, why didst thou welcome strangers like these, so
far beyond thy station, knowing the poverty of thy house?
Why? if they are really as noble as they seem, surely they will
be equally content with rich or humble fare.
Well. since thou hast made this error, poor man as thou art, go
to my father's kind old foster-sire; on the bank of the river
Tanaus, the boundary 'twixt Argos and the land of Sparta, he
tends his flocks, an outcast from the city; bid him come hither
to our house and some provision for the strangers'
entertainment. Glad will he be, and will offer thanks to heaven
to hear that the child, whom once he saved, is yet alive. I
shall get nothing from my mother from my ancestral halls; for we
should rue our message, were she to learn, unnatural wretch!
that Orestes liveth.
I will take this message to the old man, if it seem good to
thee; but get thee in at once and there make ready. A woman,
when she chooses, can find dainties in plenty to garnish a
feast. Besides, there is quite enough in the house to satisfy
them with food for one day at least. 'Tis in such cases, when I
come to muse thereon, that I discern the mighty power of wealth,
whether to give to strangers, or to expend in curing the body
when it falls sick; but our daily food is a small matter; for
all of us, rich as well as poor, are in like case, as soon as we
The PEASANT departs as ELECTRA enters the hut.
The OLD MAN, the former servant of Agamemnon, enters. ELECTRA
presently appears at the door of the hut.
Ye famous ships, that on a day were brought to land at Troy by
those countless oars, what time ye led the Nereids' dance, where
the dolphin music-loving rolled and gambolled round your dusky
prows, escorting Achilles, nimble son of Thetis, when he went
with Agamemnon to the banks of Trojan Simois;
When Nereids left Euboea's strand, bringing from Hephaestus'
golden forge the harness he had fashioned for that warrior's
use; him long they sought o'er Pelion and Ossa's spurs, ranging
the sacred glens and the peaks of Nymphaea, where his knightly
sire was training up a light for Hellas, even the sea-born son
of Thetis, a warrior swift to help the sons of Atreus.
One that came from Ilium, and set foot in the haven of Nauplia,
told me that on the circle of thy far-famed targe, O son of
Thetis, was wrought this blazon, a terror to the Phrygians; on
the rim of the buckler Perseus with winged sandals, was bearing
in his hand across the main the Gorgon's head, just severed by
the aid of Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, that rural god whom
While in the centre of the shield the sun's bright orb flashed
light on the backs of his winged coursers; there too was the
heavenly choir of stars, Pleiades and Hyades, to dazzle Hector's
eyes and make him flee; and upon his gold-forged helm were
sphinxes, bearing in their talons the prey of which the
minstrels sing; on his breast-plate was lioness breathing flame,
her eye upon Peirene's steed, in eagerness to rend it.
There too in murderous fray four-footed steeds were prancing,
while oer their backs uprose dark clouds of dust. But he who led
these warriors stout, was slain by wedding thee, malignant child
of Tyndareus! Wherefore shall the gods of heaven one day send
thee to thy doom, and I shall yet live to see the sword at thy
throat, drinking its crimson tide.
Where is the young princess, my mistress, Agamemnon's daughter,
whom I nursed in days gone by? Oh! how steep is the approach to
this house, a hard climb for these old wasted feet of mine!
Still, to reach such friends as these, I must drag my bent old
back and tottering knees up it. Ah, daughter!-for I see thee now
at thy door,-lo! I have brought the this tender lamb from my own
flock, having taken it from its dam, with garlands too and
cheese straight from the press, and this flask of choice old
wine with fragrant bouquet; 'tis small perhaps, but pour a cup
thereof into some weaker drink, and it is a luscious draught.
Let some one carry these gifts into the house for the guests;
for I would fain wipe from my eyes the rising tears on this
Why stands the tear-drop in thine eye, old friend? Is it that my
sorrows have been recalled to thee after an interval? or art
thou bewailing the sad exile of Orestes, and my father's fate,
whom thou didst once fondle in thy arms, in vain, alas! for thee
and for thy friends?
Ah yes! in vain; but still I could not bear to leave him thus;
and so I added this to my journey that I sought his grave, and,
falling thereupon, wept o'er its desolation; then did I open the
wine-skin, my gift to thy guests, and poured a libation, and set
myrtle-sprigs round the tomb. And lo! upon the grave itself I
saw a black ram had been offered, and there was blood, not long
poured forth, and severed locks of auburn hair. Much I wondered,
my daughter, who had dared approach the tomb; certainly 'twas no
Argive. Nay, thy brother may perchance have come by stealth, and
going thither have done honour to his father's wretched grave.
Look at the hair, compare it with thy own, to see if the colour
of these cut locks is the same; for children in whose veins runs
the same father's blood have a close resemblance in many
Old sir, thy words are unworthy of a wise man, if thou thinkest
my own brave brother would have come to this land by stealth for
fear of Aegisthus. In the next place, how should our hair
correspond? His is the hair of a gallant youth trained up in
manly sports, mine a woman's curled and combed; nay, that is a
hopeless clue. Besides, thou couldst find many, whose hair is of
the same colour, albeit not sprung from the same blood. No,
maybe 'twas some stranger cut off his hair in pity at his tomb,
or one that came to spy this land privily.
Put thy foot in the print of his shoe and mark whether it
correspond with thine, my child.
How should the foot make any impression on stony ground? and if
it did, the foot of brother and sister would not be the same in
size, for man's is the larger.
Hast thou no mark, in case thy brother should come, whereby to
recognize the weaving of thy loom, the robe wherein I snatched
him from death that day?
Dost thou forget I was still a babe when Orestes left the
country? and even if I had woven him a robe, how should he, a
mere child then, be wearing the same now, unless our clothes and
bodies grow together?
Where are these guests? I fain would question them face to face
about thy brother.
As he speaks, ORESTES and PYLADES come out of the hut.
There they are, in haste to leave the house.
Well born, it seems, but that may be a sham; for there be plenty
such prove knaves. Still I give them greeting.
All hail, father! To which of thy friends, Electra, does this
old relic of mortality belong?
This is he who nursed my sire, sir stranger.
What! do I behold him who removed thy brother out of harm's way?
Behold the man who saved his life; if, that is, he liveth still.
Ha! why does he look so hard at me, as if he were examining the
bright device on silver coin? Is he finding in me a likeness to
Maybe he is glad to see in thee a companion of Orestes.
A man I love full well. But why is he walking round me?
I, too, am watching his movements with amaze, sir stranger.
My honoured mistress, my daughter Electra, return thanks to
For past or present favours? which?
That thou hast found a treasured prize, which God is now
Hear me invoke the gods. But what dost thou mean, old man?
Behold before thee, my child, thy nearest and dearest.
I have long feared thou wert not in thy sound senses
Not in my sound senses, because I see thy brother?
What mean'st thou, aged friend, by these astounding words?
That I see Orestes, Agamemnon's son, before me.
What mark dost see that I can trust?
A scar along his brow, where he fell and cut himself one day in
his father's home when chasing a fawn with thee.
Is it possible? True; I see the mark of the fall.
Dost hesitate then to embrace thy own dear brother?
No! not any longer, old friend; for my soul is convinced by the
tokens thou showest. O my brother, thou art come at last, and I
embrace thee, little as I ever thought to.
And thee to my bosom at last I press.
I never thought that it would happen.
All hope in me was also dead.
Art thou really he?
Aye, thy one and only champion, if I can but safely draw to
shore the cast I mean to throw; and I feel sure I shall; else
must we cease to believe in gods, if wrong is to triumph o'er
At last, at last appears thy radiant dawn, O happy day! and as
beacon to the city hast thou revealed the wanderer, who, long
ago, poor boy! was exiled from his father's halls. Now, lady,
comes our turn for victory, ushered in by some god. Raise hand
and voice in prayer, beseech the gods that good fortune may
attend thy brother's entry to the city.
Enough! sweet though the rapture of this greeting be, I must
wait and return it hereafter. Do thou, old friend so timely met,
tell me how I am to avenge me on my father's murderer, and on my
mother, the partner in his guilty marriage. Have I still in
Argos any band of kindly friends? or am I, like my fortunes,
bankrupt altogether? With whom am I to league myself? by night
or day shall I advance? point out a road for me to take against
these foes of mine.
My son, thou hast no friend now in thy hour of adversity. No!
that is a piece of rare good luck, to find another share thy
fortunes alike for better and for worse. Thou art of every
friend completely reft, all hope is gone from thee; be sure of
what I tell thee; on thy own arm and fortune art thou wholly
thrown to win thy father's home and thy city.
What must I do to compass this result?
Slay Thyestes' son and thy mother.
I came to win that victor's crown, but how can I attain it?
Thou wouldst never achieve it if thou didst enter the walls.
Are they manned with guards and armed sentinels?
Aye truly; for he is afraid of thee, and cannot sleep secure.
Well then, do thou next propose a scheme, old friend.
Hear me a moment; an idea has just occurred to me.
May thy counsel prove good, and my perception keen!
I saw Aegisthus, as I was slowly pacing hither-
I welcome thy words. Where was he?
Not far from these fields, at his stables.
What was he doing? I see a gleam of hope after our helplessness.
I thought he was preparing a feast for the Nymphs.
In return for the bringing up of children or in anticipation of
All I know is this, he was preparing to sacrifice oxen.
How many were with him? or was he alone with his servants?
There was no Argive there; only a band of his own followers.
Is it possible that any of them will recognize me, old man?
They are only servants, and they have never even seen thee.
Will they support me, if I prevail?
Yes, that is the way of slaves, luckily for thee.
On what pretext can I approach him?
Go to some place where he will see thee as he sacrifices.
His estate is close to the road then, I suppose.
Yes, and when he sees thee there, he will invite thee to the
So help me God! He shall rue his invitation.
After that, form thy own plan according to circumstances.
Good advice! But my mother, where is she?
At Argos; but she will yet join her husband for the feast.
Why did she not come forth with him?
From fear of the citizens' reproach she stayed behind.
I understand; she knows that the city suspects her.
Just so; her wickedness makes her hated.
How shall I slay her and him together?
Mine be the preparation of my mother's slaying!
Well, as for the other, fortune will favour us.
Our old friend here must help us both.
Aye, that will I; but wnat is thy scheme for slaying thy mother?
Go, old man, and tell Clytemnestra from me that I have given
birth to a son.
Some time ago, or quite recently?
Ten days ago, which are the days of my purification.
Suppose it done; but how doth this help towards slaying thy
She will come, when she hears of my confinement.
What! dost think she cares aught for thee, my child?
Oh yes! she will weep no doubt over my child's low rank.
Perhaps she may; but go back again to the point.
Her death is certain, if she comes.
In that case, let her come right up to the door of the house.
Why then it were a little thing to turn her steps into the road
to Hades' halls.
Oh! to see this one day, then die!
First of all, old friend, act as my brother's guide.
To the place where Aegisthus is now sacrificing to the gods?
Then go, find my mother and give her my message.
Aye, that I will, so that she shall think the very words are
ELECTRA to ORESTES
Thy work begins at once; thou hast drawn the first lot in the
I will go, if some one will show me the way.
I will myself conduct thee nothing loth.
O Zeus, god of my fathers, vanquisher of my foes, have pity on
us, for a piteous lot has ours been.
Oh! have pity on thy own descendants.
O Hera, mistress of Mycenae's altars, grant us the victory, if
we are asking what is right.
Yes, grant us vengeance on them for our father's death.
Thou too, my father, sent to the land of shades by wicked hands,
and Earth, the queen of all, to whom I spread my suppliant
palms, up and champion thy dear children. Come with all the dead
to aid, all they who helped thee break the Phrygians' power, and
all who hate ungodly crime. Dost hear me, father, victim of my
Sure am I he heareth all; but 'tis time to part. For this cause
too I bid thee strike Aegisthus down, because, if thou fall in
the struggle and perish, I also die; no longer number me amongst
the living; for I will stab myself with a two-edged sword. And
now will I go indoors and make all ready there, for, if there
come good news from thee, my house shall ring with women's cries
of joy; but, if thou art slain, a different scene must then
ensue. These are my instructions to thee.
I know my lesson well.
ORESTES, PYLADES, the OLD MAN, and attendants, depart.
Then show thyself a man. And you, my friends, signal to me by
cries the certain issue of this fray. Myself will keep the sword
ready in my grasp, for I will never accept defeat, and yield my
body to my enemies to insult.
ELECTRA goes into the hut.
Still the story finds a place in time-honoured legends, how on
day Pan, the steward of husbandry, came breathing dulcet music
on his jointed pipe, and brought with him from its tender dam on
Argive hills, a beauteous lamb with fleece of gold; then stood a
herald high upon the rock and cried aloud, "Away to the place of
assembly, ye folk of Mycenae! to behold the strange and awful
sight vouchsafed to our blest rulers." Anon the dancers did
obeisance to the family of Atreus;
The altar-steps of beaten gold were draped; and through that
Argive town the altars blazed with fire; sweetly rose the lute's
clear note, the handmaid of the Muse's song; and ballads fair
were written on the golden lamb, saying that Thyestes had the
luck; for he won the guilty love of the wife of Atreus, and
carried off to his house the strange creature, and then coming
before the assembled folk he declared to them that he had in his
house that horned beast with fleece of gold.
In the self-same hour it was that Zeus changed the radiant
courses of the stars, the light of the sun, and the joyous face
of dawn, and drave his car athwart the western sky with fervent
heat from heaven's fires, while northward fled the rain-clouds,
and Ammon's strand grew parched and faint and void of dew, when
it was robbed of heaven's genial showers.
'Tis said, though I can scarce believe it, the sun turned round
his glowing throne of gold, to vex the sons of men by this
change because of the quarrel amongst them. Still, tales of
horror have their use in making men regard the gods; of whom
thou hadst no thought, when thou slewest thy husband, thou
mother of this noble pair.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
Hark! my friends, did ye hear that noise, like to the rumbling
of an earthquake, or am I the dupe of idle fancy? Hark! hark!
once more that wind-borne sound swells loudly on mine ear.
Electra! mistress mine! come forth from the house!
ELECTRA rushing out
What is it, good friends? how goes the day with us?
I hear the cries of dying men; no more I know.
I heard them too, far off, but still distinct.
Yes, the sound came stealing from afar, but yet 'twas clear.
Was it the groan of an Argive, or of my friends?
