Medea: Euripides / Mucha / Bernhardt

While writing last week’s post on rhetoric, I ran across Ovid’s description of Medea pondering whether to betray her family for the sake of Jason, with whom she’s fallen in love.

Video meliora, proboque,
Deteriora sequor …

[“I see and approve the better things, but pursue the worse” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII, 20]

In college, where I started exploring art beyond garden gnomes and rock-star posters (more here), I became entranced with the elegant swirling lines of Art Nouveau. I wanted a poster of my favorite style for my dorm room. But this was way before the Internet, and in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, posters of art circa 1900 weren’t common. I put the only one I could find up on my wall. It was an 1898 poster of Sarah Bernhardt playing Medea, created by Alphonse Mucha.

Alphonse Mucha, Sarah Bernhardt as Medea, 1898.

Eventually I had to move that poster to an out-of-the-way corner: those eyes are not what you want to find staring at you in the wee hours of the night. But Mucha’s creation is still my mental image of Medea.

Euripides’s Medea

Euripides’ Medea premiered in 431 B.C., and it helped earn the playwright a reputation for focusing on human emotions rather than the broader ethical issues preferred by Aeschylus and Sophocles. (This came up in my discussion of Sophocles’s Philoctetes: Patreon subscribers have the link.) In rereading Medea last week, I was first struck by the fact that although its characters are passionate about their values, Euripides doesn’t make it easy to root for any one of them. Although the outcome of the story was known to his audience, this creates a great deal of dramatic tension.

The play opens with the nurse of Medea’s children explaining Medea’s situation: she betrayed her family and left her distant home for the sake of Jason, and now Jason plans to abandon her to marry the princess of Corinth. Medea’s first words, heard from off-stage, are despairing: “Oh my grief! the misery of it all! Why can I not die?” But she’s not just a woman wronged: she plots to avenge herself. “I know several ways of causing their death, and I cannot decide which I should turn my hand to first.”

Creon, the king of Corinth, sees how dangerously angry Medea is and orders her to leave his country. But when she begs him to allow her to remain for just one more day, he caves: “Mercy has often been my undoing. So now, though I know that it is a mistake, woman, you will have your request.”

Jason, whom we’re prepared to hate on sight, first appears with an offer of payment so Medea and the children can live comfortably in exile. But then he launches into a speech that is rhetoric in the worst sense: “It looks as if I need no small skill in speech if, like a skilful steersman riding the storm with close-reefed sheets, I am to escape the howling gale of your verbosity, woman.”

The other point that struck me in rereading Medea is that although Euripides is not known for philosophical discussions, he raises important issues. In the course of the play, the characters observe and comment on the role of women, the problem with being clever, the deceitful nature of males, the difficulty of telling good men from bad, the blessings and sorrows of bearing children, and wealth vs. happiness. You could view this whole play in terms of free will vs. fate, or individualism vs. secondhandedness (“Do I want to make myself a laughing-stock by letting my enemies off scot-free?”).

You may not want to read Medea twice, but you should read it at least once. The quotes above are from the translation in Eurpides: Ten Plays by Moses Hadas and John McLean. That volume gives you half of Euripides’ extant plays – all worth reading.


  • If you visit Liverpool before mid-October, you can explore “Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty” at the Walker Art Gallery. Or you can go visit the visit large collection of his works at the Mucha Trust Foundation Gallery in Prague. In either case, I will be very, very jealous. The Mucha Foundation’s website has illustrations of many of his works: I’m particularly fond of the advertisements. Thanks to Kevin E. for sending me to that site.
  • For the fascinating story of the life and career of Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), see Mucha at a Glance and the timeline on the Mucha Foundation’s site.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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