Euripides likes to give a twist to an old myth. Jason was a macho man, a great hero, who had led the Greeks' greatest overseas adventure (this was long before the Trojan War). He'd married a beautiful and clever princess. But they dont "live happily ever after". Euripides imagines the couple years later, when Jason is beginning to show typical symptoms of the male mid-life crisis.
Tyro was a naughty girl. To hide her shame from her respectable family, she exposed her baby in the woods to die. But he was rescued by shepherds. They brought him up and named him Pelias. Tyro in due course made a good marriage - to Cretheus, son of Aeolus, and had three children - the oldest being Aeson. But when Pelias turned up, she welcomed him into the family - a mistake, because when her husband died, he seized the throne of Iolcos for himself, although Aeson was the legitimate heir. Pelias tried to get the approval of the oracle- but was told "beware of a descendant of Aeolus with one sandal". Aeson's son was Jason, grandson of Aeolus - and Pelias sent the boy away to be on the safe side. But years later Jason came back, a dashing young man, who'd swum the river and lost a sandal. He claimed the throne which was rightfully his.
Pelias was in a panic, but said he'd give the kingdom to Jason if he'd avenge the death of Phrixus. Phrixus had escaped his murderous mother Ino on the back of a giant ram, with his sister Helle, only to be killed at the far end of the Black Sea in the land of Colchis by king Aeetes, who wanted the ram's Golden Fleece. Pelias felt he was too old for such a mission - but Jason warmed to the excitement of the quest, building a ship, the Argo, and recruiting all the finest young men in Greece for his crew, the Argonauts.
After many adventures they reached Colchis. The evil king's beautiful young daughter Medea fell in love with Jason, and used her magic to help outwit her father, and drug the serpent who guarded the Golden Fleece. As Jason and Medea sped away from Colchis in the Argo, Medea killed her brother Absyrtus, and threw his limbs overboard one by one, to make her father stop to collect them. So they got away safely to Greece.
Back in Iolcos they found that the aged Pelias had murdered Aeson and the rest of Jason's family. Medea decided to help. In front of Pelias' daughters she butchered an old ram, boiled him in a pot with some special herbs, and brought out a beautiful young lamb. The ladies, who'd watched the experiment with great interest, decided to give their father the one thing he lacked - youth. They cut him up and boiled him in the pot, just as they'd seen Medea do. He died.
Medea must have thought the people of Iolcos would be grateful and make Jason king - but they weren't. To avoid their anger, Jason and Medea had to leave. Eventually they came to Corinth, where, many years later, the action of the play begins.
"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" [My Fair Lady]
Medea is without doubt Euripides' most misunderstood play. It should be remembered that it was written by a man for an audience of men, and its focus is on what it means to be a man. Traditional arete [manliness, virtue] in Athens had meant acting the hero - like Jason in search of the Golden Fleece. A man's role was to "help his friends and harm his enemies". By so doing he earned time [honour] and doxa [glory]. If he failed to help his friends - or to harm his enemies, he lost status. Conversely, the arete of a woman was to be as unobtrusive as possible. In this play Euripides boldy portrays normal masculinity in action, with the twist that the "male" is a woman. As Medea says
"I am loyal to my friends, dangerous to my enemies. To such a life glory belongs."
Euripides is asking his male audience to reconsider their male fixation with honour. When time is pursued by Medea, a foreign woman with whom they'd find it especially hard to empathise, the pursuit apppears dangerous and destructive. With the Athenian democracy voting to go to war almost every single year, it must be time for men to re-evaluate their traditional outlook. Remember the play was produced in 431 BC, the very year that the Peloponnesian War - that was to last 30 years - began between Athens and Sparta. It might be easier to see the flaws in male behaviour, when the man is a woman. If you condemn her behaviour (as surely the audience must) then you condemn the way most males behaved.
Please do not try to see Medea as some empowered ur-heroine of the feminist movement!
Euripides' Medea highlights the way a just cause can lead to injustice. Medea's grievance against Jason is totally justified. She is in the right. But her actions in pursuance of that right are indefensible. She has been treated unjustly. Can there be a wrong way to pursue the source of that injustice? A question for Bush and Blair in February 2003 as they prepared to invade Iraq. Beware of finding you are on Medea's side at the end! Euripides seems to anticipate modern concerns about ends and means. A quotation from another Euripides play, Electra, sums up for me the dilemma faced in unseating Saddam Hussein. Castor (Clytemnestra's brother, now a god) is judging Electra and Orestes for killing their mother, Clytemnestra, who had murdered their father Agamemnon:
"What happened to her was right, but what you did was not."