I know not; for the cries are all confused.
That word of thine is my death-warrant; why do I delay?
Stay, till thou learn thy fate for certain.
No, no; we are vanquished; where are our messengers?
They will come in time; to slay a king is no light task.
A MESSENGER enters in haste.
All hail! ye victors, maidens of Mycenae, to all Orestes'
friends his triumph I announce; Aegisthus, the murderer of
Agamemnon, lies weltering where he fell; return thanks to
Who art thou? What proof dost thou give of this?
Look at me, dost thou not recognize thy brother's servant?
O best of friends! 'twas fear that prevented me from recognizing
thee; now I know thee well. What sayst thou? Is my father's
hateful murderer slain?
He is; I repeat it since it is thy wish.
Ye gods, and justice, whose eye is on all, at last art thou
I fain would learn the way and means my brother took to slay
After we had set out from this house, we struck into the broad
highroad, and came to the place where was the far-famed King of
Mycenae. Now he was walking in a garden well-watered, culling a
wreath of tender myrtle-sprays for his head, and when he saw us,
he called out, "All hail! strangers; who are ye? whence come ye?
from what country?" To him Orestes answered, "We are from
Thessaly, on our way to Alpheus' banks to sacrifice to Olympian
Zeus." When Aegisthus heard that, he said, "Ye must be my guests
to-day, and share the feast, for I am even now sacrificing to
the Nymphs; and by rising with tomorrow's light ye will be just
as far upon your journey; now let us go within." Therewith he
caught us by the hand and led us by the way; refuse we could
not; and when we were come to the house, he gave command: "Bring
water for my guests to wash forthwith, that they may stand
around the altar near the laver." But Orestes answered, "'Twas
but now we purified ourselves and washed us clean in water from
the river. So if we strangers are to join your citizens in
sacrifice, we are ready, King Aegisthus, and will not refuse."
So ended they their private conference. Meantime the servants,
that composed their master's bodyguard, laid aside their
weapons, and one and all were busied at their tasks. Some
brought the bowl to catch the blood, others took up baskets,
while others kindled fire and set cauldrons round about the
altars, and the whole house rang. Then did thy mother's husband
take the barley for sprinkling, and began casting it upon the
hearth with these words, "Ye Nymphs, who dwell among the rocks,
grant that I may often sacrifice with my wife, the daughter of
Tyndareus, within my halls, as happily as now, and ruin seize my
whereby he meant Orestes and thyself
. But my master, lowering his voice, offered a different prayer,
that he might regain his father's house. Next Aegisthus took
from basket a long straight knife, and cutting off some of the
calf's hair, laid it with his right hand on the sacred fire, and
then cut its throat when the servants had lifted it upon their
shoulders, and thus addressed thy brother; "Men declare that
amongst the Thessalians this is counted honourable, to cut up a
bull neatly and to manage steeds. So take the knife, sir
stranger, and show us if rumour speaks true about the
Thessalians." Thereon Orestes seized the Dorian knife of
tempered steel and cast from his shoulders his graceful buckled
robe; then choosing Pylades to help him in his task, he made the
servants withdraw, and catching the calf by the hoof, proceeded
to lay bare its white flesh, with arm outstretched, and he
flayed the hide quicker than a runner ever finishes the two laps
of the horses' race-course; next he laid the belly open, and
Aegisthus took the entrails in his hands and carefully examined
them. Now the liver had no lobe, while the portal vein leading
to the gall-bladder portended dangerous attack on him who was
observing it. Dark grows Aegisthus' brow, but my master asks,
"Why so despondent, good sir?" Said he, "I fear treachery from a
stranger. Agamemnon's son of all men most I hate, and he hates
my house." But Orestes cried, "What! fear treachery from an
exile! thou the ruler of the city? Ho! take this Dorian knife
away and bring me a Thessalian cleaver, that we by sacrificial
feast may learn the will of heaven; let me cleave the
breast-bone." And he took the axe and cut it through. Now
Aegisthus was examining the entrails, separating them in his
hands, and as he was bending down, thy brother rose on tiptoe
and smote him on the spine, severing the bones of his back; and
his body gave one convulsive shudder from head to foot and
writhed in the death-agony. No sooner did his servants see it,
than they rushed to arms, a host to fight with two; yet did
Pylades and Orestes of their valiancy meet them with brandished
spears. Then cried Orestes, "I am no foe that come against this
city and my own servants, but I have avenged me on the murderer
of my sire, I, ill-starred Orestes. Slay me not, my father's
former thralls!" They, when they heard him speak, restrained
their spears, and an old man, who had been in the family many a
long year, recognized him. Forthwith they crown thy brother with
a wreath, and utter shouts of joy. And lo! he is coming to show
thee the head, not the Gorgon's, but the head of thy hated foe
Aegisthus; his death today has paid in blood a bitter debt of
Dear mistress, now with step as light as fawn join in the dance;
lift high the nimble foot and be glad. Victory crowns thy
brother; he hath won a fairer wreath than ever victor gained
beside the streams of Alpheus; so raise a fair hymn to victory,
the while I dance.
O light of day! O bright careering sun! O earth! and night
erewhile my only day; now may I open my eyes in freedom, for
Aegisthus is dead, my father's murderer. Come friends, let me
bring out whate'er my house contains to deck his head and wreath
with crowns my conquering brother's brow.
Bring forth thy garlands for his head, and we will lead the
dance the Muses love. Now shall the royal line, dear to us in
days gone by, resume its sway o'er the realm, having laid low
the usurper as he deserves. So let the shout go up, whose notes
are those of joy.
ORESTES and PYLADES enter, followed by attendants who are bearing
the body of Aegisthus.
Hail! glorious victor, Orestes, son of a sire who won the day
'neath Ilium's walls, accept this wreath to bind about the
tresses of thy hair. Not in vain hast thou run thy course unto
the goal and reached thy home again; no! but thou hast slain thy
foe, Aegisthus, the murderer of our father. Thou too, O Pylades,
trusty squire, whose training shows thy father's sterling worth,
receive a garland from my hand, for thou no less than he hast a
share in this emprise; and so I pray, good luck be thine for
First recognize the gods, Electra, as being the authors of our
fortune, and then praise me their minister and fate's. Yea, I
come from having slain Aegisthus in very deed, no mere pretence;
and to make thee the more certain of this, I am bringing thee
his corpse, which, if thou wilt, expose for beasts to rend, or
set it upon a stake for birds, the children of the air, to prey
upon; for now is he thy slave, once called thy lord and master.
I am ashamed to utter my wishes.
What is it? speak out, for thou art through the gates of fear.
I am ashamed to flout the dead, for fear some spite assail me.
No one would blame thee for this.
Our folk are hard to please, and love to blame.
Speak all thy mind, sister; for we entered on this feud with him
on terms admitting not of truce.
Turning to the corpse of Aegisthus
With which of thy iniquities shall I begin my recital? With
which shall I end it? To which allot a middle place? And yet I
never ceased, as each day dawned, to rehearse the story I would
tell thee to thy face, if ever I were freed from my old terrors;
and now I am; so I will pay thee back with the abuse I fain had
uttered to thee when alive. Thou wert my ruin, making me and my
brother orphans, though we had never injured thee, and thou
didst make a shameful marriage with my mother, having slain her
lord who led the host of Hellas, though thyself didst never go
to Troy. Such was thy folly, thou didst never dream that my
mother would prove thy curse when thou didst marry her, though
thou wert wronging my father's honour. Know this; whoso defiles
his neighbour's wife, and afterward is forced to take her to
himself, is a wretched wight, if he supposes she will be chaste
as his wife, though she sinned against her former lord. Thine
was a life most miserable, though thou didst pretend 'twas
otherwise; well thou knewest how guilty thy marriage was, and my
mother knew she had a villain for husband. Sinners both ye took
each other's lot, she thy fortune, thou her curse. While
everywhere in Argos thou-wouldst hear such phrases as, "that
woman's husband," never "that man's wife." Yet 'tis shameful for
the wife and not the man to rule the house; wherefore I loathe
those children, who are called in the city not the sons of the
man, their father, but of their mother. For if a man makes a
great match above his rank, there is no talk of the husband but
only of the wife. Herein lay thy grievous error, due to
ignorance; thou thoughtest thyself some one, relying on thy
wealth, but this is naught save to stay with us a space. 'Tis
nature that stands fast, not wealth. For it, if it abide
unchanged, exalts man's horn; but riches dishonestly acquired
and in the hands of fools, soon take their flight, their blossom
quickly shed. As for thy sins with women, I pass them by, 'tis
not for maiden's lips to mention them, but I will shrewdly hint
thereat. And then thy arrogance! because forsooth thou hadst a
palace and some looks to boast. May I never have a husband with
a girl's face, but one that bears him like a man! For the
children of these latter cling to a life of arms, while those,
who are so fair to see, do only serve to grace the dance. Away
Spurning the corpse with her foot
Time has shown thy villainy, little as thou reckest of the
forfeit thou hast paid for it. Let none suppose, though he have
run the first stage of his course with joy, that he will get the
better of justice, till he have reached the goal and ended his
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
Terrible alike his crime and your revenge; for mighty is the
power of justice.
'Tis well. Carry his body within the house and hide it, sirrahs,
that when my mother comes, she may not see his corpse before she
is smitten herself.
PYLADES and the attendants take the body into the hut.
Hold! let us strike out another scheme.
How now? Are those allies from Mycenae whom I see?
No, 'tis my mother, that bare me.
Full into the net she is rushing, oh, bravely!
See how proudly she rides in her chariot and fine robes!
What must we do to our mother? Slay her?
What! has pity seized thee at sight of her?
O God! how can I slay her that bare and suckled me?
Slay her as she slew thy father and mine.
O Phoebus, how foolish was thy oracle-
Where Apollo errs, who shall be wise?
In bidding me commit this crime-my mother's murder!
How canst thou be hurt by avenging thy father?
Though pure before, I now shall carry into exile the stain of a
Still, if thou avenge not thy father, thou wilt fail in thy
And if I slay my mother, I must pay the penalty to her.
And so must thou to him, if thou resign the avenging of our
Surely it was a fiend in the likeness of the god that ordered
Seated on the holy tripod? I think not so.
I cannot believe this oracle was meant.
Turn not coward! Cast not thy manliness away!
Am I to devise the same crafty scheme for her?
The self-same death thou didst mete out to her lord Aegisthus.
I will go in; 'tis an awful task I undertake; an awful deed I
have to do; still if it is Heaven's will, be it so; I loathe and
yet I love the enterprise.
As ORESTES withdraws into the hut, CLYTEMNESTRA enters in a
chariot. Her attendants are hand-maidens attired in gorgeous
Hail! Queen of Argos, daughter of Tyndareus, sister of those two
noble sons of Zeus, who dwell in the flame-lit firmament amid
the stars, whose guerdon high it is to save the sailor tossing
on the sea. All hail! because of thy wealth and high prosperity,
I do thee homage as I do the blessed gods. Now is the time,
great queen, for us to pay our court unto thy fortunes.
Alight from the car, ye Trojan maids, and take my hand that I
may step down from the chariot. With Trojan spoils the temples
of the gods are decked, but I have obtained these maidens as a
special gift from Troy, in return for my lost daughter, a
trifling boon no doubt, but still an ornament to my house.
And may not I, mother, take that highly-favoured hand of thine?
I am a slave like them, an exile from my father's halls in this
See, my servants are here; trouble not on my account.
Why, thou didst make me thy prisoner by robbing me of my home;
like these I became a captive when my home was taken, an orphan
True; but thy father plotted so wickedly against those of his
own kin whom least of all he should have treated so. Speak I
must; albeit, when woman gets an evil reputation, there is a
feeling of bitterness against all she says; unfairly indeed in
my case, for it were only fair to hate after learning the
circumstances, and seeing if the object deserves it; otherwise,
why hate at all? Now Tyndareus bestowed me on thy father not
that I or any children I might bear should be slain. Yet he went
and took my daughter from our house to the fleet at Aulis,
persuading me that Achilles was to wed her; and there he held
her o'er the pyre, and cut Iphigenia's snowy throat. Had he
slain her to save his city from capture, or to benefit his
house, or to preserve his other children, a sacrifice of one for
many, could have pardoned him. But, as it was, his reasons for
murdering my child were these: the wantonness of Helen and her
husband's folly in not punishing the traitress. Still, wronged
as I was, my rage had not burst forth for this, nor would I have
slain my lord, had he not returned to me with that frenzied
maiden and made her his mistress, keeping at once two brides
beneath the same roof. Women maybe are given to folly, I do not
deny it; this granted, when a husband goes astray and sets aside
his own true wife, she fain will follow his example and find
another love; and then in our case hot abuse is heard, while the
men, who are to blame for this, escape without a word. Again,
suppose Menelaus had been secretly snatched from his home,
should I have had to kill Orestes to save Menelaus, my sister's
husband? How would thy father have endured this? Was he then to
escape death for slaying what was mine, while I was to suffer at
his hands? I slew him, turning, as my only course, to his
enemies. For which of all thy father's friends would have joined
me in his murder? Speak all that is in thy heart, and prove
against me with all free speech, that thy father's death was not
Justly urged! but thy justice is not free from shame; for in all
things should every woman of sense yield to her husband. Whoso
thinketh otherwise comes not within the scope of what I say.
Remember, mother, those last words of thine, allowing me free
utterance before thee.
Daughter, far from refusing it, I grant it again.
Thou wilt not, when thou hearest, wreak thy vengeance on me?
No, indeed; I shall welcome thy opinion.
