Reading Group Guide
This teaching guide for Medea includes:
1. Background of Euripides Medea
2. Table of Contents for Euripides Medea
3. Discussion questions for each section of Euripides Medea
4. Supplementary exercises
Background of Euripides Medea
Parts of the Greek Theater
Skene: located directly in back of the stage, and decorated as a palace, temple, or other building, depending on the needs of the play. It had at least one set of doors, and actors could make entrances and exits through them. There was also access to the roof of the skene from behind, so that actors playing gods and other characters could appear on the roof, if needed.
Orchestra: a circular space where the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with actors on stage near the skene.
Theatron: part of hillside overlooking the orchestra, which is where spectators sat.
Parodos: the paths by which the chorus and some actors (such as those representing messengers or people returning from abroad) made their entrances and exits. The audience also used them to enter and exit the theater before and after the performance.
Greek Theater Festival
Euripides presented Medea along with Philoctetes, Dictys, and the satyr play, Theristai, as his offerings in the playwright competition at the Dionysian Festival in 431 BC. The Dionysian Festival traditionally featured playwrights competing against each other in two categories, tragedy and comedy. Over the course of several days, each playwright would present three plays and a satyr (mixture of tragedy and comedy typically offered as comic relief) and a winner would be crowned in tragedy and comedy. Tragic plays often employed characters and stories from ancient myths as the basis of their stories, while comedies employed contemporary figures. Thus, Euripides used the ancient tale of Jason and Medea as the basis for his Medea. A chorus and three actors using differing costumes and masks act out the plays; because their faces were obscured, actors used exaggerated movements and tones of voice to connote emotions and tone to their audience. With Medea, Euripides took third prize behind winner, Euphorion, son of Aeschylus, and Sophocles, who took 2nd place.
Background on the author, Euripides
Little is known about the life of Euripides. He is the youngest of the three well-known writers of Greek tragedy, which include Aeschylus and Sophocles. He lived and wrote at a time when Athens was considered the cultural and political center of Greece. Euripides produced ninety-two plays for the Dionysian festival, and won first prize four times. He is credited with introducing an extensive prologue and the deus ex machina (the appearance of a person, god, or thing that resolves a situation) to the structure of plays. Scholars attribute him with the typifying elements of melodrama, specifically sudden reversals, miraculous rescues, startling discoveries, and contrived endings.
The Mythical Origins of Jason and Medea
Prior to their arrival in Corinth, Jason and Medea's relationship begins when Jason arrives with his crew on the ship, Argo, in Colchis seeking the Golden Fleece. However, King Aeëtes, the possessor of the fleece, wants to retain it and challenges Jason to a series of seemingly impossible tasks before he can claim it. Medea, King Aeëtes’s daughter, falls in love with Jason and extracts his promise to marry her if she helps him with his tasks. Using her skills as a sorceress, Medea successfully aids Jason in completing the tasks, but when King Aeëtes fails to hand over the Golden Fleece, Jason and Medea steal it. King Aeëtes takes chase and Medea distracts her father by killing her brother and scattering his body parts behind the Argo, forcing her father to retrieve his body in order to give his son a proper burial.
Jason returns with Medea to Iolcus to retrieve his rightful place on the throne from his uncle, Pelias, who had stolen the throne by killing King Aeson, Jason's father. Pelias is reluctant to give up the throne and Medea convinces his two daughters to kill and dismember their father by telling them she would restore his youth through sorcery. Instead, Pelias dies horribly and the inhabitants of Iolcus drive Medea and Jason out of the city. Jason and Medea marry, have two children and eventually settle into Corinth; Euripides' Medea takes place after their settlement there.
Using this well-known myth as a starting point, Euripides allows us to see Jason and Medea as realistic, complex characters with comprehensible emotional depth and range. Rather than keep them as larger than life, static figures trapped in the ancient past, Euripides introduces the possibility that Jason and Medea remain wholly contemporary and reflective of human imperfections for not only the audience who watched the first rendering of the play but for all who have seen this play since then. His balanced treatment of both Jason and Medea, and his exploration of women and individual psychology, continues to evoke debate and questions centuries later.
Robin Robertson’s Translation
Robin Robertson translates an incredibly accessible, fast-paced, and stirring version of Euripides’ well-known masterpiece. Robertson aims to bring the lyrical and poetic elements of Medea to the fore as this play was meant to be acted or spoken aloud on a stage rather than read as straight texts. His translations succeed at being colloquial without being reductive of Euripides’ evocative language. With an introduction that effectively grounds us in the tradition and meaning of Greek tragedy, Robertson demonstrates Medea’s continued relevance to modern readers and invites us to consider its enduring themes of gender conflict, racial ‘otherness,’ and human frailty. Students and general readers alike will find Medea a compelling book to read and deconstruct.
Table of Contents
1. Robertson introduces us to the mythical tale of Medea and Jason prior to the opening of Euripides’ Medea. What do we know about Jason’s and Medea’s lives before they settle in Corinth? What is the nature of their relationship? How would you characterize these two people?
2. Knowing that the first audience to view Medea would know Jason and Medea’s mythical story, what do you think Euripides hoped to reveal to them in his version of their story? Like a director of a film about real persons, what challenges do you think Euripides faces in telling his version of Medea and Jason’s tale?
3. According to Robertson, what elements in Medea would Euripides’ Greek audience find most important? Do you suspect a modern audience would find these elements as important? Why or why not?
4. What does Robertson identify as the defining features of a Greek Tragedy?
5. It’s been noted that the chorus for Euripides’ Medea were women as opposed to a chorus of male and female citizens. How does that impact your understanding the play? Why do you think Euripides employs a chorus of women only?
1. Describe the world that the Nurse establishes in her opening monologue. What type of tone and mood does she set for the audience?
