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an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Alcestis was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 289-91.

The Medea was produced in 431 [B.C.]; and the reference which it contains to the unpopularity of philosophers, and to the danger of placing "new truths" before the multitude, clearly alludes to the prosecution of Anaxagoras, who was expelled from Athens for impiety in the course of the following year. The play is one of the greatest of the extant dramas, and its celebrity in ancient times is proved by innumerable notices and imitations.... The inconsistency of Medea's character, and her fluctuation between conflicting motives, were censured by some ancient critics; but it is a striking proof of their narrowness and insensibility, that they should have selected for criticism what is now generally regarded as the finest portion of the work. The employment of supernatural means of escape is also mentioned by Aristotle as a fault. Seeing, however, that Medea figures throughout the play as a magician, and accomplishes her vengeance largely through the aid of sorcery, her final departure on a car drawn by dragons can hardly be deemed inappropriate or incongruous. The moral of the tragedy, though not distinctly stated, is sufficiently obvious. The guilty partnership of Jason and Medea, which had been originally cemented by treachery and murder, ends, not in happiness, but in suspicion, jealousy, and merciless revenge.

The tradition concerning the slaughter of Medea's children was of ancient date, but differed, in one essential point, from the story as told by Euripides. According to the ancient version, the children were not slain by their mother, but by the people of Corinth, to prevent their succession to the throne. The innovation introduced by Euripides is a noteworthy example of the skill with which the old mythology was adapted to the requirements of tragedy. The notion of a mother murdering her own offspring for the sake of revenge imparts to the legend a profound psychological significance of which there was previously no trace, and forms, in fact, the key-stone of the whole play.

We are told, on the authority of Aristotle and Dicaearchus, that the origination of this idea was due, not to Euripides, but to a certain poet called Neophron, who also wrote a Medea. Three fragments of his play survive, and one of them, containing Medea's apostrophe to her soul, bears a considerable resemblance to the celebrated passage in the extant tragedy. It the story is true, we owe a debt of gratitude to Neophron for having suggested to Euripides one of his most splendid creations. But several modern scholars have thrown doubt upon the tradition. Some of them imagine that the tale was invented by certain detractors of Euripides during the fourth century, and that the supposed fragments of Neophron were mere forgeries, manufactured in support of the accusation. Others, pointing to traces of a double edition in the Medea as it now stands, suggest that the first version was brought out in the name of Neophron, and so led to a misapprehension about the authorship. These theories, however, hardly commend themselves by their plausibility; and the authority of Aristotle and Dicaearchus is not lightly to be set aside. Nor can any stress be laid on the fact that, of all Neophron's plays, the Medea is the only one quoted by the grammarians; since it is clear that the sole importance of this poet, in the eyes of later generations, was due to the supposed indebtedness of Euripides. But after all the question is of little moment. The execution of a play, rather than its first conception, is the real test of poetic genius; and even if Euripides borrowed the idea of his Medea from another writer, the circumstance detracts in no way from his greatness.

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