Then will I speak, and this shall be the prelude of my speech:
Ah, mother mine! would thou hadst had a better heart; for though
thy beauty and Helen's win you praises well deserved, yet are ye
akin in nature, pair of wantons, unworthy of Castor. She was
carried off, 'tis true, but her fall was voluntary: and thou
hast slain the bravest soul in Hellas, excusing thyself on the
ground that thou didst kill a husband to avenge a daughter; the
world does not know thee so well as I do, thou who before ever
thy daughter's death was decided, yea, soon as thy lord had
started from his home, wert combing thy golden tresses at thy
mirror. That wife who, when her lord is gone from home, sets to
beautifying herself, strike off from virtue's list; for she has
no need to carry her beauty abroad, save she is seeking some
mischief. Of all the wives in Hellas thou wert the only one I
know who wert overjoyed when Troy's star was in the ascendant,
while, if it set, thy brow was clouded, since thou hadst no wish
that Agamemnon should return from Troy. And yet thou couldst
have played a virtuous part to thy own glory. The husband thou
hadst was no whit inferior to Aegisthus, for he it was whom
Hellas chose to be her captain. And when thy sister Helen
wrought that deed of shame, thou couldst have won thyself great
glory, for vice is a warning and calls attention to virtue. If,
as thou allegest, my father slew thy daughter, what is the wrong
I and my brother have done thee? How was it thou didst not
bestow on us our father's halls after thy husband's death,
instead of bartering them to buy a paramour? Again, thy husband
is not exiled for thy son's sake, nor is he slain to avenge my
death, although by him this life is quenched twice as much as
e'er my sister's was; so if murder is to succeed murder in
requital, I and thy son Orestes must slay thee to avenge our
father; if that was just, why so is this. Whoso fixes his gaze
on wealth or noble birth and weds a wicked woman, is a fool;
better is a humble partner in his home, if she be virtuous, than
a proud one.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
Chance rules the marriages of women; some I see turn out well,
others ill amongst mankind.
Daughter, 'twas ever thy nature to love thy father. This too one
finds; some sons cling to their father, others have a deeper
affection for their mother. I will forgive thee, for myself am
not so exceeding glad at the deed that I have done, my child.
But thou,-why thus unwashed and clad in foul attire, now that
the days of thy lying-in are accomplished? Ah me, for my sorry
schemes! I have goaded my husband into anger more than e'er I
should have done.
Thy sorrow comes too late; the hour of remedy has gone from
thee; my father is dead. Yet why not recall that exile, thy own
I am afraid; 'tis my interest, not his that I regard. For they
say he is wroth for his father's murder.
Why, then, dost thou encourage thy husband's bitterness against
'Tis his way; thou too hast a stubborn nature.
Because I am grieved; yet will I check my spirit.
I promise then he shall no longer oppress thee.
From living in my home he grows too proud.
Now there! 'tis thou that art fanning the quarrel into new life.
I say no more; my dread of him is even what it is.
Peace! Enough of this. Why didst thou summon me, my child?
Thou hast heard, I suppose, of my confinement; for this I pray
thee, since I know not how, offer the customary sacrifice on the
tenth day after birth, for I am a novice herein, never having
had a child before.
This is work for another, even for her who delivered thee.
I was all alone in my travail and at the babe's birth.
Dost live so far from neighbours?
No one cares to make the poor his friends.
Well, I will go to offer to the gods a sacrifice for the child's
completion of the days; and when I have done thee this service,
I will seek the field where my husband is sacrificing to the
Nymphs. Take this chariot hence, my servants, and tie the horses
to the stalls; and when ye think that I have finished my
offering to the gods, attend me, for I must likewise pleasure my
She goes into the hut.
Enter our humble cottage; but, prithee, take care that my smoke
grimed walls soil not thy robes; now wilt thou offer to the gods
a fitting sacrifice. There stands the basket ready, and the
knife is sharpened, the same that slew the bull, by whose side
thou soon wilt lie a corpse; and thou shalt be his bride in
Hades' halls whose wife thou wast on earth. This is the boon I
will grant thee, while thou shalt pay me for my father's blood.
ELECTRA follows her into the hut.
Misery is changing sides; the breeze veers round, and now blows
fair upon my house. The day is past when my chief fell murdered
in his bath, and the roof and the very stones of the walls rang
with this his cry: "O cruel wife, why art thou murdering me on
my return to my dear country after ten long years?"
The tide is turning, and justice that pursues the faithless wife
is drawing within its grasp the murderess, who slew her hapless
lord, when he came home at last to these towering Cyclopean
walls,-aye, with her own hand she smote him with the sharpened
steel, herself the axe uplifting. Unhappy husband! whate'er the
curse that possessed that wretched woman. Like a lioness of the
hills that rangeth through the woodland for her prey, she
wrought the deed.
O my children, by Heaven I pray ye spare your mother.
Dost hear her cries within the house?
O God! ah me!
I too bewail thee, dying by thy children's hands. God deals out
His justice in His good time. A cruel fate is thine, unhappy
one; yet didst thou sin in murdering thy lord.
ORESTES and ELECTRA come out of the hut, followed by attendants
who are carrying the two corpses. The following lines between
ELECTRA, ORESTES and the CHORUS are chanted.
But lo! from the house they come, dabbled in their mother's
fresh-spilt gore, their triumph proving the piteous butchery.
There is not nor ev
Òóðå of work: Drama
Author: Euripides (480-406 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
First presented: 431 B.C.
Medea is one of the most fascinating, complex, and dynamic
heroine-villainesses in dramatic literature. Few characters have been
able to provoke such a range of emotional reactions: sympathy for her
pain; wonder at the intensity of her emotions; admiration for her
purpose, intellect, and style as a manipulator; fear, when her plan is
understood; and horror as it is mercilessly carried out.
Medea (mi-de's), a princess of Colchis and the wife of Jason. Medea had
aided Jason in avoiding the traps laid for him by her father, King
Aeetes of Colchis, while regaining the Golden Fleece. Fleeing with
Jason, she had murdered her own brother to aid in the escape. In Jason's
hereditary kingdom of Iolcus, where they first settled but where Pelias,
Jason's uncle, had cheated him of his rights, Medea tricked the
daughters of Pelias into murdering their father. For this deed Medea,
Jason, and their two children were exiled. The play is set in Corinth,
where they came after leaving Iolcus and where Jason has put Medea aside
in order to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. It is
at this point that the action of the play begins. The dramatic
development, centering around Medea, is perhaps the finest example in
Greek drama of character development. Medea changes from a woman
overwhelmed with sorrow at her husband's desertion to a woman dominated
by a fury of revenge in which every other feeling, even love for her
children, is sacrificed to a desire to hurt Jason. The opening situation
of the play is concerned with a sympathetic presentation of the
sorrowful plight of Medea. She has given up home and position for Jason
and can belong to no other except through him; these facts are conveyed
by the nurse before Medea appears. Medea cries out violently against
Jason before she appears and foreshadows the destruction of the
children. Yet when she appears she is proud but courteous and
self-possessed. She expresses her ills as those of all women, but
greater, and she asks the Chorus not to betray her if she finds the
means of vengeance. They promise secrecy. Creon appears to pronounce a
sentence of exile on Medea and the children because he is afraid of her
power as a sorceress. She is able only to convince him to grant her a
one-day respite. When Creon leaves, Medea reveals her more barbaric and
violent side in a terrible speech in which she decides to poison Creon
and his daughter. At the appearance of Jason, Medea reveals her full
fury as a betrayed mistress and becomes less sympathetic. Blinded by
jealousy, she exhibits passion unchecked and untamed. Aegeus, king of
Athens, suddenly appears and promises refuge to Medea if she can make
her way to his city alone. Assured of a place of refuge, she calls Jason
to her and, feigning sweetness and repentance, forgives him, asking only
that he obtain a pardon for the children through the princess, his wife.
She then gives them a poisoned robe and a golden crown to present to the
princess and they leave. When the children return, the struggle between
Medea's love for them and her passion for revenge reaches a height in a
speech in which the latter triumphs. A messenger enters with news of the
death of the princess and Creon, and Medea enters the house. Immediately
the screams of the children are heard. Jason enters and Medea appears
above the house, in a chariot supplied by her grandfather Helios, god of
the sun, with the bodies of her children. She has destroyed the house of
Jason and her revenge is complete.
Jason (ja'san), king of Iolcus, the incarnation of a moderation and
wisdom that is negative, not rooted in emotion. He is presented first as
the faithless husband and is unreservedly condemned by the Chorus and
servants. He loves neither Medea nor Creon's daughter. His only passion
is his love for his children, which arouses some sympathy for him.
The Two Children of Medea and Jason. Silent except for the offstage
screams as they are murdered, they are central to the plot as Medea's
only successful means of revenge against Jason.
Creon (kre'on), king of Corinth. His sentence of exile expresses the
fear of Medea's power as a sorceress.
Aegeus (e'joos, e'ji-as), king of Athens, who offers Medea a place of
refuge. His appearance is a coincidence, but it provides a glimpse of
Medea as she was before the disaster, a princess renowned for wisdom.
The scene also emphasizes the child-motive: Aegeus had gone to Delphi
because he is childless and thus he is already in the position in which
Jason is left at the end of the play.
A Nurse, Medea's devoted servant. Desperately anxious, she identifies
herself completely with the cause of her mistress. She speaks the
A Chorus of Corinthian Women. Sympathetic to the suffering of Medea,
they swear secrecy to her revenge, though realizing the horror of the
The Tutor to Medea's Children. He is a good and faithful slave. He
clearly condemns Jason's conduct.
A Messenger, who brings the news of the death of Creon and his daughter.
When Medea discovered that Jason had deserted her and married Glauce,
the daughter of Creon, she vowed a terrible vengeance. Her nurse,
although she loved Medea, recognized that a frightful threat now hung
over Corinth, for she knew that Medea would not let the insult pass
without some dreadful revenge. She feared especially for Medea's two
sons, since the sorceress included her children in the hatred which she
now felt for their father.
Her resentment increased still further when Creon, hearing of her vow,
ordered her and her children to be banished from Corinth. Slyly, with a
plan already in mind, Medea persuaded him to allow her just one day
longer to prepare herself and her children for the journey. She had
already decided the nature of her revenge; the one problem that remained
was a place of refuge afterward. Then Aegeus, King of Athens and a
long-time friend of Medea, appeared in Corinth on his way home from a
journey. Sympathetic with her because of Jason's brutal desertion, he
offered her a place of refuge from her enemies in his own kingdom. In
this manner Medea assured herself of a refuge, even after Aegeus should
learn of the deeds she intended to commit in Corinth.
When the Corinthian women came to visit her, Medea told them of her
plan, but only after swearing them to absolute secrecy. At first she had
considered killing Jason, his princess, and Creon. and then fleeing with
her children. But after she had considered, she felt that revenge would
be sweeter should Jason live to suffer long afterward. Nothing could be
more painful than to grow old without a lover, without children, and
without friends, and so Medea planned to kill the king, his daughter,
and her own children.
She called Jason to her and pretended that she forgave him for what he
had done, recognizing at last the justice and foresight he had shown in
marrying Glauce. She begged his forgiveness for her earlier rage and
asked that she be allowed to send her children with gifts for the new
bride, as a sign of her repentance. Jason was completely deceived by her
supposed change of heart and expressed his pleasure at the belated
wisdom she was showing.
Medea drew out a magnificent robe and a fillet of gold, presents of her
grandfather, Helios, the sun god, but before she entrusted them to her
children she smeared them with a deadly drug. Shortly afterward, a
messenger came to Medea and told her to flee. One part of her plan had
succeeded. After Jason and the children had left, Glauce had dressed
herself in her wonderful robe and walked through the palace. But as the
warmth and moisture of her body came in contact with the drug, the
fillet and gown clung to her body and seared her flesh. She tried
frantically to tear them from her, but the garments only wrapped more
tightly around her, and she died in a screaming agony of flames. When
Creon rushed in and saw his daughter writhing on the floor, he attempted
to lift her, but was himself contaminated by the poison. His death was
as agonized as hers had been.
Meanwhile the children had returned to Medea. As she looked at them and
felt their arms around her, she was torn between her love for them and
her hatred of Jason; between her desire for revenge and the commands of
her mother-instinct. But the barbarian part of her nature—Medea being
not a Greek, but a barbarian from Colchis—triumphed. After reveling in
the messenger's account of the deaths of Creon and his daughter, she
entered her house with the children and barred the door. While the
Corinthian women stood helplessly outside, they listened to the shrieks
of the children as Medea killed them with a sword. Jason appeared,
frantically eager to take his children away lest they be killed by
Creon's followers for having brought the dreadful gifts. When he learned
Medea had killed his children, he was almost insane with grief. As he
hammered furiously on the barred doors of the house. Medea suddeflly
appeared above, holding the bodies of her dead children in a chariot
which Helios, the sun god, had sent her. Jason alternately cursed her
and pleaded with her for one last sight of his children as Medea taunted
him with the loneliness and grief to which he was doomed. She told him
that her own sorrow would be great, but it was compensated for by the
sweetness of her revenge.
The chariot, drawn by winged dragons, carried her first to the mountain
of the goddess Hera. There she buried her children. Then she journeyed
to Athens, where she would spend the remainder of her days feeding on
the gall and wormwood of her terrible grief and revenge.
Commonly regarded as Euripides' greatest work, Medea is a powerful study
of an impassioned love turned into furious hatred. As a tragedy this
play is completely un-Aristotelian in concept and technique, but it has
a nerve-jarring impact. It also reveals the extent to which Euripides
diverges from his fellow tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, in his
depiction of human pain. With Medea there is no comforting philosophy to
put the tragic agony at a safe psychological distance. Instead,
Euripides tries to make Medea as realistic as possible and shows her
fiery lust for vengeance in naked action with nothing to mitigate its
effect. We are witnesses to a hideous passion, and we cannot be certain
whether Euripides approves of it or condemns it. He simply presents it
objectively so that we understand Medea, but he leaves it to us to
determine his meaning.
Euripides was probably in his fifties when this play was first produced
in 431 B.C., an age when a sensitive man is fully aware of the agony
that life can inflict on a person. What struck him most was the
universality of suffering. Confronted with pain, every other human
reality seemed to dissolve. Medea's consuming hatred, kingship, laws,
culture, self-esteem, and even motherly love have become meaningless. In
Medea Euripides portrays a very important aspect of terrible suffering;
namely, the desire of the sufferer to create the identical agony in the
person who caused it. The dramatist recognized the crucial link between
anguish and hate. Reports of Euripides say that he was a bookish
recluse, but it is understandable that a man as vulnerable to human
misery as he was should shut himself off from people.
He turned to the old legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece to illustrate
his preoccupation. Euripides takes up the story after all Jason's
successes have been accomplished with Medea's help. Jason has deserted
Medea to marry the Greek princess, Glauce, leaving Medea with two small
sons. As the nurse remarks in her opening monologue, Medea is not one to
take such a betrayal lightly. Although Medea is prostrate with bitter
grief and hoping to die as the play begins, the nurse knows how
murderous her mistress really is, and she fears for the safety of
Medea's sons. A common technique of Euripides is to use the opening
speech or section to explain the background of the action and to suggest
the climactic development.