2. Compare and contrast the Nurse’s and the Tutor’s perspectives on the events unfolding between Medea and Jason. Whose perspective do you find most understandable and why? What lessons do they suggest we learn from Medea’s current plight?
3. In light of Medea and Jason’s past, what ironies do the Nurse and Tutor reveal about their current predicament?
4. What is your impression of the Chorus? What purpose do they serve? Whose voice do you believe they reflect? Why?
5. Describe the picture that Medea paints of Greek women’s lives. What problems does she identify? What does Medea recommend for women who seek to secure or negotiate a good life? Do you believe her portrait continues to hold true today? Why or why not?
6. What parallels does Medea draw between her life as a woman and a foreigner? Beyond her status as a non-citizen, what claims does she make about her essential difference in nature from the women in Corinth?
7. Why do you believe Creon banished Medea? How is Medea able to temporarily sway Creon? At this juncture in the play, are Creon’s fears of Medea justifiable? Why do you believe his fears do not extend to Jason as well?
8. After Creon departs, Medea says “this is now a contest of courage.” What does Medea mean by this remark? How has her assessment of her situation shifted from the opening scenes?
9. Upon hearing Medea begin to plot against her enemies, the chorus appears to collude with her. How do they justify Medea’s anger? What vision of justice do they offer for Medea and Greek women in general? Do you agree with their sentiments? Why or why not?
10. Compare and contrast Medea and Jason’s arguments about the demise of their marriage. Whose perspective do you find most convincing? Why?
11. Who is Aegeus and how does he impact the story? What does the curious oracle given to him mean? Why do you think Euripides introduces him into the mix?
12. How does Medea exact revenge on those she labels her enemies? How is the method or means Medea employs to destroy them an apt reflection of her conceptions of their shortcomings?
13. What reasons does Medea offer for killing her children? How does she justify what she calls “the most unutterable of crimes”? Do you believe she was genuinely conflicted? Why or why not?
14. When do you believe Medea devised her plan? Do you think Medea could have been dissuaded from her plan? If yes, how and by whom? If no, why not?
15. When Jason sees Medea with his dead children, he says, “How could I have not seen the beast inside of you? I am sane at last, but I was mad before.” How is this remark a contradiction to the arguments he offered in his earlier confrontation with Medea? What does it suggest about his understanding of the nature of their relationship? Do you believe his assessment is accurate? Why or why not?
16. Medea says, “Passion is the root of all our sin, and all our suffering.” What does she mean by this phrase? To what extent is Medea wholly possessed by her passion as she claims or do you see evidence of her use of reason throughout the play? Provide examples from the text to support your argument.
17. At the start of the play, Medea called for justice for Jason’s betrayal, do you believe she found justice? Why or why not?
18. What is the chorus’s final rationale for why events unfolded as they did between Jason and Medea when they claim: “Zeus has all things in his power and has the power to confound…they turn the bright air black, and turn our dreams back to nightmare.”? Does their suggestion rob Jason and Medea of responsibility? Do you see evidence of this outlook in our time? Provide examples.
19. What elements of the play do you believe resonate with a modern audience? What did you find relatable?
20. Do you believe the play imparts an overarching moral or lesson? If yes, what is it? If no, why not?
1. Divide readers of the play into groups. Have each group take on the role of Medea’s chorus and create a new choral speech to be delivered either in place of or in addition to one of the existing choral speeches in the play. Group members should determine the following:
a. What is the purpose of your chorus?
b. What sentiments would you like your chorus to reflect?
c. Where in the play would you place your choral speech?
After each group delivers their respective speeches, discuss the following:
a. What were the challenges you faced in determining the purpose and content of your speech?
b. What similarities or differences emerge amongst the choral groups?
c. If you replaced a speech, why did you remove the existing speech? What does your speech do for the play that the original did not?
d. If you added a speech, why did you add the speech? What did the speech provide to the play?
2. Divide readers of the play into groups with two leads who will perform Jason and Medea’s confrontation scene in a variety of settings. Assign one group to one of these settings:
· A talk show set (such as Oprah, Dr. Phil, Tyra, or Jerry Springer)
· A marriage counselor’s office
· A private bedroom
· On a busy sidewalk with curious onlookers
Each group should work with their respective Jason and Medea leads to develop the look and feel of the scene befitting their assigned setting. Perform the confrontation scene and discuss the following questions:
a. How does the setting impact your reaction to the speech between Jason and Medea?
b. How does setting alter the dynamics between the couple?
c. Does your sympathy change for each character based on the setting? Why or why not?
d. How is the tone or mood altered by each setting?
e. What insights or perspectives did you gain?
3. Writing a missing scene:
a. Who are the characters in the scene?
b. Where would the scene fall in the overall structure of the play?
c. What purpose does the scene serve?
d. What is the content of the scene? What are the characters saying and why?
4. Find a modern day Medea or Jason and Medea story in the news. Bring in copies of your story and discuss the following:
a. How did you determine that your finding was a modern-day Medea or Jason and Medea story?
b. What similarities and differences do you see between Euripides’ Medea and your modern tale?
c. If you have identified a modern Medea, how is she characterized by friends and strangers?
d. What justifications are offered for your modern Medea’s actions? Do they resemble any of the arguments in the play?
e. What do your modern Medea or Jason and Medea suggest about the enduring nature of human relationships?
f. Why do you think we have modern-day parallels to Jason and Medea? What lessons can we learn from these individuals?
5. Imagine you are a reporter for a local paper in Medea’s time. You have learned of the events that unfold at Jason and Medea’s home and you have been granted an exclusive interview with Medea. Create a 100 word introduction of the piece. What types of questions would you ask Medea; what tact would you take? How would you cover the story? Have each member of your group write a short article about the events that unfolded.