Medea is a barbarian princess and sorceress who is accustomed to having
her own way in everything. Furthermore, as a barbarian she is free of
the restraints that civilization imposes. Jason is a Greek, subject to
law, rationality, and practical calculation. As a result, he seems cold
and indifferent, set beside Medea, who is a creature of passion. But
this is merely a surface appearance. Euripides exposes the inner layers
of their psyches with unflinching honesty in the course of the play.
As a woman of passion, Medea is wholly committed to Jason as the object
of her emotional life, whether in love or hate. When she loved Jason she
did not hesitate to kill her brother, betray her father and country, or
instigate Pelias' murder for Jason's sake. And she is equally amoral in
her hatred. The drama consists of the unfolding of her plans for revenge
and their ultimate execution. When Medea first appears on stage before a
chorus of sympathetic women, she is the image of the wronged woman, and
we feel pity for her. At the end of the play, after a bloodbath that
takes four lives and leaves Jason in total desolation, we feel only
These murders are as coldly calculated as any in Macbeth, and Medea
feels no penitence whatever. It is precisely the icy manner in which she
goes about the killings that inspires dread. She caters to Creon in
order to gain time to kill him and his daughter, Glauce. Medea plans to
kill Jason too, but when she sees Aegeus heartsick at being childless,
she determines to render Jason childless, wifeless, and friendless.
Medea pretends a reconciliation with Jason to slay Creon and Glauce in a
loathsome fashion. And then, after hesitating to kill her sons because
of temporary softness, she butchers them without mercy. Medea is a
practitioner of black magic, a cold-blooded murderess, and a total
monster; but under Euripides' spell we understand her.
The passion by which she lives makes her both subhuman and superhuman.
When Euripides finally has her escape in a dragon-drawn chariot through
the air, we come to realize that Medea is a piece of raw nature— female,
barbaric, violent, destructive, inhumanly powerful, and beyond all moral
standards. Jason becomes entangled with a force that crushes his dignity
and detachment, that tears his successes to tatters. At the end he is in
exactly the same position as Medea. Both are bereaved of mate, children,
and friends. Both are free to grow old without comfort. And both are
utterly empty inside, except that Jason is now filled with the same
burning hatred that possessed Medea.
This play operates on several levels. The antagonism between Jason and
Medea can be read as the enmity between man and woman, between
intelligence and passion, between civilization and barbarism, or between
man and nature. In each instance the woman, the passions, the barbarian,
the forces of nature—all embodied in Medea—have the power to turn and
reduce the masculine elements to nothing. Medea is a strong, depressing,
fearsome drama in which Euripides presents his vision of life as starkly
Translated by E. P. Coleridge
NURSE OF MEDEA
ATTENDANT ON HER CHILDREN
CHORUS OF CORINTHIAN WOMEN
CREON, King of Corinth
AEGEUS, King of Athens
Before MEDEA's house in Corinth, near the palace Of CREON. The NURSE
enters from the house.
Ah! Would to Heaven the good ship Argo ne'er had sped its course
to the Colchian land through the misty blue Symplegades, nor
ever in the glens of Pelion the pine been felled to furnish with
oars the chieftain's hands, who went to fetch the golden fleece
for Pelias; for then would my own mistress Medea never have
sailed to the turrets of Iolcos, her soul with love for Jason
smitten, nor would she have beguiled the daughters of Pelias to
slay their father and come to live here in the land of Corinth
with her husband and children, where her exile found favour with
the citizens to whose land she had come, and in all things of
her own accord was she at one with Jason, the greatest safeguard
this when wife and husband do agree; but now their love is all
turned to hate, and tenderest ties are weak. For Jason hath
betrayed his own children and my mistress dear for the love of a
royal bride, for he hath wedded the daughter of Creon, lord of
this land. While Medea, his hapless wife, thus scorned, appeals
to the oaths he swore, recalls the strong pledge his right hand
gave, and bids heaven be witness what requital she is finding
from Jason. And here she lies fasting, yielding her body to her
grief, wasting away in tears ever since she learnt that she was
wronged by her husband, never lifting her eye nor raising her
face from off the ground; and she lends as deaf an ear to her
friend's warning as if she were a rock or ocean billow, save
when she turns her snow-white neck aside and softly to herself
bemoans her father dear, her country and her home, which she
gave up to come hither with the man who now holds her in
dishonour. She, poor lady, hath by sad experience learnt how
good a thing it is never to quit one's native land. And she
hates her children now and feels no joy at seeing them; I fear
she may contrive some untoward scheme; for her mood is dangerous
nor will she brook her cruel treatment; full well I know her,
and I much do dread that she will plunge the keen sword through
their hearts, stealing without a word into the chamber where
their marriage couch is spread, or else that she will slay the
prince and bridegroom too, and so find some calamity still more
grievous than the present; for dreadful is her wrath; verily the
man that doth incur her hate will have no easy task to raise
o'er her a song of triumph. Lo! where her sons come hither from
their childish sports; little they reck of their mother's woes,
for the soul of the young is no friend to sorrow.
The ATTENDANT leads in MEDEA'S children.
Why dost thou, so long my lady's own handmaid, stand here at the
gate alone, loudly lamenting to thyself the piteous tale? how
comes it that Medea will have thee leave her to herself?
Old man, attendant on the sons of Jason, our masters' fortunes
when they go awry make good slaves grieve and touch their
hearts. Oh! have come to such a pitch of grief that there stole
a yearning wish upon me to come forth hither and proclaim to
heaven and earth my mistress's hard fate.
What! has not the poor lady ceased yet from her lamentation?
Would I were as thou art! the mischief is but now beginning; it
has not reached its climax yet.
O foolish one, if I may call my mistress such a name; how little
she recks of evils yet more recent!
What mean'st, old man? grudge not to tell me.
'Tis naught; I do repent me even of the words I have spoken.
Nay, by thy beard I conjure thee, hide it not from thy
fellow-slave; will be silent, if need be, on that text.
I heard one say, pretending not to listen as I approached the
place where our greybeards sit playing draughts near Pirene's
sacred spring, that Creon, the ruler of this land, is bent on
driving these children and their mother from the boundaries of
Corinth; but I know not whether the news is to be relied upon,
and would fain it were not.
What! will Jason brook such treatment of his sons, even though
he be at variance with their mother?
Old ties give way to new; he bears no longer any love to this
Undone, it seems, are we, if to old woes fresh ones we add, ere
we have drained the former to the dregs.
Hold thou thy peace, say not a word of this; 'tis no time for
our mistress to learn hereof.
O children, do ye hear how your father feels towards you?
Perdition catch him, but no he is my master still; yet is he
proved a very traitor to his nearest and dearest.
And who 'mongst men is not? Art learning only now, that every
single man cares for himself more than for his neighbour, some
from honest motives, others for mere gain's sake? seeing that to
indulge his passion their father has ceased to love these
Go, children, within the house; all will be well. Do thou keep
them as far away as may be, and bring them not near their mother
in her evil hour. For ere this have I seen her eyeing them
savagely, as though she were minded to do them some hurt, and
well I know she will not cease from her fury till she have
pounced on some victim. At least may she turn her hand against
her foes, and not against her friends.
MEDEA chanting within
Ah, me! a wretched suffering woman I! O would that I could die!
'Tis as I said, my dear children; wild fancies stir your
mother's heart, wild fury goads her on. Into the house without
delay, come not near her eye, approach her not, beware her
savage mood, the fell tempest of her reckless heart. In, in with
what speed ye may. For 'tis plain she will soon redouble her
fury; that cry is but the herald of the gathering storm-cloud
whose lightning soon will flash; what will her proud restless
soul, in the anguish of despair, be guilty of?
The ATTENDANT takes the children into the house. MEDEA (chanting
Ah, me! the agony I have suffered, deep enough to call for these
laments! Curse you and your father too, ye children damned, sons
of a doomed mother! Ruin seize the whole family!
Ah me! ah me! the pity of it! Why, pray, do thy children share
their father's crime? Why hatest thou them? Woe is you, poor
children, how do I grieve for you lest ye suffer some outrage!
Strange are the tempers of princes, and maybe because they
seldom have to obey, and mostly lord it over others, change they
their moods with difficulty. 'Tis better then to have been
trained to live on equal terms. Be it mine to reach old age, not
in proud pomp, but in security! Moderation wins the day first as
a better word for men to use, and likewise it is far the best
course for them to pursue; but greatness that doth o'erreach
itself, brings no blessing to mortal men; but pays a penalty of
greater ruin whenever fortune is wroth with a family.
The CHORUS enters. The following lines between the NURSE, CHORUS,
and MEDEA are sung.
I heard the voice, uplifted loud, of our poor Colchian lady, nor
yet is she quiet; speak, aged dame, for as I stood by the house
with double gates I heard a voice of weeping from within, and I
do grieve, lady, for the sorrows of this house, for it hath won
'Tis a house no more; all that is passed away long since; a
royal bride keeps Jason at her side, while our mistress pines
away in her bower, finding no comfort for her soul in aught her
friends can say.
Oh, oh! Would that Heaven's levin bolt would cleave this head in
twain! What gain is life to me? Woe, woe is me! O, to die and
win release, quitting this loathed existence!
Didst hear, O Zeus, thou earth, and thou, O light, the piteous
note of woe the hapless wife is uttering? How shall a yearning
for that insatiate resting-place ever hasten for thee, poor
reckless one, the end that death alone can bring? Never pray for
that. And if thy lord prefers a fresh love, be not angered with
him for that; Zeus will judge 'twixt thee and him herein. Then
mourn not for thy husband's loss too much, nor waste thyself
Great Themis, and husband of Themis, behold what I am suffering
now, though I did bind that accursed one, my husband, by strong
oaths to me! O, to see him and his bride some day brought to
utter destruction, they and their house with them, for that they
presume to wrong me thus unprovoked. O my father, my country,
that I have left to my shame, after slaying my own brother.
Do ye hear her words, how loudly she adjures Themis, oft
invoked, and Zeus, whom men regard as keeper of their oaths? On
no mere trifle surely will our mistress spend her rage.
Would that she would come forth for us to see, and listen to the
words of counsel we might give, if haply she might lay aside the
fierce fury of her wrath, and her temper stern. Never be my zeal
at any rate denied my friends! But go thou and bring her hither
outside the house, and tell her this our friendly thought; haste
thee ere she do some mischief to those inside the house, for
this sorrow of hers is mounting high.
This will I do; but I doubt whether I shall persuade my
mistress; still willingly will I undertake this trouble for you;
albeit, she glares upon her servants with the look of a lioness
with cubs, whenso anyone draws nigh to speak to her. Wert thou
to call the men of old time rude uncultured boors thou wouldst
not err, seeing that they devised their hymns for festive
occasions, for banquets, and to grace the board, a pleasure to
catch the ear, shed o'er our life, but no man hath found a way
to allay hated grief by music and the minstrel's varied strain,
whence arise slaughters and fell strokes of fate to o'erthrow
the homes of men. And yet this were surely a gain, to heal men's
wounds by music's spell, but why tune they their idle song where
rich banquets are spread? For of itself doth the rich banquet,
set before them, afford to men delight.
I heard a bitter cry of lamentation! loudly, bitterly she calls
on the traitor of her marriage bed, her perfidious spouse; by
grievous wrongs oppressed she invokes Themis, bride of Zeus,
witness of oaths, who brought her unto Hellas, the land that
fronts the strand of Asia, o'er the sea by night through ocean's
As the CHORUS finishes its song, MEDEA enters from the house.
From the house I have come forth, Corinthian ladies, for fear
lest you be blaming me; for well I know that amongst men many by
showing pride have gotten them an ill name and a reputation for
indifference, both those who shun men's gaze and those who move
amid the stranger crowd, and likewise they who choose a quiet
walk in life. For there is no just discernment in the eyes of
men, for they, or ever they have surely learnt their neighbour's
heart, loathe him at first sight, though never wronged by him;
and so a stranger most of all should adopt a city's views; nor
do I commend that citizen, who, in the stubbornness of his
heart, from churlishness resents the city's will.
But on me hath fallen this unforeseen disaster, and sapped my
life; ruined I am, and long to resign the boon of existence,
kind friends, and die. For he who was all the world to me, as
well thou knowest, hath turned out the worst of men, my own
husband. Of all things that have life and sense we women are the
most hapless creatures; first must we buy a husband at a great
price, and o'er ourselves a tyrant set which is an evil worse
than the first; and herein lies the most important issue,
whether our choice be good or bad. For divorce is not honourable
to women, nor can we disown our lords. Next must the wife,
coming as she does to ways and customs new, since she hath not
learnt the lesson in her home, have a diviner's eye to see how
best to treat the partner of her life. If haply we perform these
tasks with thoroughness and tact, and the husband live with us,
without resenting the yoke, our life is a happy one; if not,
'twere best to die. But when a man is vexed with what he finds
indoors, he goeth forth and rids his soul of its disgust,
betaking him to some friend or comrade of like age; whilst we
must needs regard his single self.
And yet they say we live secure at home, while they are at the
wars, with their sorry reasoning, for I would gladly take my
stand in battle array three times o'er, than once give birth.
But enough! this language suits not thee as it does me; thou
hast a city here, a father's house, some joy in life, and
friends to share thy thoughts, but I am destitute, without a
city, and therefore scorned by my husband, a captive I from a
foreign shore, with no mother, brother, or kinsman in whom to
find a new haven of refuge from this calamity. Wherefore this
one boon and only this I wish to win from thee,-thy silence, if
haply I can some way or means devise to avenge me on my husband
for this cruel treatment, and on the man who gave to him his
daughter, and on her who is his wife. For though woman be
timorous enough in all else, and as regards courage, a coward at
the mere sight of steel, yet in the moment she finds her honour
wronged, no heart is filled with deadlier thoughts than hers.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
This will I do; for thou wilt be taking a just vengeance on thy
husband, Medea. That thou shouldst mourn thy lot surprises me
not. But lo! I see Creon, king of this land coming hither, to
announce some new resolve.
CREON enters, with his retinue.
Hark thee, Medea, I bid thee take those sullen looks and angry
thoughts against thy husband forth from this land in exile, and
with thee take both thy children and that without delay, for I
am judge in this sentence, and I will not return unto my house
till I banish thee beyond the borders of the land.
Ah, me! now is utter destruction come upon me, unhappy that I
am! For my enemies are bearing down on me full sail, nor have I
any landing-place to come at in my trouble. Yet for all my
wretched plight I will ask thee, Creon, wherefore dost thou
drive me from the land?
I fear thee,-no longer need I veil my dread 'neath words,-lest
thou devise against my child some cureless ill. Many things
contribute to this fear of mine; thou art a witch by nature,
expert in countless sorceries, and thou art chafing for the loss
of thy husband's affection. I hear, too, so they tell me, that
thou dost threaten the father of the bride, her husband, and
herself with some mischief; wherefore I will take precautions
ere our troubles come. For 'tis better for me to incur thy
hatred now, lady, than to soften my heart and bitterly repent it
Alas! this is not now the first time, but oft before, O Creon,
hath my reputation injured me and caused sore mischief.
Wherefore whoso is wise in his generation ought never to have
his children taught to be too clever; for besides the reputation
they get for idleness, they purchase bitter odium from the
citizens. For if thou shouldst import new learning amongst
dullards, thou wilt be thought a useless trifler, void of
knowledge; while if thy fame in the city o'ertops that of the
pretenders to cunning knowledge, thou wilt win their dislike. I
too myself share in this ill-luck. Some think me clever and hate
me, others say I am too reserved, and some the very reverse;
others find me hard to please and not so very clever after all.
Be that as it may, thou dost fear me lest I bring on thee
something to mar thy harmony. Fear me not, Creon, my position
scarce is such that should seek to quarrel with princes. Why
should I, for how hast thou injured me? Thou hast betrothed thy
daughter where thy fancy prompted thee. No, 'tis my husband I
hate, though I doubt not thou hast acted wisely herein. And now
I grudge not thy prosperity; betroth thy child, good luck to
thee, but let me abide in this land, for though I have been
wronged I will be still and yield to my superiors.
Thy words are soft to hear, but much I dread lest thou art
devising some mischief in thy heart, and less than ever do I
trust thee now; for cunning woman, and man likewise, is easier
to guard against when quick-tempered than when taciturn. Nay,
begone at once! speak me no speeches, for this is decreed, nor
hast thou any art whereby thou shalt abide amongst us, since
thou hatest me.
O, say not so! by thy knees and by thy daughter newlywed, I do
Thou wastest words; thou wilt never persuade me.
What, wilt thou banish me, and to my prayers no pity yield?
I will, for I love not thee above my own family.
O my country! what fond memories I have of thee in this hour!
Yea, for I myself love my city best of all things save my
Ah me! ah me! to mortal man how dread a scourge is love!
That, I deem, is according to the turn our fortunes take.
O Zeus! let not the author of these my troubles escape thee.
Begone, thou silly woman, and free me from my toil.
The toil is mine, no lack of it.
Soon wilt thou be thrust out forcibly by the hand of servants.
Not that, not that, I do entreat thee, Creon
Thou wilt cause disturbance yet, it seems.
I will begone; I ask thee not this boon to grant.
Why then this violence? why dost thou not depart?
Suffer me to abide this single day and devise some plan for the
manner of my exile, and means of living for my children, since
their father cares not to provide his babes therewith. Then pity
them; thou too hast children of thine own; thou needs must have
a kindly heart. For my own lot I care naught, though I an exile
am, but for those babes I weep, that they should learn what
Mine is a nature anything but harsh; full oft by showing pity
have suffered shipwreck; and now albeit I clearly see my error,
yet shalt thou gain this request, lady; but I do forewarn thee,
if tomorrow's rising sun shall find thee and thy children within
the borders of this land, thou diest; my word is spoken and it
will not lie. So now, if abide thou must, stay this one day
only, for in it thou canst not do any of the fearful deeds I
CREON and his retinue go out.
Ah! poor lady, woe is thee! Alas, for thy sorrows! Whither wilt
thou turn? What protection, what home or country to save thee
from thy troubles wilt thou find? O Medea, in what a hopeless
sea of misery heaven hath plunged thee!
On all sides sorrow pens me in. Who shall gainsay this? But all
is not yet lost! think not so. Still are there troubles in store
for the new bride, and for her bridegroom no light toil. Dost
think I would ever have fawned on yonder man, unless to gain
some end or form some scheme? Nay, would not so much as have
spoken to him or touched him with my hand. But he has in folly
so far stepped in that, though he might have checked my plot by
banishing me from the land, he hath allowed me to abide this
day, in which I will lay low in death three of my enemies-a
father and his daughter and my husband too. Now, though I have
many ways to compass their death, I am not sure, friends, which
I am to try first. Shall I set fire to the bridal mansion, or
plunge the whetted sword through their hearts, softly stealing
into the chamber where their couch is spread? One thing stands
in my way. If I am caught making my way into the chamber, intent
on my design, I shall be put to death and cause my foes to mock,
'Twere best to take the shortest way-the way we women are most
skilled in-by poison to destroy them. Well, suppose them dead;
what city will receive me? What friendly host will give me a
shelter in his land, a home secure, and save my soul alive?
None. So I will wait yet a little while in case some tower of
defence rise up for me; then will I proceed to this bloody deed
in crafty silence; but if some unexpected mischance drive me
forth, I will with mine own hand seize the sword, e'en though I
die for it, and slay them, and go forth on my bold path of
daring. By that dread queen whom I revere before all others and
have chosen to share my task, by Hecate who dwells within my
inmost chamber, not one of them shall wound my heart and rue it
not. Bitter and sad will I make their marriage for them; bitter
shall be the wooing of it, bitter my exile from the land. Up,
then, Medea, spare not the secrets of thy art in plotting and
devising; on to the danger. Now comes a struggle needing
courage. Dost see what thou art suffering? 'Tis not for thee to
be a laughing-stock to the race of Sisyphus by reason of this
wedding of Jason, sprung, as thou art, from noble sire, and of
the Sun-god's race. Thou hast cunning; and, more than this, we
women, though by nature little apt for virtuous deeds, are most
expert to fashion any mischief.
As the CHORUS finishes its song, JASON enters, alone. MEDEA comes
out of the house.
Back to their source the holy rivers turn their tide. Order and
the universe are being reversed. 'Tis men whose counsels are
treacherous, whose oath by heaven is no longer sure. Rumour
shall bring a change o'er my life, bringing it into good repute.
Honour's dawn is breaking for woman's sex; no more shall the
foul tongue of slander fix upon us.
The songs of the poets of old shall cease to make our
faithlessness their theme. Phoebus, lord of minstrelsy, hath not
implanted in our mind the gift of heavenly song, else had I sung
an answering strain to the race of males, for time's long
chapter affords many a theme on their sex as well as ours.
With mind distraught didst thou thy father's house desert on thy
voyage betwixt ocean's twin rocks, and on a foreign strand thou
dwellest thy bed left husbandless, poor lady, and thou an exile
from the land, dishonoured, persecuted.
Gone is the grace that oaths once had. Through all the breadth
of Hellas honour is found no more; to heaven hath it sped away.
For thee no father's house is open, woe is thee! to be a haven
from the troublous storm, while o'er thy home is set another
queen, the bride that is preferred to thee.
It is not now I first remark, but oft ere this, how unruly a
pest is a harsh temper. For instance, thou, hadst thou but
patiently endured the will of thy superiors, mightest have
remained here in this land and house, but now for thy idle words
wilt thou be banished. Thy words are naught to me. Cease not to
call Jason basest of men; but for those words thou hast spoken
against our rulers, count it all gain that exile is thy only
punishment. I ever tried to check the outbursts of the angry
monarch, and would have had thee stay, but thou wouldst not
forego thy silly rage, always reviling our rulers, and so thou
wilt be banished. Yet even after all this I weary not of my
goodwill, but am come with thus much forethought, lady, that
thou mayst not be destitute nor want for aught, when, with thy
sons, thou art cast out. Many an evil doth exile bring in its
train with it; for even though thou hatest me, never will I
harbour hard thoughts of thee.
Thou craven villain (for that is the only name my tongue can
find for thee, a foul reproach on thy unmanliness), comest thou
to me, thou, most hated foe of gods, of me, and of all mankind?
'Tis no proof of courage or hardihood to confront thy friends
after injuring them, but that worst of all human diseases-loss
of shame. Yet hast thou done well to come; for I shall ease my
soul by reviling thee, and thou wilt be vexed at my recital. I
will begin at the very beginning. I saved thy life, as every
Hellene knows who sailed with thee aboard the good ship Argo,
when thou wert sent to tame and yoke fire-breathing bulls, and
to sow the deadly tilth. Yea, and I slew the dragon which
guarded the golden fleece, keeping sleepless watch o'er it with
many a wreathed coil, and I raised for thee a beacon of
deliverance. Father and home of my free will I left and came
with the to Iolcos, 'neath Pelion's hills, for my love was
stronger than my prudence. Next I caused the death of Pelias by
a doom most grievous, even by his own children's hand, beguiling
them of all their fear. All this have I done for thee, thou
traitor! and thou hast cast me over, taking to thyself another
wife, though children have been born to us. Hadst thou been
childless still, I could have pardoned thy desire for this new
union. Gone is now the trust I put in oaths. I cannot even
understand whether thou thinkest that the gods of old no longer
rule, or that fresh decrees are now in vogue amongst mankind,
for thy conscience must tell thee thou hast not kept faith with
me. Ah! poor right hand, which thou didst often grasp. These
knees thou didst embrace! All in vain, I suffered a traitor to
touch me! How short of my hopes I am fallen! But come, I will
deal with the as though thou wert my friend. Yet what kindness
can I expect from one so base as thee? But yet I will do it, for
my questioning will show thee yet more base. Whither can I turn
me now? to my father's house, to my own country, which I for
thee deserted to come hither? to the hapless daughters of
Pelias? A glad welcome, I trow, would they give me in their
home, whose father's death I compassed! My case stands even
thus: I am become the bitter foe to those of mine own home, and
those whom I need ne'er have wronged I have made mine enemies to
pleasure thee. Wherefore to reward me for this thou hast made me
doubly blest in the eyes of many wife in Hellas; and in thee I
own a peerless, trusty lord. O woe is me, if indeed I am to be
cast forth an exile from the land, without one friend; one lone
woman with her babes forlorn! Yea, a fine reproach to thee in
thy bridal hour, that thy children and the wife who saved thy
life are beggars and vagabonds! O Zeus! why hast thou granted
unto man clear signs to know the sham in gold, while on man's
brow no brand is stamped whereby to gauge the villain's heart?
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
There is a something terrible and past all cure, when quarrels
arise 'twixt those who are near and dear.
Needs must I now, it seems, turn orator, and, like a good
helmsman on a ship with close-reefed sails, weather that
wearisome tongue of thine. Now, I believe, since thou wilt
exaggerate thy favours, that to Cypri, alone of gods or men I
owe the safety of my voyage. Thou hast a subtle wit enough; yet
were it a hateful thing for me to say that the Love-god
constrained thee by his resistless shaft to save my life.
However, I will not reckon this too nicely; 'twas kindly done,
however thou didst serve me. Yet for my safety hast thou
received more than ever thou gavest, as I will show. First, thou
dwellest in Hellas, instead of thy barbarian land, and hast
learnt what justice means and how to live by law, not by the
dictates of brute force; and all the Hellenes recognize thy
cleverness, and thou hast gained a name; whereas, if thou hadst
dwelt upon the confines of the earth, no tongue had mentioned
thee. Give me no gold within my halls, nor skill to sing a
fairer strain than ever Orpheus sang, unless there-with my fame
be spread abroad! So much I say to thee about my own toils, for
'twas thou didst challenge me to this retort. As for the taunts
thou urgest against my marriage with the princess, I will prove
to thee, first, that I am prudent herein, next chastened in my
love, and last powerful friend to thee and to thy sons; only
hold thy peace. Since I have here withdrawn from Iolcos with
many a hopeless trouble at my back, what happier device could I,
an exile, frame than marriage with the daughter of the king?
'Tis not because I loathe thee for my wife-the thought that
rankles in thy heart; 'tis not because I am smitten with desire
for a new bride, nor yet that I am eager to vie with others in
begetting many children, for those we have are quite enough, and
I do not complain. Nay, 'tis that we-and this is most
important-may dwell in comfort, instead of suffering want
for well I know that every whilom friend avoids the poor
, and that I might rear my sons as doth befit my house; further,
that I might be the father of brothers for the children thou
hast borne, and raise these to the same high rank, uniting the
family in one,-to my lasting bliss. Thou, indeed, hast no need
of more children, but me it profits to help my present family by
that which is to be. Have I miscarried here? Not even thou
wouldest say so unless a rival's charms rankled in thy bosom.
No, but you women have such strange ideas, that you think all is
well so long as your married life runs smooth; but if some
mischance occur to ruffle your love, all that was good and
lovely erst you reckon as your foes. Yea, men should have
begotten children from some other source, no female race
existing; thus would no evil ever have fallen on mankind.
This speech, O Jason, hast thou with specious art arranged; but
yet I think-albeit in speaking I am indiscreet-that thou hast
sinned in thy betrayal of thy wife.
No doubt I differ from the mass of men on many points; for, to
my mind, whoso hath skill to fence with words in an unjust
cause, incurs the heaviest penalty; for such an one, confident
that he can cast a decent veil of words o'er his injustice,
dares to practise it; and yet he is not so very clever after
all. So do not thou put forth thy specious pleas and clever
words to me now, for one word of mine will lay thee low. Hadst
thou not had a villain's heart, thou shouldst have gained my
consent, then made this match, instead of hiding it from those
who loved thee.
Thou wouldest have lent me ready aid, no doubt, in this
proposal, if had told thee of my marriage, seeing that not even
now canst thou restrain thy soul's hot fury.
This was not what restrained thee; but thine eye was turned
towards old age, and a foreign wife began to appear a shame to
Be well assured of this: 'twas not for the woman's sake I wedded
the king's daughter, my present wife; but, as I have already
told thee, I wished to insure thy safety and to be the father of
royal sons bound by blood to my own children-a bulwark to our
May that prosperity, whose end is woe, ne'er be mine, nor such
wealth as would ever sting my heart!
Change that prayer as I will teach thee, and thou wilt show more
wisdom. Never let happiness appear in sorrow's guise, nor, when
thy fortune smiles, pretend she frowns!
Mock on; thou hast a place of refuge; I am alone, an exile soon
Thy own free choice was this; blame no one else.
What did I do? Marry, then betray thee?
Against the king thou didst invoke an impious curse.
On thy house too maybe I bring the curse.
Know this, I will no further dispute this point with thee. But,
if thou wilt of my fortune somewhat take for the children or
thyself to help thy exile, say on; for I am ready to grant it
with ungrudging hand, yea and to bend tokens to my friends
elsewhere who shall treat thee well. If thou refuse this offer,
thou wilt do a foolish deed, but if thou cease from anger the
greater will be thy gain.
I will have naught to do with friends of thine, naught will I
receive of thee, offer it not to me; a villain's gifts can bring
At least I call the gods to witness, that I am ready in all
things to serve thee and thy children, but thou dost scorn my
favours and thrustest thy friends stubbornly away; wherefore thy
lot will be more bitter still.
Away! By love for thy young bride entrapped, too long thou
lingerest outside her chamber; go wed, for, if God will, thou
shalt have such a marriage as thou wouldst fain refuse.
JASON goes out.
MEDEA has been seated in despair on her door-step during the
choral song. AEGEUS and his attendants enter.
When in excess and past all limits Love doth come, he brings not
glory or repute to man; but if the Cyprian queen in moderate
might approach, no goddess is so full of charm as she. Never, O
never, lady mine, discharge at me from thy golden bow a shaft
invincible, in passion's venom dipped.
On me may chastity, heaven's fairest gift, look with a favouring
eye; never may Cypris, goddess dread, fasten on me a temper to
dispute, or restless jealousy, smiting my soul with mad desire
for unlawful love, but may she hallow peaceful married life and
shrewdly decide whom each of us shall wed.
O my country, O my own dear home! God grant I may never be an
outcast from my city, leading that cruel helpless life, whose
every day is misery. Ere that may I this life complete and yield
to death, ay, death; for there is no misery that doth surpass
the loss of fatherland.
I have seen with mine eyes, nor from the lips of others have I
the lesson learnt; no city, not one friend doth pity thee in
this thine awful woe. May he perish and find no favour, whoso
hath not in him honour for his friends, freely unlocking his
heart to them. Never shall he be friend of mine.
All hail, Medea! no man knoweth fairer prelude to the greeting
of friends than this.
All hail to thee likewise, Aegeus, son of wise Pandion. Whence
comest thou to this land?
From Phoebus' ancient oracle.
What took thee on thy travels to the prophetic centre of the
The wish to ask how I might raise up seed unto myself.
Pray tell me, hast thou till now dragged on a childless life?
I have no child owing to the visitation of some god.
Hast thou a wife, or hast thou never known the married state?
I have a wife joined to me in wedlock's bond.
What said Phoebus to thee as to children?
Words too subtle for man to comprehend.
Surely I may learn the god's answer?
Most assuredly, for it is just thy subtle wit it needs.
What said the god? speak, if I may hear it.
He bade me "not loose the wineskin's pendent neck."
Till when? what must thou do first, what country visit?
Till I to my native home return.
What object hast thou in sailing to this land?
O'er Troezen's realm is Pittheus king.
Pelops' son, a man devout they say.
To him I fain would impart the oracle of the god.
The man is shrewd and versed in such-like lore.
Aye, and to me the dearest of all my warrior friends.
Good luck to thee! success to all thy wishes!
But why that downcast eye, that wasted cheek?
O Aegeus, my husband has proved most evil.
What meanest thou? explain to me clearly the cause of thy
Jason is wronging me though I have given him no cause.
What hath he done? tell me more clearly.
He is taking another wife to succeed me as mistress of his
Can he have brought himself to such a dastard deed?
Be assured thereof; I, whom he loved of yore, am in dishonour
Hath he found a new love? or does he loathe thy bed?
Much in love is he! A traitor to his friend is he become.
Enough! if he is a villain as thou sayest.
The alliance he is so much enamoured of is with a princess.
Who gives his daughter to him? go on, I pray.
Creon, who is lord of this land of Corinth.
Lady, I can well pardon thy grief.
I am undone, and more than that, am banished from the land.
By whom? fresh woe this word of thine unfolds.
Creon drives me forth in exile from Corinth.
Doth Jason allow it? This too I blame him for.
Not in words, but he will not stand out against it. O, I implore
thee by this beard and by thy knees, in suppliant posture, pity,
O pity my sorrows; do not see me cast forth forlorn, but receive
me in thy country, to a seat within thy halls. So may thy wish
by heaven's grace be crowned with a full harvest of offspring,
and may thy life close in happiness! Thou knowest not the rare
good luck thou findest here, for I will make thy childlessness
to cease and cause thee to beget fair issue; so potent are the
spells I know.
Lady, on many grounds I am most fain to grant thee this thy
boon, first for the gods' sake, next for the children whom thou
dost promise I shall beget; for in respect of this I am
completely lost. 'Tis thus with me; if e'er thou reach my land,
I will attempt to champion thee as I am bound to do. Only one
warning I do give thee first, lady; I will not from this land
bear thee away, yet if of thyself thou reach my halls, there
shalt thou bide in safety and I will never yield thee up to any
man. But from this land escape without my aid, for I have no
wish to incur the blame of my allies as well.
It shall be even so; but wouldst thou pledge thy word to this, I
should in all be well content with thee.
Surely thou dost trust me? or is there aught that troubles thee?
Thee I trust; but Pelias' house and Creon are my foes.
Wherefore, if thou art bound by an oath, thou wilt not give me
up to them when they come to drag me from the land, but, having
entered into a compact and sworn by heaven as well, thou wilt
become my friend and disregard their overtures. Weak is any aid
of mine, whilst they have wealth and a princely house.
Lady, thy words show much foresight, so if this is thy will, I
do not, refuse. For I shall feel secure and safe if I have some
pretext to offer to thy foes, and thy case too the firmer
stands. Now name thy gods.
Swear by the plain of Earth, by Helios my father's sire, and, in
one comprehensive oath, by all the race of gods.
What shall I swear to do, from what refrain? tell me that.
Swear that thou wilt never of thyself expel me from thy land,
nor, whilst life is thine, permit any other, one of my foes
maybe, to hale me thence if so he will.
By Earth I swear, by the Sun-god's holy beam and by all the host
of heaven that I will stand fast to the terms I hear thee make.
'Tis enough. If thou shouldst break this oath, what curse dost
thou invoke upon thyself?
Whate'er betides the impious.
Go in peace; all is well, and I with what speed I may, will to
thy city come, when I have wrought my purpose and obtained my
AEGEUS and his retinue depart.
May Maia's princely son go with thee on thy way to bring thee to
thy home, and mayest thou attain that on which thy soul is set
so firmly, for to my mind thou seemest a generous man, O Aegeus.
O Zeus, and Justice, child of Zeus, and Sun-god's light, now
will triumph o'er my foes, kind friends; on victory's road have
I set forth; good hope have I of wreaking vengeance on those I
hate. For where we were in most distress this stranger hath
appeared, to be a haven in my counsels; to him will we make fast
the cables of our ship when we come to the town and citadel of
Pallas. But now will I explain to thee my plans in full; do not
expect to hear a pleasant tale. A servant of mine will I to
Jason send and crave an interview; then when he comes I will
address him with soft words, say, "this pleases me," and, "that
is well," even the marriage with the princess, which my
treacherous lord is celebrating, and add "it suits us both,
'twas well thought out"; then will I entreat that here my
children may abide, not that I mean to leave them in a hostile
land for foes to flout, but that I may slay the king's daughter
by guile. For I will send them with gifts in their hands,
carrying them unto the bride to save them from banishment, a
robe of finest woof and a chaplet of gold. And if these
ornaments she take and put them on, miserably shall she die, and
likewise everyone who touches her; with such fell poisons will I
smear my gifts. And here I quit this theme; but I shudder at the
deed I must do next; for I will slay the children I have borne;
there is none shall take them from my toils; and when I have
utterly confounded Jason's house I will leave the land, escaping
punishment for my dear children's murder, after my most unholy
deed. For I cannot endure the taunts of enemies, kind friends;
enough! what gain is life to me? I have no country, home, or
refuge left. O, I did wrong, that hour I left my father's home,
persuaded by that Hellene's words, who now shall pay the
penalty, so help me God, Never shall he see again alive the
children I bore to him, nor from his new bride shall he beget
issue, for she must die a hideous death, slain by my drugs. Let
no one deem me a poor weak woman who sits with folded hands, but
of another mould, dangerous to foes and well-disposed to
friends; for they win the fairest fame who live then, life like
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
Since thou hast imparted this design to me, I bid thee hold thy
hand, both from a wish to serve thee and because I would uphold
the laws men make.
It cannot but be so; thy words I pardon since thou art not in
the same sorry plight that I am.
O lady, wilt thou steel thyself to slay thy children twain?
I will, for that will stab my husband to the heart.
It may, but thou wilt be the saddest wife alive.
No matter; wasted is every word that comes 'twixt now and then.
The NURSE enters in answer to her call.
Thou, go call me Jason hither, for thee I do employ on every
mission of trust. No word divulge of all my purpose, as thou art
to thy mistress loyal and likewise of my sex.
The NURSE goes out.
Sons of Erechtheus, heroes happy from of yore, children of the
blessed gods, fed on wisdom's glorious food in a holy land ne'er
pillaged by its foes, ye who move with sprightly step through a
climate ever bright and clear, where, as legend tells, the Muses
nine, Pieria's holy maids, were brought to birth by Harmonia
with the golden hair.
And poets sing how Cypris drawing water from the streams of
fair-flowing Cephissus breathes o'er the land a gentle breeze of
balmy winds, and ever as she crowns her tresses with a garland
of sweet rose-buds sends forth the Loves to sit by wisdom's
side, to take part in every excellence.
How then shall the city of sacred streams, the land that
welcomes those it loves, receive thee, the murderess of thy
children, thee whose presence with others is a pollution? 'Think
on the murder of thy children, consider the bloody deed thou
takest on thee. Nay, by thy knees we, one and all, implore thee,
slay not thy babes.
Where shall hand or heart find hardihood enough in wreaking such
a fearsome deed upon thy sons? How wilt thou look upon thy
babes, and still without a tear retain thy bloody purpose? Thou
canst not, when they fall at thy feet for mercy, steel thy heart
and dip in their blood thy hand.
I am come at thy bidding, for e'en though thy hate for me is
bitter thou shalt not fail in this small boon, but I will hear
what new request thou hast to make of me, lady.
Jason, I crave thy pardon for the words I spoke, and well thou
mayest brook my burst of passion, for ere now we twain have
shared much love. For I have reasoned with my soul and railed
upon me thus, "Ah! poor heart! why am I thus distraught, why so
angered 'gainst all good advice, why have I come to hate the
rulers of the land, my husband too, who does the best for me he
can, in wedding with a princess and rearing for my children
noble brothers? Shall I not cease to fret? What possesses me,
when heaven its best doth offer? Have I not my children to
consider? do I forget that we are fugitives, in need of
friends?" When I had thought all this I saw how foolish I had
been, how senselessly enraged. So now do commend thee and think
thee most wise in forming this connection for us; but I was mad,
I who should have shared in these designs, helped on thy plans,
and lent my aid to bring about the match, only too pleased to
wait upon thy bride. But what we are, we are, we women, evil I
will not say; wherefore thou shouldst not sink to our sorry
level nor with our weapons meet our childishness.
The ATTENDANT comes out of the house with the children.
I yield and do confess that I was wrong then, but now have I
come to a better mind. Come hither, my children, come, leave the
house, step forth, and with me greet and bid farewell to your
father, be reconciled from all past bitterness unto your
friends, as now your mother is; for we have made a truce and
anger is no more.
Take his right hand; ah me! my sad fate! when I reflect, as now,
upon the hidden future. O my children, since there awaits you
even thus a long, long life, stretch forth the hand to take a
fond farewell. Ah me! how new to tears am I, how full of fear!
For now that I have at last released me from my quarrel with
your father, I let the tear-drops stream adown my tender cheek.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
From my eyes too bursts forth the copious tear; O, may no
greater ill than the present e'er befall!
Lady, I praise this conduct, not that I blame what is past; for
it is but natural to the female sex to vent their spleen against
a husband when he trafficks in other marriages besides his own.
But thy heart is changed to wiser schemes and thou art
determined on the better course, late though it be; this is
acting like a woman of sober sense. And for you, my sons, hath
your father provided with all good heed a sure refuge, by God's
grace; for ye, I trow, shall with your brothers share hereafter
the foremost rank in this Corinthian realm. Only grow up, for
all the rest your sire and whoso of the gods is kind to us is
bringing to pass. May I see you reach man's full estate, high
o'er the heads of those I hate! But thou, lady, why with fresh
tears dost thou thine eyelids wet, turning away thy wan cheek,
with no welcome for these my happy tidings?
'Tis naught; upon these children my thoughts were turned.
Then take heart; for I will see that it is well with them.
I will do so; nor will I doubt thy word; woman is a weak
creature, ever given to tears.
Why prithee, unhappy one, dost moan o'er these children?
I gave them birth; and when thou didst pray long life for them,
pity entered into my soul to think that these things must be.
But the reason of thy coming hither to speak with me is partly
told, the rest will I now mention. Since it is the pleasure of
the rulers of the land to banish me, and well I know 'twere best
for me to stand not in the way of thee or of the rulers by
dwelling here, enemy as I am thought unto their house, forth
from this land in exile am I going, but these children,-that
they may know thy fostering hand, beg Creon to remit their
I doubt whether I can persuade him, yet must I attempt it.
At least do thou bid thy wife ask her sire this boon, to remit
the exile of the children from this land.
Yea, that will I; and her methinks I shall persuade, since she
is woman like the rest.
I too will aid thee in this task, for by the children's hand I
will send to her gifts that far surpass in beauty, I well know,
aught that now is seen 'mongst men, a robe of finest tissue and
a chaplet of chased gold. But one of my attendants must haste
and bring the ornaments hither.
A servant goes into the house.
Happy shall she be not once alone but ten thousand-fold, for in
thee she wins the noblest soul to share her love, and gets these
gifts as well which on a day my father's sire, the Sun-god,
bestowed on his descendants.
The servant returns and hands the gifts to the children.
My children, take in your hands these wedding gifts, and bear
them as an offering to the royal maid, the happy bride; for
verily the gifts she shall receive are not to be scorned.
But why so rashly rob thyself of these gifts? Dost think a royal
palace wants for robes or gold? Keep them, nor give them to
another. For well I know that if my lady hold me in esteem, she
will set my price above all wealth.
Say not so; 'tis said that gifts tempt even gods; and o'er men's
minds gold holds more potent sway than countless words. Fortune
smiles upon thy bride, and heaven now doth swell her triumph;
youth is hers and princely power; yet to save my children from
exile I would barter life, not dross alone. Children, when we
are come to the rich palace, pray your father's new bride, my
mistress, with suppliant voice to save you from exile, offering
her these ornaments the while; for it is most needful that she
receive the gifts in her own hand. Now go and linger not; may ye
succeed and to your mother bring back the glad tidings she fain
JASON, the ATTENDANT, and the children go out together.
The ATTENDANT enters with the children.
Gone, gone is every hope I had that the children yet might live;
forth to their doom they now proceed. The hapless bride will
take, ay, take the golden crown that is to be her ruin; with her
own hand will she lift and place upon her golden locks the
garniture of death.
Its grace and sheen divine will tempt her to put on the robe and
crown of gold, and in that act will she deck herself to be a
bride amid the dead. Such is the snare whereinto she will fall,
such is the deadly doom that waits the hapless maid, nor shall
she from the curse escape.
And thou, poor wretch, who to thy sorrow art wedding a king's
daughter, little thinkest of the doom thou art bringing on thy
children's life, or of the cruel death that waits thy bride. Woe
is thee! how art thou fallen from thy high estate!
Next do I bewail thy sorrows, O mother hapless in thy children,
thou who wilt slay thy babes because thou hast a rival, the
babes thy husband hath deserted impiously to join him to another
Thy children, lady, are from exile freed, and gladly did the
royal bride accept thy gifts in her own hands, and so thy
children made their peace with her.
Why art so disquieted in thy prosperous hour? Why turnest thou
thy cheek away, and hast no welcome for my glad news?
These groans but ill accord with the news I bring.
Ah me! once more I say.
Have I unwittingly announced some evil tidings? Have I erred in
thinking my news was good?
Thy news is as it is; I blame thee not.
Then why this downcast eye, these floods of tears?
Old friend, needs must I weep; for the gods and I with fell
intent devised these schemes.
Be of good cheer; thou too of a surety shalt by thy sons yet be
brought home again.
Ere that shall I bring others to their home, ah! woe is me
Thou art not the only mother from thy children reft. Bear
patiently thy troubles as a mortal must.
I will obey; go thou within the house and make the day's
provision for the children.
The ATTENDANT enters the house. MEDEA turns to the children.
O my babes, my babes, ye have still a city and a home, where far
from me and my sad lot you will live your lives, reft of your
mother for ever; while I must to another land in banishment, or
ever I have had my joy of you, or lived to see you happy, or
ever I have graced your marriage couch, your bride, your bridal
bower, or lifted high the wedding torch. Ah me! a victim of my
own self-will. So it was all in vain I reared you, O my sons; in
vain did suffer, racked with anguish, enduring the cruel pangs
of childbirth. 'Fore Heaven I once had hope, poor me! high hope
of ye that you would nurse me in my age and deck my corpse with
loving hands, a boon we mortals covet; but now is my sweet fancy
dead and gone; for I must lose you both and in bitterness and
sorrow drag through life. And ye shall never with fond eyes see
your mother more for o'er your life there comes a change. Ah me!
ah me! why do ye look at me so, my children? why smile that last
sweet smile? Ah me! what am I to do? My heart gives way when I
behold my children's laughing eyes. O, I cannot; farewell to all
my former schemes; I will take the children from the land, the
babes I bore. Why should I wound their sire by wounding them,
and get me a twofold measure of sorrow? No, no, I will not do
it. Farewell my scheming! And yet what possesses me? Can I
consent to let those foes of mine escape from punishment, and
incur their mockery? I must face this deed. Out upon my craven
heart! to think that I should even have let the soft words
escape my soul. Into the house, children!
The children go into the house.
And whoso feels he must not be present at my sacrifice, must see
to it himself; I will not spoil my handiwork. Ah! ah! do not, my
heart, O do not do this deed! Let the children go, unhappy one,
spare the babes! For if they live, they will cheer thee in our
exile there. Nay, by the fiends of hell's abyss, never, never
will I hand my children over to their foes to mock and flout.
Die they must in any case, and since 'tis so, why I, the mother
who bore them, will give the fatal blow. In any case their doom
is fixed and there is no escape. Already the crown is on her
head, the robe is round her, and she is dying, the royal bride;
that do I know full well. But now since I have a piteous path to
tread, and yet more piteous still the path I send my children
on, fain would I say farewell to them.
The children come out at her call. She takes them in her arms.
O my babes, my babes, let your mother kiss your hands. Ah! hands
I love so well, O lips most dear to me! O noble form and
features of my children, I wish ye joy, but in that other land,
for here your father robs you of your home. O the sweet embrace,
the soft young cheek, the fragrant breath! my children! Go,
leave me; I cannot bear to longer look upon ye; my sorrow wins
the day. At last I understand the awful deed I am to do; but
passion, that cause of direst woes to mortal man, hath triumphed
o'er my sober thoughts.
She goes into the house with the children.
Oft ere now have I pursued subtler themes and have faced graver
issues than woman's sex should seek to probe; but then e'en we
aspire to culture, which dwells with us to teach us wisdom; I
say not all; for small is the class amongst women-(one maybe
shalt thou find 'mid many)-that is not incapable of wisdom. And
amongst mortals I do assert that they who are wholly without
experience and have never had children far surpass in happiness
those who are parents. The childless, because they have never
proved whether children grow up to be a blessing or curse to men
are removed from all share in many troubles; whilst those who
have a sweet race of children growing up in their houses do wear
away, as I perceive, their whole life through; first with the
thought how they may train them up in virtue, next how they
shall leave their sons the means to live; and after all this
'tis far from clear whether on good or bad children they bestow
their toil. But one last crowning woe for every mortal man now
will name; suppose that they have found sufficient means to
live, and seen their children grow to man's estate and walk in
virtue's path, still if fortune so befall, comes Death and bears
the children's bodies off to Hades. Can it be any profit to the
gods to heap upon us mortal men beside our other woes this
further grief for children lost, a grief surpassing all?
MEDEA comes out of the house.
Kind friends, long have I waited expectantly to know how things
would at the palace chance. And lo! I see one of Jason's
servants coming hither, whose hurried gasps for breath proclaim
him the bearer of some fresh tidings.
A MESSENGER rushes in.
Fly, fly, Medea! who hast wrought an awful deed, transgressing
every law: nor leave behind or sea-borne bark or car that scours
Why, what hath chanced that calls for such a flight of mine?
The princess is dead, a moment gone, and Creon too, her sire,
slain by those drugs of thine.
Tidings most fair are thine! Henceforth shalt thou be ranked
amongst my friends and benefactors.
Ha! What? Art sane? Art not distraught, lady, who hearest with
joy the outrage to our royal house done, and art not at the
horrid tale afraid?
Somewhat have I, too, to say in answer to thy words. Be not so
hasty, friend, but tell the manner of their death, for thou
wouldst give me double joy, if so they perished miserably.
When the children twain whom thou didst bear came with their
father and entered the palace of the bride, right glad were we
thralls who had shared thy griefs, for instantly from ear to ear
a rumour spread that thou and thy lord had made up your former
quarrel. One kissed thy children's hands, another their golden
hair, while I for very joy went with them in person to the
women's chambers. Our mistress, whom now we do revere in thy
room, cast a longing glance at Jason, ere she saw thy children
twain; but then she veiled her eyes and turned her blanching
cheek away, disgusted at their coming; but thy husband tried to
check his young bride's angry humour with these words: "O, be
not angered 'gainst thy friends; cease from wrath and turn once
more thy face this way, counting as friends whomso thy husband
counts, and accept these gifts, and for my sake crave thy sire
to remit these children's exile." Soon as she saw the ornaments,
no longer she held out, but yielded to her lord in all; and ere
the father and his sons were far from the palace gone, she took
the broidered robe and put it on, and set the golden crown about
her tresses, arranging her hair at her bright mirror, with many
a happy smile at her breathless counterfeit. Then rising from
her seat she passed across the chamber, tripping lightly on her
fair white foot, exulting in the gift, with many a glance at her
uplifted ankle. When lo! a scene of awful horror did ensue. In a
moment she turned pale, reeled backwards, trembling in every
limb, and sinks upon a seat scarce soon enough to save herself
from falling to the ground. An aged dame, one of her company,
thinking belike it was a fit from Pan or some god sent, raised a
cry of prayer, till from her mouth she saw the foam-flakes
issue, her eyeballs rolling in their sockets, and all the blood
her face desert; then did she raise a loud scream far different
from her former cry. Forthwith one handmaid rushed to her
father's house, another to her new bridegroom to tell his
bride's sad fate, and the whole house echoed with their running
to and fro. By this time would a quick walker have made the turn
in a course of six plethra and reached the goal, when she with
one awful shriek awoke, poor sufferer, from her speechless
trance and oped her closed eyes, for against her a twofold
anguish was warring. The chaplet of gold about her head was
sending forth a wondrous stream of ravening flame, while the
fine raiment, thy children's gift, was preying on the hapless
maiden's fair white flesh; and she starts from her seat in a
blaze and seeks to fly, shaking her hair and head this way and
that, to cast the crown therefrom; but the gold held firm to its
fastenings, and the flame, as she shook her locks, blazed forth
the more with double fury. Then to the earth she sinks, by the
cruel blow o'ercome; past all recognition now save to a father's
eye; for her eyes had lost their tranquil gaze, her face no more
its natural look preserved, and from the crown of her head blood
and fire in mingled stream ran down; and from her bones the
flesh kept peeling off beneath the gnawing of those secret
drugs, e'en as when the pine-tree weeps its tears of pitch, a
fearsome sight to see. And all were afraid to touch the corpse,
for we were warned by what had chanced. Anon came her haples
father unto the house, all unwitting of her doom, and stumbles
o'er the dead, and loud he cried, and folding his arms about her
kissed her, with words like these the while, "O my poor, poor
child, which of the gods hath destroyed thee thus foully? Who is
robbing me of thee, old as I am and ripe for death? O my child,
alas! would I could die with thee!" He ceased his sad lament,
and would have raised his aged frame, but found himself held
fast by the fine-spun robe as ivy that clings to the branches of
the bay, and then ensued a fearful struggle. He strove to rise,
but she still held him back; and if ever he pulled with all his
might, from off his bones his aged flesh he tore. At last he
gave it up, and breathed forth his soul in awful suffering; for
he could no longer master the pain. So there they lie, daughter
and aged sire, dead side by side, a grievous sight that calls
for tears. And as for thee, I leave thee out of my
consideration, for thyself must discover a means to escape
punishment. Not now for the first time I think this human life a
shadow; yea, and without shrinking I will say that they amongst
men who pretend to wisdom and expend deep thought on words do
incur a serious charge of folly; for amongst mortals no man is
happy; wealth may pour in and make one luckier than another, but
none can happy be.
The MESSENGER departs.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
This day the deity, it seems, will mass on Jason, as he well
deserves, heavy load of evils. Woe is thee, daughter of Creon We
pity thy sad fate, gone as thou art to Hades' halls as the price
of thy marriage with Jason.
My friends, I am resolved upon the deed; at once will I slay my
children and then leave this land, without delaying long enough
to hand them over to some more savage hand to butcher. Needs
must they die in any case; and since they must, I will slay
them-I, the mother that bare them. O heart of mine, steel
thyself! Why do I hesitate to do the awful deed that must be
done? Come, take the sword, thou wretched hand of mine! Take it,
and advance to the post whence starts thy life of sorrow! Away
with cowardice! Give not one thought to thy babes, how dear they
are or how thou art their mother. This one brief day forget thy
children dear, and after that lament; for though thou wilt slay
them yet they were thy darlings still, and I am a lady of
MEDEA enters the house.
O earth, O sun whose beam illumines all, look, look upon this
lost woman, ere she stretch forth her murderous hand upon her
sons for blood; for lo! these are scions of thy own golden seed,
and the blood of gods is in danger of being shed by man. O
light, from Zeus proceeding, stay her, hold her hand, forth from
the house chase this fell bloody fiend by demons led. Vainly
wasted were the throes thy children cost thee; vainly hast thou
borne, it seems, sweet babes, O thou who hast left behind thee
that passage through the blue Symplegades, that strangers justly
hate. Ah! hapless one, why doth fierce anger thy soul assail?
Why in its place is fell murder growing up? For grievous unto
mortal men are pollutions that come of kindred blood poured on
the earth, woes to suit each crime hurled from heaven on the
FIRST SON within
Ah, me; what can I do? Whither fly to escape my mother's blows?
SECOND SON within
I know not, sweet brother mine; we are lost.
Didst hear, didst hear the children's cry? O lady, born to
sorrow, victim of an evil fate! Shall I enter the house? For the
children's sake I am resolved to ward off the murder.
FIRST SON within
Yea, by heaven I adjure you; help, your aid is needed.
SECOND SON within
Even now the toils of the sword are closing round us.
O hapless mother, surely thou hast a heart of stone or steel to
slay the offspring of thy womb by such a murderous doom. Of all
the wives of yore I know but one who laid her hand upon her
children dear, even Ino, whom the gods did madden in the day
that the wife of Zeus drove her wandering from her home. But
she, poor sufferer, flung herself into the sea because of the
foul murder of her children, leaping o'er the wave-beat cliff,
and in her death was she united to her children twain. Can there
be any deed of horror left to follow this? Woe for the wooing of
women fraught with disaster! What sorrows hast thou caused for
men ere now!
JASON and his attendants enter.
Ladies, stationed near this house, pray tell me is the author of
these hideous deeds, Medea, still within, or hath she fled from
hence? For she must hide beneath the earth or soar on wings
towards heaven's vault, if she would avoid the vengeance of the
royal house. Is she so sure she will escape herself unpunished
from this house, when she hath slain the rulers of the land? But
enough of this! I am forgetting her children. As for her, those
whom she hath wronged will do the like by her; but I am come to
save the children's life, lest the victim's kin visit their
wrath on me, in vengeance for the murder foul, wrought by my
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
Unhappy man, thou knowest not the full extent of thy misery,
else had thou never said those words.
How now? Can she want to kill me too?
Thy sons are dead; slain by their own mother's hand.
O God! what sayest thou? Woman, thou hast sealed my doom.
THE TROJAN WOMEN
Type of work: Drama
Author: Euripides (c. 485-c. 406 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Age of the Trojan War
Locale: Before the ruined walls of Troy
First presented: 415 B.C.
The Trojan Women (the Troades) is not, strictly speaking, an
Aristotelian tragedy, for it has no central tragic hero; neither is it
simply a tragic pageant. The Greek warriors collectively constitute the
tragic hero in that they commit hubris by defiling the Trojan temples
and brutally murdering the innocent. In this powerful indictment of war,
Euripides protests the Athenian massacres in Melos in 415 B.C.
Hecuba (he'ku-Üý), queen of Troy. Aged and broken by the fall of the
city, she is the epitome of all the misfortune resulting from the defeat
of the Trojans and the destruction of the city. She is first revealed
prostrate before the tents of the captive Trojan women, with the city in
the background. Her opening lyrics tell of the pathos of her situation
and introduce the impression of hopelessness and the theme of the
inevitable doom which war brings. The Greek herald enters with the news
that each of the women has been assigned to a different master. Hecuba
asks first about her children, Cassandra and Polyxena; then when she
finds that she has been given to Odysseus, she rouses herself to an
outburst of rebellious anger. Cassandra appears and recalls the prophecy
that Hecuba would die in Troy. After Cassandra is led away, Andromache,
who appears with news of the sacrifice of Polyxena, tries to console
Hecuba with the idea that Polyxena is fortunate in death, but Hecuba in
reproach and consolation points out to Andromache and the younger women
of the chorus the hope of life. Her attempts to console the younger
women, here and elsewhere, are her most endearing feature. The other
important aspect of her character, the desire for vengeance against
Helen, who has caused her sorrow, is shown in her reply to Helen's plea
to Menelaus. Hecuba's reply is vigorous; she points to Helen's own
responsibility for her actions and ends with a plea to Menelaus to kill
Helen and vindicate Greek womanhood. Hecuba's last action is the
preparation for burial of the body of Astyanax, the young son of
Andromache and Hector killed by the Greeks out of fear. Her lament over
the body is profoundly moving. At the end of the play, she is restrained
from throwing herself into the ruins of the burning city.
Cassandra (êý-san'dra), daughter of Hecuba, a prophetess chosen by
Agamemnon as a concubine. When she first appears, wild-eyed and waving a
torch above her head, she sings a parody of a marriage song in her own
honor; but she soon calms down and prophesies the dreadful end of
Agamemnon because of his choice and of the suffering of the Greeks. She
views aggressive war as a source of unhappiness for the aggressor
himself. As she leaves she hurls the sacred emblems of her divine office
to the ground and looks forward to her triumph in revenge.
Andromache (an-dro'make), the wife of Hector. Allotted to Neoptolemus,
the son of Achilles, she brings Hecuba news of the sacrifice of Polyxena
and compares her fate in accepting a new lord to Polyxena's escape
through death. When she learns of the Greeks' decision to kill Astyanax,
her son by Hector, she gives expression to her tortured love as a
mother. Unable to condemn the Greeks because they would refuse Astyanax
burial, she curses Helen as the cause of misfortune.
Helen (ÛÃýï), the queen of Sparta abducted by Paris. Beautiful and
insolent, her pleading before Menelaus is an attempt to place the blame
for her actions on others: on Priam and Hecuba because they had refused
to kill Paris at the oracle's command; on the goddess Aphrodite because
she promised Helen to Paris at the time of the judgment; on the Trojan
guards who had prevented her return to the Greeks. She departs, proud
Menelaus (ò¸-ïý×à'ýâ), king of Sparta and the husband of Helen, who has
been returned to him, the man she wronged, to kill; but it is evident
that he will not do so. His eagerness to assure others that Helen has no
control over him and that he intends to kill her becomes almost comic.
Talthybius (tul-thi'bi-ss), a herald of the Greeks. He appears three
times; to fetch Cassandra, to execute Astyanax, and to bring back
Astyanax's body for burial and set fire to the remains of Troy. A kindly
man, he is unable to carry out the execution of Astyanax personally.
Astyanax (as-tlVnaks), the infant son of Andromache and Hector. He is
flung from the highest battlement of Troy because the Greeks believe
that a son of Hector is too dangerous to live.
A Chorus of Trojan Women. Their odes express a mood of pity and sorrow
for the Trojans.
Poseidon (po-sl'dan), the god of the sea and patron of Troy. He appears,
at the beginning of the drama, to take official leave of the city; he
had favored it, but the gods aiding the greeks had proved too strong,
especially Pallas Athena. His monologue also gives the necessary
background for the play.
Pallas Athena (pal'ss ý-ø¸'ïý), the goddess of wisdom. She confronts
Poseidon as he bids farewell to Troy and proposes a common vengeance
against the Greeks, though she had favored them earlier. Because their
impious behavior at the capture of Troy has alienated the gods, the
Greeks are to be punished as they put to sea. This threat of retribution
looms over the entire play.
On the second morning after the fall of Troy and the massacre of all its
male inhabitants, Poseidon appeared to lament the ruins and vow
vengeance against the Greeks. To his surprise, Pallas Athena, the
goddess who had aided the Greeks, joined him in plotting a disastrous
homeward voyage for the victors who had despoiled her temple in Troy.
They withdrew as Hecuba rose from among the sleeping Trojan women to
mourn the burning city and her dead sons and husband. The chorus joined
her in chanting an anguished lament.
Talthybius, the herald of the Greeks, arrived to announce that Agamemnon
had chosen Cassandra to be his concubine and that the other royal women
of Troy had been assigned by lot—Polyxena to the tomb of Achilles,
Andromache to Achilles' son Neoptolemus, and Hecuba herself to Odysseus,
king of Ithaca and conceiver of the wooden horse that had led to the
fall of the city. Amid the cries of the grieving women Cassandra
appeared, bearing a flaming torch in each hand. The chorus was convinced
that she had gone mad as she danced and prayed to Hymen, god of
Marriage, that Agamemnon take her soon to Argos as his bride, for there
she would cause his death and the ruin of his entire family. As for
Odysseus, she foretold that he would suffer for ten more years on the
seas before reaching his homeland. As Talthybius led her off, he
observed that Agamemnon himself must have been mad to fall in love with
the insane Cassandra.
Hecuba, broken with grief, collapsed to the ground. From the city came a
Greek-drawn chariot loaded with the spoils of war and bearing Andromache
and her infant son Astyanax. Cursing Helen, the cause of all their woe,
Andromache called upon the dead Hector to come to her and announced
enviously that Polyxena had just been killed upon the tomb of Achilles
as a gift to the dead hero. Drawing upon her last remaining strength,
Hecuba tried to comfort the distraught Andromache and urged that instead
of mourning for Hector she win the love of Neoptolemus so that her son
might grow to manhood and perhaps redeem Troy. At this point the
reluctant herald Talthybius announced the Greeks' order that the son of
so distinguished a warrior as Hector must not be permitted to reach
manhood but must be killed at once by being hurled from the battlements
of Troy. As Talthybius led away Andromache and her son, a fresh lament
and cursing of Helen went up from the grieving women of Troy.
Suddenly King Menelaus came striding in the sunlight with his retinue to
demand that his faithless wife Helen be dragged to him by her
blood-reeking hair. Hecuba pleaded with him to slay Helen at once, lest
her beauty and feminine wiles soften his will, but Menelaus remained
determined to take her back to Greece, where the relatives of those who
died for her sake might have the pleasure of stoning her to death. Helen
approached, calm and dignified. Her plea for the right to speak being
supported by Hecuba, she argued that she was not responsible for the
fall of Troy. The first blame must be attributed to Priam and Hecuba,
who refused to kill the infant Paris as the oracle commanded; the second
to Aphrodite, who bewitched her into submitting to Paris; the third to
Dei-phobus and the Trojan guards who prevented her from escaping to the
Greeks after she had come to her senses. Goaded on by the chorus of
Trojan women, Hecuba jeered at these claims, insisting that the gods
would not have been so foolish as Helen would have them believe, that
her own lust drove her into Paris' arms, and that she could always have
escaped Troy and her own shame by way of suicide. Helen, falling to her
knees, pleaded with Menelaus not to kill her. Hecuba also knelt to beg
Helen's immediate death and to warn Menelaus against taking her aboard
his ship. Menelaus compromised: Helen would return to Greece on another
ship and there pay for her shameful life. As Menelaus led her away, the
chorus wailed that Zeus had forsaken them.
Talthybius then returned, bearing the crushed body of Astyanax on
Hector's shield. He told Hecuba that Andromache, as she was being led
aboard Neoptolemus' ship, had begged that the infant be given proper
burial. The performance of that rite was more than Hecuba could bear,
and she had to be restrained by force from throwing herself into the
flames of the city. As the captive women were led off to the Greek
ships, the great crash of Troy's collapsing walls was heard and the city
was engulfed in smoke and darkness.
The Trojan Women is a masterpiece of pathos, as well as a timeless and
chilling indictment of the brutality of war. Yet to its original
audience it was a highly topical play, one that clearly referred to an
incident in the Pelo-ponnesian War that occurred a few months before the
tragedy was presented in 415 B.C. The people of Melos had tried to
remain neutral in the Athenian conflict with Sparta, and Athens
responded by massacring the grown males and enslaving the women and
children. In The Trojan Women, Euripides shows Troy after the men have
been slaughtered, with a handful of women waiting to be taken into
bondage. The parallel is clear and painful, but Euripides does not stop
with that. The women in their anguish have dignity, pride, and
compassion, whereas their conquerors are vain, unscrupulous, empty.
Further, the conquering Greeks are shown to be headed for disaster,
since the gods have turned against them. When this play was produced,
Athens was preparing a large fleet to take over Sicily, an expedition
that ended in calamity. The prophecies of sea disasters in the play must
have made the Athenian audience squirm. Indeed, the whole tragedy seems
calculated to sting the consciences of the Athenians. That they allowed
it to be produced is amazing. The fact that a nonentity named Xenocles
won first prize that year, defeating Euripides, is scarcely surprising.
This play concluded a trilogy of tragedies on the legend of Troy. It was
preceded by Alexandros (another name for Paris), which dealt with the
refusal of Priam and Hecuba to murder their infant Paris, who would
eventually bring about the destruction of Troy. This is important,
because in The Trojan Women Hecuba sees the full consequences of her
choice. Alexandros was followed by Palamedes, where Odysseus exacts a
dire revenge on the clever Palamedes through treachery. The Trojan Women
merges the Trojan and Greek lines of tragedy, showing them to be
complementary aspects of a central agony. Since Alexandros and Palamedes,
along with the satyr play Sisyphus, have not survived, we must rely on
the Troades for Euripides' depiction of the Trojan War.
Euripides merely dramatizes a brief portion of the aftermath, about an
hour or two the morning after Troy has been looted and burned and the
Trojan men put to death, but in that time we see enough to realize that
war is the most devastating, unheroic activity that man has ever
devised. No one wins. The Greeks in their swollen vanity have committed
atrocities against both the gods and human decency, and they are about
to receive their just punishment, as Poseidon, Athena, and Cassandra
point out. The action of the play consists of the revelation of those
atrocities, one after the other, as they overwhelm the helpless old
queen, Hecuba. It is primarily through Hecuba that we experience the
enormity of Troy's fall. The chorus of captive women, Cassandra,
Andromache, and Helen, serve to balance and counterpoint Hecuba's
anguish, as well as contribute to it.
A brief time before, Hecuba was the proud queen of a great, wealthy
city, and within the space of a night she has been reduced to a slave.
Hecuba has witnessed her husband Priam's murder and knows that almost
all of her children have been butchered. Longing for death, she
experiences one dreadful thing after another. She learns that she is the
prize of Odysseus, the vilest Greek of all, and that her daughters will
be handed out as concubines. She sees her daughter Cassandra madly
singing a marriage hymn, and she finally grasps that Cassandra, through
prescience, is really singing a death song for herself and the commander
of the Greeks, Agamemnon. Believing her daughter Polyxena to be alive,
Hecuba learns from Andromache that the girl had her throat slit. Hecuba,
trying to comfort Andromache with the prospect of Astyanax's growing to
manhood, sees the little boy taken from Andromache to be smashed to
death. Menelaus arrives to drag Helen off, and Helen, who caused the
whole war, calmly faces him down, oblivious of Hecuba's accusations.
Thus Hecuba loses the satisfaction of seeing her worst enemy killed. We
know that shallow, worthless Helen will go unpunished. In her final
anguish Hecuba must look upon her poor, mangled grandchild lying on the
shield of her dead son Hector. The last ounce of torment is wrung from
her, and she makes an abortive suicide attempt. Hecuba's stark pathos
has been drawn out to an excruciating degree.
Yet the play is not a mere shapeless depiction of human pain. Hecuba's
suffering is cumulative, and there is a pattern to the appearances of
the chorus, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen. The chorus of captive
women serves to generalize Hecuba's grief. If Poseidon creates future
misery for the Greeks, the chorus shows the past and present pain of the
Trojans on a larger canvas. It places Hecuba's agony in perspective as
one calamity among many. Moreover, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen
extend the portrayal of women as the spoils of war: Cassandra, the raped
virgin and crazed bride of death; Andromache, the exemplary wife and
mother turned into a childless widow and handed over to the son of the
man who killed her husband; and brazen Helen, the faithless wife who has
the knack of getting her own way in every circumstance. The contrast
among these three could not be more striking.
Euripides takes pains in The Trojan Women to show that the only justice
in war is punitive and nihilistic. War arises from numerous individual
choices and leads to disaster for everyone, the conquered and the
victors alike. With Thucydides the historian, Euripides shares the view
that power corrupts, promoting arrogance and criminality. His vision of
the suffering caused by the war is as valid today as it was when he
wrote the play.